Dita Von Teese: What's underneath all that corsetry and red lipstick?

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I meet Dita Von Teese – the teeny-tiny "International Queen of Burlesque", famed for feather dances, champagne baths, and making the rest of us feel like the great, big, clumsy heffalumps we are – at a London hotel. She is wearing a Vivienne Westwood couture dress teamed with beautiful Christian Louboutin shoes and a sparkling Cartier ring. She has black hair and skin so bone-white it looks as if the sun has never touched it, as if it's been frightened off somehow. Her waist is unbelievably teeny-tiny. Corseted, her waist measurement is 16 inches. I've never felt more like the sun-damaged heffalump that I am. One of my thighs – just the one – is 24 inches and even then I put the tape measure round the thinnest bit and pulled it in really tight, like a tourniquet.

Her lips are painted scarlet, as always. She doesn't think she lived before she discovered red lipstick. "That's when I felt totally changed, and glamorous. I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to wear any other colour." She was, until recently, married to rocker Marilyn Manson – the seriously spooky Goth who may also be Joan Crawford exhumed – which seems a bit weird; so unlikely somehow. I say I wouldn't have put him down as your type, Dita. I'd have thought you'd go for someone more Cary Grant-ish, like George Clooney. "Wow," she says, "that sounds nice. But I've had a lot of long-term boyfriends and they've all been different types. I don't really have a type." She has a sweet, soft little voice and says she is shy, "painfully shy". On stage? " No." In the bedroom? "In that respect, never!"

We get the photographs out of the way. Dita knows what she wants and how she wants it. She declines one of the photographer's suggested poses on the grounds that: "I don't want to look like a whore", which is fair enough, as who does? Dita looks as pure as driven snow – her cleavage is so supernaturally white it could be sculpted from it – yet she's probably dirty as hell. That's the key. If she looked dirty, it just wouldn't work. It would be sludge. She is absolutely in control of her own image. A dominatrix, if you like. She directs her own stage shows, designing props and costumes. She styles and supervises all her own photo shoots and owns the resulting pictures. She doesn't, she says, want to end up flat-broke like Bettie Page. She is smart at the whole money thing. She has a website, www.dita.net, which even sells off her used stockings, presumably to underwear fetishists, at $50 a pop.

"All stockings are worn by Dita as one of her regular undergarments so supplies are limited," the website reads. "Some wear and tear may have occurred. Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery. We will try to get them to you in a more timely fashion but due to the fact that we only want to give you stockings genuinely worn by Dita sometimes you may experience delay. "

"Really?" I exclaim. "There are people who buy your used stockings?"

You bet, she says. Further: "I can't keep up with demand. I mentioned them on French TV and we completely sold out."

"Would these sell?" I hitch up my trousers and show her my pop socks.

"Sure. There will be a market for that."

"Dita, are you Von Teasing me?"

"No, I'm telling you someone will have a fetish for that."

I am happy. I have lots of pop socks: black, brown, neutral, tan. I could be minted.

We sit on the sofa. She has an entourage with her: a PR, an assistant, a nice chap from MAC cosmetics. Dita is one of MAC's spokespeople in support of their Aids fund and is performing a benefit here, in London. I go to this show, where she is dressed in pink-sequined rodeo gear and sits astride a giant, bucking, bronco-style lipstick. Eventually, with considerable style and stagecraft, she strips down to nipple tassels and sparkling panties. She has buttocks as firm as fists and breasts that thrust and go out instead of droop and go down, like dogs' ears. Anyway, the chap from MAC promises me a free make-over at some point in the future ... not that I need it? "Not that you need it," he confirms. Dita borrows his jacket which she wears over her shoulders because she is cold. She is always cold, she says. She may not eat enough although eating enough isn't everything. I note that in the sofa-sitting position my thighs splurge to 40 inches apiece, the bastards. (One day, I'm going to take them outside and bitch-slap them real good. It's no less than they deserve and you can't say they didn't have it coming.)

Anyway, what to talk about, with Dita Von Teese, who is 34 and is actually Heather Renée Sweet from Rochester, Michigan? Heather Renée Sweet. That's a cute name, no? Cute, yes, she says, but hardly burlesque. She chose " Dita" after the silent movie star Dita Parlo and "Von Teese" from the phone book. If I called out "Heather" in the street would you turn round? "No. I've been Dita since 1990." Her father, Ken, was a machinist, while her mother, Bonnie, was a manicurist who, presumably, thanked her lucky stars she was three letters off being "Barbie". Dita says she has her mother to thank for her skin. "She's 55 but looks 30." Being a child, she says, never really suited her. "I was always an old soul. I felt like I wanted to be a grown-up. I never stopped fantasising about being a grown-up lady and wearing high heels and having a husband." Why? "I didn't like being told what to do. I wanted to choose what dress and shoes I was going to wear."

She was fascinated by old, golden-era Hollywood films and the first Technicolor ones. "I always noticed the make-up, which was very obvious make-up. I loved the blue eyeshadows and pretty peach blushes. I had an Aunt Opal and she wore blue eyeshadow, red lips, false eyelashes and I just thought she was so colourful and so amazing." Did you raid your mother's make-up drawer? "My mother wasn't much of a make-up wearer." Did you lick Smarties or the American equivalent – M&Ms? – and then rub the colour off on to your lips and eyelids?

"No. Can you do that?"

"You can."

"That's funny."

"Do you think there's a market for licked Smarties on the internet?"

"There may be. Sure."

"Dita, are you Von Teasing me again?"

"Hmmm..."

Growing up, there wasn't a lot of money about. "We weren't dirt-poor but I remember being afraid to ever ask my parents for money. I hardly saw any films at the movie theatre when I was little. I had this idea I would put my family into financial ruin if I asked for money to buy a toy or candy. I was very aware as a child of what was going on and what my parents were talking about. Kids know. I knew when my parents were having affairs. I remember being seven or eight and knowing mum had a boyfriend and dad had a girlfriend but they didn't know I knew." Did that upset you? "I was really indifferent about that kind of thing. I don't remember getting upset by it. When my parents later got divorced I wasn't upset by it. I felt, that's life. You do what you have to do." I don't know if it's just that shyness, but she can appear most coolly detached.

When she was 12, the whole family (she has two sisters) moved to Orange County, California. At this point, Dita wanted to be a ballet dancer " but by 15 I knew I was as good as I'd ever be, and I wasn't good enough." She got a part-time job in a lingerie store, which was heaven. "I loved that job. My pay check went immediately into buying the lingerie I was surrounded by. I fell into it. I'd always loved lingerie. I used to go into my mother's lingerie drawer and steal her lingerie and try it on. I still have a bra that I stole from her. It's from Fredericks of Hollywood and it's a Seventies classic. It's a black, open-breast bra. I love it."

OK, Dita, tomorrow, on pain of death, you either have to wear old big knickers that have gone grey in the wash or those itchy, American tan tights you buy down the corner shops in emergencies. "I would have to?" she queries, scared.

"Yup," I tell her.

"And the knickers would have gone grey in the wash?"

"'Fraid so."

"The tights. At least maybe I could get some humour out of them."

"Good luck."

"Thank you."

What did they make of you at school, Dita? "I had one best friend, Brooke. We both dressed vintage and wore red lipstick. We weren't outcasts but it was just me and her." Dita lost her virginity at "barely 14". That's early, no? "Not for Orange County," she says. And your first corset? "I longed for one and the people in the lingerie shop told me to go to this place where I walked in and it was a hard-core fetish store full of leather and stockings and gloves. I ordered my corset and started looking around at some of the magazines and they were sort of rough and not very stylish and no one was dressing in a pin-up style. I thought it would be really cool to bring it back."

At 17, she found work in a strip club where all the other girls were blonde and tanned and wore neon bikinis "and swung around the pole without putting any creativity in to it". She wore corsets, stockings, opera-length gloves. "I only had two minutes on stage at a time and I'd make $2,000." Didn't it feel ... hmmm ... how to put this ... a little un-feminist? "I'd say it's pretty liberating to get $10,000 for 10 minutes' work." Word spread. There were photo-shoots. She studied burlesque and then there were performances: at Marc Jacobs' Christmas party; for Garrard during New York Fashion week; a private dinner for Diane Von Furstenberg. Then it was the cover of Playboy, which her father thought was fantastic. "It was a validation, of sorts. That may seem strange but if you've grown up in America looking at Playboy and all the stars on the covers, it does mean something." Her father used to keep his Playboys under the bed. "That's how imaginative he was."

Around this time, she met Manson, a fan and member of her website. Accepting an invitation to his birthday party in 2001, she arrived with a bottle of absinthe and that was that. In 2005 they married and moved into a mansion in the San Fernando valley where they lived surrounded by Manson's collections of Nazi uniforms, a foetus in a jar named Ludwig and a taxidermied baboon sitting on a rock with an erection. I still can't see it, but there you have it. The marriage lasted just over a year. I'd been told she didn't want to talk about Marilyn too much, and she doesn't. He does sound controlling, though. "I've always been careful and always worried about my future. It never occurred to me I should marry someone who has money so I could be comfortable. But when I was married I was asked to give up everything I do so I could be taken care of and I thought no, that is where you get control. I could never live that way. I've been working a long time towards this goal and for someone to ask you to give it up doesn't make sense to me. Why would someone want you to give up your dream?"

Would you like children? "My sisters have children. I love children but at this stage of my life ... I was married to someone who was not cut-out to be a father. He could hardly take care of himself, let alone a child, so I changed my views, adapted accordingly, thought: 'It's OK not to have children.' Now I'm just going to watch how my life unfolds and see what happens. I'm not going to be less of a person if I don't have children. It will work out the way it is supposed to." She lives alone in Hollywood, with her two miniature dachshunds – Eva and Greta – and her three Devon Rex cats: Edmund, Herman and Aleister. Manson, she says, never felt the cold but now she can have the heat going full-blast all day every day, if she so fancies. This is good for her, and good for her cats. "They are sensitive little cats and they like it warm too. If it's too chilly their noses start running." She's not a dominatrix in bed, by the way. " It doesn't feel natural to me at all to be mean to people. I have a lot of fans all over the world and many want me to be their mistress and dominate them, but I just can't." What does she look for in a man? Boxers, mostly. "I've never had a boyfriend who was a tighty whitey kind of guy. "

Time to go, as her entourage wish to reclaim her. I shake her small, white, chilly hand; thank her for her time, and inform her I'll keep her updated on www.deb.net, where all my used pop socks will be sold off so that mad weirdos can sniff them or do whatever they do. Actually, Dita, I'm not convinced there is a market for this. "There's a fetish for everything," she says. "Believe me, there is." I am now hopeful for breasts as dogs' ears, too. Full-colour photographs available soon.

Dita Von Teese is a spokesperson for the MAC Aids Fund, with 100 per cent of the sales of MAC Viva Glam lipsticks going to help people living with HIV/Aids. For further information visit www.maccosmetics.co.uk

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