“I think it’s hard for people to understand I have a casual look too,” Ms. Von Teese said. “But it’s not a departure from who I am. Most afternoons, all I do is put on powder, red lipstick and my hair in a chignon and a ’50s dress and ballet flats. For me, that’s low-maintenance.”
She began incorporating aspects of burlesque, complete with her 1940s style, into her act while working as a stripper at 19. She quickly attracted a fan base and claimed she found herself performing for “all these men who had stories about meeting Bettie Page when they were young.”
While it seems obvious to draw parallels between Dita Von Teese and famous pin-up model Ms. Page—they are, at least, physically very similar—Ms. Von Teese seems destined for a happier fate. Where Ms. Page went bankrupt, her successor is building a business empire designed to last when she’s no longer perched nude in a martini glass. She has a book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese; a lingerie line, Von Follies; and a makeup line, ArtDeco Dita von Teese Classics.
Her fans aren’t only men. She estimates her burlesque audience is about 80 percent female, many of them teenage misfits. “I’m always surprised at the really young ones,” she said. “I have a lot of girls who come to my shows with their parents, and their parents have told me stories their daughters are depressed or made fun of because their skin was pale or they looked different. Some of my most devoted fans come with their mothers or fathers. I like it when people come, because it’s sexy, but I really like it when people see what I felt.”
When those fans talk to her, she reminds them that if everyone likes what you’re doing, you’re doing something wrong. Or she pulls from her collection of quotes on that topic, which she uses to remind herself as much as anyone. “You can be the juiciest peach in the world, and there will still be someone who hates peaches,” she claims.
Ms. Von Teese, who is turning 41 this month, does worry about getting old.
“It’s not fun to be an aging glamour girl,” she said.
“I think I’ll feel relieved when I don’t have to do pilates five times a week any more or worry that I’m being photographed in bad lighting. It’ll never be easy, but I get excited about the day I can sit on the other side and be directing my shows. I would love to still be creating shows. I would like to see what half a million Swarovski crystals look like from the other side.”
She usually wears those crystals herself. But underneath that dazzling exterior, she seems a little bit lonely. She’s single at the moment, and she explains, “I think my biggest problem is that I have a hard time meeting men. I think I can come off as seeming …” she pauses, thoughtfully. “Well, I’m quite shy meeting people, and I think that combined with my look and clothing makes people think I might be high-maintenance.
“It’s really hard, because I don’t get approached very often. … All my friends are Internet dating. I can’t Internet date. I have to rely on good old-fashioned approaches, and I guess I don’t look very approachable. But I’m not going to put on beige lipstick and a T-shirt. I refuse to pretend I’m someone I’m not. I like wearing makeup and perilously high heels.”
There are, of course, certain men who understand and encouraged her habits. Marilyn Manson, her ex-husband, whom she married in 2005, was one of them. Their wedding was a spectacular, absinthe-fueled, gothic affair—the purple Vivienne Westwood wedding dress Ms. Von Teese wore is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, the couple divorced within a year.
Some people might have expected that Ms. Von Teese would be better suited to an old Hollywood type—some modern-day Cary Grant equivalent with a taste for the eccentric. Johnny Depp? However, she claims that she and Manson were close “in a lot of ways.”
“We come from very similar backgrounds,” she said. “We’re both from the Midwest and created these personas who are far from who we were born.”
Ms. Von Teese still reveals traces of the young Michigan girl pretending to be from France. She remains as imaginative as ever and tends to treat each outfit as a costume. “In my mind, I’m starring in my own film. I fantasize about what I’m going to wear tomorrow. I was going to Paris.” Her voice quickens. “And I fantasized about what I could wear riding through the gardens of Versailles—it turns out you can actually do that!—and thinking, I’ll wear my jodhpurs from the 1930s and my cape.’”
She must have been quite a sight to behold. And this world filled with crystals and Vivienne Westwood and lingerie lines must be more than she ever could have imagined when she was knobby-kneed in Michigan.
“I’m living out my childhood dream,” she agreed. “I’m living that fantasy of being a glamour girl.” Then she pauses and says, almost as if by way of explanation, “People look at me when I walk in the room. I love that.”