An Interview with Fetish Phenomenon Dita Von Teese
October 19, 2006
Being successful in the alternative modeling industry takes more than just a pretty face; just ask Dita Von Teese. In her lengthy career as the world’s preeminent fetish icon, Dita has done more than just take a few stunning photos. Managing her self-made career for years, Dita cemented her reputation as a rising star in the alternative modeling world by networking with photographers and clothing designers, using the tools of self-promotion to her best advantage, and retaining the copyright to her photos as often as possible. Her career flourished due to both her unique persona and her inherent professionalism. In short order, Dita became retro fetish’s most recognizable face, appearing on magazine covers and at major fetish events such as the Skin Two Rubber Ball. While her more recent relationship with rocker Marilyn Manson and appearance in Playboy’s 2002 Christmas issue vaulted her into the mainstream for the first time, she is by no means an overnight success. In this article, Dita offers Wicked Talent members her insights on getting started in the alternative modeling industry, building a career, and staying safe.
What made you decide to go into fetish modeling?
I had a childhood fascination with ultra feminine glamour which I discovered from watching classic musicals from the 1940s. Throughout my entire childhood I collected photos of stars from the past. One of my first jobs was in a lingerie boutique, and I had begun searching for a place to buy a true corset like the ones I had admired in vintage photos and movies. I was referred to a place that sold fetish clothing and that introduced me to the fetish world. I had no idea at the time what I was walking into. I perused the magazines and found two things: photos of Bettie Page in seamed stockings and girdles, and unrefined modern fetish photos that lacked the same sort of beauty I saw in Bettie’s and other vintage fetish photos. I decided to pursue modeling it because I thought that there would be interest in bringing back nostalgic elegance by recreating classic images that had the same spirit as the Bettie Page photos. I felt that it could be a successful thing to do because it wasn’t being done at that time, and I had such a desire to dress in that manner and be photographed in my favorite things. I really couldn’t do it any other way. I have had an affinity for retro style since I can remember. I was really on a quest to show that fetishism can be gorgeous, and more than just whips, chains, and black leather. In my mind, it’s so much more than just that!
Once you’d made the decision to dive in, what was the first step you made to get into the business?
The first thing I did was have photos taken of me wearing my first corset; I set up a vintage style shoot with a college student who was an aspiring fashion photographer. I also stayed in touch with the person that worked for the fetish clothing company and I offered myself up as a model in exchange for clothes.
Afterwards, I began looking at every fetish magazine I could get my hands on; I studied them closely to see what sort of niche I could fill in the fetish scene, and to see who the names were as far as models, photographers, and designers. I dressed up and went to fetish parties to be seen, collected cards from photographers and magazine editors, and of course, I would check to see who was legitimate and who was not. I wanted to educate myself as much as possible about it all, on every level, in order to see what the competition was and what the opportunities could be for me. I wanted to understand as much as I could what the various fetishes were and what the reasons people had them were.
I sent my photos to all the magazines I liked rather than contacting photographers, because I wanted to shoot with photographers that were not considered “fetish” photographers in order to get a different look. I found that my best collaborations were with photographers that were new to alternative fashion and retro glamour. I met fashion photographer Sean McCall, whom I have now known for over 10 years, and we began shooting regularly and submitting photos to magazines.
Who was your inspiration or role model?
Mostly the models I saw in Irving Klaw photographs and the art of John Willie and Eric Stanton. I always looked first to art and films from the 1930s and 1940s for inspiration. I grew up watching these old movies from the age of 6, and I really adapted all that I saw to my career.
Did you make any decisions in the beginning that were enormously beneficial in the long run?
I think that the best decision I made was to keep a side job that allowed me to turn down jobs that I didn’t want to do. Being selective and not relying on the income of modeling works in your favor. The most important thing I ever learned to do was to value the ownership of my images. Even now years later, the images I paid photographers to take and hand over the rights to me are invaluable. As I became more successful, I learned that there would be photographers selling my images over and over to magazines and for web content or even merchandising and it was a bad choice to shoot with just anyone who asked. Whenever possible, and even if it requires monetary costs, I retain full ownership of the negatives and the rights to the film. This is not really possible with the big time photographers (and by big, I mean major globally known names, not the guy who tells you he’s a “famous” photographer!). You can get some great shots with student photographers and amateurs if you seek out the right ones, and be explicit in the way you hope the shots to look. It takes more than just a great subject and a great outfit to make a memorable photograph. This is particularly true of vintage style photos. Moreover, once you do get a great shot, and you love it, you will want to be able to print and publish as you wish without asking the permission of anyone!
How about mistakes? Did you make any and, if so, what did you learn from them?
My biggest regret is signing model releases. Never sign them until you get what you have been promised. NEVER! If you are to be paid or are getting images to use, don’t sign the model release right away! And when you do, really read it! Cross things out!
In the past five years, I have never signed one release without re-writing the entire thing. They slip in all this stuff they don’t expect you to notice. I have my own releases for everything now and three people read it before it finally gets signed. This is so important! You wouldn’t believe the stuff photographers will tell you is “standard.” Don’t buy it! They will say that every time. It may be standard for them but it shouldn’t be. No release is standard. Their standard release will say they can call you any name in the book, sell your photos to phone sex ads until you are 80 years old, and never give you a penny. Don’t be afraid to take a stand.
I also regret working with certain photographers who hired me just to give them credibility. I know one person that has been known to use the photos he takes of known models to gain the trust of new models and then makes sexual advances. There is no excuse for that behavior and no legitimate photographer should even come close to crossing that line. Be smart and be safe. There is no such thing as being too cautious. Bring a friend to every shoot with a new photographer.
What are some of the scams you’ve experienced – or seen others experience – that you’d warn people against?
Aside from the above, modeling “schools.” My parents were victim to one of these when I was 13, and a few years ago the owner of the place was begging to shoot me. I told him not until I got my Mom’s $1000 back, and you bet I would have kept his model release hostage too. No one can really teach you how to model. You can get tips, but everyone had different assets that make them special. It is up to the individual to find out what those are and test them. Practice makes perfect. Look at your own photos and remember what works and does not work, and take chances.
I would also warn models interested in bondage to be selective about whom they work with. I only allow two different very experienced bondage experts tie me; it is far riskier than most people know. I know models that have been tied incorrectly and lost feeling in their arms or hands and had to spend a year or more in physical therapy. It’s not worth it, and there are a lot of people who claim to be experts that are far from it.
Expectations can be high as a kite when a girl first gets her feet wet in alternative modeling. What words of caution would you offer to such a person?
It’s not easy. It took me over 12 years to get here, and it is work. It’s real work. You have to know that, for every beautiful model, there are many more that are even more beautiful. Professionalism is so important. If you are late, like to drink, or are just trouble, word gets out and people talk. Everyone is replaceable. I live by these words each day. I do my best to do a good job and I appreciate my good fortune.
I would also advise that you should do this because you LOVE it. Fame does not make you rich. The magazine covers I did, they did not make me rich, but it was good fun and good publicity. When a model is on the cover of Vogue, she is paid a standard editorial rate of $125.00. The covers and magazine editorials are publicity that ideally lands you an ad campaign or commercial.
Lastly, I would say to set boundaries for yourself. Decide what you will and will not do as far as nudity or fetish goes. Stay true to what you feel about it. Don’t make exceptions, and even if later you decide to take it a step further, you will have made it more valuable and therefore benefited. People will try to test your limits, and it says a lot about you if you stand your ground.
How do you think being a part of a community of like-minded models can benefit a girl who’s just starting out?
I think that it certainly helps to have others to speak with and get advice from on a regular basis about each situation. When I started I would have liked to have a place to discuss who the good people to work with are and perhaps to have friends and partners to go on jobs with for safety.
How do you feel about being an inspiration or role model to girls who are just getting into the business? What would you tell these girls?
I sometimes get a bit uneasy about being a role model, because lets face it, what I do is not for everyone and not exactly accepted as mainstream. I would hope they have realistic expectations about what this is all about and, above all, remember that it should be about enjoying what you do. Follow your dreams and remember that the sky is the limit. I never in a million years thought I would have had some of the experiences I have had! It all came from believing in something even when I advised that I was never going to succeed if I didn’t conform.
Would you refer a girl who is just getting started in the modeling business to Wicked Talent? If so, why?
Of course I would! It is great to have a place to show your portfolio and to show that you are a serious model and a force to be reckoned with! It’s really valuable to be associated with a group of professionals and to also have someone to call on for assistance should you need to. You cannot be expected to work out some of the more complicated details of commercial work, plus you have to be associated with an agency of some kind to find out about castings, and what better way that to have an agency that books alternative models and actors!
For more information on Dita Von Teese, please visit Dita.Net.