It’s not exactly clear when burlesque transcended the naughty nostalgia of its past, but most of its fans can agree on one thing: California girls not only put this form of entertainment back on the map for a new generation, they made it less about sex and more about thematic spectacle, a celebration of women that everyone can enjoy.
When it comes to eye-popping production values and visual stimulation, one woman, Dita Von Teese, reigns supreme. The O.C.-bred, L.A.-based burlesque superstar always has a lot going on, but after taking a break from the stage to write a book and focus on her fashion collaborations, she is back with The Art of the Teese, a new touring show that references her past performances in a whole new way.
Currently in the midst of the tour, which stops at L.A.'s Theatre at the Ace Hotel on July 28, Von Teese talked by phone from her hotel room about the new show, the modern burlesque scene, why she was thinking about retirement and what ultimately made her want to return to the stage, bolder and more bodacious than ever.
“I’ve changed my perspective a lot about what I think a burlesque show should be,” Von Teese explains. “A burlesque show should not just be pin-up girls. It should represent different facets of beauty. It should have diversity in age and ethnicity. The audiences have changed, and the show should reflect that. “
Von Teese notes that her fanbase these days is much different from when she started in strip clubs and doing fetish photo shoots back in the early ’90s. Now it's mostly women and gays.
“That’s what I love about burlesque,” she says. “The fans are never what you think."
Catering to her crowd meant changing up a few things this time around. She has got a brand-new version of her martini-glass routine, featuring a champagne-glass prop covered with more than 250,000 Swarovski crystals; a ballet-themed Swan Lake striptease; a never-before-seen routine from the Crazy Horse Paris; and a revamp of her sassy cowgirl act with hot male dancers, new man-helpers she calls the “Von-tourage,” instead of the usual pin-up girls or French maid–garbed stagehands. She's also tapped queer comedy fave Jonny McGovern of the online TV sensation Hey Qween to host.
But the show’s most novel twist involves some of Von Teese's other signature setups and getups: Her sultry red filigree heart number and provocative pony ride on a bedazzled carousel horse, for example, both are being brought back to the stage — but Von Teese won’t be the one performing with them. She asked fellow burlesque performers Ginger Valentine and Dirty Martini, respectively, to reinterpret the famed vignettes, something that’s unheard of in the highly competitive world of burlesque. Why did she do it?
“It’s really fun for me to see these acts reimagined, “ she says. “You know, not imitated. The worst thing ever is to watch somebody mimicking. That makes me really embarrassed. I’ve seen that a lot of times, and I’ve been like, are they making fun of me? But I love Ginger’s take, and Dirty Martini is a show-stopper. It’s really great to watch them both bring their own distinctive style to each act. “
Having covered burlesque in L.A. for many years, I know firsthand that cool ideas, unique props and even specific outfits can mean a lot to a dancer, and drama can ensue when one person thinks another might be biting their bit. Von Teese tells me it's happened to her too, of course, but for her it’s about being acknowledged. “There have been many times in my life where people have stolen stuff, and it’s unsettling. But I’ve often wanted to have protégés and see people do my numbers in a respectful way. It's different from crazy people who are watching, taking secrets or trying to take credit.
"I've definitely stood up for myself when I needed to, though,” she continues. "I challenged Sony Pictures and the Pussycat Dolls when they used my martini glass in Charlie's Angels, and I prevailed. ... I have enforced my copyrights and right of publicity a number of times when it's about big business trying to use my intellectual property, or when it's personal. I have NDAs in place for a reason; there are a lot of trade secrets that have gone into creating these acts, much trial and error and years of refinement.”
Von Teese has proven to be extremely savvy and forthcoming over the years, and she’s helped to shatter stripper stereotypes (not just the burlesque ones) in the process. Her willingness to talk about her experience and early days in the clubs was refreshingly honest when she first broke out back in 1992, and she stayed that way, even when she gained mainstream recognition after marrying, then divorcing, Marilyn Manson. Now that she’s 44, her age is up for discussion and, as always, she doesn’t shy away from the subject.
“It’s something that I‘ve come up against,” she says. “A couple of years ago, I was convinced that I needed to get ready to quit. I was thinking, ‘Who wants to see a 44-year-old woman bouncing around on a carousel horse?’ But when I came out with my book, Your Beauty Mark, about a year and a half ago, I had this huge resurgence. Younger fans that were like 18 came out to the signings and told me they just discovered me, and asked when I was doing more shows. I was sort of like, ‘Oh, they want to see me do a show? OK.’”
“It really changed my mind about retiring,” she continues. “I thought, no, we need more examples of women at different stages of beauty. I think it’s up to me to kind of go through my different stages of life and still do what I love and set an example. I look at women who are older than me, like Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez, as great examples. Every time I see somebody older than me out there, being sexy, showing their body, being confident, I think, yeah, I can do that too. “
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Like Stefani and Lopez, Von Teese still looks fabulous. Most of us will never achieve a pop- or burlesque-star level of allure (or need to, of course), but talking with Von Teese, it’s pretty obvious her appeal is a sum of several parts, as it is with every woman.
For instance, she's parlayed her fashion sense into a few different collaborations and branding opportunities, from lingerie to sweaters to gloves. “I’ve always loved the power of glamour and fashion,” says Von Teese, who favors ’30s to ’50s styles with modern designer touches. “I love how it changes the way you walk, and the way you stand. ... If you feel like you need to be intimidating, you can, or if you want to feel soft, you can. Clothing has always been like theater to me.”
This obviously goes both ways. Von Teese has made taking off her clothing an actual form of theater, a form of art, and when she does it she's at her most powerful. To hear her tell it, we all have this power, and it’s not about physical perfection or the glitzy distractions. “It’s the stuff that radiates from inside of you. Even showing our flaws and vulnerability is part of our strength. I think my longevity is rooted in obsession. I’ve always done this because I loved it, and having real passion for something will always be sexy."
The Art of the Teese at Theatre at the Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, downtown; Fri., July 28, 7:30 p.m. axs.com/events/336078/dita-von-teese-s-the-art-of-the-teese-burlesque-revue-tickets.