Dita Von Teese, arguably the burlesque artist of her generation, certainly knows the power of the Reveal.
That is how she has become a style setter with a head full of ideas, starting with a beauty book she is working on with L.A.-based author Rose Apodaca. Von Teese has aspirations of one day doing her own makeup line, says she is in talks on a fragrance deal and is in discussions about doing a lingerie brand.
She last was involved with the beauty industry in 2006 and 2007, as a spokesperson for the MAC AIDS Fund. “When I was working with Viva Glam, it was such a joy for me to talk about lipstick and the power of that lipstick in raising funds,” she said. “I was a very blonde girl from a farming town in Michigan, and the tools of beauty are a big part of what I do, creating glamour.”
She said the book project, with former WWD West Coast bureau chief Apodaca, is aimed at peddling self-esteem. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘we’re supposed to look like natural beauty, healthy, tan.…’ I’m trying to lay it out and show people the other forms of beauty. People that don’t have a little tiny button nose and blonde hair. Someone’s going to love you for what makes you different, so stop trying so hard to fit into the American standard of blonde-ism.
“It’s taking a while, too, because I’m taking all the pictures, and doing step-by-step makeup looks,” she said of the slow progress in finishing the book. “I want it to be how-to, with the good message. I don’t use a hair and makeup team to get ready for the red carpet. I’m trying to get out the do-it-yourself message. I don’t go to the salon when I need to color my hair, I pull out my box of hair dye. I want women to understand that you don’t have to have the glam squad to put you together. You just have to have desire, practice and a little guidance.”
In addition, Von Teese added, “I want to do my own makeup line, because I feel like things are missing in the world,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to mix up colors. Also, I mix my own body makeup. I love the idea of beautiful packaging for cosmetics. I use a lot of vintage powder compacts, and I buy vintage lipstick tubes and transfer lip colors into them. I put my MAC lipstick into my vintage Helena Rubinstein tubes.” She’s particularly fond of a compact designed by Salvador Dalí. “It’s called ‘A Bird in the Hand’ and the wings open — there’s your powder. There’s a pillbox under the beak. The head pulls off, and it’s a lipstick. I love that sort of thing. I love the thrill of the hunt.”
A cornerstone of her cosmetics line would be matte lipstick. “I love the look of matte, velvety lips. Every girl should have a matte red and a matte fuchsia. And that’s so hard to find these days.” During a recent interview in Manhattan, Von Teese wore a deep red Tom Ford lipstick (with a vintage Ceil Chapman dress and Christian Louboutin shoes). “He did a nice job — the luxury case, the saturated color,” she said. “I was skeptical, like ‘What does Tom Ford know about lipstick?’— and then I tried it. The colors are great, as is the staying power.”
A Dita Von Teese scent is also on her to-do list, especially after she found that she and her new boyfriend’s mother both wore the same scent, Quelque Fleurs. “I’d been wearing it since I was 14. So when I found that out, I immediately called my friend Kilian Hennessey, who is a perfumer, and said ‘What do I do? It’s my signature scent.’ He said to me, ‘Either get rid of the man, or get rid of the fragrance. You have no other options.’ So I’ve been wearing other things, but what I really want to do is make my own fragrance. I don’t want to smell like anyone else.” (She confesses to still wearing it when not around her boyfriend, who she declined to identify.) As for discussions with fragrance firms, she added, “I have to talk to the smaller companies, because the bigger ones, like Coty, are like ‘Well, not everyone knows your name, like the Kardashians or Victoria Beckham.’ ”
Von Teese, an ambassador for the Cointreau liquor brand, gave the recent interview as part of a promotional push for a luxurious new boudoir creation product, called My Private Cointreau Coffret. It is a pink box that holds a Cointreau bottle, two long-stemmed cocktail glasses and a vivid pink-toned shaker. A concealed side door and a small key complete the reusable coffret, which will retail for $299. “I love the idea that it’s a private bar that converts to a woman’s little secret box with room for things like love letters,” said Von Teese. Previously, she has worked with the brand on special projects, including a burlesque show she created for the brand called “Be Cointreau-versial,” which is a variation on her noted martini-glass act. The new coffret went on sale this week.
Von Teese’s journey to the glittery world of burlesque began on a humbler road in Rochester, Mich., where she was born Heather Sweet,before moving to Irvine, Calif., for her teenage years — where she first entered burlesque in 1992. “I was a ballet dancer all my life — not a very good one. I came to terms with the fact that I was never going to be a professional ballet dancer,” she said. “When I was 19, I had a boyfriend who was a rave DJ in L.A., and I started go-go dancing and making my own outfits. I worked in a lingerie store, and that piqued my interest in the world of lingerie. That’s how I got into burlesque. I found that I was looking at a lot of pinup pictures from the Thirties and Forties, and they’d show a picture of, say, Lili St. Cyr posing for pinups and advertising her burlesque show.”
That led Von Teese to posing for pinups and fetish pictures herself — “I remember thinking I wish someone would bring back this playful, fun stylized elegance to fetishism, and deciding I wanted to be the world’s most famous fetish model since Bettie Page” — and then to working in a strip club and researching the history of burlesque and stripteasing. “I wanted to know things like, ‘Why is there this brass pole on stage?’” Von Teese said. “It turns out that they were installed in the Sixties because the girls were more accessible and they started drinking. The poles were put in so they had something to hold on to. When burlesque clubs closed, nightclubs were invented. Some performers, like Lili St. Cyr, still performed in nightclub acts with the bands and the big sets, but then there was the whole movement [to] topless clubs — removing the mystery. When I went into strip clubs in Orange County, it was a sea of blondes with tans and great bikinis. They were gorgeous, but my initial thought was ‘I don’t belong here. I don’t look like any of them.’ But when you aren’t like everyone else, you have something to offer. So I started developing my burlesque show there, in a strip club.”
She also continued to pose and perform at fetish events in Los Angeles, London and New York in the early Nineties. “As I made more money, I’d make a bigger show, continue to reinvest it in myself,” she said. Now, she observes, there is a burlesque scene globally, but “back then, there were about 12 of us and we all knew each other,” she said. Nowadays, she observes, most of her shows — and her audiences — are in Europe, at venues like Paris’ Crazy Horse. Von Teese splits her time between Paris and Los Angeles.
Von Teese professes to be a little puzzled as to why her field is seen as racy, or even raunchy, in an era of “unauthorized” sex tapes and on-screen nudity. “When I think about my idols of burlesque and America in the Thirties and Forties, when Gypsy Rose Lee was a household name as a stripper, it’s kind of surprising to me that it’s 2010, and I’m still considered risqué. There’s this whole big burlesque movement that’s about to happen — I keep reading about all of these movies coming out and quotes from people saying, ‘We don’t take off our clothes — we’re classy. It’s like burlesque without the strip.’ And I’m like what are you talking about? There is no burlesque without the strip. The trick is can you be classy, sophisticated, elegant and take off your clothes? That’s my goal, to do what the women before me did — to show it can be elegant and beautiful and sophisticated, rather than dumbing it down and commercializing it for the masses.
“When they go to the movies, people want to see a little nudity,” she added. “With burlesque, I show what I want to show. It’s not related to my real sex life at all,” she said. “It’s like makeup, body makeup, spotlights, rhinestones, feathers. It’s sensual, but nothing close to the real sex. And meanwhile, I’m considered racy. But I’m in control as a woman. Is it when you’re out of control, and your sex tape comes out, and you’re like ‘Whoa, whoa, I didn’t mean it, I’m apologizing’ [that you’re accepted]? I think maybe because I am giving it to people in a way, and I’m not apologizing, there’s this whole thing.”
Turning to her ambitions to create a lingerie line, she said, “I did a line with Wonderbra,which was only in Europe — it did really well,” she said. “I’d like to remind women, especially in America, that lingerie can be beautiful and functional. You don’t have to have your work lingerie and your date lingerie; it can be the same thing. I want to do bigger sizes, because I have a lot of female fans that are curvy girls.
“I’ve spoken a lot about Gypsy and how I’ve modeled myself after her, and the reason I think she had a long career as compared to other burlesque stars is that she was smart and devoted to finding other ways of keeping her brand and her business going even after it wasn’t time for her to be naked anymore on stage. She did really clever things — she wrote books, made movies and was known as a beauty. I am continually trying to evolve — the show I do now is different from the one I did when I was 21.”
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