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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Daring Dita and the Art of the Tease
by Kara Mae Harris

Photo © Dita von Teese
The pin-up in contemporary times isn't always the most tasteful state of affairs. As most vintage erotica aficionados will concede, the glamour is gone, the innocence is dried up. But, among the sea of tanned hardbodies and teased bangs, the crude porn kittens and the triangle bikinis, there are a few hopefuls who can still woo the heart of any retro lover. Leading this group of soft, classic beauties is a force best described in one word: Dita. 

In the wake of the Bettie Page craze, Dita Von Teese is still going strong, with an Internet empire, a touring show, and fans who will go to great lengths to see their glamour queen in action. Pin-up artist Olivia's renditions of Dita sit well beside the work of the 1950s masters. Her image has appeared in the pages of Erotica, Playboy, Barracuda, and Marquis, and yet in that diverse group, she always manages to stand out with taste and class. 

Dita came into her own as a Bettie Page look-alike, but even before embarking on her pin-up career, she was always enamoured of the '50s. "I used to have a red flip hair cut, and I used to dress vintage," recalls Dita. "Then I saw Olivia's paintings of Bettie, and that kind of sparked an interest, and I thought 'Well, you know what's missing...' Because really, there was nobody doing it. There was one other girl who was kind of known all over the place for her tattoos and her Bettie Page hair. And I thought the thing that was missing was a more elegant Bettie." 

 Photo © Dita von Teese
But it wasn't long before Dita was ready to carve out a unique image of her own. When she met Olivia in person, the artist told her she already drew Dita when she drew Bettie, commenting that she looked just like the pin-up icon. "She kind of laughed it off like that," Dita says, "and I was kind of like, that sucks. That was one of the things that made me think, I don't want to be Bettie anymore. I need to make my own name." 

Dita's fans liked her pale skin and black hair, so she kept those features the same, grew out the bangs, and shed her Bettie identity. "I really felt like I liked the '40s era more than the '50s," she notes. "The '50s seemed too easy and I wanted to go for something that was a little more difficult to get right in photos, which is the '40s." 

Both in her modeling work and her traveling show, Dita draws inspiration from historic glamour queens. The most obvious influence is dancer Sally Rand, from whom Dita takes her fan dancing routines. However, she feels her act would fit better in a movie musical than a burlesque house. 

"If you watch real old burlesque, it's not real sexy and pretty. I'm far more influenced by the old Technicolor musicals, all the song and dance numbers and all that. My show's a little more glossy and slick as opposed to some of the girls that are doing the real deal, which was the old bump and grind, the tassel twirling. It wasn't pretty. Some of the moves those burlesque girls did were really rough. There were big stars like Gypsy Rose Lee, and she was very elegant and her shows were very classy and beautiful. Unlike the bump 'n' grind girls who were nasty," Dita says with an affectionate laugh. 

"There's a place for the girls showing how it really was done, but there's not really anyone that's trying to capture what Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee did," she adds. "My show may not exactly be authentic as to what it was like being in a burlesque house, but I think it's much closer to what Lili St. Cyr and Sally Rand did. It's the same spirit as what they did."

Photo © Dita von Teese
It's probably no coincidence that the greats of the burlesque institution, who were considered to be in an elegant class of their own, often were trained in ballet or classical dance forms. Dita herself is trained in ballet and says the schooling helped her enormously. "I take a lot of my ballet moves, and bring them to my show. Especially my fan dance, I dance on [pointed] toes," she notes. 

So what should one expect during one of Dita's performances? "My costumes are really elaborate, first of all," she says. "So I usually come out and do a striptease in some crazy outfit…I use vintage music, or I use remakes because sometimes the sound quality is better. I strip and then I do a fan dance and I have the biggest feather fans that anybody's ever owned. They're really huge! I also have a big glass bathtub." Recently, Dita has started to incorporate voiceover and singing into her stage routines. "I have a partner that I'm working with and we're working on a show where we sing live, and where we do more of the heckling the audience, which is what Gypsy Rose Lee was known for-coming out and talking to the audience, and cracking jokes as she took of her clothes. It can be so much fun and I think it's missing and a lot of people don't know about it. I think it is going to go in that direction eventually. Everybody's seen it all." 

The venues in which she performs run the gamut. Says Dita, "There are times when you come of the stage and you're like, 'Oh my God, not one person in the audience got this!' But there are way more times where people come up and say, 'I have never seen anything like that' and 'Thank you for doing that.' I love that it comes from women who never thought they could enjoy something in a strip club. I get so many different kinds of venues. There are really classy places and really raunchy ones, and both of them are fun in their own way." 

Dita sees the 1950s as the downfall of women's glamour. She speaks fondly of the time when women could be bothered to wear full-fashioned nylons and pincurls: "I love wearing hats, gloves, stocking and high heels, and all of that stopped. I think glamour is coming back, but still it's not like women put their hat and gloves on to go to the grocery store. You wouldn't go outside without being dressed and done [back then]." 

 Photo © Dita von Teese
But even with the loss of glamour in the modern age, Dita admits she prefers living in this era. "There are a lot of things I like about now," she says. "I really appreciate that there were women who made it possible to do what I do easier. I don't know whether I would want to be a pioneer back then, and get shunned for not being a starlet. I like that the Web has given a tremendous opportunity to me. And I also don't know if I would have wanted to live in that era. People say [I was] born in the wrong era. I don't feel like I was, because I really like being unique, and I really wouldn't have been back then. I probably would have been wearing space age clothes or something." 

"I think it's about finding something that's missing," Dita says, on the best method to becoming an icon. "A character that's missing. People will remember you for it. If you look at who's famous for being a personality, they're pretty colorful, and there aren't ten others just like them. So that's the basis I really go by. I thought about what was missing and what I love, and that's what I try and do." 

For more about Dita von Teese, visit her Website at

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