“Somewhere in the archives,” a satin-smooth voice of a woman on the other end of a San Francisco hotel phone line says, “there’s a picture of a blond me inside this cage.”
She estimates the photo would have been taken in the early 1990s: ’91, ’93 maybe. And it would have been used in the pages of this infernal rag as a promotion for an electronic music store, Disco 2000, “or something.” She goes on to explain, “I’m with the long blond ponytail wrapped in Saran Wrap and electrical tape in a cage. It was a performance piece I used to do.” Naturally.
Dita Von Teese has been doing performance pieces her whole career: the famous Shakespearean speech from As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage . . .”) rings true for the West Branch, Michigan-born and Irvine-raised performer.
She’s been blond Heather Sweet fresh out of University High School in Irvine, bound and tied with Saran Wrap during the booming rave scene of the early 1990s or the retro pin-up stripper at the legendary Captain Cream’s club in Lake Forest during the rockabilly revival of the ’90s or the ebony-haired larger-than-life “International Queen of Burlesque” Dita Von Teese she’s known as today. Whether performing a titallating strip-tease in her iconic oversized martini glass or riding a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted mechanical bull in custom-made Louboutin cowboy boots, the icon has undoubtedly played many parts.
“I got my start actually working in the LA electronic music scene,” recalls Von Teese of the early days of her career—which blossomed while living in Orange County—as a go-go dancer in the Los Angeles rave scene.
By that time she was already dressing in vintage styles but had not yet incorporated it into her performance art. Then, she walked into a Lake Forest bikini bar with a boyfriend. “I was like, ‘wow, this is really cool,’” she recalls. “These girls are making a lot of money, and they’re not even taking anything off!”
She decided to try out at Captain Cream’s, the now-shuttered South County strip club. Von Teese recalls the club, while divey, was renowned for having the most beautiful strippers in all of Southern California. It was on the stage of the neon-sign-lit Lake Forest bar that she first blended her love of vintage fashion, performing and sensuality, eventually embodying the allure of the burlesque dancers of the Silver Screen era.
“I was kind of doing [burlesque] before I even knew what it was. And I was of course a very well-known pin-up and fetish model in the early ’90s, so it was sort of like I was doing all of these different things, and it sort of evolved slowly but surely over the years, and became a legitimate career, little by little.”
Von Teese says she’s proud of her beginnings. “I did have a lot of people criticize me for coming from the strip-club world, especially when the neo-burlesque scene started really expanding in the early 2000s and late ’90s, and people were kind of like, ‘Well, she’s a stripper . . . ’”
“Hey, that is what we are all related to!” Von Teese retorts. “The word stripper was invented in the 1930s. It’s a classic burlesque term, actually—and a really fun one. It sprang from that era.”
She attests all her hours onstage at Captain Cream’s and while headlining on tours of gentlemen’s clubs around the country are not a blemish on her résumé; in fact, they’ve only enhanced her career in her eyes. “I don’t have to think about trying to dance, I don’t have to think about pointing my toes, I don’t have to think about what makes someone sexy. I already know what it is, I learned it early on.”
Von Teese spring-boarded from Captain Cream’s to the pages of Playboy, turning heads as the second coming of Bettie Page and a pioneer in the neo-burlesque movement.
“In the late ’90s, I remember every time there would be an article in a magazine about burlesque, they would spotlight about 12 of us in the whole world,” she recalls. That core group of women performers, unbeknownst to them, were paving the way for the burlesque revival, now a full-fledged international scene. When Von Teese began, there was almost nowhere other than strip clubs for her to perform burlesque. Now several venues such as the Copper Door in Santa Ana hold monthly burlesque revues for large crowds.
“It’s really amazing to me to see the way that it’s evolved, the way the audience has evolved into something so much bigger than I ever thought it could be,” Dita remarks.
“A lot of fans look to burlesque as something that’s inspiring, and even empowering. We’re in a moment where we don’t have to compromise our sensuality, and sense of playfulness, erotic playfulness. We don’t have to reconcile being a feminist and having all of that—we can have it all.”
Von Teese is headlining the House of Blues at Anaheim GardenWalk on Tuesday—something expected now, but that would have been an anomaly when the venue opened in 2001. “It’s not ever something that I planned or expected, or even really thought about too much when I was 20-some years old, starting this, but I’m definitely grateful for it,” she says. “I don’t think I would have continued on this path if it didn’t have some kind of meaning for people that like to see these shows.”
“We’re in a moment where we don’t have to compromise our sensuality, and sense of playfulness, erotic playfulness,” Von Teese says. “We don’t have to reconcile being a feminist and having all of that—we can have it all.”
“I want everyone to leave the show seeing something they’ve never seen before, and I want them to feel like there’s someone that they have a connection with,” Von Teese says of her shows. “My favorite thing is when we get standing ovations for our other performers that are not me. I want people to feel like they had somebody that they felt like they could be a little bit like if they wanted to be.”
Von Teese and writer (and former OC Weekling!) Rose Apodaca co-wrote Your Beauty Mark, a 378-page venerable beauty bible where she spills her secrets and muses on fine aesthetics in all forms. The duo are excited to be working on a follow-up. “[Your Beauty Mark] is very much my theories about beauty and how I make vintage style more modern, and why I love it so much,” she explains. “I’m doing something very similar to that book, with regard to personal style.”
When Von Teese gets a moment to visit her old home county, she does so in her own way, which is to say, beautifully. She keeps her 1940 Buick LaSalle housed here so she can drive it around. This is where she fell in love with owning cars from the Deco era, after all. “Because there’s no better roads to drive a vintage car on than those big wide-open Orange County roads.”
And if it was still open, she’d drive that LaSalle straight to the legendary Sid’s Steakhouse in Costa Mesa, but for now she wistfully waits for it to reopen, chewing on rumors of its revival instead of sirloin.
But one of her favorite things to do in Orange County is see her fellow vixen and dear friend Mamie Van Doren. “I just love to go and visit her whenever I have a chance and hear some stories and get some good advice from a glamour girl that has attained lots of wisdom along the way.”
The last time Von Teese paid a call, she showed Van Doren a photo of her as a young woman, 19 years of age. Van Doren still remembered the day that photo was taken. “She said, ‘I just want you to remember you will always feel like that young girl, no matter how old you are. You’ll always feel like that young girl.’”
Dita pauses for a moment.
“And she’s right—I still feel like that young Orange County girl.”
When not running the OCWeekly.com and OC Weekly’s social media sites, Taylor “Hellcat” Hamby can be found partying like it’s 1899.