It's hard not to feel like a hulking great mess in front of Dita Von Teese. The burlesque performer sits in the Parisian salon perfectly upright in a scarlet shantung silk prom dress with her Betty Page bangs, flawless eyeliner, china doll complexion and picture perfect red pout. I expect her poised demeanour to be matched by a clipped and icy personality - but the modern-day pin-up is refreshingly warm and open.
With a closet full of corsets, and, I'm assured, not a single pair of jogging bottoms or jeans, Dita Von Teese is a woman who places luxury over convenience. For her most recent project, she's teamed up with Cointreau with the launch of a special coffret. The purpose? To reignite the most glamorous of rituals: cocktail hour. "It's there to mix your cocktails, but you can also use it as a jewellery box," she says, showing us the Art Deco-inspired coffret that she helped to design. "What I love about it is the compartments, I love the idea of women hiding their secrets."
Burlesque queen Dita Von Teese strike a pose for Cointreau. photo: Courtesy of Cointreau
Do you despair that women have lost the glamour of previous eras?
I'm not trying to tell women that my way is the only way, and I really you don't have to spend hours in front of the mirror. I realise that people have real lives, but I think it's also important to take a minute for yourself. People often think that it takes me 10 hours to get ready but it doesn't. With a red lip for example, it doesn't take any longer than it would take someone else to put on some bronzing powder and ten layers of lip gloss.
How would you describe your look?
I think my style is a mix of controversy and elegance, I've always really liked that idea. Artifice is a word that I love; things that are created and manmade. I love women that create beauty instead of just being born with it.
You don't rate "natural" beauty?
I can appreciate a beautiful woman like anyone else. It's a marvel to see the beauty of supermodels. But there's something much more fascinating to me about the women who are like the ugly duckling turned swan. It's like when you see a Rita Hayworth before she was famous. The transformation is extraordinary - and maybe I love it because that's how I feel about myself, I create.
Does this mix of controversy and elegance apply to your profession?
With Burlesque, what I love is the idea of changing people's minds about what it means to be a stripper, and showing people something that might be considered risqué can combined with something completely sophisticated and elegant and classy.
Isn't that hard to do?
For me, that's what the tricky thing is; I could go out there and not take off anything and also do a show. It's about making striptease something über glamorous. That's the challenge in burlesque; can I show my body and also show people that it's not a bad or dirty thing?
You're often quoted as saying you "put the tease back into striptease". Does the focus on nudity miss the point of burlesque?
That's something that everyone thinks I said! Actually, I'm someone who vehemently believes that without the striptease, you have cabaret, not burlesque. It's a different kind of entertainment; the burlesque queens of the 1930s and 40s performed striptease, so it's important to me that there's a payoff at the end and I like that payoff. For me it's about honouring the past and thinking about how you can combine the risqué and the sensual in a way so that you come out with something that's highly styled, and above all staying true to the original artform. I do not want to sanitise burlesque!
There's been a lot of modernisation of burlesque recently, and a lot of performers say "we wouldn't take of our clothes because we're classy". But that's not how it was done in the 1930s and 40s. That's not what the queens of burlesque did - the women I admire llike Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St Cyr and Sally Rand. To take that away and change burlesque's history is a kind of strange thing to do now that it's 2010.
What was it about the burlesque queens that inspired you?
I read a lot of memoirs and autobiography about the burlesque queens and it seems that my path is a little bit similar to theirs in a way. I wanted to be a ballet dancer but I just wasn't good enough to be a ballet dancer, it just wasn't going to happen. They wanted to be dancing with Fred Astaire, they wanted to go to Hollywood but they found a way to perform and to create their own shows and control their own business. That's one of the things I love about burlesque.
Who are your fashion icons?
When I was growing up Betty Grable was a big influence on me. The 1940s is my favourite era for beauty and for clothing, and the movies that she made were these big Technicolor musicals – for me they were just spectacular, with all the colours coming alive.
And how do you define great style?
My friend Chantal Thomass is a great example; there is something I love about women that have a strong and unfaltering look. For me it's like whenever you see the short black hair and red lips, you can equate it with her; every time I see her I'm in awe of her distinctive style.
So it's definitely not about seeking male approval?
The women I admire have this really strong look that does not look for approval from men or from other women. You can tell when they look in the mirror they say: "I think I look good - somebody else might say I've got too much makeup or that my clothes are a little odd, but who cares?" People have opinions on everything but the only thing that really matters is the one when you look in the mirror and you feel good.
Do you think too many female celebrities play it safe because they're scared of criticism?
I think so. Although I don't believe that Lady Gaga has changed the world, I'm glad that in this moment in time where pop stars are really about looking sexy in their videos - I like that she is not seeking the approval of men. With Lady Gaga you can tell that she doesn't have any desire to appeal to men, She's doing it for her own amusement, and ultimately that is what being sexy is all about.
So being sexy has got in the way of great fashion?
You can imagine that a lot of celebrities ask their stylist "how can I be sexy?" They're looking for this approval and they want to be pretty. I think that the most commonly overused phrase on the red carpet is "I want to look like a modern Grace Kelly". When you look at the red carpet, you can almost see the bubble over the head. I'm like "Again?!"
I want to see people shake it up a little bit and dare to be different and try something outrageous and breaking the rules. I want to see Cher wearing a crazy outfit to the Oscars – now nobody is going to wear a crazy outfit because they're scared. Everyone's afraid of the media, it's like high school, they don't want to be seen as weird.
Who are your favourite designers?
I always love the John Galliano shows. I really respect it when some is consistent with what they love – it's like dressing. I don't wear the same thing every day but do I look the same every day? Yeah, kind of! For me, seeing a Galliano it's the same thing; I know when the curtains open and the show starts he's not going to send out some girl with long stringy hair wearing a beige lip and jeans. It's never going to happen. It's going to be full on with plenty of red lips, the dramatic draped dresses. When people reinvent their look all the time because they're trying to be considered fashionable that misses the point.
You're famed for your vintage wardrobe - where do you search out second hand gems?
I'm not a vintage clothing snob by any means - I buy things that I like and I want to wear and I don't care if it costs me $50. I have things in my vintage wardrobe that cost me $10 that look like $1m and I have haute couture pieces, but I definitely don't look for labels.
Do you still love snapping up a bargain?
One the reasons that I started buying vintage is that I couldn't afford designer clothes so I still have that thrill of the hunt thing, and that satisfaction when someone says "ohhh is that a Prada dress" and I think "no I bought it off ebay for $100". That's the thrill - it's my goal, always.
Dita's My Private Cointreau Coffret will be available to purchase exclusively at Selfridges at a cost of £199.