At 41, she has turned her art and education into a trend for young, tattooed women to follow and for businesses - clubs, casinos, and concert promoters like Live Nation - to use for fun and profit. Her first-ever Philly gig is Wednesday night at Upper Darby's Tower Theater on a tour sponsored by the entertainment behemoth.
"Live Nation's bigwigs show up at most of our rehearsals," says Von Teese, whose most famous strip-and-peel finds her wriggling in an oversize martini glass. "The evolution of burlesque is that it's legitimate entertainment now."
Burlesque dancing and neo-striptease seem like the most recent money-making sure bet. Ask Atlantic City casinos such as Revel, whose Ivan Kane's Royal Jelly burlesque is one of the biggest reasons to hit that beleaguered hotel. Or Trump Taj Mahal, which brought Scores, the New York strip club, to its floor - the first strip club inside an A.C. casino in the city's 35 years of legal gambling (albeit a tame one; there's no nudity allowed in New Jersey). Or the operators of family-friendly World Cafe Live in Philadelphia and Wilmington, who've hosted Philly's Peek-A-Boo Revue.
"Though we can't make it because we're in rehearsal, Peek-A-Boo is proud to support Von Teese's show through social media," Peek-A-Boo co-boss Scott Johnston says. ". . . The local burlesque community is abuzz about Dita, and there are 10 local troupes, including the up-and-comers. Dita is the very epicenter of burlesque, the high-water mark."
Clubs, casinos, and promoters use burlesque and neo-strip acts like Peek-A-Boo and Von Teese to broaden adult appeal.
"I wouldn't give an overall judgment, as I don't know those clubs' financial statements, but it's great that it's being embraced," says Von Teese (born Heather Renée Sweet). "When I go to Sin City and see that every other show is like Cirque du Soleil, it appears as if the era of the Vegas showgirl is waning. That's why it's so great to see it in full flower everywhere else."
Ballet got the young Von Teese dancing, but by 15 she knew she "wasn't ever going pro with it." She acquired a taste for corsets, silk stockings and basques at 16, selling lingerie. A career began, as a vintage-dressed pinup model for specialty photographers, then as a dancer/stripper.
"I had all the elements of a ballet star, but it was even better, as I could write my own story on my own terms, direct my own show, and have more control over my career than most ballerinas," she says. "More longevity, too, as I don't have the strains on my body ballerinas do."
The more she danced, the more research she did into old-school burlesque. "The real pinups posing for men's mags in the '40s and '50s were doing burlesque," says Von Teese, who, along with her pal/designer Catherine D'lish made her own outfits and sewed on her own sequins.
By 1992, she was hailed as a queen of the new burlesque, notably because of her feather fan dance, inspired by legendary Sally Rand, which, "like Rand did, found me full nude with body makeup by the end of each routine."
She appeared on fetish magazine covers such as Bizarre, but also made it onto the pages of Playboy, first in 1999, then with a cover in 2002. her career was set. More shows. Marriage to, and divorce from, Marilyn Manson. A book (one of several) she coauthored, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese (2006).
"My current act spans 20 years, mostly because of my own personal evolution," she says. "I have different ideas of how I'd like to be presented as a woman now."
Sure, she's done raw, full-out stripteases in smaller clubs in the past.
"This isn't the past, though, and the venues we're playing and the shows we're doing now are more like Broadway productions, but at club prices," Von Teese says.
"I enjoy the challenge of presenting something taboo and risqué while changing people's expectations."
Dita Von Teese: "Burlesque Strip Strip Hooray!"
7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Tower Theater, 69th and Ludlow Streets, Upper Darby.