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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Dita Von Teese, Burlesque Performer

“I’m not a Pam Anderson person.”

I remember being 6 years old and wanting to be Hedy Lamarr. My first job was working in a lingerie store—for me, I always thought it’s sort of a rite of passage of being a woman. When I was first bra-wearing age, I remember thinking I was going to have these lacy things like what my mom had, and, of course, I did not get those lacy things. I got, like, a training bra. But I became obsessed with lingerie and femininity and women’s clothing in general, wanting to dress like a lady in lace. I think it’s because I watched a lot of old movies with my mother, and those things are intertwined, watching old movies, beauty, glamour, thinking, When I grow up, I’m going to be like Betty Grable. But not really understanding that’s not how they dress, not really.

Working in that lingerie store, that led me to creating pinup photos, because I wanted to be photographed in my lingerie, and, of course, I still had that desire to dress myself and wear red lipstick and bring out these hallmarks of the 1940s-, 1950s-era style. And that’s how I first started posing for the pinups. That led to me creating burlesque shows, because when I was looking at pinup magazines from the ’40s and ’50s, I noticed that most of the models were also dancers, in the little captions. “So and so dances at Minsky’s Burlesque.” Things like that. And so I kind of thought, Oh! The next thing I should do is create shows.

My first burlesque shows were in strip clubs, because I was 20 years old, working with a fake ID. It was just an opportunity to wear my corsets and my lingerie, and I walked into an Orange County strip club in 1991, and back then, it was all rock and roll and blondes and California girls, and there was nobody like me there. I thought, This is great. I have no competition. I could have walked in and said, “Oh, I don’t belong here.” But I’ve always had that spirit of thinking: What can I do that’s different? I’m not going to follow the formula. I’m going to break the formula. I used to get $20 from one guy versus 20 ones from 20 guys. It’s not always for the masses, but there would always be somebody who had good taste and with the means to make you break even, you know?

When I first started doing shows, there wasn’t a burlesque scene. There were maybe like 15 girls kind of rehashing burlesque, so there wasn’t a lot to see. And I didn’t really go to all the burlesque shows, so I kind of had to make up what I thought burlesque was based on old clips of movies, which of course were glorified versions of burlesque. I wanted to do a fan dance, but I couldn’t get any footage or anything of one, because it was pre-internet, and so I called up Dixie Evans. She passed away recently, but she was one of the surviving stars of burlesque and she had this museum, Exotic World, the Burlesque Hall of Fame. So I called her, and she kind of coached me over the phone about what to do with these feather fans that I had just bought but had no idea what to do with. I only had photos. So I kind of had to figure it out. And then I would do these shows, sometimes in the strip club, sometimes at these big fetish parties, and I’d just kind of structure it like I was going to do a strip tease. Usually it was about five minutes long, and I really didn’t have to worry about whether it was right or wrong, because there was nothing to compare it to. I remember reading that Gypsy Rose Lee, her show was only seven minutes. So I kind of went by that seven-minute rule, until I started building bigger and bigger sets, having more elaborate costumes. I started off with a handful of rhinestones, and then I was getting 300,000 rhinestones custom-cut from Swarovski, just to make these spectacles. Every penny I made, I would sink back into new shows, to make something bigger and bigger.

The thing was, though, I just kind of went out there, and I was really myself. I didn’t focus on being perfect. When I was a guest at the Crazy Horse, they were super-strict about the steps and the lighting and the choreography. Everything is perfection. And it made me think, I should be more regimented like they are. But I just did my own thing. And all the people running the show, they’d be like, “How do you do that thing?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” I mean, I just do it. I stopped focusing on trying to be like other people or comparing myself to other dancers. I can see a ballet show and be like, “They’re so amazing!” But I’m not a ballet dancer. I’ll never be that. But I can do this. So once I stopped focusing on what I couldn’t do or even comparing what I’m doing onstage to what Madonna’s doing in her live show. Some people feel like they need to have a persona when they go out onstage. Beyoncé’s got one. But I don’t have that. I need people to also see Heather Sweet from Michigan a little bit.

It takes a long time to create a number, because it’s just me and a couple of other people working on these shows. I teamed up with a woman named Catherine D’Lish, who definitely changed the way burlesque costuming was done. She and I got together, and it became sort of our goal to make the most extravagant shows ever made in the history of burlesque. When I was M.A.C’s Viva Glam girl, I had this idea that I would ride this giant M.A.C lipstick to promote the lipstick. So I got this mechanical bull, and I had somebody sculpt a lipstick, and we put it on the bull. And it was so dangerous! Catherine and I were like, “We just spent $75,000 on this show.”

You always have to work out the kinks, so I always have this moment like: What did I do? I don’t know how to fix this! I didn’t expect this to happen! That’s the reasons some of my shows have taken three or four years to make, because sometimes I can’t figure out what the music is supposed to be, or what the trick is at the end, or what the finale is. Or it won’t travel well. It costs $30,000 to ship it to London. That’s probably one of the reasons I perform my famous martini-and-Champagne-glass show, because it’s still the one I have the most fun doing, and it can travel around the world.

When I think about a star like Gypsy Rose Lee, she had a huge career her whole life, not just when she was young. Actually, she became more and more powerful as she aged, so that’s been inspiring to me, that I don’t have to just stop when I don’t look good in a G-string anymore. When I first started doing these shows, I was 20 years old, and I remember thinking it wasn’t going to be a real career. It was just something I was doing for now. And I remember stupidly thinking, By the time I’m 30, no one’s going to want to watch me do a show. That was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever thought. I guess that’s kind of the way you think when you’re that young, but now I’ve come to understand that people didn’t come to see me because I was that young. In fact, my 20-year-old self would not have the capability of doing what I’m doing right now, or even what I was doing five years ago.

But up until 2000, I was really careful to always keep a real job on the side, so I could turn down things, so I didn’t pose until I wanted to. But I feel like my defining moment of when I was like, “Oh, this is like a real job now,” that was when I was on the cover of Playboy. That was a whole pictorial, ten pages, of what I do onstage, and it shined a light on what I was doing. It was the moment where it snowballed, where I got all this attention. I remember people saying to me, “Oh, you should be an actress now,” and I was like, “Actually, that’s not why I did this. I want to be the greatest burlesque star since Gypsy Rose Lee. I want to be the most famous pinup girl since Bettie Page.” Although if you’d asked me what my breakthrough moment was before that, when I was like 27, I would have told you it was when I was in Illinois and I had a billboard. They advertised my show at a strip club on a billboard. I have a photo of me standing in front of that billboard! Sometimes I like to think that 30 or 50 years from now, when people ask what your defining moment was, I’ll be like, “I remember when I thought being on the cover of Playboy was a big deal, but now …”

My fans before the Playboy cover were a lot of fetishists, underground men, a lot of men, especially men that actually remembered burlesque, and then around that time it shifted. I was like, “Wow, my fans are girls. My fans are women.” Now, when you go to my show, it’s 80 percent women, and the rest are gays or men who are on the arm of their partner. You won’t find a gaggle of straight guys at my shows. That’s not who my fans are anymore, and it really shifted for me, too. I thought, “Wow, this is such a shock. I’m not a Pam Anderson. I’m not a sex symbol for men. I’m a sex inspiration for women!” And that put a whole different spin on burlesque in general, because that’s not how it was in Gypsy Rose Lee’s era, but it’s amazing! I’m so grateful it turned out that way. I think for women, maybe it had to do with the way that I was in interviews, because I admit I’m self-created. I’m blonde. I’m not much to look at without makeup on. It’s a glamour that I’ve created. And I’ve been very forthcoming about the art of glamour and self-creation and how anybody can do it and how I never had sex symbols to look up to, who I felt I could relate to. A lot of modern media, we see Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated, and I could never relate to any of that. I looked to a different era. And when I do a signing for my books or I do a show, you can see that there’s a lot of other women boosting their confidence the same way I did, with red lipstick, doing the hair, wearing pretty dresses, owning their sensuality in a different way, that isn’t Sports Illustrated–like, scrubbed clean on a beach. And this look that I have, it looks good on every age, every size, every shape, every ethnicity. It’s amazing.