AMERICAN burlesque performer Dita Von Teese found fame with a signature striptease in a martini glass big enough to bathe in. Both at work and off duty, her dedication to her 1940s Hollywood glamour look has earned her a reputation as a fashion icon.
She set her sights on the Crazy Horse on her first visit to Paris and has since realised her dream of joining the showgirls up on stage. Dita tells Eleanor Fullalove how she still manages to fit in marathon French lessons, embracing the beret and the delicious Soufflé Von Teese.
How do you divide your time between Paris and Los Angeles?
I base it on how much I am working in Europe. I usually spend a month to two months in Paris while I am working throughout Europe – it makes it easier than travelling to and from Hollywood all the time.
What sort of things do you do when staying in Paris?
I spend most of my time taking French lessons, shopping at the markets for ingredients to prepare meals at home and trying new restaurants. I also love walking around the city and discovering new places.
What do you like about France and what have you learned since your arrival?
I found living here is much different to being in Paris as a tourist. I have also learned French is a very complicated language and I must accept I will probably always make mistakes, no matter how hard or how long I study.
How are the French lessons going?
I really enjoy it on some days while on others I become so frustrated with the complexity of it. I know that if I ever have children, they will be taught a second language from a young age. I’m from Michigan and there’s no chance I would have ever been taught the importance of being bilingual because I never thought I would leave Michigan, let alone go and live in another country.
What is the best way to learn?
The only thing is taking three to four hour-long lessons at a time. One hour a day doesn’t really help – that’s merely a warm-up.
Apart from Paris, have you travelled much within France?
I’ve been to the south of France a bit with my boyfriend [Count Louis-Marie de Castelbajac, son of the French fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac]. I love seeing other parts of France and would love to see more.
You said “Being in Italy makes me want to wear the thickest eyeliner and biggest lashes ever. I want to look like an extra in a Fellini film.” How does being in France make you feel in comparison?
It makes me want to try to be like the cliché of French women in the 1950s. I love clichés, I love kitsch. I love wearing my vintage berets in France and don’t care if it makes me seem silly.
How did you first learn about the Crazy Horse venue in Paris? What awakened your interest in burlesque?
I have a very high regard and respect for The Crazy Horse – it is a historic place.
When I was a teenager, I saw one little picture in Playboy of these beautiful nearly nude “toy soldiers” lined up and was desperate to find out more about this mysterious place.
There was no internet access yet and so I couldn’t very easily find out anything about it. I didn’t even have the name of it, just this image in my head for years.
When I finally made it to Paris in my early 20s, I kept asking people about these naked toy soldiers and finally got to see the show – I was amazed. I went to the show every night I was in Paris and for the next decade I would go to see the show every chance I got.
I also befriended a Crazy Horse historian and got to look through all the archives and meet former dancers.
A few years ago I did a photo shoot there, which is something they never allowed, in order to preserve the mystery of the place.
Little by little, I got more involved and eventually became the first guest star in the history of the Crazy Horse, so that was exciting.
Since 1951, everyone who was anyone went there.
The guest list was impressive: Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy, Gypsy Rose Lee and Salvador Dali.
For me, it’s just incredible to be in that theatre, to see the same stage as all those stars and to think that there was once a time when a show like this was revered like that.
It’s the art of being nude, the glorification of the female form, absolute perfection.
There is no show like it on Earth and the history and mystery of this place is amazing.
I’m a big fan and part of my driving force in performing there was to bring attention to this amazing show.
Of course, I liked the challenge in creating acts for it that are both true to their history and ideals and at the same time true to mine, which is based in American-style classic burlesque, which is what originally inspired the founder to create the Crazy Horse in Paris.
What is your favourite show to perform and why – is it the latest thing you are working on or an old favourite?
I would have to say that my latest show, Opium Den, is my favourite. The set is elaborate, the music is incredible and I love performing it. Right now, I am working on two new acts that will debut this summer.
As far as old favourites go, I like doing my Powder Compact show because it’s adorable and unique and I don’t think it’s been seen as often as it should be.
Just as your look is inspired by times gone by, you are drawn to places in Paris with a history, like the Crazy Horse and the Hotel Raphael where Gainsbourg lived and Hepburn and JFK once stayed. Where does this fascination with the past originate?
More than anything, I think it’s just deeply imbedded within me, I can’t really explain it.
I was always attracted to things that seemed mysterious and unattainable, things that are impossibly glamorous.
For instance, I always loved the ballet, with the women in severe make-up and chignons. Think of all that tulle and satin.
It’s also the idea of head to toe dressing, which takes time and effort. I love what a transformation such clothes can have – the way they make you stand, sit and walk better.
If it were more possible, I might also enjoy wearing big hooped skirts and petticoats but those looks are not as wearable and that’s one reason why I’ve chosen mid-century looks as opposed to styles from the 1800s. Imagine me trying to fit into almost any automobile in a giant hat and piles of petticoats.
Despite the effort in maintaining your figure, you are obviously quite taken with gastronomy and have mentioned a violet-flavoured “Soufflé Von Teese” at Le Recamier restaurant in Paris. How did that come about?
I go there now and then with a friend of mine named Ali Mahdavi, who is a very talented photographer and artist.
In their Livre d’Or (guest book) he drew a sketch of me as “Soufflé Von Teese” and they liked it so much that they created this soufflé for me. I adore the taste of violets, so that’s what flavour we asked them to make.
I imagine your Paris apartment is decorated in your own immaculate style – can you tell us about it or if you have plans to decorate?
I’ve only just moved in and, fortunately for me, it is already decorated with French antiques – I don’t have much to do at the moment.
I’ve just been embellishing it with my own personal artwork and touches. I am having new bedroom furniture made for it now too.
Could you imagine making France your permanent home?
If I could manage to have a real home with a garden, then yes… I could imagine that. But I don’t think I could always live in an apartment setting, no matter how beautiful and grand it is.
How would you rate your attempts at integration so far?
Aside from the language – I speak French like a three year old child right now – I think I do very well at fitting in.
The French generally like me and I think they appreciate the positives about me, like my style and my love of their country. They seem to forgive me for the most part on the language issue.
What do you miss about America when you are in France?
I miss being able to ask for what I want in English and complain eloquently.
I miss driving my cars [Dita has a 1939 Chrysler New Yorker, a 1965 Jaguar S-type and a BMW Z4] and some of my favourite vegetarian restaurants, although I am not actually a vegetarian.
Oh and I miss Mexican food and paying with US American dollars – Paris is expensive.