Making Her Mark
Globally revered burlesque queen and fashion maven Dita Von Teese channels Golden-Era style while breathing class back into an art form that’s had its bumps and grinds. It’s her decade-long commitment to people living with HIV and those vulnerable to its infection, however, that reveals a beauty deeper than her skin.
Text & Photos by Sean Black
Over the last several weeks, through her social media channels which include a Twitter following of over two million, Dita Von Teese has paid tribute to inspirations Mae West and poet Leonard Cohen, who recently passed; she’s shared #bts peeks of her recent shoot in front of the legendary lenses of French photo duo Pierre et Gilles; and urged Americans to cast their votes. The savviness of her spotlight extends well beyond her scintillating burlesque performances. Von Teese knows how important it is to connect with her off-stage audiences as well. She’s mastered the art of engagement through her inimitable persona and, like any lasting artist, Dita Von Teese wants us to think beyond our erogenous zones.
“I’ve always felt that talking about sex and celebrating it releases the taboos and stereotypes. One of my key messages has always been about the ways we can demand safe sex; finding clever ways of asserting ourselves, and as women, to stop being shamed for carrying condoms and insisting on their use. Aside from reproduction and personal pleasure, sex can bond relationships, promote spiritual growth, and enhance physical and emotional health. I think there is still a long way to go in creating a truly sex-positive society.”
The sheer act of burlesque is, at its core, cerebral, transformative and (yes!) entirely sex-positive—approaching sex not from a place of fear and shame but rather a place of empowerment, agency and openness, all of which are critical in changing the ways we regard and feed our sexual appetites, whether living with HIV or not.
During a special photo shoot and interview, A&U asked Dita to impart some of her wisdom about a sex-positive society considering women in today’s sphere still often feel disempowered when it comes to negotiating sexual relationships and feelings about their bodies.
“With what the statistics look like for young women, it’s more important than ever for them to insist on safe sex every single time, and that’s not always easy when you’re a young woman,” warns Dita. “I was lucky to have grown up in an era before the Internet, without the complications of things like cyber-slut shaming [degrading sex-positive women behind the veil of a screen name]. It is important today how young people learn about sex. I had all my first sex experiences in the safety of a six-year-long relationship, so I was quite lucky…I have concerns about the manner in which young people get their sex education, with the availability of very hardcore porn on the Internet.”
She elaborates on a deeply personal level: “When I’ve been dating, I often felt pressure to have unsafe sex, and then I realized I had major power, and started really using it when it came to having sex on my terms: safely! I stopped being afraid of a guy not ‘liking me’ because I didn’t do what he wanted, and instead, learned how to work safe sex into my seduction technique. I would really encourage young women to read books like Betony Vernon’s Boudoir Bible and Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex. Sexual knowledge gives power, power to decide boundaries and to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” According to a World AIDS Day statement, UNAIDS reminds 15–24 years of age is a highly dangerous time for young women. Thus, alongside established safer sex practices, girls and women need access to all prevention options: PrEP, PEP, and treatment as prevention (TasP).
Her candor in the public sphere on sexual wellness began in 2005 when M•A•C Cosmetics approached her to be its spokesperson for their M•A•C AIDS Fund’s Viva Glam campaign (2006–2008), which, with sales of their custom lipsticks, has now raised over $400 million to fight AIDS. Following this act she lent her stylish talents to Macy’s Passport events in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In 2009, Dita headlined the Hennes & Mauritz (H&M)/Designers Against AIDS (DAA) collaboration for the Fashion Against AIDS T-shirt campaign. DAA is a non-profit organization that raises AIDS awareness in the international media geared specifically towards young people in industrialized countries using elements from pop culture (music, fashion, design, arts, sports, film, celebrities, etc). Over the years DAA has joined forces with some of the world‘s most acclaimed musicians and fashion designers, such as Timbaland, Katharine Hamnett, Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams/N.E.R.D., Estelle, Yoko Ono, Dangerous Muse, Cyndi Lauper, Robyn, Rihanna, and, of course, Von Teese.
“I love Dita and her engagement in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” DAA founder Ninette Murk tells A&U. “She’s always willing to help us out. We met for the first time at a shoot for Fashion Against AIDS in New York (I think back in 2008) and have been in contact ever since, she keeps asking how she can continue to help DAA and our causes.”
Other HIV/AIDS related causes she has supported recently are Labor of Love in the Hamptons benefiting Housing Works, a nonprofit helping those living with HIV and experiencing homelessness in New York City, and amfAR’s benefit album The Time Is Now, a collection of 80’s covers, for which Von Teese provided a throaty, torch-esque cover of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
Michelangelo Lacqua one of the benefit compilation’s producers recalls a poignant conversation with Dita at amfAR’s Cinema Against AIDS in Cannes. “She was so completely engaged about life, about music, she is demure and so, so real. [When we spoke] it was like we went to high school together and we were catching up. I said that [for the album] we needed real and beautiful people not just artists; artists interested in effecting positive change.
“Seeing the strides made in the fight against AIDS, thanks to the efforts of amfAR and the M•A•C AIDS Fund, has made me see that collectively, we can all make a difference. amfAR is committed to finding a cure for AIDS by 2020, and that’s very exciting. Even in the ten years I’ve been affiliated with them, I’ve seen the major advances that their fundraising has achieved.”
For her most recent calendar commitment this past October, Dita hosted the charity fundraiser Photo16: An Auction to Benefit the AIDS Monument at the swanky Milk Studios in Los Angeles. The upcoming National AIDS Monument will be erected in the heart of West Hollywood to memorialize and celebrate the lives of those who’ve passed. This interactive and personal monument will live for this and future generations to remind us about the current state of HIV/AIDS.
I was lucky to be in attendance at the event, which she opened with, “I am sure everyone in this room has lost a friend or family member or an associate to AIDS; knows someone with HIV; or perhaps has witnessed a loved-one living their lives to the fullest even after being diagnosed with HIV with the advancement of HIV/AIDS treatments.”
Assessing the need to go beyond elevating her voice over a boisterous crowd she drops one of the straps of her shimmering indigo-blue dress. Immediately, I am transported back to one of the many memorable scenes in the 1962 film adaptation of Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell. A second emotionally tongue-tied faux pas ensues and her striptease continues with the drop of her second strap. The switch in tone in the spacious room is audible. Dita has seized their undivided attention and continues.
“The fashion photography world is one of the hardest hit by the AIDS crisis, Robert Mapplethorpe…Kevyn Aucoin…Way Bandy, and Herb Ritts, whose work is on auction here tonight; the list of legends lost goes on and on and on. I am proud to stand here tonight with Photo 16 and to acknowledge their generosity and commitment in making sure that this monument comes to fruition. We all have a common purpose, a calling if you will, a need to tell the stories in order to remember that the common collective purpose is to end HIV/AIDS around the globe.”
The dedicated icon, a Michigan native by the name of Heather Sweet, became Dita Von Teese because she was enthralled during her childhood by Hollywood’s Golden Age and this love spilled over into her art. “I like to create a world of fantasy, something that’s a departure from reality. I love beauty and glamour, candy-coated, over the top, humorous and playful Technicolor fantasies. My shows are my childhood ideas and obsessions with the glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood and ballet, reimagined with eroticism, and of course….the art of the tease.”
Grable, a WWII pin-up queen, was not the only Betty influencing her as a icon of sex and beauty. “From a young age, I had a fascination with vintage erotica, whether it be books, photos or movies, and I got my start in 1991 recreating Bettie Page’s stylized bondage photos and videos. So I guess I’ve just always liked the challenge of presenting sensuality and fetishism in a highly stylized way. My audience is mostly comprised of women, and the LGBTQ community, so it’s a much different thing now than it was back then, and vastly different from burlesque’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 40s when it was meant for the straight male gaze.” She has been performing since 1992.
Originally shy as a child she admits that she really didn’t find her voice until she was eighteen, when she was able to start purchasing clothes and dressing herself, wearing makeup, and dying her hair. “I gained confidence and call myself a Glamour Evangelist because glamour saved me and I love to preach about its power!”
If you want to read about her secrets, the best-selling author has just released her third book, Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, a 400-page guide (It! Books/Harper Collins). Offering a peek she admits, “I think that exercising is so important. Even if I don’t feel so well, maybe dragging myself out of bed, maybe feeling like I might be getting sick, or sore from another workout…I always feel better afterwards and more energized. I remind myself of how fortunate I am to have that time for myself, how fortunate I am to have full use of my body. It’s a gift!” Along with her books she has her own line of lingerie, eyewear, and fragrances offered in four distinct scents.
If you are looking to catch her in the act, her newly revamped burlesque show The Art of the Teese featuring MC Murray Hill launches this February across the U.S., featuring a show-stopping cast of the creme de la creme of the neo-burlesque movement, with diversity in beauty, age, body shape, ethnicity, and gender. “I am bringing back one of my favorite acts that I created for my show at the Crazy Horse Paris, something I haven’t done in the United States before.” Von Teese promises more sparkle than ever before.
Whatever medium she chooses—burlesque, penning beauty tips, or advocacy—it’s Dita’s message that stays with us: Nurturing self-confidence and sexual wellness are acts of empowerment that reinforce feeling good and feeling good about yourself whether you’re a glamour gal or a femme fatale.
“I’m a girls’ girl, as they say; so I don’t have a bad reputation à la le femme fatale…but I sure do love to look like one!”
Post-production (digital styling) by Eve Harlow Art & Photography (www.EveHarlowe.com).
Hair: Tony Medina. Cranberry robe: Catherine D’lish. Photo assistants: Valerie Mercado and Carlos Rochas. Thanks to Apex Studios.
Sean Black is Senior Editor of A&U.