It’s nearly impossible to overstate Dita Von Teese’s beauty. With her powder-pale face, blood-red lips and dark, cascading hair, Dita looks as though she stepped out of one of Bram Stoker’s erotic fantasies. If Solomon had seen her, he would not only have sung but also tap-danced.
Sometimes, she still doesn’t feel pretty.
“I was made fun of all through school for how I looked,” said Ms. Von Teese, her whispery voice tapering off for a moment before she gets a second wind. “I was so skinny, and I had knobby knees, and my skin was kind of a grayish color. I was kind of awkward. And more than anything, I just felt I disappeared. I still feel like I totally disappear when I don’t have my makeup on and my hair pulled back.”
Most people would challenge that claim. Ms. Von Teese appeared on Vanity Fair’s 2013 Best Dressed list alongside Duchess Kate, Gisele and Kerry Washington. The magazine claimed she was the antidote to a Girls Gone Wild generation and described her as “a curvaceous, alabaster-skinned, immaculately coiffed stripper with a fondness for retro fashions and the attention to detail to do it right.” She has been a featured guest on America’s Next Top Model, celebrated on the cover of Playboy, modeled in haute fashion shows for Jean Paul Gaultier and starred in a MAC Cosmetics campaign.
The burlesque star, who is bringing her show Strip, Strip Hooray to the Gramercy Theater from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, is renowned for being one of the most beautiful and stylish women in the world.
“What designer wouldn’t covet the opportunity to work with Dita Von Teese?” Michael Schmidt, who made a 3-D dress for her in March, said. “Like all great muses, she informs and elevates a designer’s work by her presence.”
Will Cotton, the New York artist whose work frequently features pin-up style models in candy-land scenes, painted Ms. Von Teese in 2008. “She’s someone who has completely invented herself, and she’s totally captivating,” he said. “She’s more than a great beauty. She’s an icon.”
But as the hour approaches midnight, she sounds like a very tired icon.
It’s a demanding job. Fan sites like Black Swan Dita and Dita is Our Queen track her every move, bestowing Ms. Von Teese with the kind of attention she once craved more than anything.
“I’m a blond girl from a farming town in Michigan. I wanted to be perceived as glamorous and mysterious. I wanted to have people walk in the room and have people think I was from another land. When I was little, I used to pretend I was from France. I just wanted to be noticed.”
Her desire to be seen may be part of what makes her a great presence. There is a moment in Being Julia, the 2004 film based on Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, when a character says that great stage performers must have the instinct to “grab the audience by the throat and say, ‘Now, you buggers, you pay attention to me!’”
Ms. Von Teese would echo that thought very politely. In a soft, almost trembly voice, she describes herself as “very, very shy.” Honestly, though, she wouldn’t even need to speak. She can communicate that demand, like silent film star Dita Parlo from whom she took her name, just by the way she looks.
“I didn’t feel I could really be beautiful or special or mysterious or glamorous until I saw the images in the ’40s movies,” she said. “And those sex goddesses—it’s all created, it’s not natural beauty. I saw that and thought, I can’t be Cindy Crawford, who is someone I think is really naturally beautiful, but I can paint my way to being Marlene Dietrich or Rita Hayworth.’”
She has been dedicated to that look ever since she was a teenager. You’re never going to catch her in sweatpants, despite the fact that interviewers seem to want to insist that she must wear them sometimes.
She doesn’t. Really.
“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.”