FOR MODEL AND BURLESQUE STAR DITA VON TEESE, OLD-FASHIONED BEAUTY IS A PART OF HER EVERYDAY LIFE
INTERVIEW BY HECTOR CANTU | PHOTOGRAPHS BY AXEL KOESTER
Entering the Los Angeles home of Dita Von Teese is like traveling back in time.
At the door, looking for all the world like she’s just stepped out of a 1950s television commercial, Von Teese greets guests in a June Cleaver dress, with perfectly coifed hair and bright red lipstick. In her living room, you’ll lounge on furniture patterned after 1930s Art Deco classics. If she lets you peek into a bedroom that’s been transformed into a giant walk-in closet, you’ll see brooches, stockings, shoes, hats and corsets from the 1940s. And in her garage, you’ll see her latest vintage car, maybe a classic 1965 Jaguar S-Type.
Von Teese is lucky. Her career as a burlesque performer-turned-international style icon allows her to fill her life with things she likes, things that remind her of days gone by.
“Some defining moments in my life were times I spent at my grandparent’s house,” says the native of Rochester, Mich. “All the things in it were fascinating to me. They were married in the 1930s, and so they had a lot of things from that era, lots of knick knacks. Today, I can’t stand sterile environments, modern places, white colors. I like the richness, depth and romantic feel of old times.”
“I would describe her look as Hollywood Regency,” says Connie Parente, who provides jewelry for fashion shoots, music videos and movies, and who counts Von Teese among her clients. “It’s like taking a movie set from the late ’30s or early ’40s and bringing it into your home.”
Other than her stage name (she was born Heather Renée Sweet), there’s little about Von Teese’s demeanor that gives away what she does for a living. She is soft-spoken and petite, standing no more than 5 feet 6 inches. Yet this model-turned-Playboy centerfold has crafted a wildly popular burlesque show that’s recorded two sold-out runs at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre. Last summer, she took “Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray!” on the road, selling out venues coast-to-coast. “We’ve seen a lot of Dita’s show, and it does not disappoint!” celebrity blogger Perez Hilton gushes. “There’s just something about how she moves that can put anyone into a trance … magical stuff, we tell you!”
Dita has her own ideas about what’s magical. There’s magic in the Art Deco, tall-case clock standing sentry-like in the corner of her living room. In the vintage silverware she keeps in her kitchen. In the pin-up paintings on her walls. In the brooches stored in her bedroom closet.
“Things she’s attracted to,” Parente says, “are things that suit her look and personality. When she puts something on, it looks like she was born in it.”
“Generally,” says Von Teese, “I have a big appreciation for the way things were made with a different kind of beauty, pre-1940s. And generally, I don’t care what the value is. Somebody once told me, ‘Do you know what you have there?’ And that’s great. I’m glad to know something I have has a certain kind of resale value. But generally, I’m not a snob about my collection. I buy things that I like.”
Do you ever answer your front door wearing pajamas or jeans?
In today’s celebrity culture, there’s a whole attitude of, “I’m just like you.” It used to be in old Hollywood there was an attitude of, “I’m not like you. I’m totally different. I go around like this every day.” It was about creating mystique. People like to have something to dream about. If you see your favorite actress at Starbucks with her hair not brushed, wearing sweatpants with holes, wearing Birkenstocks, I think it bums people out.
So when did you start collecting?
My mother used to collect antiques. She loved buying vintage furniture and stripping it and re-doing it herself. So we were always looking at antiques, vintage furniture, going to garage sales. I always say I don’t know what I’d do if I fell in love with someone who was really into modern style and décor. One time, a certain very handsome, well-known movie star wanted to go on a date with me and I went to his house and I was thinking, “This is never going to work.” It was one of those extreme minimalist, white modernist houses. Push a button and the doors open. That kind of thing. It was really too much for me. We never even really went on a first date. But I also started collecting because I couldn’t afford new things. I couldn’t afford designer clothes, and so that’s how I started flea-marketing and buying vintage.
Let’s start with your pin-up art collection. Obviously, it’s easy to see the connection between Golden Age pin-up art and your career as a burlesque performer.
I just bought a Zoe Mozart [1904–1993] at a Heritage auction. I’m still kicking myself because there are a few things I lost in that auction. I was there from start to finish and there was a Peter Driben [1902-1968] piece. I’m really distraught that I didn’t get one when I had a chance. You’re sitting there, thinking that the price is getting pretty high, and you stop bidding and then you go home and think, “Oh my god! These are important pieces, pieces that inspired everything about my career! And they’re as valuable as any other kind of artwork!” You think how much influence pin-up art has had on culture, especially for me. But it’s hard.
Did you bid on any other items in that auction?
There were a couple of pieces that I loved that weren’t necessarily famous artists, but I found myself bidding against someone over a piece estimated at under $1,000. I’d never heard of the artist but this piece showed a fan dancer. I remember sitting next to this guy and he was, like, “I’m not leaving today without that painting.” And it went up and up and up to like $7,000 and I thought, “Wha? Who wants this as bad as me?” It was upsetting. I was thinking, “I’m a fan dancer. I want this fan dancer art. Who needs that more than I need it?” That’s the thing. There are always people with bigger buying power, and if somebody wants something, they’re going to have it. I do the same thing to people on eBay. I can afford to spend a certain amount on a dress. It works both ways.
It’s amazing how popular pin-up art has become in recent years.
Yes, it’s incredible. But at the same time, when you think about the art of that era, people will always love it and it’s finished. It’s over. There’s nothing like that now. So of course people want it.
Who are some of your favorite pin-up artists?
[French artist] Jean-Gabriel Domergue [1889-1962] is one. I love the big colorful Gil Elvgrens [1914-1980]. I love Rolf Armstrong [1889-1960]. I love Alberto Vargas [1896-1982]. I like the big, colorful paintings the most. I love the punchy ones on the covers of Wink, Eyeful and Titter. I collect magazines from that era, from the 1940s and 1950s.
I see pin-up art hanging on your walls. What piece are you most proud of right now?
My Zoe Mozart is beautiful. I like my Domergues. I like the long necks he painted, the swan neck. I also like things that aren’t necessarily by famous painters. I find a lot of great paintings in Paris, like costume sketches and vintage showgirl sketches. I also like works by Olivia [b.1948]. She’s a modern pin-up artist and she’s a good friend of mine and I have a few original paintings that she did of me.
I hear that you’re selling your 1965 Jaguar S-Type on the Internet. How’s that going?
Basically, what happened was this: I had a 1939 Chrysler New Yorker for many years, about 15 years. I bought it and then it came time to restore it and my mechanic said, “Listen, the cost of the restoration is going to be $15,000. The car is probably worth $8,000.” He’s giving me this whole story, that I should sell it, but I was really attached to it. I love ’30s cars. But he talked me into it. I put it on the Internet and it went for $25,000 to some guy Germany! And we got really excited about that.
Then I bought a 1946 Ford convertible. I just sent it to the shop. I needed the gas gauge fixed because a girl in a vintage car without a working gas gauge … it’s hard enough keeping those cars on the road, let alone running out of gas! It’s a great convertible. Then I just bought a Packard, because it satisfies my ’30s car lust.
The reason I decided to sell the Jag, even though I finally got everything working and running on it, is because there’s this Cadillac I have my eye on. It’s dark green with green tinted glass, from that era. That’s when I decided to let the Jag go so I can make more room. But even the Packard, I bought it for $23,000 and there are three people who wanted it, too, and I heard they said things like, “If she changes her mind, I’ll pay five grand extra for it!” So we make a joke that I should keep buying and selling cars. Take pictures with them, go to some red carpet events and then sell them.
A lot of people see car buffs as guys, mechanics with greasy hands. You’re the complete opposite.
I don’t work on my cars, although I know how to check the oil and put in oil and water! But that’s about the extent of it. It’s funny because whenever I park one of my old cars and go into a store, there’s always a couple of guys standing around it when I get back, and I’m like, “Excuse me,” and they say, “This is your car?” So it is kind of a stereotype that they’re men’s cars. I’ve dated guys who drove vintage cars and one day I was thinking, “Wait, I can buy and I can drive my own vintage car! I don’t need this guy driving me around!”
What two or three things do you look for when you go out buying?
I like the thrill of the hunt, especially with vintage clothing. I am not going to walk into a fancy Art Deco store in Los Angeles and spend … their stuff is beautiful, I admire if, of course … but I’m not going to spend $8,000 on a martini shaker. I’m going to find one that needs a little bit of polishing, re-chroming and I’m going to find it at a flea market for considerably less, because I like the thrill of the hunt. I generally know what things cost. I don’t buy things just because they’re expensive. I have no problem telling somebody that their ’30s dress is overpriced and that I’d never spend that much on it. But there are some things that are totally worth spending money on.
Where do you buy most of the items in your collection?
I do a lot of eBay and I’ve followed it since it started. I remember when you could look at everything on eBay in one sitting! I also go to the Rose Bowl flea market. The Long Beach Antique Market is a favorite. And I go to auctions. I went to a pin-up art auction at Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills. I got two pieces there. And then there’s an auction house in Paris where I saw a Domergue and I became really obsessed. I looked at the estimate and it was 3,000 euros or so, and I thought, “Oh, wow, I can afford that.” I went in and it was really intense. I was bidding. People were on the phone bidding and I went up to 10,000 euros [$13,800], and then I stopped because I got scared. Later, the same day, I went to a gallery and saw that Domergues were selling for between $40,000 and $300,000 each. And my accountant said, “You can invest in art. It’s better than investing in more clothes and more shoes.” So it was my first lesson in doing my research, because I had never bought art before. I didn’t really know what I was getting into and I still regret I didn’t bid higher.
Do you have someone who buys for you?
No, no, no. At most, I have my friend, Stacia Dunnam, who’s an interior designer, and she and I are close friends and we go hunting together.
What would you like to collect that you don’t collect now?
Hmmm. Airstream trailers! I want an Airstream trailer. I want to redecorate the whole inside. That’s my dream, making it all posh and luxurious inside!
Let me throw out some categories you collect and give me some thoughts on each. First, talk about your entertainment memorabilia.
I have letters from [burlesque dancer and actress] Sally Rand [1904-1979]. She was famous for doing a feather fan dance with nearly no clothes on … and sometimes no clothes on, with big white ostrich feather fans. I have a corset that Betty Grable [1916-1973] wore in a movie, which I bought over the Internet. It was a great score! Definitely genuine. Also a shawl that Dorothy Lamour [1914-1996] knitted on a movie set. I got that from a Hollywood memorabilia company.
You collect jewelry?
I collect big brooches, big rhinestone costume brooches, designers like Trifari and Regency. I have a lady, Connie Parente, who usually is my go-to gal for great costume jewelry. She sells at the Vintage Fashion Expo, which is another favorite excursion here in Santa Monica. I like things from the ’40s, like the big, gold, swirling, feather-type brooches, things with a lot of color, really big extravagant jewelry. I have a few fine jewelry pieces … watches, rings, earrings. I like Art Deco jewelry. Generally, I like big jewelry. It’s either big jewelry or no jewelry!
All the furniture we’re sitting on here, it’s all reproductions by these guys in Texas. They build beautiful Deco furniture but I have a lot of authentic furniture from them, too.
Taxidermy? That’s a strange one. Why taxidermy?
That’s something me and my ex-husband [rock star Marilyn Manson] used to collect together. I love my taxidermy pieces and when I move I always pack those myself. I tell the movers, “I will kill you if anything happens to them!” Our collection got split down the middle when we got divorced. I kept the stuff I felt was mine – the swans and the birds – and he kept all the monkeys and the weird orangutans.
You also like antique silverware?
I love the Love Disarmed series by Reed & Barton. I’ve been collecting it very slowly, trying to get an entire set. But it hasn’t been as easy as I’d hoped. I have five settings in my Paris apartment. That, in particular, is a very beautiful design with a very voluptuous woman with her arm up and a cupid behind her. It’s really sexy and dates to the 1800s. I love reminders that people weren’t always so conservative. I’ve gone on a few TV shows and they’ve tried to cover up my cleavage, and I was thinking, “What’s happening in this country that everyone is so afraid of women’s breasts?” Being a burlesque dancer and knowing the history of American burlesque in this country, it’s really strange to me that things have made a shift. Why is it that burlesque shows were so popular and [American burlesque entertainer] Gypsy Rose Lee [1914-1970] was a huge star who stripped and wore pasties on stage, and yet things have flopped all these years later? So I like things that are racy, things that remind you that people have always had a sense of humor about sex and have liked titillating things.
If there’s a running theme in your collection, what would it be? What binds everything together?
I call it retro glamour, with a little bit of kitsch thrown in. I like funny things. You haven’t seen my whole house, but it can get pretty kitschy in here. There’s a ceramic wiener dog on the floor. I buy things because I like them.
So, ultimately, what is your fascination with vintage collectibles?
One of the reasons I like my things is I like to imagine who had them before or who wore them before and I know a lot of people get freaked out by things like vintage clothes, thinking, “I don’t want to wear old clothes!” But that’s what I like about it. I love imagining, “Oh my god, some woman used to wear this, walking on the street. What an amazing time that was. What was she like? Did she have a boyfriend? A husband? Where did she wear this hat?” I’m really fascinated by that, especially in this day and age when everybody is trying to blend.
DITA’S DREAM GALLERY
We asked Dita Von Teese to reveal her favorite pin-up artists and paintings.
Stepping Out, 1953
“I love this one because when I create a new burlesque act, I always think of bringing pin-up art to life!”
Boa Dancer, circa 1945
“I was in a bidding war with someone over this one! I really wanted it, because she’s feather fan-dancing, which is a classic burlesque element that I continuously re-invent in different ways, with different types of fans, in almost all of my acts. Sadly, it didn’t go home with me.”
“I own an original Bill Ward that was given to me in the very early 1990s by a friend of mine named Reb Stout. He owned some incredible Bill Wards, very extreme, and also some of the original gear that was worn by Bettie Page for [photographer] Irving Klaw. He was one of the most interesting and amazing men I have ever known, and he was the one who shaped my early years as a burlesque star. He passed on a few years ago, but I think of him often, and Bill Ward’s art always reminds me of him.”
Through the Keyhole
Whisper magazine cover, May 1951
“I love Peter Driben. I have stacks of vintage men’s magazines that feature his cover art. Eyeful, Wink, Twitter … endless inspiration for me. This is an iconic piece. I love stockings and garters!”
Ted Withers (1896-1964)
Can Can Girl
“I collect French pin-up art of dancers, so this one really appeals to me. I like to search flea markets in Paris for any kind of pinup/nude/erotic/showgirl art, and I don’t care who painted it. I just love brushstrokes of frills, lace, bonnets and stocking-clad legs!”
Pal Fried (1893-1976)
“I love the 1940s-1950s era art of ballerinas! When I was a little girl, I saved up for a ’50s painting in a nearby antique store where I lived in West Branch, Mich. I also had a ’50s record of ballet music, and on the front was a ballerina with a turquoise tulle tutu and point shoes, with fishnet tights with seams up the back. I believe that image had a huge impact on what my adult obsessions became. This painting reminds me of it. I grew up wanting to be a ballerina, but now I realize I just wanted their outfits and dramatic makeup!”
HECTOR CANTU is editor of The Intelligent Collector magazine. This article appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of The Intelligent Collector.