Submission is power, says Dita Von Teese, when she’s not bound and gagged.
The queen of the slow, sequinned striptease is on the phone, talking sex, seamed stockings and more sex.
What are you wearing right now, Dita?
Actually, I didn’t even have to ask. The woman who was born Heather Sweet, who claims that without make-up she’s an ordinary looking natural blonde from Michigan state, has come straight from work-out to interview.
“I wear, like, black simple Capri pants and a shapely T-shirt.”
No baggy trackpants?
“I don’t like looking in the mirror and feeling sloppy. It’s not good for me and it’s not good for how I feel about myself, so why do it?”
Dita Von Teese is a self-made sexpot who makes no excuses for her particular brand of manufactured feminity.
“A lot of women are looking for an alternative role model for ‘sexy’ than just that natural beauty who looks great in a bikini running on the beach with blonde hair flowing and no makeup.
“That’s like our beauty icon of modern times. I never felt like I could fit into that, because I am not that. Maybe I stand for someone who is an alternative, who is telling people that you can make yourself into something sexy instead of being born with it.”
The Art of the Teese, re-released this month, is the step-by-step bible to being Dita.
“Glamour above all things is what I say,” she writes in the introduction.
“There was a time when a lady dressed to the nines no matter what her destination. This great girl wore seamed stockings and garter belts every single day. She curled her eyelashes and she set her hair in luscious waves.
“She painted her lips a flushed, rich scarlet. Wherever the day took her, she wore high heels and satin gloves to her elbows, soaring cocque feathers and veils of the finest netting over her eyes. And so do I.”
Take-home message: Anyone can be Dita if they can afford a $10,000 corset that sucks 16cm off their waist; if they have time to paint their nails perfectly; if crucially they don’t mind getting their gear off.
Von Teese, 36, has led a worldwide revival of burlesque, the art of getting all-but-naked to music, that had its heyday when dancers such as Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee dominated the American stage.
And, she says, unless you’re prepared to strip, you’re not honouring history.
“You’re taking away from what those women did. If they did a strip tease in the 1930s down to pasties and a g-string, that’s what I’m going to do, and I don’t have any respect or admiration for pseudo-burlesque and celebrities who dance around the stage singing Big Spender with a feather boa.”
Recently, at the French Crazy Horse cabaret, Von Teese accidentally pulled down her g-string.
“The crowd went wild and I was so terrified for a moment and then I remembered I was in Paris … and I went, ‘oh, I forgot, I’m allowed to do this’.”
In the increasingly conservative United States, she says, there is the risk of an arrest for indecent exposure.
“Which sounds like a good time to me, actually. It’s fantastic when you look at the old publicity photos of the stars being dragged off in nothing but a mink coat and their g-string. They loved it. It was great for business.”
Von Teese hardly needs added exposure. Multiple magazine covers, advertising deals, a divorce from metal singer Marilyn Manson, and an alleged year-long stint of celibacy have kept her firmly in the headlines.
“It was a strange thing,” she says. “When I was going through the most traumatic parts of a public divorce, I discovered I was one tough bitch.
“I was in the thick of it, but I was still able to go out on stage and convey fun and sensuality and feel powerful. It was a moment when I realised I could do anything … and I was really happy to learn that lesson.”
Actually, she’d like to clarify that celibacy rumour: “I was speaking very seriously about how it was to be divorced and that it was difficult for me to get back into the swing of things and it took some time. But make no mistake, I was having all kinds of fun. I was never, ever celibate.”
The pin-up girl whose used stockings sell for $85 on the internet (she thinks that’s sweet, not sleazy), and who, literally, has a fetish flipside (the second half of her book is big on leather, boots and binding), insists she’s a girl’s girl whose biggest fans are women.
“I’m not the one trying to seduce your boyfriend when you walk out of the room, I’m not the one who gets drunk and dances on the table and wants to expose herself to everyone and prove her sexuality.”
Von Teese says she wants to be remembered as someone who evolved, not revived, burlesque. Most famous for the routine where she sponges off in a giant martini glass,
“I have, like, 20 other shows that are new and unique to burlesque”.
She is not, she says, the world’s most beautiful or talented woman. “I’m very average in many ways, but I have a lot of ambition and a lot of drive and all of it comes from a very genuine place.”
The Art of the Teese celebrates Dita, variously, as a femme fatale, a showgirl and a movie goddess. She poses with powder puffs, astride a lion and in a bath.
But she also appears gagged and trussed; she sports a whip, eye mask and black boots and says, “for me, fetish is a sensual magical charm”.
“The definition of feminism is about having the choice,” says Von Teese.
“When you put yourself in that position as a submissive, especially in modern times, it’s by choice. I’m totally controlling that, I chose the outfit, I chose the lighting and I had the idea … I like the idea of the two-sided book, the good girl versus the bad girl and the fact that we can be all of those girls. It’s up to us to decide.”