Dita Von Teese looks back: ‘Going into that fetish store sparked my entire career’

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Heather Renée Sweet, better known as Dita Von Teese, is the 1950s-inspired model and performer who helped repopularise burlesque. Raised in West Branch, a working-class rural town in Michigan, she started her career as a fetish model and stripper before moving into burlesque and becoming a brand herself, launching vintage-inspired and fetishistic lingerie and makeup lines. Her tours are known for their ornate sets and costumes, a spectacle of giant champagne glasses and bronze clam shells. Aged 49, she takes her Glamonatrix tour across Europe this year.

I met the photographer for this shoot at a late-night dinner. He was a very shy art student and approached me to ask if he could take my portrait sometime. I said sure – so we met up and it turned into one of my first proper photoshoots. I did my own hair and makeup, and I remember him being a little nervous.

This was taken during a transformative period for me – I was 19 and living in Orange County. My then boyfriend produced the biggest rave parties in Los Angeles. I was having so much fun with all the club kids and drag queens, discovering psychedelic drugs and working as a go-go dancer. This was just before I first dyed my hair black, and the corset in the photo was the first one I bought. It turned out to be a pivotal item for me: while working in a lingerie store, I asked a girl where I could get a corset and she wrote down the address for this place I should visit. When I drove over there, I realised it was a really hardcore fetish store. Going into that mysterious place could have scared me but it actually sparked my entire career.

There was this gentleman sitting behind the counter who’d go on to become a friend for life. He was super nice and showed me all these photos of 50s pinup Bettie Page. It made me wonder why nobody was doing the vintage fetish thing, and in that moment a whole new world opened up for me.

When I started working in the fetish industry, it wasn’t about nudity: it was a lot more about the mind than the body. I found it fascinating to meet people who liked to watch women smoking, or had foot fetishes. Often men just wanted to watch me try on gloves or walk around in high heels. It was erotic but it wasn’t sexual. While I was only 19 at the time, I felt safe and was always clear about my boundaries. I don’t have any terrible stories from that time because I was working with the best in the industry.

As well as admiring Bettie Page, one of the other reasons I wanted to start posing for photos was because my boyfriend was addicted to porn and I wanted to be like the girls in the magazines he was looking at. So I got some photos done and showed them to him, but he turned out to be more interested in the girl in the photo than the real girl.

Around that time he had also told me about “this thing called the worldwide web”. We ended up making one of the first websites for images of women – people could send in a cheque and I’d send back autographed pictures. Then I made a membership site. We used to do photoshoots at a place called Danny’s Hardware – the woman who ran it learned to write code and made the first adult website with images of models on. She was a real pioneer.

Growing up, I was really interested in 40s and 50s glamour – during my childhood my mother and I would often watch movies from that era. I’ll never forget when I first got my hands on red lipstick: I was at home and put on a Cherries in The Snow revolving lipstick. I had curled my hair and there was this perfect light, so I took a Polaroid of myself and thought: wow. Discovering that I could be self-created was an important lesson for me.

There were no real role models from modern times that I had anything in common with, and there were no YouTube tutorials either. Instead I would study photos and movies from the golden age and practise and perfect the craft.

Nobody cared what I did after graduating – there was no one pushing me to do well or saying: “You’re going to college.” I did OK at school – I always excelled in grammar and writing but I was very bad at maths. We didn’t have money, so my parents weren’t going to put me through further education. I started working as a babysitter at 13, then got a job when I was 15 at the aforementioned lingerie store. Everyone around me was worried when my career started to take off. I wasn’t sure how I’d explain to my family that I was doing burlesque and I was a bondage model, and in the end everyone thought I was crazy. I even used to get made fun of a lot while walking around, just for wearing vintage clothes: “Hey! Did you just step off a movie set? Why are you dressed like that?” It’s more acceptable now to be different. Not that I cared particularly. Before I was famous, I was just having fun and living my life. I was free, and it wasn’t until I was introduced to the mainstream media and had more people’s eyes on me that I started to hear more criticism. Often during interviews people would ask: “What are you going to do when you get older?” I always replied that I didn’t know. I was only 30.

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I have always been solid in who I am. I came up with this saying: “You can be a juicy ripe peach but there’s always someone who doesn’t like peaches.” Jean Paul Gaultier thinks what I do is clever and cool, so if one person sitting on a keyboard at home says I’m not talented, I think I know who I’m going to stick with.

Throughout my career, I’ve had to adapt to physical changes. For three years I had a hip issue that was bothering me. And for the last three years I have had benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which is when the crystals in your ear get dislodged, so you have to move them back into the right place. It first happened to me during a tour in which I was riding a giant lipstick – a mechanical bull mechanism, on which I was flipping my hair around a lot. One morning I just fell out of bed. I was nauseous and I could barely walk in a straight line. I remember worrying: how am I going to dance? But I soon learned how to control it. I found out the crystals settle in your ear throughout the day when you’re upright, so I had to sleep sitting up for a few days and be careful not to throw my head around too much. It was interesting finding ways to reconcile with it. I thought: I’m just going to walk around the stage slowly the best I can. Nobody knew the difference.

Since that photo was taken, I’ve become a lot less shy. That’s number one. There’s more power with experience, and I’ve just refined every aspect of my life. My look, my performance, my relationships. It’s evolution. I’m way better at doing my eyebrows, too.

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