Dita Von Teese: ‘Trying too hard is the kiss of death in being sexy’

The burlesque star on how #MeToo has changed her and her upcoming online extravaganza

Dita Von Teese is looking divine. Her lips are that signature red, she’s wearing 1950s cat eye glasses, and her black hair falls in a thick wave across a Snow White skin – and all this on the unglamorous stage of a glitchy Zoom call. Only knowing Von Teese from her femme fatale image, her teasingly aloof burlesque performances, and her time in the tabloids as former wife of goth rocker Marilyn Manson, you might expect an icy demeanour, an impermeable mystique. So it’s surprising to discover quite how normal she is: chatty, self-deprecating, not very vampish. It’s easy to see traces of Heather Sweet, the “super shy” girl from small-town Michigan who transformed into Von Teese.

The reason for our conversation is a new film, Night of the Teese, made with director Quinn Wilson and featuring some of Von Teese’s classic routines alongside guest performers from male burlesque artist Jett Adore to hula-hoop virtuoso Marawa. While others rushed out online content during the pandemic, Von Teese took her time to get the details right. “When I was watching a certain famous talkshow host doing his show from his backyard, I thought, ‘Oh, you really do need some showbusiness,’ you know?”

Von Teese is all about the showbusiness, from the giant clam shell she emerges from in her opening routine to the finale bathing in a fizz-filled champagne coupe. It’s a land of satin, ostrich feathers and diamanté nipple pasties, with each of her many-layered outfits drenched in sparkle. “I love trying to come up with the most complicated striptease costume,” she smiles. “That’s my speciality.”

With her longtime creative collaborator Catherine D’Lish, Von Teese is always trying to find something nobody’s done before. “How do we evolve burlesque into something that it wasn’t really in the golden age?” she asks. “But actually, it wasn’t the golden age then – it’s the golden age now. We have a very empowered community which has become a place to celebrate different bodies and skin colours and politics. There are trans performers and people who are really challenging the stereotypes. It’s a great time to be a burlesque dancer. In the 1940s, I would’ve had to quit by the time I was 30.”


Previously Von Teese said she might stop performing when she reached 50. “Yeah, holy crap, I’m turning 49 in a week!” she laughs. On the strength of Night of the Teese, there’s no reason for her to stand down. Her most captivating costars in the film, the voluptuous Dirty Martini and Perle Noire, are not young women, but they are gloriously entertaining, sexy and fun, and guaranteed to bring the house down. “The more examples we see of sensuality and beauty at every age the better. But I think people will always be very intimidated by women and their eroticism, especially as they get older.”

Heather Sweet grew up in a Michigan farming town, her mother a manicurist, her father a graphite machinist. “I had a really nice childhood, living on a beautiful street in a little old house surrounded by lilac trees, very average,” she says. They later moved to California. Heather was the middle of three sisters, the plain one (according to her), who thought the fashionable “scrubbed-clean supermodel” look was unattainable to her. But she loved the glamour of the 1940s, as seen in the old movies she’d watch with her mum. And when she started to experiment with those styles, wearing red lipstick or vintage clothes, dying her blond hair, “I had these ‘Ah ha!’ moments – I can be glamorous, I can create this mythology.”

I remember working in a lingerie store and some guy comes in and tries to wrestle me to the floor

It began as a way to counteract her shyness. “I noticed people started to treat me differently, they wanted to talk to me. It made me feel a little bit stronger.” And she enjoyed the sense of power? “Yeah! Listen, when I was 19 and first dressing in corsets and leather gloves and used to wear my hair in a Louise Brooks bob, it made me feel a little bit intimidating.”

She worked as a go-go dancer, meeting club kids and drag queens who inspired her transformation, and at 19 went to work in a strip club. Von Teese has no issue with being called a stripper. Rather, she says, “my goal was to change people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper.” And she doesn’t claim burlesque is superior to any other kind of stripping, “Because [the strip club] is where I really learned about what it is to be sensual, and how to do it in a way that looks effortless.”

In one old interview, Von Teese was asked about how she’d changed from Heather Sweet to Dita Von Teese, and she replied that she hadn’t changed at all, except in appearance. Is that really true? “Well, I did change, in a way, in that I learned to assert myself,” she says. “I keep thinking about this, especially with the whole #MeToo moment.”

I remember working in a lingerie store and some guy comes in and tries to wrestle me to the floor.

Many women have been coming forward about past experiences in the light of #MeToo. Earlier this year, Von Teese’s former husband, Marilyn Manson, denied allegations of abuse made against him by several women. In a post on Instagram, Von Teese said the accusations did not reflect her own experiences during their seven-year relationship, and that she left Manson due to his “infidelity and drug abuse”. It is her “sole statement” on the matter.

Even when I was a bondage model in the 90s, I had big-time boundaries. People used to say I wasn't very fun

How has #MeToo made her look back on her own life? “When I was 14 or 15, I felt very preyed upon,” she says. “I remember working in the lingerie store and some guy comes in and tries to wrestle me to the floor, trying to pull me down behind the counter.” She managed to push him off and chase him out of the shop. Sometimes the question of consent hasn’t been so clear cut. “I have definitely found myself thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ Or sometimes, ‘Oh, it’s easier to just go along with it.’

“But there are lots of things I walked away from business-wise because I wasn’t willing to play the game. Even when I was a bondage model in the 90s, I had big-time boundaries. People used to say I wasn’t very fun, ‘She doesn’t have drinks, she just shows up and does the job.’” She’d take her boyfriend along for security, too. “Even back then, I was very business-minded and doing my best to stay in a position of power.” She has long produced and funded her own shows.

Von Teese is aware of the complicated power dynamics around stripping. “We should not be telling people what makes them feel degraded versus empowered. It’s up to the individual person. But do I think sometimes it takes a little bit longer in your life to know yourself well enough to know what’s okay? Maybe I shouldn’t have been working in a strip club at 19.”

There's stage sexy and then there's the reality of who you are in the bedroom. There's vulnerability

Perhaps a performer can feel empowered, but that doesn’t stop an audience viewing her body as an object? “I definitely notice the times where I feel treated like a ‘thing’, and it’s never when I’m naked performing. It’s when somebody knows I’m famous but they don’t know what for and they want to take a picture.” She mimes leaning in for a selfie. “It’s easier just to smile,” she says, pursing her lips, “but that’s when I’ll feel objectified.”

Von Teese knows celebrities who are hounded far more than she is. She was friendly with Amy Winehouse and saw the fallout from that level of scrutiny. “She invited me over to her house so she could sing some songs for me. I remember walking in and it was just a mess.” There were holes in the stairs, nothing in the fridge. “And I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone taking care of her?’ I always think about her, she was so special. I felt like I wanted to protect her every time I saw her.”

Back on the subject of burlesque, we talk about the difference between the performance of sexiness and actual intimacy. “There’s stage sexy and then there’s the reality of who you are in the bedroom,” she says. “There’s vulnerability.” Von Teese has no problem collapsing that distance. “That’s the fun of it,” she says. “I’m not embarrassed for people to see me without makeup on. The erotic side of me is something people don’t see on stage.”

So is she Dita Von Teese in the bedroom or Heather Sweet? She laughs. “I guess a little bit of both. I have an education, if you know what I mean. And I pride myself in learning more. I always thought I knew everything about sex and then I started doing a little digging into tantra – do you know about it? I highly encourage people to discover it. It’s about connecting on a deeper level with partners. That’s what I’m interested in.”

Von Teese declines to comment on who she is connecting deeply with right now. In fact, she probably doesn’t have time, as she is currently in intense rehearsals for France’s version of Strictly, Danse avec les Stars. For once, she’s not completely in control of her own costumes and stage routines – something she is not entirely comfortable with. “I was watching a performance from last season – Pamela Anderson – and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I hope they don’t think I’m going to show my body like that?!’ I’m not wearing any short skirts. I’m not an exhibitionist!”

Despite a childhood passion for ballet, she doesn't see herself as a natural dancer. "My worst fear is looking like I'm overstretching myself. Trying too hard is the kiss of death in being sexy. I beat myself up about my dance talent – and pretty much all talent. But I do know what I have. I do have something." She tilts her head. There's a little gleam in her eye, a knowing smile, and there it is. – Guardian

Night of the Teese: A Cinematic Special is streaming from today until Sunday, October 3rd