Whore Next Door: Dita Von Teese Tricks of Glamour

The last decades of the 20th century were a rough time for women with curves.

The aerobics and dieting trends of the '80s passed the baton to the heroin-chic waifs of the '90s — and chubby adolescents like me gave up on glamour, hiding under tents of JNCO jeans.

But the raven-haired Dita Von Teese, the modern-day Queen of Burlesque — who brings her hit stage production Strip Strip Hooray! to San Francisco audiences this weekend — was a beacon for my teenage self. Though I lusted after the toned tummies of Cameron Diaz types, Von Teese was a gasp of fresh air, waltzing into the limelight as the century turned and ushering in a new wave of vintage sex appeal after burlesque as an art form had lain mostly dormant for decades.

“I didn't have a lot of role models of beauty and sensuality that I could relate to,” she says.

Once a small-town blonde from a Michigan, Von Teese transformed from girl next door to iconic bombshell using what she describes as “the tricks of glamour.”

Crafting her look from old Hollywood starlets, pin-up girls, fetish sensibilities, and the all-but-lost art of the striptease, Von Teese cut her teeth selling lingerie by day and dancing in Orange County strip clubs by night. She's the first to admit she was terrible at the hustle — and shy talking to people — but she loved performing and eventually got the idea to start re-creating classic 1940s burlesque acts inspired by research she'd done on stars of yesteryear, namely Gypsy Rose Lee.

Her self-styled vintage looks and dramatic presence drew the attention of Hugh Hefner, who invited her to perform at the Playboy Mansion. A 2002 Playboy cover — followed by a brief marriage to goth rocker and performance artist Marilyn Manson — solidified Teese as a big-time celebrity. Though she's appeared on television and as the face of major ad campaigns since her debut, she's maintained her commitment to showgirl life, touring internationally and performing as the first-ever guest artist at the Crazy Horse in Paris.

“I've made this decision to be a showgirl,” she told me over a brief phone call in between tour dates. “I want every act to bring down the house.”

Von Teese got her start in performance art via the drag queens she met in the early-'90s Los Angeles rave scene. As her star began to rise, she noticed that her audience consisted of fewer straight men ogling her curves and more women and their gay best friends ogling her hair, makeup, and costumes. She'd managed to transform from a plain farmgirl into an international femme fatale — one who moonlights as an HIV advocate. She served two years as MAC's Viva Glam spokesperson in service to the LGBT community (and her fan base), and raised money for MAC AIDS Fund, which gives millions to organizations that provide direct services to people living with HIV in underserved communities, such as The Sex Workers Project, UNAIDS, and the Black AIDS Institute.

I bring up how California's own AIDS Healthcare Foundation has sunk millions into shutting down the porn industry (where the transmission of HIV is almost non-existent from an epidemiological standpoint).

“I love talking about lipstick, but I also learned so much,” Von Teese says. “It was also great for me to learn about all the AIDS charities that are actually doing work, and stay away from the ones that aren't.”

She strongly believes that there shouldn't be the taboos associated with pornography.

“We want regulation, but it has to be reasonable. There's always a bit of stigma attached to anyone who is taking their clothes off for a living,” she says, revealing a twinkle of Midwestern farmgirl charm. “I know that throughout my career, people have said bad things about me — but it's just like water off a duck's back.”

But at the end of the day, it's not about politics for Dita Von Teese; it's about pearls, rhinestones, and fantasy.

“You can call it feminist or anti-feminist, degrading or empowering — my intention has always been to create a show that is entertaining.”

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