Burlesque Icon Dita Von Teese Touts Her Own Brand of Feminism
By, Allison Kugel
Born out of a time capsule from Hollywood’s golden era, glamour girl and burlesque goddess, Dita Von Teese has been captivating imaginations around the world since she burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, first on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and then draped on the arm of controversial rocker, Marilyn Manson. Since then, Dita has carved out an iconic reputation for herself as the most famous and sought after burlesque performer in the world. Vanity Fair has dubbed her a “Burlesque Superheroine,” and Elle has declared her an “all around icon.”
Having been fascinated with her image for some time, I sat down with Dita Von Teese to discuss everything from her captivating appearance and stage performances to her thoughts about femininity, motherhood, feminism and her current tour, Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe.
Allison Kugel: How do you define femininity?
Dita Von Teese: I grew up admiring movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s. To me, that was always the epitome of feminine, and it made a mark on me from a very young age. I guess I have always associated that exaggerated femininity with the definition of feminine; the way a woman enhances herself with the tools in the beauty box, so to speak. I’ve always thought of glamour as feminine. That’s what I love for the outwardly feminine. On the other hand, I have a different closed door feminine as well, where I can remove those layers and get to the essence of what we are trying to exaggerate with the hair and makeup and the high heels and all the things we do to be hyper feminine in public.
Allison Kugel: I know you’re the Swarovski queen. I’m assuming everything is crystallized…
Dita Von Teese: Everything is crystallized on this costume. We haven’t weighed it yet, but I keep asking to. It’s completely covered, and we’re using a new version of their aurora borealis stone. They’re cut like diamonds, and the effect is mind-boggling. People have been asking if my costume is electrified or plugged in. It’s really something to see under the lights.
Allison Kugel: You’ve been quoted as saying that burlesque is a new kind of feminism. How so?
Dita Von Teese: It’s become that for a lot of women. The feminist movement must be respectful of other women’s ideals of what it is, and what it means. More than ever, we as women have to respect each other’s choices. Like I always say, and this is the truth, my audience is mainly female. My social media following is about 85% female. When I started in the 1990s I had a lot of male fans, and when I was a Playboy model I had a lot of male fans. It shifted in the early 2000s when I came out with a book and told my story about why I loved pinup, why I loved burlesque, and what it meant to me to have that to look to for my beauty icons. That resonated with a lot of people and I could feel that was when it all started to shift, when I exhibited my vulnerability about why I love this. I like to say that it’s an alternative feminist movement.
Allison Kugel: What do you say to the women who cry out that burlesque is objectification?
Dita Von Teese: Something that could have, in the past, been considered degrading to women, I think that idea has been turned upside down when my audience is mainly female. They’re getting inspiration from this and feeling like they can harness their own sensual power in a different way and be in control of it. I would never say that striptease and burlesque should be for everyone. I have always loved things that walk that fine line, where one person looking at it thinks it’s inspiring and magical, and another person thinks it’s dirty and bad. It’s interesting to me the way people see things. I find things that are polarizing to be interesting.
Allison Kugel: Do you think femininity and feminism can peacefully co-exist in the #MeToo era? And have you found yourself in the crosshairs of a certain segment within this current feminist movement that doesn’t agree with your idea of feminism?
Dita Von Teese: Yes. But for me, I have always understood feminism to be about having choices. I don’t see how you can put rules on that, especially now. Whatever you do, there’s always going to be someone who criticizes it. I think more than ever it’s about sticking close to people who share your beliefs. You try to understand other people’s point of view, but you don’t have to take it for your own or feel like someone is pointing a finger at you. We have to stop pointing fingers at other people.
Allison Kugel: You perform your show all over the world. What are the differences in how burlesque is received in the U.S. versus in other countries?
Dita Von Teese: What’s interesting is that the striptease-style burlesque was invented in America, and it was thriving here in the 1930s and 1940s. That’s the funniest part about all of this. I had to go to France, England, Germany and Australia to get that big mainstream acceptance at first. I performed a lot in the UK during the early part of my career and I would do mainstream television shows over there. I could talk about what I was doing there, and I could go to France and do my show on television. They could show the pasties and the G-string, and it was fine with everyone.
Allison Kugel: In the U.S. there’s this strange sensibility where it’s okay to promote a film with a lot of violence, but it’s not okay to put overt sensuality into the mainstream.
Dita Von Teese: It’s not just sensuality, but decisive sensuality. That’s one of the things people have a problem with. If I had made a sex tape and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry I did that,” it would be more acceptable. As compared to me deciding to present striptease and eroticism and do it in this way because it’s decisive. It’s not “accidental.” I often think of that. Am I inspiring other women to embrace their sensuality in a way that they’re not apologizing for, and is that what upsets people?
Allison Kugel: For people who have yet to go see a burlesque show, what will the experience be like for them to attend one of your shows, on the Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe tour?
Dita Von Teese: They will be very excited to see the diversity of my fellow cast members. You’re on a wild ride of beauty and glamour in its many shapes and forms, and it’s unexpected and inclusive. I think most people walk away thinking, “I’m a little bit like her. I can be like that, yeah!” My show is a warm and welcoming place, and it’s raucous; it’s wild! I’m really proud of the show as a whole, and people will experience the biggest burlesque show in history.
Dita Von Teese is currently touring throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. Purchase tickets to see Absolut Elyx Presents Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe at http://www.dita.net/shows/.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.