It’s been almost 30 years since Dita Von Teese first strut out on stage. In that time, Von Teese has performed all over the world, written a book, starred in music videos, modeled for the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and earned herself the title Queen of Burlesque. But if you told her three decades ago she’d still be on stage today, she would’ve been shocked.
“When I was 22 and just starting out, you could have never told me that I’d be 40 and still performing, I would have never believed it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have even believed I’d be 30 and performing!”
At 44, Von Teese isn’t slowing down anytime soon, embarking on her new tour, “The Art of the Teese.” She comes to Denver on July 20 with the full-length review, featuring performances by Von Teese and burlesque dancers from around the globe.
“My real heart is in building beautiful costumes and props and staging really high-glamour burlesque shows with rhinestones and feathers and really that old-school glamour in a modern way,” she says.
Von Teese’s interest in the world of burlesque started as a young girl. Her mother loved old movies, and so Von Teese grew up appreciating the golden age of Hollywood. The women of that time enticed Von Teese more than the women she was seeing in magazines.
“As I grew older, as an ordinary blonde girl from a farming town in Michigan, I felt like I didn’t have any role models of beauty that were exciting or who I felt like I could relate to,” Von Teese says. “I didn’t think I could relate to Sports Illustrated swimsuit models or Victoria’s Secret models. I wanted to feel like that. I wanted to feel sexy and powerful, but I didn’t look like a supermodel.”
From a young age, she also dreamed of being on stage. She started in ballet, but realized quickly in her teens she wasn’t good enough to be a professional ballerina.
“What happened was out of necessity, a desire to still perform, but not really knowing what to do because I couldn’t be a ballerina or a showgirl in Vegas because I wasn’t tall enough,” she says. “Burlesque was born out of my desire to be a performer but to do it on my own terms.”
So Von Teese looked to the past for inspiration in pin-up models like Bettie Page and burlesque icons Gypsy Lee Rose and Lili St. Cyr.
“I created my look. I got involved with how to harness the power of glamour in my own life, and that’s how I started creating burlesque shows,” she says. “I wanted to feel like a sex goddess, so that’s why I started dressing in vintage clothes, wearing red lipstick and wearing stockings and garter belts, and ultimately creating a striptease show.”
But despite a nod to the past in her look, Von Teese is a pioneer for the modern burlesque show, which has changed significantly since its inception.
“Now, the audience is predominately female, and there’s a big LGBTQ following,” she says. “It’s a very different show from what one might have seen in the 1930s and ’40s, where the audience was mainly male. In its resurgence, burlesque has definitely captured the attention of women, which we are very grateful for.”
Von Teese credits the shift in audience to the same reason she was drawn to burlesque: the glamour. And Von Teese is not shy when talking about how she created her image. It’s the process of creation that also attracts her fans.
“I wrote a 400-page beauty book (Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Beauty) about how I turned myself from modest beauty to glamour girl,” she says. “So I think that’s what a lot of my followers relate to. They can see if I can do it, then [they] can do it.”
On top of the DIY aspect, burlesque is a world open to all, celebrating diversity in body sizes, ethnicity and age. By having a variety of dancers, she says it shows that beauty is not one-size-fits-all.
“I think it’s great to have a place where like-minded people can get together and embrace their sensuality and get dressed up and come out and see a show like this,” she says. “Maybe they see beautiful, sexy performers that have different body shapes. They can see someone maybe they can relate to in a different way than they do with what mainstream media feeds us — that being young and skinny is the ideal. In burlesque, the most powerful performers are not necessarily the youngest or skinniest or prettiest.”
Von Teese is grateful to be performing in this day and age, and she believes this is a historical era for burlesque. She’s noticed the scene grow over the past several years, and due to its revitalized popularity, the art form has given her more opportunities than she might have once had.
“I know a lot of burlesque stars from the past that are still alive who were performing in the ’40s and ’50s, and they were working in strip clubs,” she says. “I’ve worked in strip clubs too, but I feel really lucky that I have this mainstream audience that’s not just the male gaze deciding when I’m past my expiration date.”
A few decades after burlesque’s heyday and now women have more agency than they once did. And Von Teese feels the artform allows women to harness their own sexual power.
“It’s a wonderful safe space where it’s OK to objectify and be objectified and to fantasize,” she says. “Sometimes I’ve come under fire for doing something that’s degrading to women but it’s kind of a difficult argument to get into when the audience is women.”
She recognizes that her approach to sexuality can be polarizing, and her method of expression is not for everyone. She says she’s never one to preach that everyone should find her show inspiring and uplifting. It’s about finding whatever feels true to yourself and not letting the criticism get you down.
“Like I always say, you can be a juicy, ripe peach and there’s still going to be someone who doesn’t like peaches,” she says. “No matter what you do, you’ll never please everyone all the time. So you really only have one life, you might as well make the most of it. Set your boundaries for yourself for what you feel good about. Feel confident about it, feel proud.”
And it’s hearing from her fans that continues to encourage Von Teese.
“It gave me more purpose in life and in what I was doing to hear stories from other women who were inspired to wear red lipstick and feminine clothes and to embrace their pin-up selves,” she says. “It gave them confidence the same way it gave me confidence.”
After three decades of performing, she’s run into her own barriers, almost falling to an ageist mentality that told her it was maybe time to hang up the corset and stockings.
“I remember I almost retired myself. Then one day I looked up and I was like, well, JLo and Gwen Stefani are still dancing around, singing, showing a lot of body and being sexual people, and they’re like five years older than me,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to put ourselves on the shelf just because we’re aging.”
Just as she looked to others for guidance, she hopes to be a role model.
“We need more examples of sensuality and sexuality in all phases of life,” she says. “It’s important to have examples, and I think there are people who are looking to me to see what mine is going to be.”
On the Bill: Dita Von Teese’s “The Art of the Teese” Burlesque Revue. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 20, Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St.,