Dita Von Teese: “We have to stand up for beauty and sensuality and eroticism”

The burlesque star talks growing up, modern-day ageism and why she eventually decided marriage and motherhood weren’t important

I was a pretty responsible teenager, at least with regard to working. I had a job in a lingerie store and I loved having that responsibility and the independence it gave me. I felt very grown up. I was so interested in the world of lingerie – to me it was a rite of passage into womanhood. I’d had a fantasy of wearing these things since I was a little girl. I had a different perspective on lingerie to lots of people. I didn’t equate it with sex until I was older. I saw these mysterious pretty things in my mother’s drawer and I was like, why don’t I have these things? I couldn’t wait till I got to be an adult and wear them. That’s really how I formed my future career, out of my obsession with lingerie.

My early teens were a confusing time. My parents were in the middle of a divorce when I was about 13 and my body started to change and I got my period. I had just moved from Michigan to Orange County in LA and that was a big culture shock for someone who still felt like a little girl. I was definitely a late bloomer. I was quite small, and always looked younger than I was. It took me a long time to make new friends. It was a good thing I had an older sister to confide in. My parents just kind of overlooked the whole thing.

People who know me from back then are amazed by what I went on to do

I don’t think I could ever say I was close to my dad. He was very judgemental. When I worked in the lingerie store he translated that to my being a slut. So that made things between us a bit…  tense. But my mother and I are birds of a feather in many ways. Soft-spoken and shy. She had a playful, fun attitude to makeup and clothes. Like me, she saw these things as the icing on the cake of life. I remember my mum dyeing her natural auburn hair to platinum and my dad had a fit. It was a huge blow-up fight. My dad called her all these awful names. My mum was just having fun with her hair colour!

Dita Von Teese Martini Glass
Dita-Von-Teese-Martini-Glass
Dita Von Teese performs her signature Martini Glass show

I had a steady boyfriend for four of my teenage years. That made a huge difference to my confidence. There was always this thing in school, if you made out with different boys on different occasions you were a slut. I always found it really hard navigating that. Kids were so awful to each other. So having one boyfriend made all that much easier. I’ve always felt grateful that I was able to learn about sex, and experiment, with that one boy I loved and trusted. I look back at that time with absolute fondness. It ran its course naturally. We broke up when he went off to college and by then I was anxious to try other things. I got involved in the electronic music scene and my next boyfriend was a rave DJ.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Your first impression of the 16-year-old me would have been of a quiet, shy girl. I was a ballet dancer. People who know me from back then are amazed by what I went on to do. I was not someone who liked to be in the spotlight or have people listening to me talk. I don’t think the teenage me would be so surprised that I went on to be a dancer, or by the striptease or anything like that. But she would be amazed that I managed to find my voice and engage in public speaking, which I do now hosting awards shows, and working with various charities. I wouldn’t even get up in front of class, I was so paralysed by fear.

My younger self would be surprised that I would eventually think being married and having a baby wasn’t that important

My younger self (starting out in burlesque) wouldn’t have understood the issues around body shape and ageism. All I thought about was how cool and young and thin I looked. I didn’t think about what I was doing beyond, oh it’s glamorous, its sexy, it’s nice clothes and makeup. But now the driving force in what I do is inspiring people that they can be all those things, regardless of shape or age. I feel I’ve spearheaded a movement which has a lot of meaning for people. Burlesque has exploded, I’m really quite proud of that. I had a mission and I saw it through.

My younger self would be surprised that I would eventually think being married and having a baby wasn’t that important. When I was younger I thought that was going to be the most important thing I would ever do. I thought I’d grow up to find a husband who would take care of me and I’d have a couple of kids. Later I realised, very gradually, the most important thing in life is to take care of yourself. You need to summon your strength and take control of your life. And with children… when I got married [in 2005 to rock star Marilyn Manson] it wasn’t on the cards. It was almost a fear, like, if I do this I’m kind of going to be doing it on my own.

Dita Von Teese Marilyn Manson
Dita-von-teese-marilyn-manson
With ex-husband Marilyn Manson

Speaking to other women in my world, in showbiz, told me the truth about how hard it can be, I realised everyone says you can have it all, but actually, something will suffer. I thought having children was just what you do. But there are other paths in life and you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Hey, maybe if you speak to me 20 years from now I’ll say I wish I’d told my 45-year-old self to have a baby… maybe that will happen. Maybe I will have regrets. But it is what it is.

When I started performing I had absolutely no fantasies about being famous. If I could go back to my younger self I’d tell her ‘hey, people will try to take advantage of what you build. People will try to bring you down, and make money out of what you do’. Like, I did a photo shoot and it went on to be used in a major watch ad campaign and I didn’t get a dime out of that. An ex of mine tried to sell my love letters on eBay. I didn’t have any role models to suggest it was possible to become world-famous as a burlesque performer. So I was quite naive, I just set out to have fun.

Ageism, particularly against women, is always going to be difficult to tackle. It’ll always be there. I was just having a conversation with Gwen Stefani, who’s a little older than I am, about when it is not appropriate to do this or that. And I looked at her and said, ‘watching you has a lot of meaning for me. You’re a little older than me and I look at you and think I can do that too’. We have to stand up for beauty and sensuality and eroticism at all stages of life. Of course things are going to change. But I think of Gwen, and Madonna and Jennifer Lopez and how they embrace their sensual side. We do not have to retire. We can evolve. I was truly blossoming in this artistic world.

Pic credit: Getty

Dismantling poverty by creating opportunity.

The Big Issue exists to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity through self-help, social trading and business solutions.

Learn more