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Greatest of Teese

Times Staff Writer

IT’S Friday afternoon in the picket-fence suburb of Chatsworth. The sun is low as an iron gate parts to reveal a steep driveway leading to a classic, low-slung ranch house.

The front door opens and there is Dita Von Teese -- a porcelain doll, not a raven hair out of place. Her scarlet fingernails are filed into pointy talons, her lipstick and beauty mark perfect.

“Would you like some water?” she asks, her hips swishing as she walks in a ramrod straight, ice blue Moschino dress.

So this is who the fashion world is buzzing about.

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Everybody loves a front-row “It” girl. And this season, as the fall runway shows get underway today in New York, it’s Dita Von Teese.

How unlikely that this burlesque queen known for stripping down to her pasties while frolicking in an overgrown martini glass would enchant clothing designers and magazine editors alike? She also happens to be the new wife of shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Their wedding photos will be featured in the March issue of Vogue.

More than a designer pet, Von Teese has become a muse. And she’s racking up an impressive list of credentials.

Since her big break, posing for Playboy in December 2002, she has appeared at hundreds of events, as a guest and the main attraction. She’s performed her striptease to promote lingerie labels Victoria’s Secret, Agent Provacateur and Trashy Lingerie, and entertained at parties for DSquared, Louis Vuitton, Garrard and Christian Louboutin. She’s been to shows for John Galliano, Roland Mouret, Marc Jacobs and Moschino.

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And people can’t stop giving her clothes -- the couture gown Jean Paul Gaultier stitched for a wedding gift; the dozen pairs of shoes Louboutin offered as his present, the Louis Vuitton hatbox from pal Marc Jacobs.

“Dita was like a revelation to me the first time I met her,” Louboutin says. “She is a dream come true, the ultimate elegant showgirl.”

“It’s great that she got some attention by being with Marilyn Manson,” says Cecilia Dean, the editor of Visionaire magazine, who hired her to perform at a party last summer. “But she has backed it up with substance.”

Runway tour

Before Von Teese embarks on her runway tour, which will take her to New York, London and Milan, she’s agreed to give a tour of her closet, or rather closets.

Her costume room is a fantasy land of feathery boas, rhinestone-encrusted evening gloves and G-strings, platform shoes and corsets resplendent with crystals and lace, all designed by her best friend and fellow burlesque dancer, Catherine D’Lish. Sitting down in front of a ballet barre, her face silhouetted against boudoir pink paisley velvet wallpaper, she presents two glasses of water in pink crystal glasses. Her antique round-cut diamond ring -- all 7 carats of it -- is blinding. She has the posture of a school librarian and a strict sense of decorum to match, remarking often on what is “right” or “appropriate.”

Von Teese, 33, was born Heather Sweet in West Branch, Mich., the daughter of a machinist and a manicurist. When she was 12, she and her family moved to Irvine.

She has been interested in fashion almost as long as she has been interested in dancing, since age 5. “I wasn’t a very good ballet dancer, but I loved it,” she says. “For me, it was about beautiful costumes and hair and decadent makeup.”

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She idolized Cyd Charisse, who used her classical ballet training to create risque dance numbers, and she took in as many old movies as possible. In 1990 she was hired at a strip club called Captain Cream in Lake Forest, where she began to shape her image, wearing corsets, long gloves and hats with veils over her eyes during her act. At the same time, she began posing for fetish, pinup and retro culture magazines, taking the name “Dita” after 1920s film star Dita Parlo.

“When I was fetish modeling, people would trade me corsets for photo shoots, and I saved them all.” Today, her collection numbers 400. Her favorites are by Mr. Pearl, a custom corset designer in Paris, and Dark Star, a company out of San Francisco. (And in case you were wondering, she prefers to lace them herself.)

After a couple of years headlining at Captain Cream, Von Teese hit the road. “I was in strip clubs all over the United States -- the good, the bad and the ugly.” She began performing her tribute to Sally Rand’s feather fan dance in 1993. In 1996, she paid homage to Lili St. Cyr by taking a champagne bath in a clear glass tub while wearing a pink rhinestone top hat, now displayed prominently in her closet on a high shelf.

Her travels were the perfect opportunity to amass vintage clothing. “I collected things in Texas, Rhode Island, everywhere. I made a lot of cash, took it to local vintage shops and bought the most amazing things.” Including more than 350 hats, plus dresses and lingerie.

“One of the things I love about the 1930s and ‘40s is that when you shopped from the Sears catalog, you could get the hat and handbag to match your shoes, and get your name embroidered on all of it.”

In 2002, she performed her “girl in the glass” solo with Carmen Electra’s Pussycat Dolls. And Hugh Hefner came calling. He put her on the cover of his holiday issue of Playboy and gave her a 10-page pictorial.

“It changed everything for me,” she says. “Before, I was famous in a certain group of hard-core fetishists, but not the mainstream. It was hard to get publicity. But once I was on the cover of Playboy, everyone wanted to talk to me.”

Including Marilyn Manson. The two met for the first time in 1999 at the Vintage Fashion Expo, a clothing fair in Santa Monica. “I was really dressed up in a hat with a bird on it, gloves, a suit and a veil, and he was following me with his friends,” Von Teese remembers. “I was trying to shop, so finally I turned around and asked, ‘Is there something I can help you with?’”

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They became friends but did not go on a date until 2002, after Manson’s split from Rose McGowan.

“I think our style has rubbed off on each other,” Von Teese says. “For example, he does not wear leather pants anymore.”

Mr. and Mrs.

The two were married Dec. 3 in the Irish castle of their friend, Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein. She wore a purple Vivienne Westwood gown and tricorn hat by Stephen Jones; he wore a black taffeta and velvet tuxedo by John Galliano. Guests were invited to participate in skeet shooting, archery and falconry in the days after the wedding. They didn’t take a honeymoon.

Their Goth-meets-girlie lifestyle becomes apparent in the living room, where there’s a miniature coffin by the door and a carousel horse in the middle of the floor -- a prop Von Teese is dusting with glitter for her act. The couple used to share a place in the Hollywood Hills, until fans started showing up on the lawn. So 1 1/2 years ago they moved to Chatsworth seeking privacy. (Yeah, a towering guy in white makeup and his vixen wife are really going to blend in.)

To the right of the living room, the kitchen is a happy homemaker’s dream -- ‘50s-era black-and-white tile, pink KitchenAid appliances, even pink knives. It’s where Mr. and Mrs. Manson like to dine on her specialties: beef stew and fresh fruit pies.

Manson’s moody watercolors cover the walls in the hallway. (Swastikas are a recurring theme.) In the bedroom, there’s a paisley-covered bedspread, a large wooden armoire, a vanity and a mirror -- with a chain-mail purse emblazoned with a swastika hanging off of it.

“That was the first present Manson ever gave me,” Von Teese explains. “I don’t like to talk about it ... but the swastika is actually an ancient symbol.”

Around the corner her real-life closet is a walk-in with shelf upon shelf of shoes, and not a pair of flats in sight. Vuitton heels studded with stones, Louboutin stilettos in fuchsia satin, Moschino peep-toe platforms and patent leather Westwood court shoes are all a dainty size 6 1/2 . Two drawers open to reveal a pirate’s booty of rhinestone jewelry and tiaras.

“The only excuse for wearing sweats and sneakers is if I was painting outside or doing Pilates,” she says. “When I’m casual at home, I have a cashmere robe and mink bunny slippers. That’s what I wear when I want to be comfortable.”

She reaches for the “bird of paradise” hat she wore for the falconry portion of her wedding, placing it on her head and vamping in front of a mirror. “The birds thought I was their mom.”

Von Teese is still a big vintage shopper, but she doesn’t look for designer names.

“I like to look for things with store labels,” she says. “Stores would copy things from movies, or knock off the best designers.” One of her favorite finds is a black wool crepe dress with a corseted waist, and a drape that comes off the back. “It’s so well made, I just get the seams reinforced every few years.”

And she’s been on eBay since “the days when you could go through everything in one sitting.”

She collects vintage hosiery, which she stores in a file cabinet, and designs a line under the label the Dita Collection by Secrets in Lace. Her stockings are sold -- used and unused -- on her web site, www.dita.net.

Lingerie could be next, but she’s not sure about designing clothes.

“I have a lot of respect for designers and I admire what they do, so I don’t really want to one day say, ‘I’m a designer, too!’ There are a lot of celebrities who have their own clothing lines. But it’s funny when it comes to the Oscars they are wearing Valentino. It’s not nice.”

She’s not desperate to be in movies, either -- “unless the part was right.”

“I would rather be famous for doing what I do best,” Von Teese says. “But everybody has seen that stripper who is past her prime. It’s not right to do forever.”

Her first book is due next month from Regan Books, titled “Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese.” And this fall, she’ll be the face of a major cosmetics campaign.

For now, Von Teese is just excited to be going to the runway shows.

“A lot of people just go to get their picture taken. But they don’t care about the show,” Von Teese says. “I’ve sat next to them and they are on their cellphones, meanwhile a horse and carriage pulled up and Erin O’Connor walked out in full-on Dior couture. It’s theater!”

“I’m going because I love watching the girls, I love the clothes, I love hearing the beads crash to the floor when they walk down the runway. I love seeing what they do with the hair and makeup. I wish I could just go to the shows and not be such a spectacle,” she says.

Pause.

“Not that I mind spectacle.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Dita’s favorite things

* Hats from the 1930s to 1950s. She has more than 350 in her collection, many with birds on top. But it was a modern-day Stephen Jones creation she wore for the morning of falconry during her December wedding in Ireland.

* Monograms. She has her name embroidered in the lining of her mink coat.

* Custom corsets. She favors Mr. Pearl in Paris, whose creations give her a 16-inch waist and start at about $5,000.

* Vintage stockings. She has more than 1,200 pairs stored in a file cabinet in her closet as well as her own line of stockings for sale -- both worn and unworn -- at www.dita.net.

* Vintage dresses. She doesn’t look for designer names but store labels from Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.

* Cashmere robes, vintage slips and mink bunny slippers. She never wears sweats.

* Devonshire Rex cats. She has four of the breed -- with claws intact -- named Lily, Herman, Aleister and Edgar.

-- Booth Moore


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