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2nd Dec 2011 2:40pm | By Editor
She may be the Queen of Burlesque, but Dita Von Teese still has her shy moments – just not when she's shopping naked Words: FRANKIE MULLIN
The dominatrix name, unnervingly polished look and fact that she’s a star of fetish porn leads me to expect a certain hardness from Dita Von Teese. She’s made her living as the pin-up girl of new burlesque; a raven-haired, ghostly faced strip artist whose martini glass routines took the movement to new levels of creativity. I’m braced for someone brash; the Dita I meet is anything but.
Softly spoken and reserved, it’s hard to reconcile this demure but glamorous woman who tells me she’s “really shy” her raunchy vixen image.
Von Teese is tiny, a doll-like figure in her satin frock, making other women in the room look as though they lumbered in from Brobdingnag. She’s the most immaculate human being I have ever met. From her all-masking make-up to the chip-less manicured nails and shiny coiffed hair, it’s like looking at a painting.
So does she always keep it up, this gloss? Surely she must bowl around in a baggy jumper sometimes, I ask hopefully.
“I’m highly motivated by the fact that I don’t want to be recognised looking terrible and paparazzi come out when you least expect it,“ Von Teese says.
“I have a trick. I always wear red lipstick and sunglasses and put my hair back in a chignon, but underneath I have no make-up on. And, sometimes, under my coat I have nothing on.
“I’m notorious for going to the grocery store with nothing on under my coat, because I just don’t feel like choosing a dress. It’s too much trouble, I’ll just go naked under here.”
Popping to the corner shop naked? That’s more in keeping with my image of Von Teese. This is, after all, the girl who began a career – under her birth name Heather Renée Sweet – working in the strip bars of Orange County, US.
“I was performing in seedy strip bars for six people,“ she recalls. “I remember being in a small town called Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin, where I had an ad in the newspaper and I thought that was it. I was like, ’this is the height of my fame. This is my 15 minutes!’“
Von Teese was born in Rochester, Michigan, the daughter of a manicurist and a machinist. It was her mother who fostered her love of retro style and 1940s glamour. As a teenager, Von Teese says she didn’t get too involved in school activities.
“I just kind of minded my own business, worked in the lingerie store, hung out with my best friend and my boyfriend,” she explains.
Many celebrities claim they were ugly ducklings as teenagers. Not Von Teese. “Me and my girlfriend weren’t ‘popular’, but we were pretty cool and hot,” she says.
This contrast between personal reticence and sexual confidence is the crux of Von Teese’s allure.
She sits primly on her chair, talking in a soft voice; the model of gentle femininity. It almost feels wrong to question her about anything risqué and, in the event, I can’t bring myself to ask about the hardcore fetish videos she made in her 20s. But her shyness does not extend to the realm of her sexual power; about this she is supremely confident.
Von Teese’s performances are showcases of the female body; in this case, one that is damn near perfect. At 39, Von Teese is as firm-buttocked and perky-breasted as she was a decade ago, and her commanding, sexually charged stage persona seems at odds with the woman I sit talking to.
It’s a contradiction Von Teese acknowledges.
“I’m not shy about what I do for a living, making my show, and going on stage,” she says. “I created all of the rules for what I do. But I feel shy when I’m asked questions I don’t know how to answer. I feel shy that I’m speaking in my funny American accent that some people make fun of. I realise I built up an image, but I don’t have any interest in changing my persona.”
She even claims to be bashful around men, however unlikely that may seem. “I’m not very aggressive when I see a guy I like. I’m still the girl that gets really nervous. I don’t have a plan on how to seduce someone that I don’t know,“ she says.
I wonder if being Dita Von Teese, the rightly crowned Queen of Burlesque, is a huge pressure to live up to. Do men expect her to stay in femme fatale mode 24/7?
How exhausting. Does she ever, I ask, just want to have boring sex and wear her manky period pants.
“When I’m with somebody who really cares about me they like seeing both sides of me,” she says.
“It’s funny because when you wear garter belts and stockings every day, it becomes old hat for men and then they’re just excited to see those manky period pants you were talking about!”
The image of Von Teese in baggy, greying underwear is not one I can conjure, but I’m grateful to her for making me feel better. Von Teese lives usually between her homes in LA and Paris. She is in London promoting the exclusive Piccadilly speakeasy she has co-designed, Cointreau Privé.
“It’s a really luxurious bar where you can have dinner or a cocktail. I’ve chosen everything on the menu,“ she says. “It’s a really sexy place.“ The speakeasy is decorated by select objects from Von Teese’s LA home, a place she describes as being like a dolls-house, but with “good lighting“.
Cointreau Privé is one of many sideline projects she works on: Von Teese also writes books, designs lingerie and dresses, just launched her first fragrance and has campaigned for AIDS awareness. She has been the global ambassador and face of Cointreau since 2007.
But Von Teese’s heart belongs to burlesque and watching her perform – behind fans, feathered, nipple-tasseled, sometimes galloping atop a fairground horse, once naked save for £3million of diamonds – it’s hard not to be impressed by the artistry of it all.
But is it really so different from straightforward, sliding-around-a-pole stripping? Burlesque has become a socially accepted stalwart of middle class nights out, while strip clubs are largely seen as seedy and morally questionable.
Crazy, agrees Von Teese, who says she always tells people she’s a stripper when they ask her what she does. “If you were sitting here with Gypsy Rose Lee in the 30s and you asked her what the difference between stripping and burlesque was, she would be completely baffled.
’Stripping’ wasn’t a bad word back then. The trick is, can you change people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper?“
Watch Dita talk about shyness, naked shopping and 'manky pants' here.
Dita Von Teese launches the Cointreau Privé, London’s most exclusive speakeasy, open for a limited three-week period from November 30. Visit www.cointreauprive.co.uk