‘I’m very domestic, really’
As Britain falls back in love with, ahem, nudity, Matt Warren speaks to burlesque sensation Dita Von Teese about how to have fun with your clothes off – and why, one day, she might make a jolly good housewife
In the basement of London’s rather grand St James’s Hotel, Dita Von Teese is talking about feminism, Fifty Shades Of Grey, Cointreau, a cat called Aleister – and, ahem, taking her clothes off. She looks immaculate in a beautifully tailored black dress, a raven-haired – and jolly chatty – Betty Grable in a shock of scarlet lipstick.
But then Miss Von Teese is the woman who made the world fall back in love with burlesque, bathing in giant Martini glasses onstage, as naturally as if it were something we all did before grabbing our keys and heading off to work. Following in the tradition of the great Gypsy Rose Lee, she has transformed ‘stripping’ – a word she uses freely – into an art form.
Perhaps it’s something in the water, but nudity has rarely been more popular. Only last week it was reported that scores of people in amateur dramatic societies, from Cannock Chase to Grassington, are eagerly shedding their clothes after getting the right to stage the hit show Calendar Girls.
But isn’t there something a little, well, anti-feminist about a lady ‘disrobing’ for a living? ‘Take a look at my audiences,’ she says with a smile (she smiles a lot). ‘There aren’t gangs of men there. Most of my fans are women, and most of the men who come to my shows are there as part of a couple. I have come under fire for being anti-feminist and doing what I do for men – but I don’t. I’m largely doing it for women. That throws the anti-feminist argument into a tailspin.
‘I create everything for my shows, from the lighting and props to the styling and choreography. I do my own financing. I have paid my dues. The actual stripping part is one of the most miniscule elements.
‘Perhaps so many women come to my shows because I’m about achieving a look, creating it, making it and building it. I’m not just a busty model in Sports Illustrated magazine.
‘Clearly, I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect role model – it’s burlesque. What someone is inspired by, someone else might feel offended by. But sexual fantasies should be exempt from political correctness. In my own fantasies, for example, no one loves me for my mind… my shows are about fantasy.’
Behind the gloss and glitter, Miss Von Teese (who was born Heather Renée Sweet) is likeable, hard-working, hands-on and surprisingly down-to-earth. As well as running her own show, she does all her own make-up – ‘I hate going to the beauty salon’ – and still loves hunting down vintage bargains. She is particularly fascinated with retro style and 1940s cinema, passions she inherited from her mother, and is a trained costume designer.
‘I have always surrounded myself with beautiful things, and not expensive things. In fact, that’s how I got into the vintage look in the first place. I was earning £2 an hour, so I had to go and find things cheap. In fact, I still buy £5 hair dye, rather than going to a salon and paying £300.’
Dita Von Teese is, in fact, a natural blonde. She dyed her hair jet black aged 22 and never looked back – ‘I now even have black hair in my dreams.’ Dyeing her hair is now a fortnightly ritual.
‘I was an ordinary-looking blonde girl from a small farming town, so to go black-haired was to turn myself into an art piece of my own design. I gave myself a Hollywood makeover.
‘My boyfriend at the time actually got really upset. He loved my long blonde hair, which I often wore up in a beehive. In fact, he’s only just got over it – 20 years on.’
She certainly takes her looks very seriously. In her 20s, she used ‘tightlacing’ (using a corset to modify your figure) to get down to a 16in waist – she now confesses to being closer to 19in. ‘It’s not something I do every day any more, much to the dismay of my corset-maker, who just left me a note saying that it needs to be cinched to the max at all times,’ she laughs. ‘I’m not worried about records, I just like the shape. But it’s a lot of work.’
She also practices Pilates and swears by The Beauty Detox Solution by Kimberly Snyder, which seems to involve drinking an awful lot of green smoothies. ‘I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t afraid of getting old. But am I really going to miss my bum when I’m 70?’ she jokes. ‘At least I’ll have lots of pictures. Besides, my vintage style is timeless. It’s not like I’ll have to stop wearing miniskirts, because I never wear them. And my hairstyle works on someone of any age.’
So will she just keep on working? ‘I don’t have any plans to retire yet. I didn’t know when I was 21 that I’d be in better shape at nearly 40 than I was then. But I did drink lots of soda in my 20s.’
Perhaps nudity keeps you youthful? And perhaps more of us should give it a whirl? ‘I get so many letters from women asking if they should, but most of them are asking about how they get over their fear of taking their clothes off in public. If you’re afraid of taking your clothes off, don’t do it. I’ve never been afraid of that.
‘Still, I think I inspire lots of women to try it at home with their significant other.’
Like in bestselling bonkbuster Fifty Shades Of Grey? ‘I haven’t read it,’ she confesses. ‘I think it might be a little too fluffy for me. I like Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, books that paint beautiful pictures of garter belts and stockings and women smoking cigarettes in Paris. Sending emails [like the lovers do in Fifty Shades] doesn’t really do it for me. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but I prefer something a bit more colourful; a bit more serious.’
So what does Dita Von Teese do at home, which she shares with a Devon Rex cat called Aleister (after English mystic Aleister Crowley)? ‘I’m quite a good cook so I love to entertain friends at home with canapés and cocktails [she has just launched a designer cocktail bag for Cointreau]. In fact, a lot of people tell me that I’m going to be a really good housewife one day: I cook, I bring money home, I wear nice lingerie.
‘I’m very domestic, really.’
The My Cointreau evening bag designed by Cointreau ambassador Dita Von Teese is available exclusively from Selfridges, from 1 October, priced £559.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953