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Who is Dita Von Teese?

How the world’s most famous burlesque performer became a major role model for women everywhere. Photographed by Francesco Carrozzini. Styled by Laura Duncan. Hair by John Blaine at The Rex Agency. Makeup by Gregory Arlt for MAC Cosmetics. Creative Director: Alessandra Orsi

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“I don’t claim to be naturally beautiful,” says famous burlesque dancer, Dita Von Teese, her perfect deep red lipstick unflinching.

One look at her porcelain skin, expertly coifed hair, 1930s-style outfit, and 16-inch corseted waist, and you fully understand that there’s nothing she loves more than creating her own immaculate image. “It’s a different point of view of sexy,” says Von Teese. “It’s about self-creation and personal empowerment through the creation of glamour.”

Her unique take on what’s sexy may be the reason more than half of the attendees at her shows are women, and why this world-class striptease—who’s disrobed for all kinds of rich and famous—is a role model for women everywhere.

Von Teese spent her adolescence in Orange County, California. “I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a little girl,” she says, describing how lighting, makeup, and costumes fascinated her. But once Von Teese discovered 1940s cinema, pin-up imagery, and vintage lingerie—the first time, in her mother’s dresser—she found a new passion. After stints working in a lingerie store, acting as a go-go dancer, and studying historic costuming, Von Teese jumped into striptease, performing her first show at the age of 20 at Captain Cream's in suburban Lake Forest, California.

“[Creating] elaborate striptease shows gave me an opportunity to express myself. It was something I just enjoyed doing,” she says of her transition from ballerina to burlesque bombshell. Her retro routines, which were first played out in small town, hole-in-the-wall “gentlemen’s clubs,” were largely foreign to patrons used to the usual “blonde girls in bikinis,” she has said.

For eight years, Von Teese toured the U.S. designing her own costumes, doing her own hair and makeup, and perfecting her act as a burlesque dancer and fetish model. She made a name for herself among Betty Paige devotees, but it wasn’t until she landed the cover of Playboy in 2002 at 30 years old that she says she made it.

Now, a decade later, Von Teese is the number one name in the burlesque business, known for her elaborate, high-production performances that stay true to the movement’s 1930s roots. (Among her repertoire of props and sets include a working claw-foot tub, a giant martini glass, a carousel horse, and the world's largest feather fans.)

“I think that Dita is correctly seen as the ideal figurehead of burlesque,” says friend, collaborator, and renowned burlesque dancer, Catherine D’Lish. “She has painstakingly built a very successful career, an enviable lifestyle, and has a head-spinning list of accomplishments,” many of which have brought her into the mainstream.

Quickly adopted as an icon in the fashion industry—she walks the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, sits front row at Marc Jacobs, and sports custom Louboutin pointe shoes during her performances—she decided to take her own designs to the public, spreading her unique brand of sex appeal around the world.

In 2012, Von Teese debuted her makeup collection, Classics, and her first clothing and underwear line, Von Follies—inspired by her own vintage collections. Most recently, the businesswoman created three different scents. Both Dita Von Teese Signature and Rouge launched on HSN and HSN.com in April, and her third fragrance, Fleur Teese, will be available in the states this summer. (Other projects in the works include a beauty book, a trench coat, and more lingerie.)

“It was a dream come true for me to be able to create my own perfume,” she says. “My signature scent is just my namesake. It’s a very elegant and sophisticated, voluptuous floral. That’s something I was really adamant about—making a really grown up, womanly fragrance.”

But rather than simply hawk her wares, Von Teese hopes to sell something more to women. “Glamour is something you can do yourself,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed the art of self-creation and that’s what I’m selling with my perfumes and my lingerie.”

Her brand of sexy isn’t what we’re used to seeing from celebrities. With her curvaceous figure, she offers a sultry alternative to the blonde, tan, and stick-thin Sports Illustrated-type. And while most stars claim that their allure is effortless, Von Teese, who does her own makeup and hair, gives instructions on how to achieve her look—from anatomy defying corsets to hand-made beauty marks.

Her democratic philosophy spills over into her own designs—one of her dresses sells at vintage and haute consignment retailer Decades for $350 and a lacey bra on ASOS for $35—providing access for the everywoman. “You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be a celebrity to get glamour,” she says. “That’s what my entire career is based on.”

With Von Teese, what you see onstage is exactly what you get offstage. “She lives as if there is always a red carpet under her feet at all times,” says Cameron Silver, friend and co-owner of Decades.  

“I don’t have a persona I put on,” she explains. “People responded to me well and enjoyed watching me perform when I was being myself, and not trying to be sexy or trying to be somebody that I wasn’t.”

“When I’m 90 years old, I will be wearing this red lipstick,” she says. “I’m not trying to please anyone else.”

See Dita Von Teese perform live during her Strip Strip Hooray Tour

By Sasha Levine (@sashalevine)


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