Burlesque queen Dita Von Teese talks aging, ageism, and embracing change: 'What's wrong with not caring about looking younger?'
Not since Gypsy Rose Lee has there been as big a name in burlesque since Dita Von Teese, who starting in 1992 almost singlehandedly revived the old-fashioned art form of striptease with her elaborate stage shows. And now, after 18 months of lockdown with no live performances, she is reviving the art form again with her first-ever cinematic special, Night of the Teese. Streaming this weekend only starting Oct. 1, the full-length film was directed by Lizzo’s creative director Quinn Wilson, shot at Los Angeles’s opulent Orpheum Theatre, and stars a diverse cast of performers from the neo-burlesque community representing varying shapes, sizes, and genders.
The world of burlesque has changed immensely since Dita hit the scene, but the self-described “unlikely sex symbol” and performance artist admits to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that her body type and retro-glamour aesthetic were not accepted when she first hit the scene (she was even passed by Playboy multiple times). She also confesses that ageist naysayers in the industry even warned her that she wouldn’t have a career past age 30. Now, as she closes in on almost 30 years in show business — and celebrates her 49th birthday the same week — she discusses aging, ageism, body image, changing beauty standards, her future in burlesque... and the future of burlesque in general, as she remains at the forefront of the evolving industry.
Yahoo Entertainment: Night of the Teese is a celebratory return to live burlesque, after not being able perform for months due to coronavirus concerns. But I can’t imagine that during lockdown you were wearing sweatpants. You always look impeccable, so I envision you sitting at home in a marabou-trimmed robe and lingerie.
Dita Von Teese: I actually did kind of let it go for a little while. It was very exciting to let my natural hair color grow out about three inches and see what I was going to be working with in my next phase of life. I'm naturally blond, but I saw lots of white in there, so I was like, “OK, silver fox. Great!” And then I kind of just took a break from wearing makeup. … I guess I spent a lot of my time living in a plain black onesie jumpsuit and ballet flats. I just felt like I needed to take a little rest.
Well, I have always appreciated how you play with the transformative power of beauty and sort of create a whole different version of yourself through the magic of makeup and wardrobe. How did you first get into that?
Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I felt like I didn't have a lot of role models. You know, it was the era of the bikini supermodel — scrubbed-clean, natural — and I didn't feel like I had anywhere to look to. So, when I was like 18, 19 years old, that's when I looked to the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s for my beauty icons. I thought, “What if I can create this the same way? You know, Rita Hayworth did not look like ‘Rita Hayworth’ when she came to Hollywood. I can do that too. I can change my hair color. I can wear the right makeup that suits me.” And I really found my confidence through glamour. … That was really appealing to me, to kind of become an unlikely sex symbol in that time.
You really considered yourself an unlikely sex symbol? Obviously you were, and are, a beautiful woman.
From my perspective, when I was 20 years old, I would get turned down to be in Playboy over and over. And I walked into a strip club and there was nobody that looked like me. … I was doing something very new for back then. It was very different for the time. But thank goodness things have evolved and now it's not unusual. Now people are embracing diversity and looking at different types of sensuality and examples of varying types of beauty.
You mentioned the whole “scrubbed-clean” aesthetic. How do you feel about makeup-shaming? Like, there are men who think if a woman wears a full face of dramatic makeup, she is somehow being deceitful.
I kind of see makeup as another type of striptease. Like, I'm not embarrassed to be seen without makeup. But one thing people say to me so often, and always have, is: “Oh, you look so much younger without all that makeup! Why do you wear so much makeup?” And I'm like, “What's wrong with not caring about looking younger?”
You turned 49 this week — happy birthday, by the way — and you’re still doing burlesque, more than 20 years after the first time you finally made it into Playboy. Have you experienced much ageism in your career, especially recently?
It's interesting. I think ever since I was 22, people have been trying to scare me about age. I remember being in my early twenties, working in this world of striptease and pin-up, and people always trying to scare me — like, “What are you going to do when you get older? You're going to have to [retire].” And so I always had it in my head that I was going to be retired at 30. People have been putting that in my head for my entire life. I did an interview a few weeks ago and the question was, “Oh, you're going to be 50 [soon]! What do you think about that?” It's like they put this fear into you. Of course, it's obvious why people want to ask me about getting older because of what I do, but there has always been an evolution in my career about what I do onstage, and what I take off and how I present myself. I do things within my own comfort zone.
Has anyone advised you to tone it down, cover up more, or otherwise act more “age-appropriate”?
I guess like kind of feel more often, unfortunately, that I'm always like, “Is it OK that I'm doing this?” I still get worried about it. And then usually it's people around me that snap me back into a better mindset. They're like, “Are you crazy? You can do this for as long as you want — in your own way.” So, you have to be careful not to let that stuff sink in, when people are trying to convince you that you should stop. I love producing my burlesque show. I love putting together a show and shining a spotlight on other burlesque performers. This is what I love doing. So, as long as I'm able to have a vast audience, it's really my mission statement beyond just me performing. It means a lot to me to be able to present the biggest touring burlesque show in history, which features all different types of types of performers, so this is kind of like where I feel like I have a purpose in life that goes beyond me.
Like, OK, my ass doesn't look like maybe when I was 24. But there's other things about me that are getting better. When I watch videos of myself performing 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, I'm like, “Oh yeah, I could be so much better.” But I'm better now! I'm evolving. Something I love is I'm always thinking of what can I do next. Like, in my last show I brought magic and striptease together, and now I'm doing all this ballroom dancing [as a contestant on the French version of Dancing With the Stars] and learning all these things and getting a new kind of competence. So, instead of looking at the decline of your beauty, what if you look at it like you can kind of like become better in a lot of ways, too?
I love that the body-positivity is so aligned with the modern burlesque scene.
Well, I feel like there's an obligation for me to stand up for that, and to let myself go through the various stages of beauty and be unapologetic about it. I think that's important. But it's important for me to see other women that are older than me that I admire and think, “OK, they're giving me the confidence that I can be like that too.” I think it's important that I do that as well. I feel like I have had so many moments where we don't get to see different kinds of bodies — older bodies, larger bodies. You know, those are bodies that we don't get shown very often, and people are made to believe that they're not beautiful. I did a video shoot with this great French actress who's at least 15 years older than me, and I saw her in her lingerie, and I was like, “Wow. She looks amazing!” But we don't get to see those bodies very often, and people talk about them in like a very derogatory way, like, “Oh, you're going to be so old and wrinkly!” But that's not reality. It doesn't have to be reality. I think we just have to stop that.
Many people, myself included, would be very surprised to know that that you ever feel insecure about your own appearance.
I do like everybody else. I look in the mirror and I go, “Oh, I don't like this; I don't like that.” But, can't we just appreciate our bodies for what they do for us? That's what I'm trying to always change with my inner monologue: instead of ripping apart the things I don't like, being more grateful for how my body serves me in the world, because there's people that don't have the same kind of abilities. It's just about appreciating your body and what you have, instead of ripping it up all the time about superficial things. Be grateful to your body and talk to it in a kind way. In a meeting, I would never think the things that I sometimes think about my own body or appearance about someone else, and never say that about someone else. So, I don't know why we have a tendency to do it to ourselves.
I feel like women in show business, however they age, they will be picked on. I look at someone like Madonna, who gets such a hard time. If she had “let herself go” — like, if she was dressing more conservatively, had gray hair, and didn't get plastic surgery — everyone would be like, “Oh no! What happened to Madonna? She used to be so hot!” But when she dresses provocatively and is overtly sexual, then she gets flak for not “aging gracefully.” She just can’t win.
Let me say just about Madonna, first of all, that I was sitting next to her on an airplane in April — and I'm telling you, she looked amazing. I couldn't stop looking at her. So stop judging what you saw in a picture, an unflattering or over-filtered picture, and let people live their lives. … Stumbling into bad lighting, it can happen to anyone. With burlesque, you learn how to do your angles on your body to make it the most flattering. Like, I have very specific [angles]. My body doesn't look like it does when I'm in that showbiz, pinup stance — which hurts! [laughs] My rib cage goes that way, my hips go that way, and it looks curvy, but it's not comfortable and it's not natural. And that's not what I look like when I'm standing flat-footed under fluorescent lights. You know, it's all showbiz. … I just don't know why there's the judgment on it, or comparison. I get crazy when I see someone comparing. Like, why are you comparing Madonna to this other person at the same age? You're not walking in our shoes. You don't know what it's like. I'm just kind of tired of that whole thing.
Obviously you’re just going to keep doing what you want to do, with no retirement in your near future. So, where do you predict your career will be 10, 20, or even 30 years from now?
It's hard to say, because like I said, when I was 20 or 30 years old, I had all these predictions of what I was going to be doing, and I’ve always been wrong. Like I was saying, I did a show with little bit of striptease, but I also did some magic tricks with fabulous costumes, and not one person said, “Hey, you didn't take your clothes off, so I was really bored.” So, I think in the terms of if I don't want to take anything off, I certainly don't have to. But I also love the challenge of trying to figure out what I want to show or how I want to do it. If I'm not comfortable showing certain parts of my body at some point, but there's still a way to capture that the burlesque spirit, I will love the challenge of it. And if I don't want to perform at all, I certainly would love to be producing beautiful burlesque shows that are curated and overseen by me.
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The above interview has been edited for length and clarity is taken from Dita Von Teese’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.