In the late '80s, Heather Sweet – a seemingly unremarkable teen girl with dirty blonde hair from the small Michigan town of West Branch – found herself staring longingly at the statuesque supermodels who had redefined the ideals of modern beauty. She wished to be more like them, but was convinced she never could be. And yet, that girl could scarcely have imagined how this moment of self-conscious introspection would eventually propel her to global stardom. Some 30 years later, Heather Sweet is better known by another name. Dita von Teese.
"I felt like I didn't have many role models of beauty or sensuality that I could relate to when I was growing up. I was a pretty mediocre looking blonde kid from a farming town, and I would look at these beautiful models like Elle McPherson and Cindy Crawford - at the time it was all about natural beauty and what you were born with. I was just like, 'I don't have that,'" she recalls. "So, I looked to the past because I thought I could maybe create that. I think that's one of the things that really rings true for other people who have been drawn to the burlesque and pin-up aesthetic, because it doesn't depend on your body shape, age, or ethnicity. This is something that adds glamour and beauty for anyone. It's become a place of diversity and acceptance and inclusivity. Some of the best, best performers I work with are not the traditionally most beautiful."
Dita von Teese could most easily be described as the world's most celebrated burlesque artist, but this falls far short of capturing the true scope of her abilities. Part performer, part impresario, part entrepreneur, part icon, von Teese's career has been one of persistently defying labels. More than being merely a model, she has been the muse for some of the world's top haute couture designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Zac Posen and Christian Louboutin, who custom makes all the shoes von Teese wears on stage. More than being just a sex symbol, she has championed a new identity of sensual expression, or as von Teese has dubbed it, "eccentric glamour," which celebrates female empowerment and gender non-conformity. More than being only a performer, she has transformed herself into a worldwide brand, synonymous with the popular resurgence of burlesque and retro pin-up beauty.
But, while Heather Sweet's transformation from awkward teen to global phenomenon is an extraordinary story, it's also a tale of grit and tenacity. Today, von Teese may be the darling of the fashion elite, a powerful design and beauty brand, and a symbol of sexual confidence, but this status has been hard won. "I feel like throughout my career, which started in the early '90s, and the way it's evolved now, my audience has definitely shifted and changed," she shares. "I used to be strictly under the male gaze, as a Playboy model and one of the first pin-up girls with an adult-themed website. I've definitely experienced all of it, but I'm really grateful that I live in a time right now where burlesque has become kind of an unlikely, modern feminist movement, and a place of celebration for sensuality and strength."
Unsurprisingly, there is a subversive side to von Teese, that has survived her transition from the fringes of the fetish scene to the entertainment mainstream. This is perhaps most playfully expressed in her stage productions, in which she has often collaborated with drag artists who share a simpatico affinity for the feminine illusion that underpins burlesque. These include the corset-wearing RuPaul's Drag Race champion, Violet Chachki, and gender-fluid model Raja. "I've always loved having an element in my performances that kind of confuses people," she explains with a smile. "It's always been important to me to have different representations of beauty on stage. But really, above all, I honestly look for the most show-stopping performers in the world. Fortunately, a lot of the very, very best are not these pretty little pin-up girls that are a size zero. They're just not. The thing is, I've found that the most interesting ones are really kind of forging their own paths, and doing their own thing."
Von Teese reveals a flash of her steely head for business as we discuss the explosion of burlesque performers around the world in recent years, hoping to follow in her high-heeled, Swarovski encrusted footsteps. "I have girls all the time that are like, 'I want to be in your show,' and then they'll send me a picture of themselves, and they look like they're just imitating everything that I do. I'm like, 'Well, why would I put that in my show? I want to see something I haven't seen before. I want my mind blown.' If my mind is blown, then the audience's mind is going to be blown. It's that simple."
Of course, any degree of popularity is inevitably accompanied by a backlash, and von Teese's stardom has been no exception. "I've opened up a newspaper before, and this hasn't happened in a long time, but I've opened up the newspaper to read about how what I'm doing is anti-feminist. I had one thing where I was performing in London, and someone was up in arms trying to shut it down, saying it was just about men ogling women. But honestly, a lot of people that point the finger and immediately say that what I do is anti-feminist, their argument doesn't hold up. It usually just makes them look a little bit dim and uninformed about what's going on in the world of burlesque and pin-up, and what it represents. I often think about - well I call it the 'so-called' these days - but what's known as 'The Golden Age of Burlesque', from the 1930s and '40s. I really don't think it can really be considered "The Golden Age" anymore. If you look how far we've come, and the meaning behind burlesque, and how people are inspired by it, I think we're living through 'The Golden Age' right now. Back then it was entertainment for men. It was a man's opportunity to see a live, naked girl taking her clothes off."
It's refreshing to hear von Teese speak with such passion about the new movement of sex-positive self-expression she's pioneered, via a craft that might otherwise have been dismissed as cheap smut or a deceased art form. Heather Sweet's journey may have begun as a quest for beauty, but it isn't hard to imagine von Teese - the blond locks of her youth now a lustrous jet black, framing a flawless alabaster complexion and cherry red lip - telling her younger self to dream so much bigger. "I've been very forthcoming about why I started doing this in the first place, and what my purpose is behind it. And being forthcoming about why I started doing this in the first place could maybe resonate or help other people that maybe feel like I did."
First published 2 February 2018, for The Music