Dita Von Teese Talks Burlesque & Feminism

by Christine DiStasio
Albert Sanchez

If you asked me to tell you what I know about burlesque, I'd be lying if I said that the first name that came to mind wasn't Dita Von Teese. The internationally known performer — whose new tour The Art of the Teese begins on Feb. 1 — is easily the biggest name in burlesque right now. Bustle caught up with the star to talk the beginnings of her career, her new tour, and the most empowering thing about her performances. And, trust me, you're about to learn a thing or two.

"It was a hobby for about a decade, and then slowly but surely, as demand for me to perform grew, it became my career," Von Teese says about how she got into burlesque. The star, born Heather Sweet in Michigan, reveals that she always had multiple backup careers because it took a long time before she could "take herself seriously." Teese has also expanded her burlesque stardom into a lingerie line, an eyewear collection, and is the New York Times bestselling author of Your Beauty Mark. Here's what the burlesque star had to say about her career and feminism:

Bustle: Did performing burlesque help you to strengthen your confidence?

Melissa Mills/Bustle

Dita Von Teese: I parlayed my very mediocre dance talent into an obscure and lost art form and turned it into something relevant again. I took my average beauty and learned the art of creating glamour and tricked everyone into thinking I was an exotic beauty.

I am not — I am an ordinary dishwater blonde from a farming town in Michigan. I couldn't be a ballerina because I wasn’t good enough, but I wanted the glamour and beauty of it and so I found another way of having it. I made it for myself.

B: Were you always comfortable with your body and sexuality? Did you ever struggle with self-confidence?

DVT: Growing up taking ballet classes my whole life made me learn about my body, and made me accept it and be in touch with it. Now, dance makes me appreciate my body for what it does, and even though I might not like everything about how it looks, I try to focus on the wonderful ways it serves me. I feel grateful to walk, dance — and I feel grateful to be healthy. I try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

B: Do you think burlesque is feminist-friendly?

DVT: I’ve faced accusations of being anti-feminist, of doing something that is degrading to women, but that’s a tough argument these days when the audience is 80 percent women, and heavily LGBTQ. The audience speaks for itself.

But listen, feminism is complex, evolving, and even flawed. The basic ideals of feminism are here in burlesque’s modern form. This isn’t our grandparents’ burlesque. I think feminism is about gender equality and support for the choices of other women, even if we might not make those choices for ourselves. I think we need to respect each other’s feminist ideals, and a room full of women enjoying watching striptease is clearly a new type of feminism. It wasn’t how it was when I first started doing this, but I sure am grateful that it’s evolved this way because I’m not the same girl I was when I was 19 first starting out either.

B: What makes The Art of the Teese different from other shows you've done?

DVT: I'm the producer of this show, so it’s high stakes! My previous show Strip, Strip, Hooray! is the biggest burlesque production in the world, and so this is the new incarnation of that show, with new things to see.

I'm also really excited about bringing an act called “Lazy” on tour. I created it just for the Crazy Horse Paris, and I am staging it in a new way with my male “Vontourage,” with all-new costumes by British designer Jenny Packham, and custom-made shoes by Christian Louboutin.

B: What's your favorite way to get glam fast?

DVT: It's good to have a go-to hairstyle that you can do quickly and easily, like a chic chignon or a French twist. And matte, red lipstick. I like MAC Ruby Woo a lot for everyday, long-wearing color.

B: What's the most important thing you've learned about relationships?

DVT: Each breakup is the start of a new and exciting beginning, eventually. It takes time to feel okay after a big breakup, but I like to take that time to focus on work or learning new things, or taking up a new hobby.

Check out the "Sex & Relationships" stream in the Bustle app to see Dita Von Teese's takeover in its entirety and get up-to-the-minute updates on absolutely everything you care about.