Heather Sweet was just a freckle-faced strawberry blond from small-town Michigan until she discovered the makeup and beauty regimen that would transform her into the raven-haired, pale-skinned, scarlet-lipped Hollywood burlesque queen and style icon Dita Von Teese.
In addition to splish-splashing inside a giant martini glass while taking her burlesque show to the Crazy Horse in Paris and other venues around the world, Von Teese, 43, is today's paragon of pinup style, frequently appearing in the front rows of fashion shows and on best-dressed lists in figure-hugging confections by Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Jenny Packham and more.
In her new book, "Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour" (HarperCollins), written with fashion journalist Rose Apodaca, she shares how she invented herself, including the $10 box of drugstore blue-black hair dye she still uses, her favorite red lipstick shades (there are 13) and how she achieved the beauty mark near her left eye (she had it tattooed on at Classic Tattoo in Fullerton when she was 18).
The photo-filled book is packed with tips (on how to stretch your feet after wearing stilettos and beautify your bosom, for example). There are step-by-step tutorials (on how to achieve the perfect cat eye, for one) and expert interviews. There are also lots of tidbits about Hollywood beauty history, such as this: It was MGM's on-set manicurist Beatrice Kay who popularized the look of leaving nail crescents unvarnished, creating the moon manicure that was a favorite of Hollywood divas such as Carmen Miranda and Marlene Dietrich, as it is with Von Teese.
I caught up with the self-created icon recently to chat about beauty.
Why do a beauty book?
Even though I'm famous for striptease, I have a huge following among women who are finding out the same things about glamour that first made me want to create burlesque shows. I didn't have a ton of modern icons of sexuality I could relate to when I was growing up. That's why I looked to the past, to do something about glamour and creation. I wanted to reveal my secrets and talk about my obsessions. This is the anti-natural beauty book.
Was beauty the way you found your character?
For sure. I'm an ordinary blond girl from a farming town in Michigan. And I know how different my life is with and without glamour. I created a whole aesthetic persona for myself. I didn't craft a character exactly, because I'm still Heather Sweet from Michigan. But I did give myself a big Hollywood makeover like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth did. And I believe it's possible for anyone to go from modest beauty to bird of paradise.
You write that "beauty is duty." Why?
I look at is as something as natural as brushing my teeth. And it doesn't have to take a lot of time. I can narrow it down to a few little things, like having my lips on, and my hair pulled back in a neat chignon. I choose little things that make me feel better and give me confidence.
Have you always felt beautiful?
No, certainly not. I have definitely had experiences of not feeling beautiful, but also have noticed I have some control over that. The first time I remember feeling pretty was when I discovered red lipstick. There's a picture of me in the book, wearing my mom's hot rollers, and the red lipstick I saved up money to buy. It's the first time I remember feeling like I had the potential to be as pretty as my older sister or mom. Now, over the years, I've had moments I've noticed when I've done things that don't make me feel so good, like when I've been coerced into doing photo shoots where I'm stripped of my glamour, with no makeup. I feel vulnerable and uneasy. So I stopped doing that. I always think, "What would Marlene Dietrich do?" She wouldn't allow it and neither do I!
How did you discover your beauty icons?
My mom loves old movies, and she liked to go antique hunting, so that's where I got my fascination with clothes and hats. I wanted to be like an old movie heroine, not like Christie Brinkley and the rest of the Sports Illustrated models who were the beauty icons when I was growing up. Big musicals were like cartoons to me. It wasn't black-and-white movies, but every WWII era Technicolor musical that I wanted to see. Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda were colorful and joyful. They were all wearing half-moon manicures, which inspired me to try it.
The book spotlights several eccentric beauties besides you, including Ali Mahdavi, the striking filmmaker, photographer and artistic director of the Crazy Horse in Paris, who lost all his hair when he was 12 years old, and was able to embrace that as part of his glamorous look. Today, is it more about finding your own beauty signature than one ideal?
Yes, and it's easier because there is more of an alternative movement. When I first did burlesque shows, I used to get made fun of, and be called Dracula or Cleopatra. Now girls who have black hair and pale skin don't get called the same names. When I do a show, thousands of girls are wearing dramatic hairdos and corsets, and doing things different than the norm. There's a tribe out there for everyone, you just have to find it.
You're not a snob about beauty. A lot of products you use are from the drugstore. What are some of your favorites?
I use coconut oil to take off my makeup. It's also a good moisturizer to shave your legs. I take baths with Epsom salts with some essential oil, such as lavender or pine. I also like travel-sized things and some skin care brands that you only used to be able to get in Paris, such as Nuxe. I had brunch with Paul Reubens a couple years ago, and we connected over our love for Super Walgreens.
When it comes to maintenance, you do some of it yourself, right?
Even though I have lots of hair and makeup people I love to work with, there's still something great about doing it yourself. It makes me feel accomplished. I did my own hair and makeup for the red carpet at Cannes, and picked out my own dress. So many stars have these glam squads and spend thousands of dollars. But if I can do it, anyone can do it. That being said, nails and waxing are two things I leave to the professionals.
You have collaborated several times with MAC Cosmetics and have a new lipstick pegged to the book?
Yes, MAC "Von Teese" red. I was also a MAC Viva Glam girl for two years.
What are some of your favorite fragrances?
I have four of my own Dita Von Teese fragrances, and Erotique is my day-to-day. I also like Chanel Cuir de Russie, which smells like strong leather, and Jean Paul Gaultier's Classique, which smells like an old-fashioned powdery scent.
You touch on aging in the book and say you are not averse to plastic surgery. At 43, is there anything you've started to do differently beauty-wise?
Heavier eye cream (I use the Retrouve line). Being more diligent about getting my beauty sleep. I drink less. I'm interested more in what all the procedures are and how you can do them without going overboard. It's hard to get the truth about who is doing what.
How will you age into 50, 60 and 70?
In my fantasy, I will have the same look but be a silver fox. I'm praying I'm going to get my dad's silver hair. I'm that person who's actually looking for grays!