Dita Von Teese can't remember the first time she took her clothes off for someone. It was probably early on, before she became the queen of burlesque and undressing became her job. Probably after ballet class, changing in front of other girls.
She does remember the first time she stripped. She was 19, and back then her name was Heather Sweet. She had been working as a scantily clad go-go dancer in the Los Angeles underground scene when, one night, a friend took her to a bikini club. She was fascinated.
She auditioned on a Monday -- amateur night. Rock & roll and blondes in neon bikinis were the name of the game. But she took the stage in a pink corset with black velvet trim, black stockings, long black gloves.
"You're wearing a lot of clothes up there," the manager said afterward. He hired her anyway. "Dita Von Teese" was born that night, a stage name Heather Sweet pulled out of a phone book.
A year later, the club went topless. "Many of the girls didn't want to take off their tops," Von Teese says. "So the club gave them the choice. You can either be a topless girl or a nontopless girl. You can't just take your top off whenever you want. You're either one or the other. If you're gonna take your top off one time, you have to take it off all the time. You can't just use it as some way to make money. You have to decide this is what you want to do."
Von Teese decided she'd be topless.
In the almost two decades since, she's taken her top (and bottom) off hundreds, thousands of times. "Oh gosh," she says. She's starting to think about the various sexual encounters she's had in her life. She considers them in silence, curled up into a chair in the parlor in the house that stripping built.
It's a modest two-story in a gated community in Los Feliz, all velvet brocade wallpaper and curvy belle epoque settees, with stuffed swans and a stuffed monkey and queer little antique curios under glass domes. The kitchen is so pink it makes your teeth hurt.
Von Teese feels very lucky she can afford to buy a taxidermied ostrich on eBay, mount it on the living room wall and put a rhinestone collar on it. (That means every time someone comes over she can ask, in a goofy, droll way, "Have you seen my ostrich yet?") And though her ascent was lucky in many ways, in others, luck had nothing to do with it. She is a hard worker.
She is also the most famous stripper in America, even if tabloid readers only know her from her marriage to (and divorce from) Marilyn Manson. To her legion of fans -- who include fashion designers, artists, dandies, style aficionados, club kids and fetishists -- she is famous for reviving the burlesque genre of variety show, long after the form was thought to be dead. To her detractors, and they are legion as well, she is famous only for being famous.
There is a difference, Dita Von Teese has learned, between getting naked onstage and "in real life." Onstage she controls everything: From the lights illuminating her pale breasts, to the layers of body makeup smoothing over her thighs, to the Swarovski crystal and feathers, many "special tricks" go into creating the illusion of otherworldly perfection.
"I control what everyone sees. It's not the same as being nude in front of a lover or anything," she says with an awkward little laugh. She feels much more vulnerable showing herself to one person.
Taking your clothes off in front of 30,000 people, too, feels different from disrobing in front of 10. The smaller the audience, the more difficult it is. She isn't sure how to explain it. Sometimes she senses the crowd is close to her and "with" her. She takes in their energy. Other times she feels completely separated from them: "It's just me onstage in that moment by myself. And they're looking into the window."
This isolation might happen when she's doing a show for an audience that has never experienced burlesque before. Or at a VIP event with a lot of celebrities in the room. She did a show in Francis Ford Coppola's living room in Napa Valley, with George Lucas in attendance. Sofia Coppola had hired Von Teese to perform for her father's 70th birthday. Von Teese slithered out of her gown, climbed into a giant martini glass half-filled with water and splashed around. It was, she says, "daunting." The nerve-wracking feeling is less about being naked than it is about messing up.
It's also a bit about worrying whether her fame is merited. "Sometimes I'll say, 'Oh God, Kylie Minogue's in the audience.' And she does a beautiful, amazing show and she's a good dancer and she can sing. I'm gonna get up there and lip-synch and do my little dance, and I'm not her. I'm not a pop star," she says.
But Von Teese can't remember a time she didn't feel comfortable in her own skin. She has stripped in front of her parents, for God's sake. She plans to strip in front of her grandmother.
A girl once emailed Von Teese about wanting to do a burlesque show, but she was terrified and scared and worried about people judging her. "You're not meant to do this," Von Teese wrote her back. "If you have all these questions and you feel guilty and anxious? I've never felt any of those things."
On the other hand, she is certainly not one of those people who are more comfortable out of clothes than in. Two bedrooms in her four-bedroom home function as closets. She owns 400 pairs of shoes, a disproportionate number of them Christian Louboutin. She is known for doing her grocery shopping in nothing less than the perfect hair and the perfect red lips. The perfection is deliberate. "Because you never know who you're going to run into," she says. "You never know who you're going to meet."
For instance, on a plane bound for New York not long ago, flight attendants and other people kept coming over to say hello. "Flight attendants like me because I like to wear makeup, too," she explains. The man sitting next to her finally asked, "Who are you?"
"Well," she said, "I'm a stripper." The man was Beyoncé's father.
She does not consider herself an exhibitionist. Taking clothes off doesn't give her a sexual thrill. Photos of her on the red carpet rarely show her with a hemline above her knee.
Incongruity is at the heart of her persona: Dita Von Teese is the stripper with a haute couture wardrobe (Dior, Gaultier, Elie Saab). The beauty who married the beast (Manson). The diva in $6,000 bespoke heels, who hates salons and colors her own hair with $10 drugstore dye (Garnier 100 percent Blue Black).
"We like to watch people overcoming their struggles a little bit, don't you think?" she asks.
What, then, is Von Teese struggling to overcome? Many things, she supposes. "I'm an ordinary blond girl from a farming town in Michigan," she recites, as if reading from a textbook. "I'm probably overcoming my feelings of being very average-looking. Which made me want to create glamour and paint myself and do my makeup and hair well, and become something that I wasn't originally."
Growing up middle-class and wanting to be somebody, wanting to have a glamorous life -- these were her struggles. Taking clothes off and putting clothes on were the solution.
Back in her 20s, when her audience comprised largely fetish fans and "alternative tattooed people," she never felt like her body was perfect, but she did believe she was in the prime of her looks. She figured she'd strip for a few years and be finished by 28. She figured by 39 -- her age today -- she'd be "an old lady."
She expected her body to fall apart. But it has served her well. Von Teese is still tiny, and in good shape, though there are small foreshadowings of a less elastic time to come. The left shoulder is bothering her. A masseur is on his way. Also, she has a cold right now. She blows her nose into a Kleenex and murmurs "sorry." No matter how many Pilates classes she takes, no matter how many sodas and how much fast food she sacrifices, the body ages. Stripping has a shelf life. "Do I want to be 60 years old in a G-string?" she asks. "No."
An "evolution" must take place, she says. She won't do routines that are too "little-girlish" anymore. "Womanly" and "sophisticated" are the talking points now.
When she examines the trajectory of some of her idols, like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, the smart ones started changing the way they did their shows. More importantly, they diversified. So while Von Teese is about to embark on the West Coast leg of her "Strip Strip Hooray!" cross-country burlesque tour, she also is working on a lingerie line for Target Australia, and a perfume, and a dress collection, and a cosmetics line. "The smart striptease artists knew how to evolve and maintain," she notes. "Because some people are totally reliant on their looks, no?"
She sniffs and hugs her robe closer. "You don't get where you are by just being pretty."
Lee wasn't the most beautiful woman or the most adroit dancer, but like Von Teese, she was chic, witty, clever.
"I don't feel like I'm the best dancer or the prettiest," Von Teese says. "I'm not the youngest. I'm not known for being at the forefront of the burlesque movement because I'm all those things. I'm there because I'm something different. Otherwise you'd be talking to an 18-year-old, beautiful, 5-foot-10-inch, leggy blonde girl that can high kick.
"Why aren't we talking to her? Because she didn't want it as badly as I did."
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In the second photo, Von Teese is shown in a dress from Yma Sumac's personal wardobe, courtesy of Damon Devine; in the next, a Jenny Packham dress, provided by Film Fashion; and, at bottom (and on this week's L.A. Weekly cover), a dress by Muse by Dita Von Teese, Moschino gloves and Christian Louboutin shoes.