By Joe Bosso, Portraits by John Russo
You might think that Dita Von Teese would recoil in shocked indignation before administering a swift slap across the face – or perhaps dispatching an even more decisive knee elsewhere – to any uncouth oaf foolish enough to refer to her as a “stripper.” After all, Von Teese is the cinch-waisted reigning queen of modern-day burlesque, whose performance style recalls trailblazing entertainers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Dixie Evans mixed with a fashion sense that harkens back to glamour girl pinups such as Betty Grable and Bettie Page.
In other words, she isn’t giving lap dances at the Bada-Bing for 10 bucks a pop.
But here’s the kicker: Von Teese not only doesn’t mind being called a “stripper,” but she also readily embraces the description. “People think it’s a derogatory term, but it’s really not,” she says. “The word ‘stripper’ was actually invented in burlesque in the 1930s. It’s kind of an old-fashioned term. Gypsy Rose Lee, who was the most prominent burlesque star of all time, she liked the word, even though they had all these other fancy terms that they came up to describe what she did.
“I’ve always felt as if I should just let what I do speak for itself,” she continues. “I’m a striptease star. I’ve worked in strip clubs. I used to headline the biggest strip clubs all across America, and now I’m doing legit theater. I sell out 2500-seat places. So I don’t care what people call me. ‘Stripper’ is fine, and so is ‘burlesque artist,’ although it’s not a term I use. It’s all the same to me.”
There’s a timeless quality to Von Teese’s approach to stripping; watching her perform, one feels transported to another era, one in which the act of titillation was more of a nuanced affair – and in some ways, that makes the whole thing seem even edgier. But while she openly and reverentially pays homage to iconic burlesque idols of the past, Von Teese insists that she’s no throwback.
“I’m really glad to be doing what I do in these times,” she states. “There is a huge movement in the burlesque world that celebrates diversity in beauty, gender fluidity, body shape, ethnicity, and age, and I’m glad to be a part of that. I’m a strong supporter of that movement. I’m thrilled to live that out as a burlesque and pin-up star in this era rather than the 1930s and ‘40s when it was just strictly under the male gaze. It’s much more interesting for me to play to packed houses full of women, and I have a big LGBTQ following, too. I couldn’t have done any of this at any other time.”
At 15, Von Teese got her first job – fittingly, in an upscale lingerie store. She started out as a salesgirl, and by the time she left, nine years later, she had advanced to a management position. By day she sold lacy underwear to housewives, and by night she started to take her first steps toward modeling. “I decided that I was going to be the modern Bettie Page,” she says. “I took photos of myself in 1950s-style bondage outfits, and I thought, ‘This is cool. Nobody else is doing it, so I’ll do it.’” After moving to Los Angeles, Von Teese visited her first strip club, and all at once it hit her: “I’m going to try this, but I’m going to dress up in corsetry and do the glamour thing. I’m going to be a modern-day pinup. It was like baby steps and little sparks of ideas that led to one big idea.”
After adopting her stage name, Von Teese danced around the L.A. circuit and quickly attracted a loyal following. She performed with an early version of the Pussycat Dolls and was singled out by reviewers as being the highlight of the show. “I wasn’t trying to be a star or anything,” she notes. “I was just doing what I liked, and I was happy being known in certain circles and having a niche audience. I wasn’t really looking ahead, like, ‘OK, what’s the next step toward fame?’”
Nonetheless, fame came calling when Hugh Hefner, who had attended a few of Von Teese’s shows, featured her in Playboy in 1999 and 2001, eventually choosing her to grace the cover in 2002. “That’s when I kind of crossed the line toward legitimacy and making it in the mainstream media,” she says. “It’s a little funny, because I used to steal Playboys from under my father’s bed. I don’t think he was really accepting what I was doing until I made the cover. Back then, Playboy still had big stars on their covers, and I was on their Christmas issue, which was always their biggest seller. Hugh oversaw the whole pictorial. After Playboy, I knew that I had to step things up and get a real manager. Up till then, I was handling things myself, using a fake name and fax machines. It was kind of crazy.”
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