International burlesque superstar Dita Von Teese has proven time and time again that she’s more than just a pretty face with a tiny waist. Working in the worlds of fashion, beauty, books and music, the dark-haired vixen has turned her extravagant stage productions into a multi-faceted brand.
Von Teese recently teamed up with Absolut Elyx vodka for the Copper Coupe tour, which lands at the Aztec on June 7. The touring spectacle will include a variety of special guest performers, including burlesque icon Dirty Martini, Texas native Ginger Valentine, boylesque star Jett Adore, Australian sensation Zelia Rose and Playboy model-turned showgirl Gia Genevieve. Comedian, “gay pimp” and host of the LGBTQ web series Hey Qween, Jonny McGovern will emcee the evening alongside Von Teese’s stylish and sexy “Vontourage.”
asked Pastie Pops Burlesque ringleader Jasper St. James to interview the queen of the tease in anticipation of her second visit to the Alamo City. They chatted about the history of burlesque, the diversity of her cast and audiences, unconventional beauty and, of course, tacos.
JSJ: First and foremost, congratulations on your [self-titled] debut album. It’s fantastic. It’s totally on my “Sunday Vibes” playlist. So whenever I’m just lounging around in a robe, it’s on repeat. So what was the album process like for you?
DVT: I never expected to make an album, I mean, although I’ve recorded music for my shows — like Technicolor musical soundtracks to go with my performances — I’m not a singer. It’s not really something that comes natural to me. I’m sure if you’ve heard it, you can tell.
No, it’s fantastic.
I was approached by Sébastien Tellier, who’s an artist I’ve long admired. I kind of felt like I should preface [our conversation] by saying, “You know I can’t really sing, right?” And he was like, “No, I just think that there’s something special about you and your voice, blah blah blah.” So I just accepted to do it, knowing full well that I would have people who said that it sucks and they hate it. [But] they can do that with anything. The thing that I think I’m best at, or the thing that I think I’m worst at, somebody might hate it, somebody might love it — that’s part of life as far as putting yourself out there.
Well, I definitely love it. It’s sexy without being overtly sexual. It’s definitely erotic but in a playful way. So you’re coming back to San Antonio, and you’re one of the most celebrated and iconic burlesque performers of our time. For a lot of our readers, they’ve probably never been to a burlesque show or heard of burlesque. How does Dita Von Teese define burlesque and what can audiences expect to see at the The Copper Coupe show?
To describe a burlesque show I tell people what it was historically: it was kind of a variety show that was very popular in the 1930s and ’40s and kind of died out in the ’50s. It was a spinoff of vaudeville and the stars of the burlesque show were usually strippers. So it was kind of like a working man’s entertainment, and definitely something that was predominantly for men. And for men to see a woman in different stages of déshabiller — taking off her clothes. So I usually tell them that, but what’s interesting about the modern burlesque revival is that it’s become something symbolic of an alternative type of sensuality that’s come to inspire people. Because some of the very, very best performers in burlesque, certainly the people that I choose to employ, represent different facets of beauty and different body shapes, different ethnicities, gender fluidity. I always look for performers who are changing people’s minds about what it is to be a burlesque performer. I choose not to present the show full of little 20-something pinup girls. I really feel like what’s great about the modern burlesque revival is the meaning it has for people. And I always bring it back to the meaning it had for me when I first decided to be a burlesque performer and a pinup girl. I didn’t have any modern standards of beauty that I could relate to as a mediocre dishwater blonde from a farming plantation. I wanted to be glamorous and I had to create myself.
As a performer of size and color myself, and as a producer, I definitely look for the same things. I want my shows to be an eclectic mix of performers of different ethnicities and body sizes. I find it more resonating if audiences are able to identify with somebody on stage showing that same glamour and confidence.
At the same time, you can’t check every box. I wish I could. One day, I’m going to check every single box — when I can afford to put a show up on stage that’s like everything that I think and represents as many as people as possible. First and foremost it’s always important to me to have show-stopping performers that bring the house down. My goal is to get people as support talent that people applaud for more than me; or when they’re asked later what their favorite part of the show was, they’re like “Dirty Martini!” I’m not offended or anything because that’s what I want. I love burlesque, I love performing, but what I’m most proud of with this show is what I feel like it represents for people.
How important is it for you to keep your shows diverse and inclusive, especially in importance to the LGBTQ community?
I think about making the best show possible — what I think is amazing and good ... If I just worry about what makes everyone else happy, it’s going to be an epic failure — because that’s how it goes. I just think about when I see an act that I’m like, “That is hilarious, amazing, clever, and is something that everyone else is going to want to derive their burlesque shows from.” I think about that a lot. I think about who’s doing things that are really different. I want burlesque to continue to live on and that’s how it’s going to happen: through people trying new ideas and not just copying what’s been done in the past. So I really just look for people that I think are trailblazing and doing something that you can tell is really coming from their own authenticity and their heart and not just something that they saw that they liked.
I think that’s what’s going to keep the longevity of burlesque going — the evolution of it. Speaking of diversity, your audiences are pretty diverse as well, consisting of primarily women. But you also have a strong LGBTQ following. What is it about you and your show that you think attracts the LGBTQ community?
I’m always scared of that question because, I don’t know, I’ve always done what I do.
I think it goes back to you being a glamour evangelist.
I can make light of it and say, “It’s the feathers, it’s the rhinestones, it’s the makeup, it’s the eyelashes.” I don’t know what it is. Because I don’t want to be cliché and be like, “Oh yeah, all the gays they love that stuff — because not all the gays love that stuff. So I never like to say, “This is why.” I think there are different reasons for different people, but we definitely have a space where you can let you freak flag fly if you want. People show up in full drag, they show up tied up, they show up doing whatever they want and they can feel like they’re in an inclusive space. It’s not just about the show, our audience is amazing. Our audience is super accepting and uplifting to each other for the most part. Don’t get me wrong, we have some frights in the audience. But a lot of people have made lifelong friendships by coming to our show alone and meeting new people ... Sometimes when the curtains first open, I get overwhelmed with emotion looking out into the audience at who is there and how amazing they are and how beautiful they are in so many different ways. It’s part of what keeps me going.
I definitely think you provide a safe space for a lot of people and I think that’s super important.
I mean you can’t please everyone all the time. [There might be] people who are reading this right now who are snarky and are gonna be like, “Fuck that bitch. She said this or she said that.” There’s always gonna be somebody. I play with a lot of cliché things and playful funny things — that’s burlesque, and we make light of certain things and I love that. I do what I love doing, and I know it opens me up to criticism at times. It’s par for the course but I still have to keep doing things my way.
That’s the only way to do it. Otherwise if you’re doing it for someone else you’re not truly being authentic to yourself.
Yeah, you become super boring and mediocre when you’re trying to please everybody else.
Of course, I’m a fan, and I’ve read your books. After reading Your Beauty Mark, one of the things that I truly admire is the fact that you do your own hair and makeup before a show. What are some of your backstage beauty essentials, the must-haves in your travel box?
It’s a big travel box [laughs]. Good lighting. That’s one of the number one things. It’s always a struggle to make sure I can see everything from every angle. I do like doing my own hair and makeup backstage for a number of reasons. [It’s] part of the process of setting my mind and it’s very hard for me to have people in the dressing room. So, in my beauty case, it’s a lot of stuff. Not just live five lipstick tubes, there’s probably like 25.
You can never know what shade you want to wear that day. You have to have your backups.
You never know. I probably could whittle it down but I love having that big spread in front of me, of 100 beauty products to play with. It’s part of the fun of it. I could certainly go with less. But why bother when I have a semi truck that I need to fill up?
And you don’t know what the humidity is gonna be like. There are so many variables.
Yeah, it’s true. It’s a lot of trail and error with beauty. Like, oh, you can’t use that glossy lipstick because if one hair goes through it, you’re going to do your whole show with a streak of red across your face. I have a lot of products that don’t work and then things that just are tried and true.
So last time you were here in San Antonio, you sold out the Aztec Theatre. It was such a great show. But one of the things that I really did appreciate is that you donated proceeds from general admission tickets to Hurricane Harvey relief.
Just to clarify, when the hurricane happened, we had a few hundred remaining seats and I asked Live Nation, “Can you get on board with this and do this?” It wouldn’t be really possible — I’m not Beyoncé — to run the finances of a show and what it costs to pay everyone. But we did that with the last remaining seats. And we’re really grateful for all the people who came out despite what was going on there.
I ran into so many people that traveled from different parts of the state just to come to that show. So I think it really just shows that people were coming together at that time, especially here in Texas.
I’m grateful. It’s one of those things where you sit there and say, “The show has to go on.” I was in a hurricane before in New York and it shut down the whole production. And we always have that “the show must go on” spirit because there are people who are intent on coming out and then there are people who can’t come. So our way is that we do what we can to put on a show. When we can’t, we can’t. But fortunately we were able to have a full house regardless.
That was your first time coming to San Antonio and now you’re coming back again. How do you think San Antonio compares to other cities that you’ve been to?
It’s hard for me to say because of what was going on. The streets were empty. I was walking around everywhere and there was nobody. I’m sure it’s going to be a lot different this time.
I saw you got to go to Mi Tierra, which is pretty cool.
Yeah, but it was like … no one was anywhere. There were maybe like a dozen people in that huge restaurant. I feel like this time it’ll be different and I’ll get to see a little bit more of what San Antonio is normally like.
Well if you need a place to get some good Mexican food, I got you.
So I gotta ask, since San Antonio is known for its Mexican food, does Dita Von Teese like her tacos?
Oh, I’m a huge taco fan. I love tacos. I was just in Mexico City and I was in Tulum, too. And I was like, where’s the Mexican food in all these resorts? They were serving American cuisine, which I found frustrating ... One of the reasons I left Paris — I have to tell you — I was living in Paris for three years and you can’t get a taco to save your life.
Now that’s a problem. That is a severe problem. We’ll definitely have to hook you up with a barbacoa taco and a Big Red when you’re here.
… [And] maybe a dirty martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives.
I’m an instructor and a manager here at the Sexology Institute and we carry your Art of the Tease book. When I see our customers looking at your book, the first thing that comes out their mouths is how beautiful you are and how glamorous you look. And then it is always followed up with how they wish they could look like you. What advice would you give to someone, specifically women who are kind of struggling to unlock that inner glam goddess that’s within them?
The book is really about that, and I was really intent on trying to show people what I think — glamour evangelist speaking here — that beauty and glamour and what you create and this vintage style looks good on women of every age, on every skin tone ... So the book is really about telling people, if they want it, here’s how I do it, and here’s all my shortcuts, and also my philosophies that I hope will inspire other people that maybe felt like I did ... like a little dishwater blonde who felt overlooked ... trying to find my confidence and find my way, which I did through the creation of glamour and beauty, and embracing artifice.
We sell lingerie at Sexology and, of course, one of the biggest things we hear is: “I wonder what my husband (or boyfriend) would like me in.”
And I can’t state enough by telling them, “Wear what makes you feel confident. Wear what makes you feel sexy.
I know you have your own lingerie line. What are some lingerie essentials you feel every woman should own for themselves?
I got my start working in a lingerie store when I was 15, so lingerie is something I could talk about all day long ... I started working at a strip club when I was 20 years old. And I would come decked in thigh-high stockings, black opera gloves, a full corset, a bra and bikini underwear ... And there were all these rumors about what my body looked like underneath it ... It was a fun psychological experiment — of being fully dressed, but not.
The allure of what’s underneath, the element of tease, it’s always there in everyday-wear, you know? It’s not something you have to do on the stage.
That’s what I always say: You don’t have to be a burlesque performer to embrace what the spirit of burlesque and pinup is about. I think that’s one of the other reasons we have so many women that come to the shows. You’re given permission to do it in a different way than what we are so used to seeing. In the early ’90s and in the ’80s, I was bombarded with images of Sports Illustrated bikini models with their G-strings falling off. And I was like, “Oh my God, I can never look like that with sand on my butt.”
It’s never on the butt. You always get it, like, in the butt. It’s never that picture-perfect moment.
Certain people look really good in minimal. It’s fine, but I never felt like that person.
I think a lot of people feel that way, too. Well, congratulations on the new tour. I understand it’s going to be one of the last you’ll do in the states for a couple of years.
We need to take a little break. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. This’ll probably be the last one for about a year and a half, so I hope people come see it, see what’s different from the last show that we brought to San Antonio. I can promise a really fun night. We’re really excited about that amazing theater again. I love that theater.
On a personal level, this truly means so much to me. And as a producer, you’ve really inspired me. As a business person, you inspire me. And as a performer. So, thank you so much.
Well, thank you. We appreciate the support from the local burlesque performers. Where we get it, we really appreciate it.
$35-$40, Thu, June 7, 7:30pm, Aztec Theatre, 104 N. St. Mary’s St., (210) 812-4355, theaztectheatre.com.
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