This Wednesday, iconic burlesque diva Dita Von Teese will bring her critically acclaimed show “Burlesque: Strip, Strip Hooray” to the Tower Theater for her first-ever Philadelphia appearance. She’ll be performing some of her most spectacular numbers, with a fabulous lineup of global burlesque heavyweights.
Being a burlesque performer myself, I was excited to have the chance to chat with her this week, where I picked her glittery brain about her rise in burlesque, who were her biggest inspirations, and of course, I couldn’t let the conversation end without asking what she uses to make her pasties stick.
You've been performing burlesque since 1992, and are now the most famous burlesquer in the world. How did that happen?
I think my success is due to me doing something I believed in all along, whether it was popular or not. It certainly wasn't popular in the early-'90s. I had to really seek out audiences, and I paid a lot of dues. I think a lot of people give up too easily, because they don’t get the recognition they expected. But for me, I feel like my success comes from feeling like my reward was always there whether I was recognized or famous or making money or whatever. And any time I had an accolade I looked at it as something I needed to live up to rather than getting a pat on the back.
Does your super-celebrity status make you feel removed from local burlesque scenes?
There were times — probably in the middle [of my career], maybe around like 2000 — where I was ostracized a little. Certain neo-burlesquers felt I wasn’t valid because I started performing my shows in strip clubs. They wanted to be removed from the stripper community. ... But most important to me is maintaining the integrity of [burlesque] and reminding people of a time when "striptease" was not a bad word, and when it wasn’t bad to be a stripper.
So what is your
definition of burlesque?
Burlesque was a type of show that was popular in America in the 1930s and '40s. It was a spinoff of Vaudeville, but the difference between the two is that, in burlesque, the jokes were more off-color and sexual in nature, and the stars of the show were striptease dancers. You had a lot of great stars who came out of burlesque — between the comedians and the striptease stars.
You talk a lot about the history of burlesque. Which early performers inspired you?
There are a few I’ve studied a lot. I've always been very interested in Gypsy Rose Lee’s career, because she’s probably the most known for stepping away from the burlesque stage and having a career her whole life. I’ve thought a lot about what she stood for as a woman in the 1940s and '50s, especially when she became a single mother and women embraced her. ... I feel like I have connected to that and to her in a lot of different ways, like with my brands and taking the strip out of just the strip club and bringing it to a mainstream place.
You have an incredibly busy performance schedule; do you ever get to be an audience member at other burlesque shows?
I don’t go to a lot of burlesque shows, because it kind of distracts [from the performance.] I feel like I can’t really enjoy the show, because I am constantly being asked to take pictures. It's really uncomfortable when I’m watching someone on stage and ... people are trying to talk to me. I feel like it’s kind of rude for me to be there. So anytime I go, I try to watch from a place where I can watch quietly and secretly. I wish I could go more, I like to go out and have a good time.
What takes you out of your comfort zone as a model and a performer?
Doing things I haven’t done before, like trying new things always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. That's why I do it. ... I think it’s good to step out of what you know and try something else.
Do you prefer performing for a large audience or at smaller more intimate shows?
I get more nervous at smaller intimate shows. My shows are built for bigger stages, and so I’m obviously happier when I have my birdcage on stage, and my martini glass. ... Everyone sees everything on tiny stages: every blink, if one step is out of line or anything. So I get more nervous about the little shows. ... I like the big stages, when it really feels like what burlesque would have felt like, where it’s a little bit looser and more fun. You know, sometimes I have to remind myself I’m not dancing in a Broadway show, this is a burlesque show it’s not supposed to be perfect! You know, that’s really part of the history of it. It’s live entertainment, and it’s about feeling your audience and going with the flow and enjoying it.
Now the question all of us burlesquers want to know. What does America's burlesque queen use to keep her pasties on?
For many, many years, I used this adhesive called Mastix, because I use a lot of water in my shows, and the good pasties are quite heavy. I did that for many, many years — up until maybe about a year and a half ago when we found an extra, super strong toupee tape that isn't like the normal double-sided tape. That’s been working pretty well for me, and I only lose a pastie now and then. My breasts are a lot happier with this tape than that heavy-duty spirit gum.
What can people expect when watching your show at Tower Theater this week?
In my show, “Strip, Strip Hooray,” I portray the diversity of the modern burlesque movement. It's not 90 minutes of girls doing what I do. It’s all very carefully selected — the very best of burlesque performers and solo artists who can stand their own and portray burlesque in their very own way. I think that’s the important thing. A lot of people will see burlesque as my way being the only way, but I’m really supportive of people taking it to new places. I think that’s what’s going to help it survive and live on and keep going as a form of entertainment.
"Burlesque: Strip, Strip Hooray" will take place on Wed., Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tower Theater. For more details and ticket links, go here.