For the average person on the street, if you ask them to name a burlesque performer, their answer will most often be ‘Dita Von Teese’. She is arguably the most recognised ecdysiastical face in the world and she is often cited as the “Queen” of new burlesque. She has crossed into the mainstream to in a way that no other contemporary performer has; she has capitalised on her celebrity status and built a successful, multi-faceted business model that sets her firmly in the category of global female entrepreneur.
In a career spanning over two decades thus far, she has done a lot for burlesque as an art form. As one of the earlier performers of the new wave burlesque, she has helped put it on the map as a commercial, popularised entertainment form. Her giant martini glass and bird cage props have become synonymous with the popular image of glamorous burlesque.
However, it is for these very things that she is sometimes critiqued or questioned by the burlesque community. The things that make Dita the iconic performer that she is; her opulent costumes, extravagant props, careful poise, classically glamorous appeal and so on, are often what turn many people off to her style of shows. In discussions, I’ve seen her described as bland, too reliant on her props and costumes and generally just a bit boring. The diversity of modern burlesque, the different skill-sets, backgrounds and increasingly flexible and ever-widening definition of the word ‘burlesque’ could arguably render Dita’s style of performance as too tame and traditional for some tastes.
But it’s not that simple. You could argue until the showgirls come home as to whether Dita is a blessing or a curse to the world of new burlesque. Has her fame left us with a genre that is too narrowly-defined in the public eye? On the one hand, you could argue that yes, it has. Despite the endless variety in contemporary burlesque, there still exists the stereotype of the slender, traditionally beautiful woman in nipple tassels. But this cannot all be attributed to Dita’s influence; other celebrity / burlesque crossovers (eg Burlesque, the movie, starring Cher and Christina Aguilera) have helped to define burlesque in the commercialised way in which it is often viewed by those out-with the scene. Throw in some Ann Summers nipple tassels and is it any wonder burlesque struggles to be viewed in the mainstream as anything other than “classy stripping”?
Regardless, the burlesque that we know and love continues to grow and diversify; a global scene fueled by a passion for the art form that can be whatever you want it to be. Neo-burlesque performers worldwide continue to put their creativity into a genre that is ever-expanding and diversifying, creating exciting new shows and performances incorporating a myriad of skills and styles.
Perhaps one day we’ll show the mainstream media what we really are, but in the meantime, let’s leave Dita alone. Give her the credit she’s due as one of the foremost figures in our industry and equally so for her entrepreneurial finesse.
In a similar way to Kat Von D in the world of tattooing and Jenna Jameson in the world of adult entertainment, Dita has taken an alternative career path and turned it into an extremely successful global business and brand. And as like so many burlesque queens before her, Dita has capitalised on the titillation and glamour of her shows; she has employed clever marketing along with a consistent style which has helped to make her the successful figure that she is in the modern-day entertainment industry.