It is unlikely that anyone has put as much thought and effort into getting undressed as Dita Von Teese, the undisputed queen of neo-burlesque. We caught up with Madame Von Teese at her home in Los Angeles, just before the Michigan native embarked on her fall ‘Burlesque: Strip, Strip Hooray!’ tour.

Born Heather Sweet, Von Teese doesn’t keep the pin-up perfection up offstage –

“All the rhinestones and feathers, and perfection to detail in the makeup, obviously I don’t go trotting around like that in my bedroom,” she says.

Still, while most women can take what seems like hours to get dressed, onstage at least, Ms. Von Teese taunts and takes forever to get undressed. It is all part of her act, or art. And, let’s face it, it’s all part of the fun.

Burlesque is about presentation and dressing up as much as it is losing the clothing. But, is how you actually lose the clothing the biggest challenge?

That’s right, it’s so much about presentation. With my performances, I get myself out of some pretty fussy clothes. Jean Paul Gaultier saw my show one time… I wore this corset that was laced all the way down and the only way to get out of it was to undo it from the top of my back all the way down to my rear-end. He commented after the show that he couldn’t figure out how I did it, because they have to cut girls out of his corsets. I like giving myself challenges in striptease. There are no Velcros and no zippers in my performances. I really love taking it to the next level and see how I can disrobe out of complicated clothes.

Dita Von Teese Burlesque Photo
Photo by Ali Mahdavi

That slowness, that inch-by-inch, that’s part of the drama and thrill, isn’t it?

I think so. I like to spend as much time as I can getting undressed and the more deliberate, calculated, and slow it is, along with this feeling of… Um, making it look effortless. That’s the joy: making something that’s complicated look effortless. It’s a bit like a sleight of hand trick. Whenever I have a new costume, I think to myself I cannot do this, it’s impossible. Then I find that with practice and determination it becomes second nature. I like the challenge.

Burlesque has an element of nostalgia that seems to give it innocence.

What I know about the real history of burlesque is that it was quite racy. When you look at it in the 1930s and ‘40s, it was really racy. First of all, whenever they could go without their pasties or even take off their G-string at the end, they did. Some of them wore a wig piece on top of their G-strings to create the illusion of something quite raunchy, to create the illusion of nudity. They really tried to push the envelope. If people think it’s like a pinup painting come to life on stage, for me, my goal in creating burlesque shows has always been to try to bring together the risqué with something that’s sophisticated, beautiful, and glamorous: I like to fuse those things together. I’m not just trying to create a pretty princess on stage. I’m trying to create something that is naughty and beautiful, or interesting. That’s my goal, to change people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper.

True, the original burlesque stars were working girls, trying to make a living and take that as far as they could.

This kind of striptease, this burlesque was invented in America in the ‘30s. I’m trying to remind people that there was a time when it was a legitimate form of entertainment, but that it was also quite racy back then. The only reason that pasties and G-strings were invented was that it was illegal to go without. It was illegal to go without the pasties; you had to cover your nipples. In some clubs, they used to have red and green lights in the footlights to let people know if the cops were there, because people tried to get away with what they could. You had all these different women who wanted to be at the top and wanted to make a splash, and try and get the maximum reaction.

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