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Interview with Burlesque Star Dita Von Teese

Aired December 21, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



SUMNIMA UDAS, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): She's styled herself to symbolize a bygone era. A cheeky glance, a ruffle of feathers, and the coy innuendo of a suggestive dance move.

This is Dita Von Teese. A master of strip tease and the embodiment of 20th century American Burlesque. Her seductive stage persona, though, has earned her more than just the title of "Adult Entertainer". A regular in the high-fashion set, she strutted down the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier. She's also dabbled in mainstream acting.


UDAS (voiceover): Guest starring as a teacher who moonlights as a dancer in the U.S. crime series, "C.S.I."

TEESE: For what it's worth, I've loved you since Tuesday.

UDAS (voiceover): And she's taken on the business world with her coquettish styled perfume, Dita Von Teese web page, cosmetics, and lingerie generating a multi-million dollar fortune.

This week, "Talk Asia" meets Dita Von Teese on her first trip to India, as she reveals her journey from small town girl to Burlesque style icon. And tells us what she thinks about the country's more conservative approach to nudity.


UDAS: Dita Von Teese, welcome to "Talk Asia".

TEESE: Thank you.

UDAS: You've been credited with really reviving Burlesque and really bringing it into the mainstream consciousness. How have you managed to turn ordinary stripping into this glamorous affair?

TEESE: I was always intrigued by the idea of bringing things together that are considered taboo or risque and bringing them together with something of high elegance and sophistication.

UDAS: I know you get asked this all the time, but what exactly is "Burlesque"?

TEESE: You know, the word means one thing, but when we speak about Burlesque-style entertainments, we're speaking about a show that was popular in the 1930s and '40s in America. As a Burlesque performer, when we speak about Burlesque now - in neo-Burlesque - we're talking about strip tease.

It's really important to me to keep the strip tease part of Burlesque alive and well, because I know a lot about the history of Burlesque. I know who the stars were. And I feel like I have an obligation to the women that were the real stars of Burlesque like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr and all these other great strip tease stars.

And I'm not trying to rewrite the history of Burlesque, I'm trying to show people that, you know, strip tease was once legitimate and can be elegant and beautiful and that nudity and the degree of nudity does not equate elegance.

UDAS: Are you surprised at all when you come to places like, India, let's say, and you see that you still have so many fans, even in places like here.

TEESE: Yes, yes. I think about that a lot. That, you know, I probably won't really be able to perform my show publicly here or a lot of other places where I have fans. I've been to the Middle East and met women that wanted to take a picture with me. And I'm always surprised about that. Sometimes I think - I got worried that people don't actually know what I do. That they think I just dress up and sell perfume and lingerie.

But they don't realize that when I create these shows that are on par with, you know, a Vegas - so, big production. And I'm the, you know, producer, director, choreographer, stylist, hair stylist, makeup, wardrobe. You know, I'm doing a lot. This is like my heart and soul when I create these shows. So I just get a little bit nervous that people don't actually know what I do.

UDAS: Well, that's what I was going to ask. I mean, you apparently design your own shows, your own costumes, you still dye your own hair. How do you, sort of, do all of this and stay on top of everything?

TEESE: I feel really, like, proud when I do something on my own, you know, instead of just handing it off to a bunch of other people to do. And I think, you know, with the beauty stuff - you know, getting myself ready and not traveling with an entourage of people that get me ready for the camera. I feel empowered the fact that I can look the way that I do on stage and in photos - I can look that way any time I want. And I feel like it's important message to other women that they can do it too.



UDAS: The martini glass that you [INAUDIBLE] the show, and then you've got the lipstick, the birdcage - how do you come up with all these ideas?

TEESE: It's not really a problem coming up with the ideas. It's really coming up with the plan to make it happen and deciding to move forward with it. Because sometimes some of the shows can take - they take, like, at least six months and sometimes a couple years to make. And a big expense as well. So I have to be pretty sure that I want to make this show. I don't just, like, say, "Hey, what if I do this show?" It's really got to be mapped out and be very serious for me to want to move forward.

UDAS: I was going to say, some of your costumes cost thousands and thousands of dollars -

TEESE: Tens of thousands of dollars. Yes. The level of extravagance that I want to present is, you know - all those crystals have to go on by hand, one by one. And it takes, you know, it takes work, but the effect is - people love the effect of it.

UDAS: I've got to ask, how do you fit into a 16-inch corset?

TEESE: I'm not even sure that I do, anymore. No, no, I have a very, like - I started wearing corsets when I worked in the strip club. In fact, I was so obsessed with corset wearing, that no one ever saw me without it and I was actually experimenting with the corsetry. I would wear it every day in the strip club. To the point where there were a lot of rumors about my waist. Like, people thought I had scars on my waist or a big birthmark, or that, like, I'd take it off and I would be really, like, big. You know?

And I loved the mystique that wearing a corset or covering up one part of my body that people are seeing everywhere. A little bit like the old days when an ankle was a big deal. My waist became a big deal. Corsetry is a body modification. And it's not something - I don't sleep in corset and I don't even wear them every day. And when I was in my early 20s, I was more obsessed with wearing corsets than I am now.

So, you know, much to the dismay of my corset maker, I don't wear them every day and I probably could have a 16-inch waist, still, but I have different priorities now. I really like the shape of a corset, I like the look of it. But I'm not really interested in having the smallest waist in the world, or anything like that.


UDAS: What happened next? How do you wake up one day and suddenly decide, "I want to be a stripper?"

TEESE: I never - it never went like that.





UDAS: You've published books, you've got your own makeup line, you've got your own lingerie collection for target. You have your own perfume. How did Dita Von Teese, the brand, evolve into this multi-million dollar business?

TEESE: You know, I could see around me a lot of the things that I, maybe, popularized. Watching other people capitalize on it and thinking, "Wow, well, no one can be me better than me". So everything that I'm doing is really relative to my world and, you know, for instance, the lingerie is really how I got started creating pin-up photos and performing Burlesque shows.

Because I was really - I was working in a lingerie store - I was really obsessed with the history of lingerie. Everything from that - perfume, I used to sell perfume and makeup, I used to sell makeup. They're all things that are really relative that I feel comfortable and confident putting my stamp on and creating a very hands-on with all the creation of my products.

UDAS: You have a very charmed life, now. But it wasn't always so easy. What was your childhood like?

TEESE: I was really, really shy when I was a little girl. Very, like - had a very small voice and was terrified of being called on at school and just very - really quiet and very unsure of myself when I was a little girl.

And definitely I'm not going to use a word like "ugly duckling", but very ordinary looking. Like, my sisters were - my older sister was my cool older sister and really beautiful. And my younger sister was, like, the younger, you know. Very - also very beautiful. And I was caught in the middle. I took a lot of ballet classes. I wanted to be a ballerina.

UDAS: What happened next? How do you wake up one day and suddenly decide, "I want to be a stripper"?

TEESE: Well, I never - it never went like that. I was working in a lingerie store and I had - I had a friend take me to a club in the Los Angeles underground rave scene. And it kind of, like, blew my mind. There were all these drag queens and club kids - everyone dressed really extravagantly. And I kind of fell in love with it. And I started dating one of the famous DJs of that time. And, this was like 1990 - right when I got out of high school.

And I started doing these shows. I would dance. You know, I was a go-go dancer and also create, like, performance art pieces and make my own costumes. And, you know, I started doing shows in the L.A. rave scene. And then, my girlfriend and I, one time, decided - we wandered into this strip club that a friend told us about.

But it wasn't - it was just, like, a bikini club. Like, girls all in bikinis. And we were really like, "Wow, this is so crazy". And we were watching all these girls make all this money and we said, "Well, these girls - we're not wearing any less clothes than they are and they're getting paid, like 10 times more than we are".

So, I started working in this club as an experiment. So at the time, I was working in the lingerie store. I was just starting to sell cosmetics and perfume as well. And working in the L.A. rave scene and then working in the strip club all at once. And I think they just kind of all melded together. And working in the strip club and dressing in vintage, I kind of found myself there, with this opportunity, you know, to wear my lingerie, wear my vintage clothes.

And they thought I was crazy, because this is, like, rock-and-roll strip club. You know, like, the lasers going and neon bikinis and tans everywhere. This was in Los Angeles, or in Orange County, which is a suburb of Los Angeles area. And I just thought it would be fun. I remember looking around the room and thinking, "There's no one like me here. I'm going to do really well here, because I won't have any competition".

UDAS: How did your parents react when you told them, "This is what I want to do for my career"?

TEESE: Well, I never really had any intention of calling it a career. I was just - for me, I was just having fun. And I was making money, I was paying my rent. I was - had credit cards. You know, my parents couldn't really say anything, because I was just kind of taking care of myself. I wasn't even asking for lunch money. I was just, like, doing all these, like, odd jobs.

Working in the lingerie store was my first job. So, by the time I was working in the strip club when I was 18, you know, I was already living on my own. I was very business-minded from a young age. And I think my mother could see that.

UDAS: You said you've always wanted to be someone. Is this the path you had in mind for yourself?

TEESE: I don't think I really had anything in mind. And I didn't anticipate what - I didn't know I was going to do this. I just really - I felt like I was just having fun, making shows, posing for pin-up photos. I felt like I was kind of documenting my youth, you know. In my mind, I remember thinking, "I'm taking these pin-up photos because I'm 21-years-old and I'm never going to look like this again". You know, I thought I was going to get married to my boyfriend, have kids, and then, like open up this box that had my little pictures in it. You know, I didn't really - I didn't know it was going to turn into a full career.

UDAS: Was there a particular day when you thought, "OK, now I've made it"?

TEESE: I feel like I have those days, kind of, all the time. Where I feel one minute I'm just kind of doing my thing and I'm, you know, working and just doing things. And then, suddenly, like, somebody will say something and I'll, like - "Wow, I didn't really realize, like, people here knew me". Or that - you know, I have moments where I'm, like, snapped in and out of it.

UDAS: When you got married to your now-ex-husband, Marilyn Manson, back in 2005, a lot of people were surprised. Because you're quite different. What brought you two together?

TEESE: See, I think we're the same in a lot of ways. You know, we're both from - you know, he's from Ohio, I'm from Michigan. We both grew up a certain way. We both created a persona that is not very relative to how we grew up. And I think that's something that we really connected on.

And, you know, it was, like, a really wonderful time in my life where I felt like I was with someone who encouraged me to be even more eccentric. You know, instead of - I had dated a lot of men that were sort of - like, they'd see me, like, "Are you going to go out, dressed like that? Are you going to wear that hat out?" You know, so it was nice for me to be with someone who I felt like I had more in common with, in a lot of ways.

And it was a really great time. You know, we were, you know, like, had a great artist-muse relationship. He taught me a lot about a lot of things, about show biz. And, yes, I mean, it was a really hard divorce and not the way I expected it to, you know, end at all.

UDAS: What's he like? Is he as frightening as he appears to be?

TEESE: Hard for me to answer. I mean, yes, I've seen him in a lot of - like, I've seen him - you know, he's a lot of different things. Yes, I mean - yes, he's been frightening, to me, even, sometimes. But probably not in the way that the public perceives him, though.


TEESE: I've had people jump on me and say, like, "What you're doing is degrading to women". And I'm saying, "How is it degrading to women when I have women watching?"




TEESE: This is my first time in India, and I'm just really thrilled that I've had the opportunity to come here and experience --

Well, I've been trying on saris and I'm watching how they're folding them and how they drape them. And I find it very intriguing. I can't help but think that it would make an excellent strip tease show, because it comes off so elegantly. It's so beautiful. I never thought I'd have a chance to come to India, but I'm really seduced by it. I think it's just a beautiful, joyful, vibrant place from what I've seen so far.


UDAS: We're interviewing you here, in India. What are you here for?

TEESE: I am here because I'm the brand ambassador of Cointreau - I have been for over five years. And I go to different territories on behalf of Cointreau and sometimes I do my show. Here in India, sadly, I'm not doing my show. But I'm here speaking about the brand.

UDAS: And why aren't you performing here? Are there any restrictions as to what you can and cannot do in India?

TEESE: I'm not sure exactly why I'm not performing. But I suspect it might be a little bit to do with what I do is maybe a little bit risque here.

UDAS: So, the fact that you're here says something. And India is going through an interesting phase right now as it tries to embrace nudity. Is India ready for Dita Von Teese, do you think?

TEESE: I think sometimes my show looks more risque on paper, or, like, when someone describes it, than when they actually see it. I think, from what I see in this vibrant, beautiful, sparkling place of glamour, I see beautiful women dressed gorgeously. And I can definitely see there's a big interest in fantasy and glamour here.

UDAS: India is, of course, the home of the Kama Sutra, as you know. But even today, standard kissing is as far as the censors will allow in Bollywood films. Are you surprised at how conservative India still is when it comes to these things?

TEESE: I am surprised, but I think it's kind of charming in a way, too. You know, I mean, I like that there are films of all kinds that I can see. Like, I don't want to go see violent movies, because I don't want to see people get shot up. Do I want to see erotic and sensual movies? Yes. I think there should be choices, you know. It would be great if you could see a Bollywood movie that was a little - just slightly more risque.

UDAS: Speaking of Bollywood, would you ever Bollywoodize your shows?

TEESE: I think I have a lot of the elements. Like the costumes and the colors and the sparkles and everything. But I don't know if I can dance like that. I certainly - I don't think I could sing like that, either. I don't know.

I really feel, like I said before, though, with what I do - I feel really strongly about - you know, I feel proud of Burlesque and the history and what I do and I don't really - I don't really like to change my show. I don't like to censor my show, because I really like being able to present it to people and change their minds about strip tease. Instead of, you know - I want to do things the way that I imagine them to be.

And if it's too risque for some people, then I just leave it at that. Like, well, you don't have to see if it if you don't want to. But I don't want to - I don't want to candy-coat my show or change it. I feel like then it's not Burlesque. And then I'm not being faithful to the women that made it possible for me to do what I do. Like the women that did perform strip tease.

UDAS: An Indian model recently posed nude for Playboy Magazine, which, by the way, is banned here. And that created a bit of controversy here. How do you manage to take off your clothes and still do it in such a classy way?

TEESE: I really believe that the nudity isn't what makes something vulgar, it's really the way it's presented. You know, like, l can go to - I feel really strongly that, you know, I could probably be completely nude and be more elegant than certain girls in mini-skirts. You know, I don't think that the nudity is what makes it vulgar.

UDAS: You say you're a very proud feminist. How do you, then, deal with the criticism that what you're doing is, perhaps, offensive to some women?

TEESE: What I mostly think is that everything can be offensive to someone. And what's most important is that we are true to what we believe in. And I have an audience and, even if I did something else, there would be someone that might be offended by it. And it's like an it's an endless thing to try to seek approval from other people. You'll end up being lost in the world and a failure at whatever you're trying to do if it's based on what people think you should be doing.

Most of the people that criticize what I do don't really realize who my fans are and who the audience for my show is. Because, you know, I've had people jump on me and say, like, "What you're doing is degrading to women". And I'm saying, "How is it degrading to women when it's women watching?"

So, it's a really complicated argument and one that I'm hardly even interested in, because, you know, I just do what I do. And, what one person thinks is empowering and one person can look at any image and say, "That's empowering" or "That's degrading". And that's kind of amazing that it's all about a reflection of who we are - you know, who the viewer is. It's more about you than about what you're seeing.

UDAS: Why do you think your fan base consists of more women than men?

TEESE: I think I'm kind of an alternative sex symbol for people. You know, I feel that one of the reasons I have female fans is maybe the reason that I started doing what I do, which is - I would look at, you know, pictures that were sexy in the mainstream media - I didn't feel like I could relate to a lot of the modern images of beauty. Like, I can't get a tan. I don't have supermodel features.

I think a lot of my fans feel the same way, like, my look - the lipstick and the curled hair and the lingerie and the red nails - it's all something - it doesn't depend on age - you don't have to be young to have this look. You don't have to be thin. You can be any ethnicity. It's about the creation of glamour and about taking it into your own hands.

UDAS: What's next for you?

TEESE: I am going to do a little more traveling around. And I'm going to promote my lingerie and my perfume and my makeup collection. So I'm just - we're putting finishing touches on a book that I have coming out next year. And, you know, I'm just going to continue my international dating rampage. And just, you know, enjoy my life.

UDAS: Thanks. Good luck to you.

TEESE: Thank you.

UDAS: Thank you so much for joining us today.