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.
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.
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."
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."
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."