The Notorious Dita Von Teese
At first glance, it doesn’t appear that modern-day burlesque icon Dita Von Teese has any tattoos. Look closer, and you realize that there is, in fact, one inking on her flawless body: the tiny black dot at the top of her left cheekbone.
“I’ve always loved tattoos,” Von Teese says, lounging in her Los Angeles home wearing a purple 1940s robe. “I love looking at them and I have a big admiration for people with tattoos. I’ve notoriously dated a lot of men with a lot of ink,” she adds, referring to her relationships with Social Distortion singer Mike Ness and Marilyn Manson, her former husband of two years. “I even tattooed my ex-boyfriend, who owned a tattoo shop. When I was a little girl I was obsessed with drawing this stick bunny thing all over the walls. He knew about my stick bunny and let me tattoo that on his entire calf. Bright pink. That was real love.”
Born Heather Sweet in 1972, Von Teese has gone from vintage-wearing high school outcast to retro pinup fetish model to one of the world’s premier style icons. Her burlesque acts-often imitated but never duplicated-are breathtaking, involving everything from dancing in a signature giant martini glass to a Sally Rand–inspired feather fan dance. The elaborate setups cost her up to $85,000. It’s worth it just to, as Von Teese herself says, “put the Teese back into striptease.”
NKED: Interesting that even when you’re not performing, you’re still decked out in vintage wear.
DITA VON TEESE: This is a lifestyle for me, and it always has been. It’s not like I get home and suddenly I’m wearing sweatpants or an Adidas tracksuit because no one’s looking. It’s not a complete switch-around. There’s not a Heather Sweet and then a Dita Von Teese. It’s all kind of one thing. It’s been too long. The lines are blurred.
How did you feel about the passing of Bettie Page, one of your biggest idols?
We’ve lost yet another great 20th century icon. Without women like Bettie Page, who dared to be different all those decades ago, there would be no pinup or burlesque revival. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her unforgettable and unusual pinup image. She had a special way of combining erotic fetishism and pinup playfulness with a little wink of the eye. She certainly inspired me.
Which tattoo shop is responsible for your beauty mark?
It was this really famous tattoo shop in Fullerton, CA, called Classic Tattoo Studio. I was 17. It’s where all the rockabillies-Mike Ness and everybody-had their tattoos done.
Was it the first time they’d done that?
Oh yeah. Nobody goes in there asking for a beauty mark. You have to understand that I was pretty eccentric. I was always drawing hearts and stars in that spot. I went in thinking I wanted a star there, but they wouldn’t do it. They were like, “We’re not putting a star on your face.” They were the voice of reason.
Are you glad they talked you out of it?
Yeah! They were so right. In the early ’90s I almost got seams up the backs of my legs, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Can you imagine how hard it would be to match up the seams with real stockings? It would be a nightmare. It’s very popular now. At that time, I was researching everything about the ’40s, about how during World War II women would draw seams on. I thought, Wouldn’t that be cool? I had them henna tattooed on, but I never went all the way.
Have you seen a lot of Dita Von Teese tattoos?
Yeah, I’ve seen quite a few. There’s some beautiful artwork, and there’s some really bad artwork. The first time I ever saw someone with a tattoo of me was around 1991, before anyone knew who I was-when I had a very obscure, fetish-only fan base. This guy came into a strip club I was working in and he had a big portrait of me on his chest. It wasn’t a very good portrait. I’ve seen tattoos of me where I’m completely cross-eyed and I thought, Ooh, I wish people would do more research when it comes to portraits.
Have there been any amazing ones?
One girl has a picture of me in my big pink feather fans across her entire back. She’s beautiful and the portrait work is really nice. One of my favorites is a MAC Viva Glam lipstick with my signature-I was their spokesperson-tattooed across a guy’s heart. Obviously no matter what the tattoos of me look like, I’m touched that someone would put artwork of me on their body.
Have any of your boyfriends gotten tattoos of your name?
No, you’re not supposed to do that-it’s bad luck!
Working at Lady Ruby’s lingerie store as a teenager, you must have learned a lot about women and sex.
And men! I used to sell to a lot of men, and it would become confusing because they’d buy the flannel nightgown for their wives, and something different for their girlfriends, and I’d have to keep it all straight. Then the wives would come in and I’d have to remember not to say, “Did you like that black negligee?” because she didn’t get the black negligee. So many times, someone would call and say, “I see this charge on my husband’s credit card for lingerie, and I didn’t get any lingerie.” It was a complicated job for a 16-year-old girl. But I loved it. I threw myself into that job in every way. It led to my collecting vintage lingerie, which led to me doing what I do for a living.
How many bras and corsets do you own?
Three or four years ago, we counted 350 corsets. I’m a pack rat when it comes to my things because there are so many memories attached to each one. I kept my first garter belt and my first bra.
What does Dita Von Teese’s first garter belt look like?
I bought it at Victoria’s Secret. It’s pale blue silk-really pretty. Even now, I think I had good taste when I was that young. [Laughs.]What about your first bra?
My first bra was not very exciting. I was a late bloomer-the last of my girlfriends to get one. It was this horrible training bra-type thing, but it prompted me to save my money and buy my own darn bra. My mom was like, “You can’t have the black lace one.” And I was like, “Why not?” I’ve never equated beautiful lingerie with seduction or sex. It’s not about trying to get a man. Not at all. It’s about surrounding myself with beauty in my everyday life-whether it’s a bra or a notebook. I want everything around me to be attractive because I look at it every day.
As a teenager did you teach your friends about lingerie?
A lot of people would come to me before prom and homecoming and say, “I need some great lingerie. Will you help me?” People thought I was a little bit insane when I was changing for class and I had the matching bra and panty all the time, and sometimes the garter belt. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school-I had a lot of acquaintances and one best friend. She and I were the outcasts who dressed in vintage clothes and dated older guys from other schools.
For Halloween last year you dressed as a “normal girl.” What exactly did you wear?
I wanted to do the young Hollywood hipster cool chick look, so I wore a blond wig, skinny jeans, and chic gold Christian Louboutin sandals. I had on a little T-shirt and a Louis Vuitton neck wrap, and I had my friend do my makeup exactly the way he does it for Victoria Beckham and all those celebrities who love beige lipstick. I was all bronzed-I felt like I had on, like, 50 layers of base-with more makeup on than I normally do. It was disgusting. I couldn’t wait to get it off. I spent the whole night completely incognito-some of my friends didn’t recognize me at first. Paparazzi were waving me out of pictures. People were like, “Who’s this girl not wearing a costume? She’s a real asshole.” It was genius. I’m going to do it every Halloween. I’m already planning which normal girl I’m going to be next year.
You seem to avoid the paparazzi pretty well, even though that’s no easy feat in Hollywood.
I’ve been single for two years and one of the main reasons I avoid paparazzi-aside from wanting to keep my private life private-is I don’t want to get photographed with the guys I’m dating. I want to date more than one, and I don’t want them to know about each other! I have a very active dating life, but I have not been caught once. As long as you don’t go to The Ivy or Mr. Chow and those places where people go when they want to proclaim their relationship is still intact, or they want to announce their relationship, it’s not that hard.
How many guys are you juggling?
Right now I’ve got three. They’re all in different parts of the world.That’s nothing to be ashamed of.
No, I’m just coming into my own as a single girl. My entire adult life I’ve been hooked up with somebody-totally monogamous and a good girl. I’ve never been single, so I’m kind of living up to the burlesque image.
You once said you have a head for business and a body for sin. What’s the biggest sin you’ve committed lately?
Most of my sins have to do with indulging in all these hot guys I keep meeting. That’s my biggest sin–juggling men.
What do you look for in a guy?
Lately I’ve been going for looks. I’m going for looks this time around. [Laughs.]You served Marilyn Manson with divorce papers in January 2007. Do you think you’ll ever get married again?
Yeah. I was good at being married. I like the ritual. I liked being in love with someone and being faithful. But for the past two years I’ve been going through a public divorce and all these shenanigans, so it’s time to think about what I want. I’m traveling the world and being independent. I don’t have anyone telling me what to do, and I feel really good about that.
Have you spoken to Manson lately?
Yeah, he’s been in touch a little. The apologies come, and he was like, “I made a big mistake…” and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I know. Go ahead and say what you need to say to feel better and to sleep at night.” I feel like that was a lifetime ago.
How many days out of the year do you travel?
I’d say 280. I work mostly in Europe. I’m considering a move there because I feel like I’m always on a plane, and it’s becoming too much to go back and forth. Plus, I don’t really work anywhere in America.
Is that because Americans tend to be so sexually repressed?
It’s because my “worth”-and I put that in quotes-is not the same in America, probably because I’m not on a reality show. I get paid 10 times more in Europe. Europeans have a respect for showgirls. I can do my show on TV there, but I could never do that here. It’s unfortunate, because burlesque is an American invention.
Would you do a reality show for any amount of money?
There’s no money in reality shows. They get paid nothing. I cannot imagine exposing myself in that way. I’ve spent my whole life trying to build a fantasy and I’m not about to give people my reality. I wanted to get away from my reality, which was being a blond girl from a farming town in Michigan. I’m trying to create a myth, and I don’t think a reality show is the way to do it.
Have you gotten a lot of reality show offers?
Almost every week it’s, “We want you to host The Search for the Next Burlesque Star, or Celebrity Burlesque Challenge,” or whatever. Everyone thinks they’re the first to have the idea. I have gone into meetings and said, “Okay, I’ll do it for $20 million.” And they’re like, “Uhhh … “What do you think of L.A. “burlesque” groups like the Pussycat Dolls?
I did a lot of shows with them, but I had a lot of legal issues with their creator over the years. It’s so far removed from what it originally was. I think it’s really great they decided to become a pop group and they’ve left the pseudo-burlesque alone. It drives me crazy when the media or groups like the Pussycat Dolls try to sanitize and take away the sexual and nudity aspects of burlesque. I’m sorry, but if you’re not up there taking your clothes off and dancing around in pasties and a G-string, it’s not burlesque. It can be cabaret, or it can be cute and funny and retro-showgirly, but it’s not burlesque. They were strippers, and that’s the way it was.
So if you do move to Europe, what city will you call home?
Paris. As an eccentric, I feel most comfortable there. I was having tea in one of my favorite restaurants there recently, and I was wearing a 1940s turban. I looked around, and I saw two other women in turbans. There were, like, 90 years old, but I thought, “This is the place for me!” L.A. is the land of Ugg boots and denim minis and people trying very hard to be casual. It really isn’t the place for me anymore.