Glamour Do: Hanging with Dita Von Teese


When a box decorated with a pair of formerly alive crimson roses arrives at my desk—you get all kinds of things in this job—I pray, Please let it be candy. But it isn’t. Instead, it contains an airline-sized bottle of Cointreau and an invitation to interview Dita Von Teese about something called “The Cointreauversial Movement: A Return to Glamour.”

A return to glamour? When did it go away? I start to think about who might embody this elusive, much-vaunted quality, and I must say Ms. Von Teese doesn’t immediately top my list, maybe because I don’t actually know very much about her: only that she is very pale, she used to be married to Marilyn Manson, a man with a girl’s name (something I would do!), and she makes a living as a burlesque performer, though I am not entirely sure what this entails.

Actually, when it comes to glamour, believe it or not, the first name that springs to mind is someone—OK, two people: the entity that played Michelle, the ugly baby on
Full House. This creature may not have been much of a looker in her early years, but she—they—have grown up to be the style icons of the 21st century.

I’m not kidding! I love the Olsens! I love the way they mix vintage and unbelievably expensive designer stuff, the way they wrap their little emaciated bodies in yards and yards of fabric, their no-holds-barred trash-bag aesthetic. But then it occurs to me: Maybe Mary-Kate and Ashley are not, in fact, the epitome of glamour—maybe they’re just incredibly stylish in their will-o’-the-wisp sort of way. Maybe the epitome of glamour is—I know!—Christiane Amanpour. Because don’t you sometimes wish you were her, having a brandy at 4 a.m. in the hotel bar in Basra or Lahore, a female Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat? No?

Anyway, when Cointreau asks if I want to come up to the Ritz-Carlton and talk to Von Teese, I say, “Of course.” Which is why I find myself, a few days later, being ushered into a suite where a team of Cointreau executives—a bunch of French people—is already swilling Cointreau cocktails even though it isn’t even noon. They believe in their product! The Frenchies tell me how excited they are that Dita is their new spokesmodel, and how she’s developing a special burlesque show celebrating Cointreau, an extravaganza that will debut in London and then travel to the States and Asia, but will, alas, not be seen in France, since French law forbids the use of an actual person in a liquor ad.

Then, suddenly, here is Dita herself, like Snow White minus the dwarves, a long way from West Branch, Michigan, the small farming community where she grew up feeling distinctly unglamorous in the shadow of what she claims were two prettier sisters. Von Teese spent her childhood whiling away the hours watching old movies with her mom. “I took notice of Hedy Lamarr and Betty Grable and Dietrich—their hairdos and eyebrows and red lips.” In that suburban living room, a light dawned: “I could paint my way to glamour!”

From the time she was old enough to dress herself, Von Teese loved vintage underwear; throughout her teens, she worked at a place called Lady Ruby’s Lingerie. Though she studied variously to be a stylist, a dancer, and/or a fashion designer, nothing stuck: “I don’t think I’m a very good dancer, and I hated sewing.”

She finally settled on a career path of her own invention: “I decided I wanted to be a retro pinup. I wanted to be photographed.” Scholarly research meant poring over men’s magazines from the 1930s and ’40s; Von Teese noticed that many of the naughty models were burlesque performers. “They were probably the only ones who thought it was OK to disrobe for the camera,” she muses.

Desperate to find an authentic corset—not so easy before the Internet—Von Teese finally got from a friend the address of a hardcore fetish store. Lightning struck once again: “Why shouldn’t I be the next big fetish model?” she thought. Pretty soon she was cavorting in front of the lenses, happily hog-tied and ball-gagged. (Not everyone’s idea of glamour, perhaps, but it worked for Dita.)

Like practically everyone else in public life these days, Van Teese is working on a book. “I do all my own hair and makeup, so I’m doing a beauty book for HarperCollins. All the books out now tell you how to be normal. My book will say, ‘Wear the blue eye shadow if you want!’ It’s all about eccentric makeup!”

(This reminds me of an experience of my own, with the coincidentally named Glamour magazine. I had a monthly column offering advice on how to dress: Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? It turned out I had no idea how to correct these supposed defects. Furthermore, the magazine did not agree with me that bulky gals look fine in polka dots and that it’s OK to mix plaids, flower prints, and feathers. Anyway, they fired me, which I totally understood, but they did it by voice mail. Voice mail! Not what I’d call glamorous, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.)

When I ask Dita who exactly she thinks is the real deal these days, she mentions one of my personal favorites, the wildly nutty blue-haired Italian fashion editor Anna Piaggi, who is not above combining, say, a McDonald’s apron, a Victorian fan, and a Trilby hat. “I like a really distinct sense of style,” Von Teese explains. “People who are not doing it to please someone else. I can see right through that. I like people who are doing it for themselves.”

Like the Olsens. Or Christiane Amanpour. Or a self-effacing stripper from West Branch, Michigan.