Dita Von Teese is the world’s most feted burlesque artiste. She is also a wasp-waisted model, costume designer, actress, entrepreneur and a connoisseur of all things erotic. The performer was born in Rochester, Michigan, in 1972 and gave her first burlesque performances twenty years later, progressing rapidly to become a muse for designers, artists, filmmakers and musicians, including the rock star Marilyn Manson (who she was married to for seven years). She appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine in December 2002 and is also noted for her appearances in films, such as Andrew Blake’s Decadence. To coincide with Sotheby’s Erotic: Passion & Desire sale earlier this week, Telegraph columnist and former editor of The Erotic Review Rowan Pelling, talked to her from her base in Los Angeles.
Rowan Pelling: Could you define to me what the term erotic means for you?
Dita Von Teese: Well I think something that is erotic is meant to arouse, to sexually arouse, it’s definitely something different from just being sexy.
RP: Do you think there’s a realm where the imagination comes into it?
DVT: Certainly, you know, I’m someone who collects erotic art and has always been interested in objects or paintings that are really, truly meant to incite lust or to be fetishistic. There’s no question of what it’s meant to do.
RP: Who are your favourite erotic artists and photographers?
DVT: I’ve always been a big fan of John Willie. He made a series in the 1930s and ‘40s, called The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline and they were bondage adventures. He also had Bizarre Magazine, which depicted more extreme fetishism. I’ve always cited his ladies as my fashion icons, because I’ve been looking at these images since I was a teenager. There was a character called the Mysterious Countess and she and her partner were going around kidnapping beautiful young girls and tying them to trees and it’s 1930s-style bondage. And I have one of [Willie’s] original paintings, which was really difficult to come by because collectors don’t give them up until they die.
BEHIND THE SCENES OF SOTHEBY'S VIDEO WITH DITA VON TEESE
RP: I used to edit an erotic magazine and I found women are often as turned on as men are by sexy images – don’t you think so?
DVT: Yeah, I most definitely think so – and especially me. I’ve always been attracted to antiquities or erotica, because I’m very visual when it comes to beauty and glamour. It’s one of the things that I’ve always been fascinated by and the entire reason I started my career is that I liked reading vintage erotic books that were set in the 1920s and ‘30s, like Henry Miller and Anais Nin. And I’ve always been attracted to erotic art that’s from another time, because I like this whole costume thing. I like the clothes, I like the garter belts and stockings, I like dressed-up, fantasy sex.
RP: If you could take one item of sexy clothing to a desert island, what would it be?
DVT: My first thought is the corset because when I was a teenager and worked in a lingerie store that was the ultimate lingerie piece that was still elusive and belonged to the fetish world. That’s when I started discovering things like extreme high heels, that were made just for sex and you could never walk in… I have a pair of shoes that were worn by Bettie Page for all those famous bondage photos.
AN EXCEPTIONAL CARVED MAHOGANY BED, SECOND HALF 19TH-CENTURY. ESTIMATE £500,000–800,000.
RP: You’ve managed to successfully maintain a hidden core, a sense of mystery. Do you think mystery is central to eroticism?
DVT: I do – as someone who, when I was a young girl, posed for a lot of erotic photos, bondage photos, fetish photos. That was really how I got my start. I’ve always loved toeing the line between high glamour and something that’s thought provoking and provocative, that makes you re-think fetishes and then bondage. So, I love it when you put the good and the bad, the risqué and the highly glamorous together. I’ve, always loved walking that line with erotic images and trying to change people’s minds about [fetish] and trying to change people’s minds about what striptease is. You know, when I’m sitting on an airplane and somebody says, ‘Wow, what do you do, you look so amazing? I love your clothes!’ And I’ll say ‘I’m a stripper,’ and they are like ‘What? You can’t be that!”
RP: Are there any living ideals for you – a man, or a woman (apart from yourself) who in some way embody eroticism for you?
DVT: Yeah, the first person that comes to mind is a friend of mine named Betony Vernon and she’s a fascinating woman. She’s a statuesque redhead that makes the most beautiful erotic jewellery. When I think about erotica I think of her because I met her and she presented to me her life’s work, which is this incredible mahogany jewel box that opens with a heart shaped lock and key – and it’s all real gold and diamond and pearls. Jewellery that doubles as sex toys and that you can wear and no one would know the difference.
BEHIND THE SCENES OF SOTHEBY'S VIDEO WITH DITA VON TEESE
RP: There’s a rather amazing courtesan bed, that’s central to Sotheby’s sale, commissioned in the 1850s for a house on the Champs-Elysees that’s now the Travellers Club and it’s called the La Paiva bed, because it belonged to the famous French courtesan. It’s a mahogany fantasia, with a naked woman on top of a shell and two swans chasing round. I love this bed. I wish I owned this bed. And for me a bed is the central motif of eroticism. Do you have a fantastic bed?
DVT: I do. I had a custom built bed. My bed has a mirror built into it, a beautiful vanity, sleeping beauty style silver mirror. And they built it with ice grey silk tufting all around it and I’ve had it made the perfect height for sex, because most beds are not tall enough, if one wanted to be standing next to the bed. I’m someone who has never had a TV in my bedroom. I don’t work in my bed, you know, I think it’s a sacred place for two different things and that’s it.
RP: I so admire that.
DVT: My inspiration is Mae West, because she famously had mirrors all around her room and above the bed and next to the bed.
RP: I love the idea that your bed might end up in a sale in a great auction house in 150 years and they’ll be saying, ‘This is the Dita Von Teese bed.’
DVT: Yeah, I know. They’ll wonder what erotic adventures took place there and they’ll know that they were good ones.