Don’t even think about getting an electronic copy of Dita Von Teese’s latest book, Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour. You need to hold this creamy, glossy coffee-table volume in your hands, in all its 400-page, full-color glory. Peel off the dust jacket and you’ll be up close and personal with the alabaster skin, crimson lips, black cat-eye and arched brow that signify Dita-ness. Von Teese “gives good face,” as Madonna would say, but she also wants, in this lush compendium, to impart some of the intimate secrets about what it takes to be a burlesque bombshell and the retro-fetish heir to Bettie Page.
Von Teese has long had a cult following, but Your Beauty Mark reflects a new accessibility. She created her sexy-but-elegant persona in the world of strip clubs, burlesque shows and fetish photography. Emulating such glamorous women of the 1940s and ’50s as Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth and others who “remain powerful weapons of mass seduction worldwide more than a half century later,” Von Teese adds her own kinky twist. For a recap, see her 2006 double-sided book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese or her 2010 Fetish Goddess: Dita, covered by her snarling with a whip and flaunting her 16.5-inch corseted waist (take that, Kardashians). She gradually moved out of the soft-core realm into more commercial territory with endorsement contracts (Cointreau, MAC, H&M), a line of her own cosmetics and lingerie carried by the likes of Bloomingdale’s and Sephora, and, this month, the album Soundtrack for Seduction. Her persona remains impressively constant: edgy, formidable and charming. She radiates approachable likability even while wearing a kabuki mask of makeup, whether she’s gracing Skin Two magazine in bondage and latex or bathing nearly nude in a giant martini glass onstage.
Frankly, the world doesn’t need another beauty book, when even the most extreme look can easily be realized through online tutorials. But Von Teese’s ambitions go beyond a guide to getting pretty. She wants to celebrate femininity as an extravagant visual style. Rather than represent femininity as an experience of pain, drudgery or oppression (think Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth), Von Teese worships at the temple of beauty and seems to genuinely revel in every detail of the process: the plucking, powdering, cinching and crimping. More is always better in her philosophy; there isn’t a lily she won’t gild. She boasts that she does her own makeup and hair out of “integrity and pride” but also out of pleasure.
Von Teese is playful and encouraging in Your Beauty Mark, yet she has strong ideas about most facets of beauty. For her, glamour means discipline and never letting down your guard. She doesn’t leave the house without red lipstick and powder. She wouldn’t “be caught dead” in jeans, although she does include a photo of herself dressed up as “normal” in a brownish wig, neutral lipstick and jeans for a Halloween lark. She is sternly unbending in some matters: Woe to the woman who falls asleep in her makeup or doesn’t sufficiently depilate her bikini line. She gives strict instructions for touching up lipstick and powder in public (only with an ornate compact and impeccable manicure). Yet the title of Your Beauty Mark is a misnomer. Despite urging women to cultivate their own “eccentric glamour,” and despite its profiles of other divas, performers, makeup artists and costumers Von Teese admires, Your Beauty Mark is about all things Dita. And that’s all to the good.
With her collaborator, Rose Apodaca, formerly of Women’s Wear Daily, Von Teese offers accounts of all aspects of glamour, including histories of perfume and the merkin. But the makeup and hair tutorials, illustrated by photographs of the author at her vanity table in a lacy dressing gown and turban, are this book’s star turns. Step by step, you too can master bumper bangs with side victory rolls and the all-important cat-eye swoop. Even Mom Von Teese, as gorgeous as her daughter, shows how to execute a half-moon manicure, and it’s oddly riveting. Von Teese’s folksy dermatologist drops in to caution us against wasting money on high-end products and suggests drugstore alternatives. It’s not all gilt bobby pins and Swarovski crystals, though. Von Teese dispenses advice about embarrassing blemishes, cellulite, hair in unsightly places and other nitty-gritty dilemmas of womanhood. And there are some genuine surprises: When was the last time you bathed in bleach, for instance?
Von Teese’s voice and pronounced aesthetic give Your Beauty Mark an idiosyncratic twist. In the chapter on exercise, for example, she is curiously prim, specifying an Audrey Hepburn–esque outfit of ballet flats, capris and a decidedly low-impact strappy bra and commanding readers to cover up while traveling to and from the gym. Sixteen pages of amusingly lo-fi photographs show Von Teese sporting a black turtleneck, long-sleeve leotard, black tights, taut chignon and red lipstick while demonstrating basic Pilates moves. Captions emphasize the importance of flexibility and stretching. The naïve-sleazy photo styling—the flat finish, the shiny curtain in the background—channels the pseudopornographic “health” magazines of the 1950s and especially resembles Irving Klaw’s Teaserama footage of Page, Tempest Storm and other burlesque lovelies. Naturally, Von Teese wouldn’t be seen in spandex, sweating at a Nautilus machine. The gym is yet another performance venue.
And Von Teese wants to show readers the pulleys and levers behind her act. It’s a bit like Annie Sprinkle’s tongue-in-cheek Anatomy of a Pin-Up Girl but with higher production values. A chapter called “Under the Kliegs” shows Von Teese’s painstaking preparations for her shows, including full-body makeup (“It must be spackled on”) and the hazards of tight lacing, demonstrated by a photograph of her back imprinted with corset indentations. Even with so many aspects of her presentation unmasked, she remains an intriguing, exotic character.
Despite the overall cheerful tone, darker stories allude to less glamorous aspects of being Dita. Her ex (you know who) makes a cameo in a fraught scene related to their divorce; he appears several other times in the book, including his jacket blurb praising her as a “fashionable bitch.” At another point, she recalls, “Early on in my burlesque career, a seasoned showbiz vet gave me a bit of salty advice: ‘F**k the lighting guy. He can make or break a show.” One feels sure this is only one among many unsavory encounters along Von Teese’s rise to success. A comment she once made in an interview with MAC Cosmetics—“I think people are less likely to fuck with the girl in red lipstick”—suggests a darker motivation for her lacquered facade. This is, after all, a natural blond who dyed her hair blue-black.
Your Beauty Mark shows just how far Von Teese has traveled into the mainstream and how successfully she has monetized her brand. In a sea of celebrity beauty tomes that preach natural-is-best, her cosmetic discipline and deliberate artificiality are refreshing. (Her book shares the same imprint as Kate Hudson’s Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body.) Beauty itself may be the luck of the draw, but this book proves there’s nothing random about glamour. Nothing is left to chance. Von Teese’s honesty and genial voice render her book more captivating, and also more useful, than its competitors, and she pulls off the extraordinary act of being mysterious and down-to-earth at the same time. Despite her layers of artifice, there’s nothing false about Dita Von Teese.
Laura Frost is author of The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents and Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism.
Feature photo: Ali Mahdavi