Dita Von Teese stripped bare
Kate Waterhouse's date with the icon of style & fashion, Dita Von Teese. Prudish and shy? Find out who makes her blush.
There's a definite upside to being the world's most famous fetish model. You can, for instance, get paid $5000 to make a five-minute private video for someone, involving no nudity at all.
"I was all dressed up, and then a good friend came and threw a pie in my face, while my sister filmed it," says Dita Von Teese. "It was so much fun. Sometimes late at night with friends, we put it on and watch it."
Bombshell ... Dita Von Teese. Photo: James Brickwood
Von Teese has been asked to do plenty of weird things. (We're not talking about stripping, or wriggling around in nipple pasties in a giant cocktail glass - that's normal.) She made another video, and a sum she doesn't disclose, for a man who asked her to lie around in furs, wearing diamonds and ordering expensive things on the phone with the line, "Charge it to Mr So-and-so's card".
"There's something I just love about fetishism," says Von Teese, smiling sweetly.
To put this in context, it's 11 o'clock on a Monday morning. We are in the ersatz 19th-century drawing room of a hotel in central Sydney. Two goons stand on the double doors, huge men busting out of their black suits and ready, one presumes, to spring to Von Teese's aid should a maniacal fan appear. Von Teese's Sydney PR rep sits on a couch fiddling with a BlackBerry, while her manager sits at a corner table staring at her computer. It's a thoroughly unremarkable scene except, of course, that there in the middle of it is Von Teese, looking utterly amazing, exactly as if she'd just stepped out of a 1940s film. Her make-up is flawless: milky skin, a swirl of eyeliner over false eyelashes, crimson lips. Her black hair is curled just so. She is slighter than you expect, and an hourglass figure honed by years in corsets is perfectly shown off by a tight, black Collette Dinnigan dress with gorgeously puffed sleeves.
For the interview, she curls herself into a wing-back chair beside me, crossing her legs demurely, occasionally flashing glimpses of the red soles on her black patent Christian Louboutin stilettos.
I am told before I arrive that there's one subject that's off-limits: her ex-husband, Marilyn Manson. Damn. I can't ask about that video they made using a camera hidden in a dildo, or why she married such a cadaverous-looking man, or how she felt when, just after their split in 2006, he made a music clip with his new girlfriend, Evan Rachel Wood, reportedly on their marital bed.
But the PR flack assures me she'll talk about anything else and that proves true. Von Teese is happy to chat about fetishes and stripping. I was slightly worried that the world's most famous burlesque artist (she's passed on the crown of being the world's most famous fetish model, she's not sure who to) would object to being called a stripper, but not at all.
"I love being a stripper. I like the word 'stripper'. I want to change people's minds about what it is to be a stripper. I don't need to candy-coat what I do."
It's hard to convey exactly how strange those words sound coming from someone so softly spoken and elegant. Von Teese has said that what she admires about the stars of the 1930s and '40s was that they knew how to behave. She doesn't mean behaving in a star-like way, throwing tantrums and calling everyone darling. She means playing the part perfectly all the time, and that's exactly what she does. She arrives punctually, is polite and professional, and always - but always - looks immaculate. Even going to the gym, she sports black capri pants, fitted top and make-up.
"I use a sweep of powder, then put on red lipstick and big sunglasses. Sunglasses are good. They make you look like you're made up."
It must be a pain, having to make so much effort all the time, but she can't really do otherwise. The creation we call Dita Von Teese would collapse entirely if she were ever to be photographed in track pants, sweating on an elliptical runner.
The thing about Von Teese is that she's not really famous for what she does. She doesn't act, or make music, and she's the first to say she's not a great dancer. She does her burlesque act, of course, featuring her enormous-cocktail-glass routine, but in the end Von Teese is most famous simply for being herself: for looking magnificently different on a red carpet, or at a Starbucks in LA, or strutting down a runway in a mechanical-looking corset to close Jean Paul Gaultier's show at Paris Fashion Week. Dita Von Teese was a fantasy dreamt up by Heather Renée Sweet when she was a quiet teenager in West Branch, Michigan, and a fantasy she remains. The barest whiff of smelly reality and she would pop, like a bubble.
This could easily be annoying - not to mention downright crazy - were it not that Von Teese is so upfront about the effort it takes. In a sea of tanned, leggy blondes, she stands for a different type of beauty, one that is joyously artificial. She tells anyone who asks that she's had a boob job, and that the mole on her cheek is fake, and that she works out diligently and watches what she eats. She knows there are few things more annoying to women than hearing a supermodel say she just rolled out of bed looking that gorgeous. It's one of the reasons why 80 per cent of fans at her book signings are women. Another is that, when she gets it right, Von Teese can make Gisele look, well, boring. "[Women] look at me and think, 'Oh, it's okay to have pale skin, and your own style.' "
It takes Von Teese two hours to get ready for a red-carpet appearance, and she does it all herself. She colours her hair with an $8 dye kit, because she thinks it a dreadful waste of money and time to go to the hairdresser. She does her own make-up and selects all her own clothes. She tried a stylist once, but the poor woman looked at a pair of vintage heels in Von Teese's closet and said: "Oh wow, these would look so cute with jeans!"
"Can you believe it?" says Von Teese, aghast. "Jeans?" She's never owned a pair. She never considered a stylist again.
"I want to send out a message that anyone can do this with the right intention and drive."
There is something very considered, almost calculated, about this, and it characterises much of what Von Teese says. The legend is that when Heather Sweet was growing up in Michigan, she developed a love of 1930s and '40s movie stars from her manicurist mother (her father was a machinist, often out of work). She started dressing like them as a way of overcoming shyness.
"I could become someone else when I was dressed like this," she says. "I felt glamorous."
Von Teese is hardly the first small-town American girl to try to make herself into someone else, but there was a "ker-ching" moment that seemed to cement it into place. It happened when she was heavily involved in the rave scene in her late teens, "with all that entails", and ended up one early morning at a strip club. She couldn't believe how bored and samey all the big-boobed blonde women looked. She thought: "I can do better than that."
So she auditioned for Captain Cream (now called Captain's Cabaret) - she assures me it was the classiest strip joint in Orange County, California - in a corset, long black gloves, stockings and garters. "The boss said, 'You're wearing a lot of clothes.' " But she got the job. "I saw all these girls getting a few bucks from 20 different guys. I'd get a hundred bucks from one guy." Looking different, she realised, could really work to her advantage.
Having identified this gap in the market, she went all out to fill it. Von Teese may have left much else behind from her dusty farm-town beginnings, but not, it would seem, its work ethic.
"I'm quite disciplined at things. I like to be the best at what I'm doing," she says, crisply. So she got the boob job, started studying burlesque and, in no time, was the best - and most highly paid - stripper at Captain Cream.
Around then, she used to do impersonations of pin-up girls for a boyfriend, and she parlayed that into a business opportunity, too. They set up one of the first internet soft-porn sites, sending out photos of her in quaint little brown-paper packets. Her current website (run by her sister) is still a tidy little earner. You can pay a monthly fee for access to more than 20,000 pictures of Dita and her journal "for members' eyes only". You can even buy her used stockings for $US40. She has always been canny with money. Even when she first started stripping, she saved at least 15 per cent of what she earned, and invested it in mutual funds.
"I still have those funds to this day."
When, in 2002, Von Teese appeared on the cover of Playboy in an eye-wateringly tight corset, under the headline "The Return of Fetish", her moment came to move out of the underworld. She carefully leveraged her fetish cred into the mainstream, making all that PVC and tight-lacing seem respectable simply because she seemed so respectable. Just outré enough to seem fascinating, but never so outré as to seem tasteless, she was, as she obviously knew, extremely marketable. She now flies around the world as global brand ambassador for Cointreau, and has struck lucrative deals with Wonderbra and Perrier. She's a regular in the front row of fashion shows, and often features on best-dressed lists. At 38, she is dating 27-year-old French count Louis-Marie de Castelbajac, an artist and son of fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, and divides her time between Paris and LA.
There's something impressive about how she's managed all this, given her only real talent is an unshakeable sense of her own style. She's said before, "The truth is I'm a very ordinary blonde girl from Michigan." Does she really feel like that?
"Sure. Sometimes I can't believe the things I get to do. I think, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm allowed into this party and to wear these diamonds!'"
Von Teese is often like this, winningly candid and - not an adjective I ever thought I'd use about her - natural. Then again, she seems just as natural when, in a careful nod to her sponsor, she tells me how people think of Cointreau as being very "mysterious".
Von Teese has no time for those who have a go at her feminist credentials.
"What's anti-feminist about creating your own shows, your own costumes, choreographing your own routines, and getting paid a fortune for 10 minutes?" she says. "I've always been completely in charge of what I do."
Still, you can't help wondering about the personal cost of being a fantasy all the time. Her mum and two sisters, and friends who have known her longer than 20 years, still call her Heather. "My boyfriend will call me Heather when we aren't with people that know me as Dita," she says. She doesn't feel as if she's a split personality. After all this time, she is Dita now, too.
So it was only natural that, the day before we meet, she went to Taronga Zoo in full make-up and outfit. Doesn't she ever get sick of being stared at?
"Sometimes," she says. "Like anyone, sometimes I want to disappear. But this is just me, now. I wouldn't feel right dressed in jeans and a T-shirt."
As if to prove the point, she tried it once recently. For Halloween, a friend of hers, who does make-up for Victoria Beckham, agreed to give her the full Posh.
"So much bronzer!" Von Teese exclaims in horror. "People say I wear a lot of make-up, but that stuff - you've no idea! It was awful." After a few hours, she'd had enough.
"I wanted to go back to being me."
Does she ever get sick of being Dita?
"Never. Who else would I want to be?"
From: Sunday Life