Those eyes, those lips, that va-va-voom stage act—Dita Von Teese ignited a burlesque revival in the 1980s and remains its superstar today. She’s known for her retro look, her luscious red lips, cat-eye makeup, and repertoire that includes her signature dip in a giant martini glass (with a foam olive).
Von Teese, whose real name is Heather Renée Sweet, was 12 when her family (mother a manicurist, father a machinist) moved to Irvine from Michigan. She was by then an avid fan of the kind of glamour wrought by yesteryear’s Hollywood. She studied the style, the makeup, and the mystique of the sirens of the silver screen.
Entranced by sexy undergarments, she got an after-school job in a lingerie shop while attending University High in Irvine. Post-graduation she was selling cosmetics and unmentionables at local department stores. “That period was a great, formative time for me because it really set the tone for what I do now,” says Von Teese. Speaking by phone from her home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, she explains, “When I was working in the lingerie and makeup departments, I started moonlighting at an Orange County strip club, and that’s where I really started creating my shows and getting more involved in posing for pinups and forming my ‘look.’ It’s all connected.”
And how. The savvy Von Teese, 43, has perfected her own brand, complete with (yep) a lingerie line. She also has published two books, and the third (with writer Rose Apodaca) is out this month, “Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Beauty” (HarperCollins, $45).
Orange Coast: The book talks about “eccentric beauty” and “living your authentic powered self.” Can you explain?
I’m naturally blond—I started doing my hair black around 1993. I’m not naturally glamorous—I made my own glamour. I used stars from the past for inspiration because they made their own glamour. You don’t have to be a natural beauty to be glamorous or have a signature look.
We noticed that your ex-husband Marilyn Manson is mentioned several times in the book.
We’re friends now. He even gave me a quote for the back of the book. … If I had written this book five years ago, I would have never been able to mention him. We hated each other for a while, you know? But now we’re fine. And he’s definitely someone who knows about eccentric glamour.
What was it like coming to O.C. from Michigan?
It was a difficult time in my life. I was from a small farming town. Obviously, it’s much more sophisticated in Orange County. So I found myself in a different world. I remember I had a hard time making friends at my new school (Lakeside Middle School). The boys weren’t interested in me. The girls who befriended me sometimes had an agenda, like they wanted me to do their babysitting jobs. Mostly, I just took my ballet classes and read books.
What were you like in high school?
I wasn’t very involved in school. My grades were mediocre. I was good in English and creative writing but horrible in math. I could barely pass an algebra class. What I was really interested in was working. My parents got a divorce when I was 15 or 16. I think that’s why I became so independent. I was interested in getting jobs.
Take us through those early jobs.
At first, I worked at a pizza place, which was next to the nail salon where my mother was a manicurist. It was over in Woodbridge at a mini-mall. I worked there for a couple weeks, and it smelled so good there that I was always hungry. Then I worked at a Conroy’s Flowers, which also smelled good. But I kept going over to a lingerie store, next to the pizza place. It was called Lady Ruby’s Lingerie, and it was real pretty, and finally the woman who owned it gave me a job. I worked in lingerie for years. I was at the Robinson’s at Fashion Island, which later became Robinsons-May. And at the Robinsons-May in Santa Ana (at MainPlace), where I also worked in cosmetics in the Shiseido department.
You were doing performance art, too?
Yes, the summer after I graduated from high school (in 1990) a friend took me to a rave party in L.A. And I fell in love with that scene. I met all these drag queens and started making my own costumes. That’s how I met my (then) boyfriend, who was the biggest rave promoter in L.A. at that time. He was putting on the biggest parties … and I started working at them as a go-go dancer. And everyone knew me from doing these things. He took me to the first strip club I ever went to, and I got the idea to get a job doing that.
Where did you dance?
In Lake Forest, at Captain Cream’s. It was a little hole-in-the-wall place. But you can ask anybody who worked there or went there back in that time, they had the most amazing performers. There were girls who used to drive down from L.A. who were in Playboy and were popular music-video models. They had a real A-team of girls going on there, and it was legendary. I worked my day job at the department store and worked the club at night, using a fake ID. At first it was like a bikini club. It was fun, and I enjoyed it. And it’s where I started creating my burlesque shows, because I got the idea to recreate a 1940s burlesque act in a new way. I wore long opera gloves and stockings and a corset and bra and full black underwear. So I was quite dressed. Later, the club went topless. I wasn’t shy about dancing. But I was shy about talking to people. I wasn’t a very good, like, hustler. (Laughs) Some girls in strip clubs are good at hustling people for money. I wasn’t good at that. I was good at doing a proper show. I remember when I turned 21, I went to the manager and said, “I think we should update my ID on file.”
When did you become Dita?
When I started dancing at the club I used the name Dita. I had seen a silent movie starring an actress named Dita Parlo. I was starting to branch out. My boyfriend, the one I previously mentioned, said to me, “Hey, there’s this thing called the World Wide Web, and we should make you a website.” And I had one of the first adult sites on the Internet. I definitely had the first pinup website on the Internet. We’d take photos and print them out onto three-by-fives, and people would send in a check for $20 and we’d send them a batch of hard-copy photos. I had a business card with my website information on it, and I’d pass it out at the club.
We hear Playboy really helped put you on the map.
Hugh Hefner used to come see my burlesque shows. I was on his radar, for sure. And I used to perform at the Playboy mansion. And after one particular show he said, “How do you feel about being on the cover of Playboy for the Christmas issue?” At the time Playboy was still cool. There were amazing people on the cover … Drew Barrymore was on the cover. I wasn’t photographed like a Playmate. I was photographed showcasing what I do on the stage. So that (December 2002 cover) was a real turning point for me. It’s also when I got my last name. They made me have one, so that’s how Von Teese came about.
Are there particular burlesque stars who influenced you?
When I first started doing burlesque there was no Internet, so there was nothing to watch. I had a couple VHS tapes someone had given me with little bits of burlesque. I didn’t have much else to go by. I had to use still photos and movies like “Gypsy” with Natalie Wood, which was, of course, a very glorified version of what Gypsy Rose Lee did in burlesque and not very authentic at all. I remember tracking down a VHS copy of “The Right Stuff,” because there was one Sally Rand moment in it. So that made me have to create my own brand of burlesque, because there was nothing for me to look at. Today, I really like Sally Rand and Lili St. Cyr, and I like Gypsy because she had a career her whole life. She was smart, she evolved, she thought beyond how she looked on stage in a G-string. I’ve been inspired by her career.
What kind of audience do you get at your burlesque shows?
I’d say about 80 percent are women. The rest are the men on the arms of these women, and gays. You won’t find a group of straight guys saying, “Let’s go to the burlesque show.” People don’t come to see my striptease show the way they might have come to see it in the ’90s. It’s so interesting how my fan base has shifted.
Do you think women are coming to see you because they see what you do as empowering?
I think I am empowering them the same way others empowered me, to be who I am. And I am empowered by seeing them in my audience. I wouldn’t have come this far without them noticing me. There’s a whole different layer of what I do that wasn’t there when I first started. I’m super grateful to experience all these different stages of my career, from working in a strip club and having my audience be men, to having them being from this new, modern, kind of feminist movement.
From the pages of “Your Beauty Mark,” a few great ideas:
Exfoliation is the skin’s best friend.
Sleep is never optional.
Skip the tanning bed.
A well-fitting bra is crucial.
The knowledge and effective use of perfume is the foundation of glamour.