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December 20, 2014

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Exclusive: Dita Von Teese’s burlesque tour a longtime dream come true

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Scott Harrison/Retna/www.harrisonphotos.com

Dita Von Teese is flanked by Crazy Horse Paris girls before her featured performance in MGM Grand’s Crazy Horse Paris on March 31, 2010.

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For the first time, striptease sensation Dita Von Teese has exclusively revealed secrets of her new touring burlesque show that will play the Strip for three nights next month as part of a two-year nationwide tour.

The former Las Vegas dancer who has become one of America’s top burlesque authorities talked with me about the ambitious project. She’s first to say it is not her swan song because she has more pinup projects planned for the future.

Dita has turned her assets into a global business with fashion, lingerie, makeup and other products, and she took time out from dashing between Los Angeles, Paris and New York putting together the finishing show costumes and choreography to talk with me.

Robin Leach: Obviously, “Strip, Strip, Hooray” has been at the back of your mind, or the front of your mind, for some time now, right?

Dita Von Teese: Yes, I’ve been doing burlesque shows for almost 20 years now. In the past few years, I’ve been booked most often doing fancy VIP parties and corporate events around the world -- not so much doing shows for my fans and ticketholders. So I’ve been saying for a while now about how important this was to me, and more important than making money was for me to bring my tour to different cities in the U.S. and to do a proper U.S. tour.

Finally, they’ve listened, and we’re doing it -- and I’m really excited! My partner Live Nation has helped a lot. It’s easier said than done when you say I want to go out on tour, especially with a tour like this. I’m not a rock band, it’s not the same. I have a much different production. I’m bringing a whole team, a cast of what I consider to be the best of burlesque; I’m bringing all my biggest shows.

I don’t mean to make it seem like it’s my swan song because I have a lot more to do, but I do feel like this is the real big chance for anyone to see my shows on the big scale that they were meant to be seen and to see these shows the way that I wanted them to be seen before I evolve into the next phase of my career.

Even when I danced all those times in Las Vegas and at “Crazy Horse Paris” in MGM, it was on my mind for a long time. It’s just when you start trying to figure out how to actually do it with the production that’s required, it’s not that easy to actually figure out how to. I’m not even going to turn a profit; I’m going to break even. It’s not that easy, so it has been a big process to try and figure out how we can do it -- it is a labor of love.

RL: When does it all start?

DVT: It starts in Los Angeles at the House of Blues on May 11. I go to San Diego, too. I haven’t done a show in San Diego since a strip club maybe in the early ’90s. That is the last time someone could buy a ticket to see me in San Diego. Then I come to Las Vegas on May 17-19, and I’m really excited about that. I love having three nights in Las Vegas.

Right now, we’ve only announced the West Coast leg: Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Orange County, L.A., San Diego. We are slowly adding, we are trying to make it so that I can continue with all my other commitments like my perfume, my lingerie, my clothing line, my Cointreau deal, my stockings deal, so I have a lot of other things that I have going on.

I’m basically going on tour, then having a time out, then going back on tour. We are going to announce next -- quite soon -- the Midwest, which includes the whole Chicago zone and then East Coast and then the South.

RL: So, you might be on the road for a year or two?

DVT: Yeah, on and off. It’s a perfect time for me to be doing this. It’s something that I really want to do because no matter how much I love designing my lingerie and traveling the world doing fabulous things, there’s really nothing like being up there onstage for a room full of people that paid for tickets, that really are there because they want to see me and know what I do.

You know, I spend a lot of time explaining to people what I do, or people know me and recognize me, but they don’t know what I actually do. So, this is, I hope, a chance for me to actually show people what I do.

RL: How different is your show in its 21st century form on a theater stage going to be from the public’s perception of old-time burlesque? I’m not being cruel, but it used to look and come off a little shabby.

DVT: Well, when I first started making burlesque shows, there was no YouTube. I never saw any video footage, the only video that I had as a frame of reference was Natalie Wood in “Gypsy,” which is not very close to really what she did in a lot of ways. You know once you see the real footage of Gypsy, it’s a real glamorized version. I also had one clip of Sally Rand dancing with this bubble, you know like on VHS.

There was nothing for me to copy or to emulate really besides those two things, and those were the very top, top echelon of burlesque and not even maybe representative of what was happening in a theater on a regular basis because those were big-screen versions. Even the Sally footage is not in the club, so I didn’t have anything to go by.

Dita Von Teese: Crazy Horse Paris

Dita Von Teese arrives for her featured performance in MGM Grand's Crazy Horse Paris on March 31, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Dita Von Teese at Hyde Bellagio

When I started making my shows, I didn’t have anything to reference, and I was just going by photos I found and what I imagined it to be like, which I think worked in my favor in a big way because I have my ballet training, and I had to develop my own style and my own ideas about what it was really like.

When I would read a book about it, I’d have to paint this picture in my head of what it was instead of seeing footage, and I remember when I did finally see real authentic burlesque footage, I thought, “Oh, wow, it’s kind of, it’s rough.” Not to insult any of those women because I’m a huge admirer and fan of those old-time burlesque queens and I respect them, and they’ve done wonderful shows that I admire. But I can’t be like them if I tried. It did make it necessary for me to make up my own ideas.

So, now that I’m well read on the history of burlesque, I have a huge library full of every book that was ever written on burlesque then and now, and I know a lot about it, it’s important for me to keep the spirit of burlesque alive. It’s very important to me to be evolved for a modern audience and also to be, I want to be more extravagant, and my show definitely reflects that. There are no sequins on my costumes in any show.

There are about half a million Swarovski crystals in every 7-minute moment of my performance onstage, and that is extravagance. I spend about up to $100,000 on each 7-minute moment of my acts. It’s a different kind of extravagance that is important to me. The evolution is really important to me is what I’m really trying to say. I’m not trying to make any replicas of any burlesque shows; I want to show people something they truly have never seen before.

And not to get all Kanye West on you, but some of these kinds of elaborate costumes that Catherine D’Lish created for me nobody has ever seen anything like it in burlesque.

RL: You are sounding like a historian that is protecting burlesque’s legacies and memories.

DVT: I think the last time we talked was when the “Burlesque” movie came out, and it was really a strange time when people were trying to rewrite the history of burlesque and trying to write off its racy history and the nudity aspect because striptease was always, I mean burlesque was always about striptease. Gypsy Rose Lee took off her clothes.

Burlesque was not a variety show that was just about dancing girls; the striptease was what people really came to see. I’m really proud of my show cast and feel it’s a really strong lineup and what I believe represents lots of diversity among female performers. We have a “boy-lesque” performer who I think is amazing. We have this amazing cast that has this really great synergy that I feel represents different styles of burlesque.

RL: So, Dita, how many guests do you have in the show? How long does the show run -- is it 80 to 90 minutes?

DVT: It’s an hour and a half. We have Lada, who you might have seen at “Crazy Horse Paris” in Las Vegas who is one of my favorite girls. We have her, we have Selene Luna, we have Murray Hill, we have Dirty Martini, who is big in every way. Big, amazing, huge stage presence, and I love her representing different kinds of beauty, and I’m so proud to have her in my show and representing voluptuous girls. She is incredible.

RL:How close will you get to nudity when you’re performing in ‘Strip, Strip, Hooray’?

DVT: The element of pasties and G-strings is always very important to me. They were invented for burlesque in the 1930s for only one reason -- to comply with the law! To keep it legal. It probably would have been totally nude if they were allowed, but they weren’t allowed. So, that was why they cleverly invited these little nipple tassels and G-strings, which covered things.

I always feel it is very important in burlesque to stay true to what those women did back then and to keep it true to its racy history. Burlesque is for adults -- you won’t get a sanitized, commercialized “Burlesque” movie and other mainstream forms of burlesque, which don’t include the strip, from me. I’m adamant about the strip.

It’s not just a tribute to the women who came before me that made it possible, but it’s also because I like the challenge. I like the challenge that I know I can go up there, I can show more nudity, and I can still be more elegant than probably someone who is more covered up. It’s not about that. You can’t gauge what degree of nudity equals class and elegance.

I like the challenge of changing people’s minds about nudity, about changing people’s minds about what it means to be a stripper. That is my entire goal. I like the word “stripper.” I don’t get offended by people calling me that. I just want them to go, “Oh, I didn’t know that that is what a striptease could be.”

RL: Of the 90 minutes, bearing in mind that you’ve got these other cast members, how much time are you onstage?

DVT: I’m doing four acts, which are between 7 to 11 minutes long. Gypsy has famously said that her act was exactly 7 minutes and nothing more because she liked to leave people wanting more. I’m onstage for a total of 40 minutes, four acts times 10 minutes each.

I’ve reinvented my martini glass act. I’ve reinvented it a few times over the last decade. I reinvented it again with a new costume, a new style, a new everything. I’m excited about that. It will be my opening number. I’ve still got endless sittings in Paris to complete it, but it will be debuted for “Strip, Strip, Hooray.”

RL: If it’s your opening number, how do you dry off backstage in time for the other three, and what are the other three?

DVT: I know, it kind of doesn’t make sense. But I still feel that my Opium Den number everyone agrees is the grand finale. It’s my most extravagant show, and I like starting the show with the glass. When you see it, you’ll see why this version of it makes a nice intro. But, yeah, I towel off and start over again.

I’m performing another act that I’ve done for many years where I come out of a big powder compact. It’s always been a very popular one, and I perform en point, and people always like that. I’m also doing the rhinestone cowgirl show where I ride a big, full-sized mechanical bull with 6-foot-long Swarovski-covered steer horns. I do a burlesque version of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.

RL: You are really going to be pushing yourself.

DVT: Yeah, I have, because you know in the past, I have maybe done one or two numbers maximum because it’s a big deal to get dressed and undressed from these costumes, which weigh like 60 pounds. It’s intense, and there is a lot of preparation to go onstage.

I’ve been working on it for a long time trying to get the flow going, figuring out how to do the quick changes, and so on. Because also famously I do my own hair and makeup, and I don’t like a bunch of people fussing around me. I like my quiet time in the dressing room, so I’ve had to evolve and figure out how I can get a little help to get ready while still doing my own hair and makeup.

RL: By the way, “Strip, Strip, Hooray,” where did the name come from?

DVT: I found it in one of those old magazines from the ’30s, the great vintage men's magazines of pinups, which Bettie Page appeared in a lot. I found it in a pictorial and thought that is a great name, “Strip, Strip, Hooray.” They were just using it as a caption to a little pictorial.

I found it; I borrowed it from an obscure magazine. I’ve found a lot of things going back into the history of burlesque and pinup photography, and I’m definitely figuring out how to reuse them in modern ways.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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