Dita Von Teese Montreal

Photo by Frank Guthrie

Dita Von Teese, self-made glamour girl

The queen of burlesque on her old-Hollywood movie star muse and why plastic surgery is no big deal.

At the forefront of the burlesque revival that’s swept across North America over the past decade, Dita Von Teese has become an icon, not just of striptease, dance, choreography and costuming but of alt culture and vintage culture in the 21st century.

Ahead of the arrival of her touring revue Art of the Teese at M Telus (featuring her entire cast and her famous production numbers, including the martini glass routine), I called Von Teese in August at her L.A. home — a 1924 English tudor near the Griffith Observatory, FYI — as she was preparing to leave for a weekend at her log cabin in the mountains.

Lorraine Carpenter: I understand that your fascination with vintage aesthetics and collecting came from your mother, who was a big fan of old Hollywood. I read somewhere that Betty Grable is a favourite of yours, which is kind of surprising.

Dita Von Teese: I loved Betty Grable because the films she made were these big Technicolor musicals, the most extravagant films of the time, and all in brilliant colour. Those images always stayed with me and continued to be an influence over what I do. When I first started making burlesque shows, there wasn’t a big burlesque scene and there wasn’t anything for me to reference — you couldn’t find footage of actual burlesque, you could only see photos so a lot of my influence came from watching those musicals and turning things that I liked about those scenes into striptease acts.

She was an iconic blonde pin-up of the ’40s and I’ve never emulated her look — I love to emulate the look of the femme fatale, more like a Hedy Lamarr or a film noir character — but there was something about (Betty Grable) and her demeanour that I always loved. She seemed like a girl’s girl — she was sexy and beautiful and charming and fun to watch dance, but one of the reasons she was so appealing to me is that she seemed like a nice lady, someone you’d want to be friends with.

With regard to the pin-up, I had this idea of recreating pin-ups in the early ’90s, and in my research I noticed that the girls who posed for pin-ups in the men’s magazines from the ’30s and ’40s were burlesque dancers, so that was what gave me the idea to perform burlesque in the first place.

tattinger crop Jennifer Mitchell
Dita Von Teese and company. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell

LC: An interesting aspect of embracing vintage style is the rejection of contemporary style — was that the case for you?

DVT: The reason that I was attracted to retro style was because it’s very different from what’s popular in modern times, where there’s a lot of emphasis put on natural beauty. I looked to the past because I knew I could learn to create that. There’s so many examples of the big Hollywood makeover — just look at the before and after photos of Rita Hayworth — and I had the idea of doing that for myself when I was young. I’m a very ordinary, dishwater blonde from a farming town in Michigan, so dyeing my hair and wearing red lipstick and dressing myself in vintage style gave me confidence and made me feel like I had something in common with a glamour icon. Modern glamour icons, I couldn’t relate to them or figure out how to be inspired by them, especially in the ’80s and ’90s when I was younger. Who did I have to look up to?

LC: I remember reading that Rita Hayworth went through a painful, primitive electrolysis-type process.

DTV: They redid her hairline. A lot of people don’t realize that plastic surgery is not new. I have a book from 1922 that talks about reshaping the nose and the chin, so it’s not some newfangled thing.

LC: I don’t know if this is something you talk about, but have you had work done?

DVT: I’ve never done anything to my face, but I think it’s common knowledge that I had my boobs done in the early ’90s. I prefer not to talk about it too much because some people would pick that out and make a headline out of it. But I did write a 400-page beauty book (Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour) with every beauty secret I ever had (laughs).

LC: It seems hypocritical that tabloids and clickbait sites would make a big deal over this stuff when botox and even plastic surgery is pretty commonplace.

DVT: Yeah it’s sad that you can’t speak freely about it. I want to ask Sharon Stone some questions but you can’t because she knows better — she can’t say anything ’cause it could get turned around on her.

Basically (plastic surgery) is a dramatic form of make-up, and it’s a choice. I know people that are so much happier ’cause they had their nose fixed or had their teeth fixed. You should do what’s right for you and we should be able to speak about it the same way we do about the other things we do for our appearance.

And why is natural beauty held in such high regard? I mean who cares? You didn’t do anything (laughs). Everything I am is because I created it, from dyeing my hair to wearing false eyelashes. ■

Dita Von Teese presents The Art of the Teese at M Telus (fka Metropolis) on Sunday, Sept. 10, doors 7 p.m., $52.50–$72.50