In April 2006, Harrods was overrun by a veritable army of impeccably dressed young women, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a very special and unusual guest of honour. There were gasps of delight as a green, horse-drawn carriage came into view, revealing their immaculate, raven haired icon: vintage pinup and burlesque megastar Dita Von Teese.
"It was the first time I realised that I had a massive female following," Dita recalls. "There were hundreds and hundreds of girls there, and I felt totally transformed by this realization that burlesque and pinup resonated so much with other women. When I first started performing in the 90s I had a lot of male fans, but this shift made me think a lot about what made me start embracing vintage style, the way it gave me confidence I never had before, and how I could share my experience and inspire other women to do the same."
"Instagram is teeming with 20-something Dita replicas wearing shameless copies of her iconic costumes"
After 10 years of interviewing Dita, her constant reinvention, evolution and endurance never fails to impress me. Instagram is teeming with 20-something Dita replicas wearing shameless copies of her iconic costumes and frolicking brazenly on all manner of imitation carousel horses, martini glasses and giant filigree hearts. None the less, Dita continues to reign as burlesque's universally acknowledged figurehead and the last word in opulent, sensual glamour.
Dita fondly remembers her early performances in London, including fashion parties for Roland Mouret and Jade Jagger, and at fetish convention Erotica.
"There were issues with striptease at Erotica," Dita remembers. "Full nudity was not against the law, but according to city authorities, 'removing clothing in a seductive manner' was. So I had to adapt my performance and go behind the stage to take things off and then come back onstage with less and less clothing on. It was bizarre!
"I also had a fun time working with Agent Provocateur in those early years; the first harness they made was called 'the Dita', and I did music videos with them and performed my shows at their parties in London. It was such a wonderful time."
"I saved up for shopping during my first trip to London!"
When she visits London now, you can find Dita dining at The Wolseley ("I love the atmosphere and the classic menu"), getting her beauty sleep at Claridges, and sipping dirty martinis at the Fumoir. As a member of The Arts Club, she can often be found there too, and Chiltern Firehouse is a new favourite spot for catching up with her London friends.
Of course, she savours London fashion, too. "I saved up for shopping during my first trip to London! My first stops were Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy for hats. I still wear all of those things, even though I bought them 18 years ago."
While the majority of Dita’s exquisite costumes are expertly crafted by long-time collaborator and striptease virtuoso Catherine D'Lish, Dita also looks to London designer Jenny Packham for decadent ensembles.
"Jenny has created several costumes for me, but this show features a magnificent beaded and crystallised dressing gown for an act called 'Lazy'. She's one of my favorite designers, and it's always exciting to see the extravagant and glamorous costume ideas she has for me. She works in tandem with Christian Louboutin to create special shoes for each costume, and with Swarovski for the perfect crystals to embroider onto the gowns."
"I became excited to perform again"
In 2015, after more than five years of touring the United States with her burlesque extravaganza, Strip Strip Hooray, Dita found herself pondering retirement. Then Crazy Horse Paris, the historic and notorious erotic revue where Dita featured as their first guest star 10 years ago, asked her to return.
"I was apprehensive at first," Dita admits, "but I created an act with Ali Mahdavi called Undressed to Kill', with state of the art projection technology used in a totally new and groundbreaking way, and the whole experience was fantastic.
"All my reservations about repeating the past went away, and after finishing a completely sold-out run of 40 shows in Paris, I became excited to perform again.”
Dita wasted no time in announcing a spectacular new production, The Art of the Teese. A two and a half hour long evening of burlesque, the variety show features resurrected routines from Dita's own repertoire, and world class striptease from her all star cast, who also revive some of her best loved acts. The cast is the creme de la creme of neo-burlesque, representing various ages, body shapes and ethnicities, and featuring both men and women.
1,400 tickets for the London Palladium dates were snapped up within the first hour of sale.
Dita is thrilled with the response. The logistics and expense of bringing the world's biggest touring burlesque show overseas, however, remain a challenge. "I send over a semi truck-sized shipping container filled with our own big fancy velvet curtains and lighting rigs, and of course the big props I'm known for have to be shipped too," says Dita. "Between those expenses, the costs of traveling with 20 people and running payroll, taxes and insurance, the costs of running a show like this are astounding, so it's tricky to make the finances work."
"We've had several wedding proposals happen at the show!"
The mainstream perception of burlesque in the UK remains confused and polarising. If you read the tabloids, burlesque dancers are cheap and cheerful titillation for stag parties, causing trouble for their royal relatives, or middle class, empowerment-hungry housewives. Londoners treated to the stagecraft and polish of such luminaries as Polly Rae, Kitty Bang Bang and Vicky Butterfly know better, but Dita knows her show is bound to attract curious newcomers to the art form.
"I suppose if one hasn't seen my show first hand, and the audience, it's hard to understand what it is and why people love burlesque. Wherever we tour, we always have an extremely stylish and eccentric crowd, probably about 80% female with a huge LGBTQ audience. Lots of couples of all kinds come along, and we’ve had several wedding proposals happen at the show!"
While thoughts of retirement have been put aside in favour of ever-expanding touring plans, Dita remains thoughtful about why – and why not – to bow out. “I’ve been asked what I would do for work once my ‘looks fade with age’. It’s bizarre how it’s instilled in us that we won’t be beautiful if we age. I guess I never really paid too much attention to it until recently when I started thinking about retirement, lest anyone see me age, God forbid! But then I thought about how much it means to me to watch the women I admire evolve through their years. We can either submit to public consensus and quit when the general public thinks we should, or we can continue to evolve in our own ways, and set an example for change."
Dita Von Teese: The Art of the Teese at The London Palladium October/November 2018