Dita Von Teese (née Heather Sweet) is a beautiful contradiction. She’s a modern businesswoman and brand with perfume and lingerie lines, who looks and dresses like she stepped out of a 1940s movie, and she was once married to shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. With 1.78 million followers on Twitter -- her Devonshire Rex cat Aleister Von Teese has 37,900 followers on Instagram -- Von Teese is completely self-made, and her dedication to vintage style has been copied by none other than pop star Katy Perry.
She’s been described as the “queen of burlesque” for single-handedly reviving that retro art form, but she combines its retro aesthetic (and what could be retro ideas about femininity) with progressive ideas about sexuality and gender. Her “Strip, Strip Hooray!” touring burlesque show features drag king MC Murray Hill along with burlesque stars of all shapes and sizes. She has as many, if not more, female fans as she does male fans, because women love the pro-woman -- and yes, feminist -- message she sends regarding women and power.
Von Teese brings this postmodern pastiche of old and new to relationships and sex as well, and she talked to International Business Times about what makes women and men appealing and seductive.
International Business Times: How would you describe your brand, Dita Von Teese?
Dita Von Teese: I like to call myself a "glambassador." I believe in glamour and sensuality and using these tools in everyday life, not just to put on a show for men. Sensuality, glamour, eroticism are things we should partake in because we enjoy them. Putting on lingerie, perfume, makeup -- if someone else reaps the benefits, that’s great.
I know the power in the art of seduction. It’s something you do because you believe in it. Sexiness is being confident and comfortable in your skin. An epic failure is trying too hard.
IBTimes: How did you get into vintage style?
DVT: As a little girl, I remember vividly wanting to be a grown-up lady. To make decisions for myself and not be told what to do. I grew up being fascinated with the symbolic power of womanhood. Lingerie, perfume and makeup were the tools. It was a rite of passage to indulge in them.
I realized that my relationship with those things was different -- it was only later I really saw them as tools of seduction.
I worked in a lingerie store when I was 15. My relationship with it was symbolic of femininity -- something I wore because it was beautiful. But I remember my father was offended. I would wash and then hang lingerie to dry. It had a different meaning for him than it did for me.
When I released my maternity bra, not all women saw it the way I did, and some equated it with sexuality. For some of us, it’s not always about wearing something for someone else. It might seem like how I look is only about sex, but I’ve had more backlash from men. “Do you have to wear that hat?” I’ve had boyfriends ask, or “Do you have to wear that corset?”
IBTimes: What do you like about vintage style? Burlesque?
DVT: I feel like I grew up with that era -- my mom watched those old movies. I couldn’t relate to modern standards of beauty like the “Sports Illustrated,” type where there’s lots of emphasis on natural beauty. I don’t relate. I’m a boring looking girl with average features. I can be extraordinary with makeup, curled hair. I could be who I wanted to be. It offset my shyness, helped my confidence, and made people notice me.
Glamour is the art of creation. In the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, those sex symbols were created from clothes, makeup, lingerie. Women were not natural, they were weaving a web of beauty....
I got into burlesque in the 1990s L.A. nightclub scene. I’d go to strip clubs and was fascinated. Everyone looked the same. I asked, What if I did it and did it differently? It’ll either be a total failure or totally amazing. All the strippers were trying to be like each other. There wasn’t a lot of variety. So, I worked in this strip club and wore vintage lingerie, had my hair in a “China doll” bob, wearing corsets. I thought, I might not get $1 from 20 guys, but I could get $20 from one guy. And then I realized what’s different about you makes you valuable. Eventually fans of “Playboy,” fetish people and famous people helped me kick off my burlesque career.
IBTimes: What concepts of love and sex from the past do you think we can learn from? In spite of your attachment to past glamour and values, you don't seem like a nostalgist, and you're certainly not conservative.
DVT: I’m old-fashioned in many ways. I don’t make the first move. I’m not sexually aggressive. It’s OK to be that way. There’s thousands of years of programming there! I feel close to womanly things and things that are stereotypical. I like to be courted, have doors opened for me. I like to be allowed to be in my femininity. But also I’m independent and have power.
IBTimes: What do you think of the modern dating scene?
DVT: I was single a few times in the past couple years. I can’t just get on Tinder, though, so I would go on a million blind dates. I’m adventurous and willing to put time in and pay my dues. These apps are great tools; they drum up energy. The women I know who use them end up making things happen. They’re putting something out there in the world, and they end up dating. The women I know who say they would never use them -- they’ve been single for like 10 years.
As for sex or hooking up, I like to find out right away if there’s sexual compatibility. I’ve noticed that if there’s weekslong courtship and the sex isn’t good, you’re stuck with the drama. How do you tell them you didn’t enjoy it? I gotta find out right away!
IBTimes: What’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for you?
DVT: Grand gestures are great, but I like little gestures, too, like love letters written on paper. I had someone write my name in the snow on the top of a car and then took an artistic picture of it. Being asked to marry someone was romantic. But usually, I like the little gestures, like someone staying with me when I’m sick.
IBTimes: What’s the most romantic thing you've ever done for someone?
DVT: I like to write letters from the heart. Giving something someone can hold. If I have something I want to say, I don’t do it in email. I write perfumed letters on beautiful stationery, and I even use rose-scented ink. Or spray the letter with perfume I'm wearing.
IBTimes: What’s the worst part of modern-day romance?
DVT: Getting divorced! And the financial side of divorce. Protecting my assets? Not romantic. Also, online dating seems so awkward. Sometimes when I look at profiles, I think, I hope this person finds someone!
IBTimes: What are the best ways to seduce someone?
DVT: For a woman, it’s confidence. A woman who knows what she likes. Confidence in her skin. She doesn’t put down other women, and she aligns herself with other women. It comes with age and experience. I hope younger women are cultivating their wit and wisdom. Sex and seduction are not just your looks, beauty and body.
For men, I’m attracted to men with a sense of humor when things get tough. In men, I also like elegance, kindness, men who take care of me when I need them. I also need hardworking men. He doesn’t have to make a lot of money, but he needs to be a hard worker.
IBTimes: What’s your favorite romantic movie and book?
DVT: Movie -- David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Book -- Georges Bataille’s “Story of the Eye,” an erotic surrealist novel about two people with intense fetishes who find and accept one another. The stories of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. People have always had carnal sexuality! It wasn’t kinder, gentler times in the past.
IBTimes: Are you seeing someone now?
DVT: Yes, for the past year. Someone not into the limelight. A friend I’d overlooked. It’s nice to be with your best friend.