Perhaps the world’s most well-known and influential burlesque performer, Dita Von Teese, along with the Copper Coupe Burlesque Revue, will bring her lavish performance, The Art of the Teese, to the Pabst Theater on Tuesday, May 8. According to Von Teese, who is visiting Milwaukee for the first time, the show will consist of a mix of risqué comedy, glamour and extensive choreography.
Born Heather Sweet in West Branch, Michigan, Von Teese began performing at clubs in Los Angeles and Orange County in the early 1990s after her family moved to California. “There wasn’t so much of a burlesque scene then. At the time, I had a predominantly male following,” she said during a recent telephone interview.
A natural blonde, Von Teese decided to dye her hair red, then black, a look she has kept for over two decades. “I wanted to be somebody else,” she said. “I still perform as a blonde occasionally, but I don’t feel quite myself without my dark hair.”
Von Teese said she invested money into making her shows bigger, which eventually caught the attention of Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner. In 2002, she appeared on the cover. Performing with the dance ensemble The Pussycat Dolls also gave her mainstream recognition. Now 45, Von Teese performs at venues worldwide. “Our audiences now are about 85 percent female,” she said.
Influenced by vintage books and 1940s Hollywood actresses including Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and Rita Heyworth, she also has a room in her Hollywood, California, home dedicated to mainly 1930s and 1940s hats. Although a fan of styles of decades past, Von Teese incorporates modern elements into her costumes and performances. “I never wanted to make a copycat burlesque show,” she said.
Von Teese feels her shows are empowering and help promote body acceptance. “I didn’t want to do a show with just pretty little pinup girls. I cast the best performers who will bring the house down every time — regardless of race, ethnicity or body type,” she said. “Anyone who sees the show will understand why it’s so popular with women.”
Von Teese’s elaborate shows, which have featured props such as a giant martini glass and makeup compact covered in Swarovski crystals, take months to plan and execute, from the choreography to costumes to the music. More than a dozen people worked on The Art of the Teese. “All of the numbers have been in production since last summer,” said Von Teese. To get ready for a show, she likes to stretch and warm up, and sing along to music. “It puts me in a good frame of mind,” she said.
Besides the stage, Von Teese has guest-starred on television series including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and reality shows such as Project Runway and Cupcake Wars. And using her performance skills for good, Von Teese also participates in campaigns against HIV/AIDS and has worked with animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Previously married to shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, Von Teese has appeared in two of his music videos, and others by bands such as Green Day, Thirty Seconds to Mars and Die Antwoord. A successful entrepreneur as well as an artist, she has launched clothing, makeup and lingerie lines within the last decade. Von Teese has authored several books, including Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, which was published in 2015.
Before she became established as a performer, Von Teese said she occasionally had to face negative stereotypes due to her sexuality. However, she feels that society has become more accepting of her profession over time. “I still sometimes do a PG version of my act for television and for certain mainstream brands, but for the most part, people are starting to understand why burlesque is inspiring to people. We don’t have to abide by others’ ideals of what it means to be a feminist. We can decide for ourselves what it is to feel power and be confident,” she said.
Go See It: The Art of the Teese, starring Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe Burlesque Revue at the Pabst Theater; Tuesday, May 8. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. 18+ only. ID required.