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vol 6 - issue 04 (dec 2003) :: interviews
DITA VON TEESE
interview by wayne chinsang
illustration by night watchman

OH, YOU MAY NOT ADMIT IN FRONT OF YOUR MOTHER OR WIFE THAT YOU KNOW WHO DITA VON TEESE IS, BUT YOU DO. SO DOES WAYNE CHINSANG. AND HE'S NOT AFRAID TO ADMIT IT TO ANYONE.

Wayne: How do you describe your career to someone who isn't familiar with what it is you do?

Dita: I guess I would say I am a pinup girl and burlesque performer. I recreate vintage style photographs and films, and I striptease in the classic 1930's and 1940's styles. I'm sort of a modern day Gypsy Rose Lee or Sally Rand.

W: Burlesque is something that hasn't been in the public eye for quite awhile now. But, with you, it seems to be making somewhat of a "mainstream" comeback. What initially got you interested in the world of burlesque and fetish, and how did you decide to try your hand at it?

D: I have been a really big fan of everything 1940s for over twelve years. Everything from the film stars, the fashion, and the pinup art and photos of the '40s. About eight or so years ago, I began collecting vintage men's magazines, and saw that most of the models were strippers, which led me to learn more about burlesque and its history. I decided to try it because I was modeling vintage pinup back then. Plus, I was a dancer in a bikini type club, so it made sense, since I was already wearing my hair and clothes in a classic 1940's style. The first time I really did a true burlesque performance was at a fetish event in 1995. It was a feather fan dance, and I was coached on it over the phone with Dixie Evans. She owns and runs the Exotic World Burlesque Museum, and was one of burlesque's biggest stars in the '50s.

W: I could be wrong, but it's probably safe to say that growing up as a child you weren't like, "I want to be the top fetish model in the industry." Growing up, what did you aspire to be, and would you ever have guessed that you would achieve what you have?

D: As a little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina, of course! I did dance ballet all my life, but I was never going to be a pro. So I found my own way to perform and use what I loved about ballet in my shows. I loved the way a woman's body makes beautiful shapes in ballet, and I loved the severe makeup and gorgeous tulle and rhinestone costumes! I never knew I would end up going this far at all, and fetish modeling was something I did out of my love for vintage clothes and my desire to bring back some classic beauty to fetishism. What I love about fetishism is the appreciation for the exaggerated female form. Before the "burlesque craze", it was the fetishists who appreciated what it's all about.

W: The world of fetish and burlesque are somewhat niche markets. Do you think it's better to be an icon of a smaller, more intimate niche medium, or do you strive for a wider acceptance in what you do by larger audiences? Because, personally, I think it's sometimes better to remain more of an underground cult sensation with staying power than it is to become a huge star and then come and go.

D: I guess I used to feel that way until I had achieved all I could with underground status, and wanted to see if I could take it up a notch. It's all about striving and not having limits! How silly to say, "Oh, I should quit here. It's good enough." I think every day about how I cannot only make myself a better performer and model-- not necessarily for the fame or money-- but because I believe in it and I believe in challenging myself! How boring to only want to perform for the "cool" people! Boring! Should I have turned down big jobs and mainstream press for the cool factor, and meanwhile worked a part-time job where I could tell everyone how "edgy" I am for not selling out? I am happy to be doing what I enjoy, and being my own boss. Anyone who says they don't want more recognition for what they do is lying or lazy. I love hearing fans of rock music complain about their favorite artist "selling out". You would want to make the best living you could, too, and not sell yourself short. It's about ambition, and the people that have it go places, while the people that don't, complain about the people that are successful.

W: Have you found it to be hard to bring your act to the mainstream media, like with television? I ask because I saw you on Craig Kilborn, and I was surprised that a network station-- who usually bleep out even the most harmless of words, like "masturbate"-- was ballsy enough to have that air. Have the mass media outlets been problematic? And by the way, NICE martini glass.

D: Well, it is hard sometimes because I am asked more often than not to change parts of my act, which always seems funny to me since I am not taking off any more than the strippers of the '30s and '40s did. It amazes me to no end that people can still be offended by just the idea of a woman removing a glove! So there is frustration with some things about the mainstream. But again, it's a challenge to make it work, and also fun to ignore the stipulations and watch them sweat! Also, when I was getting a lot of press with the martini glass with Playboy and when I performed with the Pussycat Dolls, I came up against a major film using my act after seeing it. I had to take a stand against one of the biggest movie studios in the world to get what I deserved. It felt good to stand up for myself and win in the end, but it was very stressful. But it's one of the things that comes with exposure, I guess.

W: I think it's apparent to artistic and creative people that what you do steps beyond the realm of pornography and stripping, and into an art form in and of itself. But I'm sure that with the job comes criticism from people that "just don't get it" and label it as "porno" or "dirty". Is that something you struggle with, or are you just of the opinion to say "fuck it" to them and move on?

D: Sexuality and nudity in film and onstage is nothing new. It's NEVER going away, and I'm just trying to bring my own brand of elegance to sexy entertainment. It's a ridiculous thing to try to argue with someone about. I ignore the labels and I don't respond.

W: What things inspire you, artistically?

D: Art, books, vintage films, and musicals. I study a lot of old Hollywood portraiture, films, vaudeville, and burlesque, of course. I collect vintage books and men's magazines from the '20s thru the '50s. I like to find ways of combining the new with the nostalgic,.. the racy with the elegant!

W: Many people have compared you to Bettie Page. How does it feel to be compared to the person whose name is synonymous with fetish, and have you ever been fortunate enough to meet her?

D: I was actually chosen to sit in on her first ever broadcast telephone interview when they first found her and were writing her biography. The thing about Bettie was that it wasn't just the black hair and bangs that made her the icon she is. She was charismatic and interesting to watch, and had the perfect combination of bad girl and good girl. I am honored by any comparisons to her.

W: Is it weird for you to know that you have become somewhat of an icon for the fetish world? How do you deal with the celebrity of it all?

D: Generally, it's not weird for me. It's something I've worked at for over 12 years, and I am grateful for where it has taken me and the experiences I've had. Sometimes it's rotten when you hear rumors about yourself that have no truth to them, or hearing all the time how someone met someone that is a close personal friend of mine, and they happen to know,... It's impossible to try to set the records straight. You just have to take it at entertainment value, and remember that it's boring for people to say nice things. No one wants to hear that; it's far more exciting to add something juicy to the story, and even better to just make one up!

W: I know Chas Krider in Columbus, Ohio, and I know that you've modeled for him and appear in his book, Motel Fetish. How did you meet Chas? Did he approach you because you had already been doing similar work, or was it all just coincidence?

D: I cannot recall how I first met Chas, but it was almost six years ago or so. I was booked in the crappiest strip joint in Columbus, and he came to photograph me in the hotel room I was staying in. It must have been the worst room I've ever had to stay in; I remember the bellman tried to sell me drugs! (No one can say I haven't paid my dues and done some character building!) I remember trying to explain to him (Chas) that my room was SO awful, and that the bedspread was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. He got so excited and said that was the perfect location for a shoot! The pictures turned out incredible. He is a true original, and very talented. I've worked with some big shots, but Chas has the most original way of working, and the truest vision I've ever seen.

W: As I said, you've been the model for artists like Chas Krider, Gottfried Helnwein, and Olivia. Also, you've obviously performed with Marilyn as well. Is having your art form bleed over into other people's art an important part of what you do? Do you strive to collaborate with other artists?

D: I feel most honored to not only have met these artists and seen firsthand how they work, but being a subject of theirs is amazing. I don't impose on them to work with me. If they see something in me they want to do with me, I let them do as they will. I spend so much time imagining and creating my own photographs and shows, that it's nice to let it all go and let them take over and see what happens.

W: Your website is really extensive, especially for members. How much of a hand do you have in your website, as far as being able to keep in touch with your fans?

D: I control every aspect of it. I have the best webmaster in the world. He not only understands the vintage feel, but he pays special attention to every detail of the site and its workings. I answer all the email from my members, and I have a message board, chats, and a diary just for my website members.

W: What guilty pleasures do you have? Do you have something that you are into that other people would be surprised by?

D: My guilty pleasures,... Sometimes I watch those stupid dating shows where they either get drunk and have sex on camera or they hate each other. My other guilty pleasure is turning off my cell phone and wandering around an antique show or flea market.

W: Do dogs have lips?

D: Well, I went over and had a close look at one of my two dachshund's mouths, and I will say that yes, mine do! They are a little fuzzy, but they definitely have lips. Later on, I asked my boyfriend if he thought dogs had lips, and he said, "Hell yes, they do!" So we checked it out again. They do.

VISIT DITA HERE.

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