Dame Zandra Lindsey Rhodes is a British style sensation, an…
Dita Von Teese is the most celebrated burlesque performer since Gypsy Rose Lee. She is an enduring pin-up, costume designer, actress and entrepreneur. Dita is a unique fashion icon and has performed at shows for designers such as Marc Jacobs, Christian Louboutin, Louis Vuitton, Chopard and Cartier.
What was it about 1940’s fashion and culture that fascinated you as a young girl?
Initially, I think it was because I saw these 1940’s technicolour films and they were like beautiful cartoons. In a way…I was awestruck by the colours of the make-up and hair of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.
I’m still stunned at the beauty of the women in these films, there’s nothing modern that compares to the look of those films. Nothing comes close. And I took notice of the painted, created and artificial glamour of the stars of the era. I felt that it was beautiful and amazing, and that if Hollywood could create these very strong iconic women by using the tools of glamour, that there should be no reason that I couldn’t create this type of image for myself.
If Betty Grable is your icon of yesteryear, who is a contemporary star for you?
Not to be negative, but for me, no modern stars can even come close to these stars of the past that inspire me. I have a very strong admiration for women like Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable. Those women had powerful, unchanging personas that they understood so well.
These days, style is fickle. Often it’s not true and it’s inconsistent, with too much emphasis placed on being current and ‘of-the-moment’. Although there are many modern stars whose talent and beauty I admire, I can’t say that I can think of many celebrities that really have that unfaltering sense of themselves when it comes to their style.
The only woman that comes close for me is Madonna, because with each changing style she has had over the years, it looks complete and you can see that it comes from her own strong desire and idea, and I notice that every detail is perfection. Especially in the her early years when she was emulating old Hollywood. Now, when a pop star wants to be retro, I can see the mistakes and that it still can’t even touch what Madonna did in the early ’90s.
You trained as a ballet dancer, do you still to the ballet and what’s its appeal for you?
Of course, I go whenever I can, especially to see certain ballets that are especially theatrical and classic. I also adore old films with stars like Cyd Charisse. I find major glamour in ballet and many of my burlesque numbers have been ballet-based.
I do several numbers on pointe and even have a show that’s a parody of Swan Lake, with all of the most famous bits of music re-recorded by musicians, playing it in raunchy, burlesque style. It worksout incredibly. The music is amazing!
Your love of period costume indicates a love of escape through fashion- is historic costuming a physical or mental escape for you?
For me, it’s like being a little girl playing dress-up. I just enjoy it! It’s not an escape, it’s always been a hobby, a real passion.
What goes through your mind when performing and has that changed as you’ve got older?
Of course it’s changed dramatically over the years. I started by moonlighting in a strip club for fun. I was wearing my corsets and always performing in a very nostalgic way, but I was just dancing around ….and it wasn’t even a topless club at the time!
Back then I was free to just have fun, and there was no press, no media, and no one photographing it. So, years later, I became better known and had a more involved act and had a certain obligation to live up to my fame. Now, it’s at the hilt, and I really have to take care to make sure every detail is right and I have to be much more focused.
There are much bigger challenges as the acts become more opulent and extravagant, so I have all kinds of things to think of. Of course, I now have other people helping me achieve the effect I want for the shows. Every so often, I get to do a show with no media, no photos and it’s fun to let loose and just enjoy and know that the audience is my only focus. It’s almost like being in that strip club again, in a way…. just fun and carefree, but with better lighting and good champagne!
If bondage and fetish define your image (as it did in your earlier career) does it cease to be an escape and become a just a job?
Well, what I do comes from my heart. It always has and still does. Creating shows and performing them are what I enjoy most. The fetish part of my career came from indulging in my own fetishes for high heels, seamed stockings, corsets. All that was true and real for me.
The funny photos of me being in bondage and playing the mistress, etc… that was all me, playing the part of the fetish star. I enjoyed it, it was like play-acting. But burlesque, pinup and elegant fetish dressing was what really felt like me, and the rest was the job.
And yes, of course, after 17 years of doing this, there are days that feel like real work and maybe I don’t want to do it. But for the most part, when I am allowed to be myself and do what I do best, I’m happy and grateful for the recognition I have.
Is the fantasy world offered via costume and fetish looks different for women than it is for men?
Well, the so-called experts say that men have stronger true fetishes in the sense that sex is actually replaced by the object of the fetish. For instance, someone with a foot fetish might desire the act of touching a person’s foot more than a sexual act.
I have read many times that it’s a predominantly male thing to have these kinds of fetishes, but I am sure it’s not the rule. I love to wear my stockings- I love the feel of a certain type of stocking and it matters precisely that it is fully-fashioned and all nylon. Lycra stockings are out of the question for me! My fetishes enhance my sensuality and my sex life, but these things are not a replacement for intimacy and sex.
You’re the face/spokesperson for the MAC AIDS Fund- what inspired you to get involved?
Well, I’ve supported and followed the Viva Glam campaign since it was first launched over 13 years ago with RuPaul. I always purchased Viva Glams for myself and friends to do my part in a glamorous way. When I was asked to be a spokeswoman for Viva Glam- getting the message out to young people about the importance of safe sex, well, that was like a dream come true to be involved on that level!
It’s amazing to be involved with such a great campaign that has made a major impact on the fight against HIV. To have raised over 100 million dollars with the sale of a lipstick? That’s nothing short of incredible! It’s brought me a lot of joy to speak about this campaign and about safe sex, and to see the where the money raised goes to help people around the world.
Do you feel we’ve become complacent with regards to HIV/AIDS?
I think that a lot of young people think HIV can’t happen to them. They seem to think they’re invincible. Safe sex is more important than ever for young heterosexuals. I’m trying to get the message out to young women in particular, about the important of carrying condoms and insisting on safe sex every single time.
As a single girl, I really understand the importance of this. I quite enjoy being a sexual force to be reckoned with. I’m always armed with my favourite accoutrements of seduction, like high heels and glamorous lingerie, but most importantly, I have the confidence to insist on safe sex! Young people need to realize that protecting yourself and being prepared, if you choose to have sex, can give you great power!
You’ve taken great care to maintain copyright of your image, how difficult is that in an internet-highway-robbery age?
It’s really hard. We just have to make clean sweeps every now and then of these photo sharing websites. They’re pretty good at enforcing copyright when you point out the thievery! I just protect the exclusive images that are on dita.net for my website members.
If you could escape to another era in time, when would that be and why?
I’m not sure. I would like to be in a room at the Hotel Crillon that overlooks the beauty of Paris. I’d like to see the streets of Paris in a different era each time I open and close the curtains! I would like to see the streets of Paris in all it’s splendour in the 17th century, the 18th century, turn of the century, the 20’s, the 30’s and the 40s!
It’s said you were influenced by your father’s Playboy magazines, do you feel porn is a healthy pursuit for men?
Is Playboy porn? I don’t know. It depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? I think all adults, male or female should have the right to decide what they want to look at, whether it’s a nude painting, a Playboy, or xxx rated videos or photos.
I think it can be a healthy for men OR women, but it’s an individual choice. I don’t think everyone needs porn in their lives by any means. Most importantly, we all have different definitions of “porn”.
How do you escape from stress?
I enjoy being with my closest friends, having alone time at home with my pets. And of course my favourite new way to de-stress is to indulge in some steamy romance!
Would wearing a comfy tracksuit at home offer an escape, or feel unnatural?
Why would I wear a tracksuit at home? I don’t have a track! I love to lounge around in pyjamas or a vintage slip, a silky robe, or in the nude! I have no reason to escape my image, my image is me. I did not create an image for the public, I am who I am and I just decided to let it be photographed! When I want to completely relax, I throw on something comfortable like a negligee or robe and I lounge around.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I might have a little lingerie store or something nice like that. I started my career with a love of lingerie, so I can imagine that I would have done something like that. I just started designing a signature lingerie collection for Wonderbra, and I love it, so perhaps I’ll take that further.
First published Issue 16 of The Hospital Club Magazine June 2008