It's no secret, well-kept or otherwise, that the already-frustrating process of aging receives increased scrutiny for those living with that once-elusive thing called fame. But for the queen of burlesque, Dita Von Teese, it's not aging that causes her grievance, but the way the industry treats women over a certain age.
We caught up with the 43-year-old burlesque dancer/model/designer at Labor of Love: The Hamptons, an end-of-summer benefit hosted by Housing Works and the Points Guy, Brian Kelly, that is estimated to have raised over $40,000 toward ending the AIDS epidemic in New York by 2020.
Von Teese performed before a crowd of about 300, but before she slipped into nearly nothing, we caught a word with her away from the crowd, discussing a range of topics from body positivity to industry-wide ageism and sexism.
Mic: You've managed to maintain a career as a multihyphenate — performer, actress, model, designer, etc. — how have you succeeded in not prescribing to being just one thing?
Dita Von Teese: I've always been true to what I believe in and what I love. Everything that I do comes from obsession that has been with me since childhood. And I think people respond to authenticity. I've certainly watched people bounce in and out of the burlesque scene because it was hot and then maybe it's not, but I believe it and I love it and I feel proud of the message and impact it's had on women trying to find their own confidence, and telling them that they can find it through glamour and artifice.
It's not hard to remain relevant if you are authentic. Whether I'm in vogue or not in vogue, I still feel like the reward is there because I love what I do.
It's hard to deny that we've entered a full-blown body positive movement. Do you see this as real progress or a potentially passing fad?
DVT: It's certainly becoming this thing that people are more aware of. In my full-length review, a lot of my performers are of all body shapes and sizes and different ethnicities, gender-fluid, etc. I don't hire them because that's the message for my show, I hire them because they are the best. I think sometimes when you have only pretty little pin-up model girls it can be a little flat and boring because they don't have the fire the same way. I think the movement is going to a great place, I don't think it'll be a passing fad — but the next fight is definitely ageism.
In what sense?
DVT: I sit down with people all of the time who ask, 'When are you going to retire? You're getting old.' And I'm like, 'Wait, what if I am getting old? Isn't it okay to celebrate beauty at every stage of life?' If we can celebrate beauty and eroticism and sensuality with all shapes and sizes, we should also think about the different stages of life. That's the next hurdle that I'm interested in.
Do you think there's something inherently gendered in that conversation?
DVT: I've sat down with journalists and they say, 'What will you do now that you're getting older?' And I think you wouldn't be asking me that if I were a man; you're asking me that because I'm a woman and insinuating that the reason I put on a good show is that I'm young and sexy or that I have a great body. I don't have the perfect body. I like to perform and I've built a certain kind of show that I love to do.
Of course the question does come up as to how much longer I want to do it. I kind of put myself into a little retirement two years ago and then I got asked to perform at the Crazy Horse in Paris again. I was really nervous about performing with these 19-year-old girls in a place that's about perfection and beauty, but I left there feeling triumphant. I had all these girls asking me about how I do what I do, and gained a lot from working with me too. It was mutual admiration.
You created a capsule collection of nursing-enabled undergarments for new moms a few years back. Where did that idea spawn from?
DVT: I didn't want to be another "sexy" lingerie brand. I believe in beauty and glamour in everyday life. I've always gone to flea markets to buy objects of beauty that were not very expensive so I could surround myself by beautiful things. That's why I love lingerie, it's like an everyday item that can be symbolic of womanhood and femininity.
I had this idea with Destination Maternity to do beautiful maternity bras because a lot of women are still breastfeeding two years later and are ready for something more beautiful. I had a lot of backlash because people were like 'Who are you telling me I need to look sexy for a man?' And I thought how interesting people's association with beautiful lingerie — how some of us see it as a right of passage, of womanhood, and others see it as only something you'd wear for a man.
But it had a huge response from many who wanted something that made them feel good. Of course there's never a big enough size. I do my very best, but I'm always fighting against what really works in the marketplace and trying to create garments for all sizes.
One thing really special about you and you career is your commitment to the LGBTQ community, not just in speaking out in support, but in employing people within our community and attending events like the one today. What is being an ally to you and why is that so important?
DVT: It was interesting when I first started performing striptease/burlesque shows in the early '90s. I had a certain kind of audience and it shifted so much to become something that i never expected, which was more like something that was inspiring people. Originally my fans were men, fetishists and pin-up fans. It shifted to become some kind of inspiring movement for women and the LGBTQ community, those wanting to have a different role model of sensuality and beauty, apart from the mainstream ideals of blonde and tan and cheerleader style.
First I started working with the MAC AIDS Fund, which really opened my eyes to the fact that progress was being made in the fight against AIDS, and seeing firsthand how connecting with charities can make a difference. You can even see in the last 10 years what strides have been made. Feeling like I have the support of this community makes me want to support back and use my presence and voice however I can.