As told to Sarah Cristobal.
I like to spend time with older women who feel sexy and glamorous. I respect them and love to gather any wisdom they are willing to bestow upon me. I recently had lunch with Mamie Van Doren, the actress and iconic pinup from the ’50s. At 86, she’s a sensual woman who still feels the same way she did when she was 19. “It never changes,” she says. I can relate.
My own pinup career began when I was 19. I was very shy and a mediocre-looking blonde from a farming town in Michigan. I was inspired by old movies and found my confidence by emulating silver-screen stars.
One day somebody took me to a strip club. The girls didn’t take anything off; they were dancing in bikinis. I started working there, a fish out of water, performing in vintage lingerie and corsets and developing my burlesque shows. Doing striptease empowered me. The theatrics of clothing can change your demeanor and stance and how you walk and carry yourself. I would use eccentricity as a weapon, wearing red lipstick, heels, hats, leather gloves, and extreme clothes—kind of like a femme fatale or a villain.
Fast-forward to 2000, when I was a full-swing burlesque performer touring all over the U.S. and Europe, headlining the big, fancy clubs and appearing on the cover of Playboy. Up to that point, most of my fans had been men and couples, and then, suddenly, it changed to women and members of the LGBTQ community. I remember doing an in-store appearance at Harrods in London for my first book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese. There were 2,000 people present, mostly women dressed up in vintage style.
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It made me realize these ladies were there for the same reason I was. I could never relate to mainstream notions of beauty and sensuality, like the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. My idols were women like Betty Grable and Hedy Lamarr, who were about the art of creation. I was always really into ultra-feminization—it gave me glamour and the feeling that when I walked into a room, people wanted to know who I was; and they still do now that I’m 44.
Last year I performed at the Crazy Horse, the historic cabaret club in Paris. I was its first guest star more than 10 years ago, and I was nervous about going back. The dancers have to be a certain age, height, weight, and body shape to perform there. When I was invited to return, I didn’t know if I could do it. I felt vulnerable and was concerned about dancing nearly nude alongside women in their early 20s. I’m glad I did it, though. It was a challenge, but the reviews said I was better than ever.
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Which is why when people make ageist remarks or ask age-related questions, I find it so shortsighted. What’s the alternative? Die young? Would you ask me this if I were a man? Are you wondering whether I’m worried about getting old? Yes, I am; we all are.
I remember doing an interview with a German journalist when I was in my mid-30s, and she asked me, “What will you do when you get old and you lose your beauty and are not interesting anymore?” That question struck a nerve. Maybe it was lost in translation, but still. Then I thought about how the concepts of perfect beauty and talent were—and still are—uninteresting to me. I grew up wanting to be a ballerina but wasn’t good enough to make that a career. I believe my shortcomings were what led me to burlesque. What I lacked in natural beauty and talent made me look at things from a different perspective.
The singers and actors I like are usually slightly flawed too. They are the people, like Madonna, who had to overcome being told that they were never going to make it in show business. That’s how I feel. I can’t really sing. I’m no good at sports. I’ve never been the best at anything, except for burlesque and striptease.
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Anytime I question myself, like, “Should I really be on tour, doing my burlesque show again in my 40s?” I recall Mamie and her wonderful spirit. Or I’ll see a video of J. Lo doing backflips in a G-string onstage in Vegas and think about how she’s a few years older than me and up there in lingerie, looking amazing. I truly do believe that we need to see and experience beauty and sensuality at all phases of life.
I hate it when people say, “You look good for your age.” It should be, “You look good.” Period. Getting older is a good thing.
Von Teese’s burlesque show, “The Art of the Teese,” is currently on tour in the U.S.