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Queen of burlesque Von Teese on fashion, fetishes and France

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AFP
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today Feb 1, 2009
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Dita Von Teese - Photo : Miguel Medina/AFP
PARIS, Feb 1, 2009 (AFP) - Dita Von Teese, the onetime blonde from small-town USA who morphed into the black-haired global superstar of strip, credits her celebrity status to a love of femininity exaggerated to the hilt.

Currently in the French capital for a run of shows in that quintessentially Parisian cabaret, the Crazy Horse, the diva of glam sex recounts how a teenage passion for underwear propelled her rise to celebrity, both as stripped-down "Queen of Burlesque", and dressed-up fashion icon.

"Lingerie is my first love," says the 36-year-old, a tiny Snow-White like figure, demurely though elegantly turned out in a calf-length dark green number by designer Roland Mouret -- and incredibly high high heels.

"I started wanting to learn about the history of lingerie and that's how I came across pictures of pin-up girls, and when I found pin-up girls I found burlesque stars, and that's it."

Von Teese, a familiar face at top fashion houses such as Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier or Elie Saab, and consistently rated one of the world's Best Dressed women, recently outed her own lingerie for Wonderbra.

"She earns a living peeling off her clothes but is celebrated for what she wears," said Crazy Horse manager Andree Deissenberg.

A onetime fetish model formerly married to gothic rock star Marilyn Manson, Von Teese grew up with a passion for 30s and 40s Hollywood glam, trained as a dancer and a costume designer, and did her first strip when a teenager -- creating a vintage-inspired outfit with elbow-length gloves and seamed stockings that piqued the clientele.

"I always had an interest in fetishism because I like things that exaggerate the feminine form," she said. "Extremely high heels, waist-crunching corsets, all the things that really exaggerate the feminine shape, and long red nails and make-up that's very feminine."

"Apparently that also appeals to fetishists."

Fetishism, she added, was more than whips and chains and being mean. "It's also about worshipping femininity and extremes and finding beauty in extremes. That's what always appealed to me."

On the way, she said she became interested in why people had a fetish for seamed stockings, high heels, or feet or rubber or leather.

"I was always really interested in knowing what makes people tick."

"When people think of being beautiful or sexy, it's important to remember that those things are different for everyone," she said. "There's such a broad scope of what turns people on."

A corset-wearing tight-lacer, Von Teese has featured on the cover of fetish magazines while wowing burlesque audiences by performing in giant glasses of champagne or martini, straddling a 9-foot lipstick, feather-fan dancing or walking the stage in just diamonds or Swarovski crystals.

"People ask me what is the difference between burlesque and striptease and there really isn't one," she said.

Burlesque was like early 20th century song-and-dance vaudeville, but more risque, with more skits on sex and stripteasers as the stars -- such as her heroine Gypsy Rose Lee.

"I'm just trying to bring back the original art form," added softly-spoken Von Teese.

At the Crazy Horse, where she performs through to Valentine's Day, Von Teese aptly is playing as "resident artist".

As the cabaret is far smaller than Paris' other legendary night-spots, the Folies Bergeres, Moulin Rouge or Lido, and with a tinier stage, Von Teese has had to rethink and redevise her numbers, performing alongside the club's troupe of scantily dressed dancing girls.

Paris, she said, where she spends increasing amounts of time, is the ideal city for the art of burlesque.

While the US invented showgirls and the art of striptease, "unfortunately it seems that now in America they've lost all sense of what burlesque really is. It's just something very racy for them," she said.

"It's not like in France where they still remember names like Mistinguett and Josephine Baker", the leggy singer-dancers respectively from France and the US of the years before the Second World War.

"In America they've completely forgotten this and have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that striptease could've been a form of classic entertainment," she said.

"There was a reason Josephine Baker found more accolades here than where she was from, so even in the 20s and 30s it was a lot freer here than where she came from," said Von Teese.

"I like coming here to be appreciated."by Claire Rosemberg

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