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When you think burlesque, you think Dita Von Teese.

The 45-year-old, formerly known as Heather Sweet, started burlesque in 1992, and has since become the most famous woman in the art form, with her shows and routines – including her performance in a martini glass – legendary around the world.

And after a quarter of a century in the business, Dita has had the main view on how the burlesque scene has changed.

Speaking to Metro.co.uk, Dita said: ‘I started in the early 90s, and my fanbase was predominantly male. Then I remember performing in a fetish club here, Torture Garden, and people didn’t understand the feathers and rhinestones, what was fetish-y about it. I’ve definitely watched it evolve and grow.

‘I now have a much bigger female audience than male, I started noticing that around 2002, 2003. Even more so when I released my second book a couple of years ago. Women were resonating with my reasons for creating burlesque shows in the first place, which was I didn’t have any modern role models I could relate to. Cindy Crawford, Elle McPherson, these natural, striking, racehorse type beauties, I couldn’t be like that, so I looked to the past, I started posing for pin-ups, I started paving my way for my own myth.

Dita Von Teese reflects on life as burlesque icon: 'I feel more on top of it than ever'
Dita has been at the forefront of pin-up glamour for two decades (Picture: Steve Granitz/WireImage)

‘Now I see so many women who are embracing vintage style glamour for themselves, and it’s part of what keeps me going. I feel like I have more purpose.’

Meeting Dita in London’s Chiltern Firehouse for coffee, the performer is strikingly beautiful in person and incredibly well dressed – a green silk shirt, perfectly applied red lipstick and coiffed black curls on a Tuesday afternoon is no mean feat. This, teamed with her soft voice and magnetic charisma, makes it very clear how Dita became the biggest star in burlesque, and has stayed so for two decades; her shows becoming sexier, smarter and more multi-faceted as the years pass.

Dita said: ‘I really felt like when I was 21, 22, I remember feeling like I was at the height of my fame when I was on a billboard in Wisconsin. I never would have thought for one minute “I want to be famous”. I just liked putting on shows and was having fun, I never thought about money or fame. And everytime when people ask me “what will you be doing ten years from now”, I never know, because ten years ago I didn’t guess right either. By 23, I thought I’d be done by 30, by 30, I thought by 35 I’d be done. But I feel more on top of it than ever.

‘When I look at shows of myself from 15 years ago, I’m mortified – I’m terrible. Well, I look at it by how much I’ve learned, I don’t look at it and be embarrassed – I was in a Champagne glass on the Champs Elysee opening the Louis Vuitton flagship. I just think as a performer, I have a lot more potential that I can reach.

‘When I was younger, I was all about feathers, that was my raison d’etre, to make extravagant things, and now I think more about state-of-the-art technology and lights, stuff that brings burlesque to another level. I want to be a better performer and a better businesswoman.’

Dita Von Teese in champagne glass
Dita is the best known name in burlesque (Picture: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)

The popularisation of burlesque thanks to Dita and other high-profile acts means that burlesque is more accessible than ever. There are classes that welcome all ages, all shapes and sizes, men and women – with many seeing it as an act of empowerment.

While Dita herself sees it as such, she doesn’t want to force the idea that burlesque is a feminist act on anyone.

She told us: ‘I never wanted to tell people it was a feminist thing. I think anything can be that way. You can look at burlesque and think that’s raunchy, or you can think that’s art. It’s been going on since the beginning of time, people judging and one person’s pleasure being another’s fear. But I’m not telling people “this is a feminist movement, you should get involved” – I say “see how it feels for you”. If it speaks to you, great, if it doesn’t, great.

‘We like having our place of diversity and acceptance. That’s one of the things I love about burlesque the most, the celebration of feminity, gender fluidity, different body shapes and ethnicities, and the different ages are a really important part of it.

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‘My show, most of the performers in my show are at least 30. I’m not being ageist, but there’s something to be said for stage experience and that mind-body connection. I’ve never wanted a show full of perfect little pin-up girls – that’s super boring.’

Dita Von Teese and Sebastian Tellier
Dita has recorded her debut album, written by Sebastian Tellier Picture: Camille Vivier)

But burlesque is just one of the trades Dita is excelling in. She has written two books, designs her own lingerie – and now, she has recorded her debut album, which was written specifically for her by French musician Sebastian Tellier. ‘I like that he wrote it with his perception of who I am, and he said he saw me as a seductress who looks for prey with my eagle eyes and swoops down… I thought that was funny. I love that it’s his fantasy of who I am.’

A nonchalant, slick affair, which reminds of the style of Serge Gainsbourg and Air, the record is surprising but is the fantasy of Dita’s on-stage persona.

However, while an impressive debut effort, Dita insists on numerous occasions that she is not a singer.

She said: ‘I’m always prepared for criticism, that’s par for the course with any endeavour. I’m the first person to say I won’t quit my day job. I think it would be silly not to try something different – now I can say I’ve made a Sebastian Tellier record. For a lot of music people, that’sa really big deal. But then there’s people who don’t listen to anything that’s not on the radio, and think I’m crazy.

More: Music

‘I can’t sing this stuff live, I’m not a singer. But there’d be an idea for a visual show which is like what I do, a hybrid. But I don’t think I’d ever to say “you should come and hear me song”, I’d rather create a visual show, being an aesthetic control freak.’

So she wouldn’t sing her self-titled album in a darkened room with a spotlight on stage? ‘No way, I would be mortified! I’m much more comfortable taking my clothes off than singing.’

Dita Von Teese’s debut album is available from 16 February.

MORE: Dita Von Teese collaborates on album with Sebastian Tellier: ‘It’s his fantasy of who I am’

MORE: Karen Gillan on her action hero status, flirting and the misogyny of female movie characters

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