Dita von Teese, burlesque artist, retro pin-up and now the wife of Marilyn Manson, has risen from lingerie salesgirl to entertainer of choice at all the best parties. Between wedding and honeymoon, she found time to pose for a series of exclusive drawings by David Downton.
Back when Dita von Teese was approaching her 18th birthday she knew exactly what she wanted to do when she passed that milestone. ‘As soon as I was of legal age I wanted to take my clothes off and be photographed recreating old pin-ups.’
Von Teese – still known then by her birth name, Heather Sweet, and working in a lingerie shop where she had held a position since the age of 15 – arranged a shoot with a photographer who had taken pictures of her older sister for Penthouse, and posed in just a pink and black corset. She gave the pictures to her then-boyfriend for his birthday.
A decade and a half later, the 33-year-old’s enthusiasm for channelling the spirit of the original pin-ups and burlesque performers such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St Cyr and Sally Rand has won her international acclaim. Last year Vanity Fair called her a ‘burlesque superheroine’ for the striptease spectacles she stages at parties and in clubs (bathing in a giant martini glass with an olive-shaped sponge, or emerging from an outsize powder compact in pointe shoes and a marabou tutu).
She has ascended to become an adored insider in the world of high fashion. Jean Paul Gaultier offered her a kid-in-a-candy-store moment last year by inviting her into his couture archive. ‘There were gowns they don’t even let out to the Academy Awards, and Mr Gaultier said, “If you want to wear this stuff to the grocery store, feel free.” ’
Vivienne Westwood, who made the purple silk taffeta wedding gown for her December nuptials to the theatrically dark rock star Marilyn Manson, has described her as ‘mind-boggling, with the smallest waist, like a drawing from a fairytale, like Snow White.’
Von Teese and Manson first met at a Santa Monica vintage-clothing fair in 1999 and, fittingly, their wedding is featured in the current issue of American Vogue. Now that the spotlight has swivelled its full glare upon von Teese, she is making the most of it. She and Manson have not taken a honeymoon yet.
After their wedding, they flew to London to be photographed in a circus-themed shoot for the relaunch issue of Harper’s Bazaar, and she is busy promoting her new book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese, stacked with lavish photos. ‘It’s not anything deep, just a fun book with great pictures. I dust off some characters in burlesque history, and tell my own story.’
Save for the frequent hopping on and off planes, she seems to have found her particular form of domestic bliss in Chatsworth, a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, with her husband, four cats (Lily, Hermann, Aleister and Edgar) and two cars, a 1939 Chrysler, ‘the big gangster kind with the suicide doors’, and a 1965 Jaguar S type, ‘the pretty one with the grill’.
Their home also contains some of her memorabilia – one of Betty Grable’s corsets, letters from Gypsy Rose Lee, and a ‘memento that Sally Rand used to sell at her shows in 1938 – a handknit penis and ball cover. Pretty racy, huh?’
On meeting Von Teese in her red-velvet-lined dressing-room at London’s Café de Paris the afternoon before a show, her soft voice and doll-like form might at first lead one to assume that she would not say boo to a goose, but it is evident that this is not the case. She says of working with Vivienne Westwood, ‘We didn’t agree at first. I was really specific on how I wanted the dress to look so I had to be really firm.’
Von Teese sees herself as a ‘real no-nonsense business woman. I learnt a lot reading about Bettie Page and how she had no money in the end because she didn’t own any of her images.’ In her early twenties, when she was starting to make her name as a model on the fetish scene, she recalls, ‘I worked in a store selling cosmetics and danced in a strip club, as well as fetish modelling. I was doing all this at once so I never felt a slave to being a model. I would shoot what I wanted to shoot, and get paid what I wanted to get paid.’
She also set up a website of her pictures in 1992, ‘back when you could only have one picture on a page’. (Now the site has more than 15,000 images of her, which members can access, and merchandise for sale, including her used stockings.) Having worked her way up to headlining shows all over the US, her breakthrough came in 2002 when she made the cover of Playboy.
It even validated her in the eyes of her manicurist mother and machinist father who brought her up in Michigan and Orange County, California. ‘There were times my parents weren’t so sure about what I was doing, what this bondage modelling was all about. When I was on the cover of Playboy my father suddenly had much more respect for what I did.’
She may look like one of Hollywood’s most high-maintenance women, with her glossy red nails filed to points and their half-moons left unpainted, but she declares herself ‘a real do-it-yourselfer’ – her glossy blue-black hair is coloured from its natural blonde with Revlon 10-minute dye. ‘I always do my own make-up for my shows too. The one time I hired a stylist, they picked up a pair of my 1940s shoes and said, these would look really cute with jeans. I immediately said, you’re out of here.’