Sébastien Tellier and Dita Von Teese: 'Everything we do is glamour'

He’s the Frenchest man since Gainsbourg, she’s the world’s premier burlesque star. Together, Sebastian Tellier and Dita Von Teese have made an unlikely electronic pop collaboration worthy of Serge himself

Seated together in an upscale London bar, Dita Von Teese and Sébastien Tellier are a study in contrasts. She is immaculately turned out and looks, well, exactly like Dita Von Teese, from her perfectly coiffed jet-black hair to her seamed stockings and high heels. He is the picture of bohemian dishevelment: wild beard, straggly hair, a large glass of wine in one hand and packet of fags and a lighter in the other.

She exudes a very US kind of retro glamour, and talks about her transformation from Heather Sweet, a blond, machinist’s daughter from Michigan, into the world’s best-known burlesque star in terms of the American dream: “Like the big Hollywood makeover, a girl would come from a Midwestern town and she’d look like an ordinary girl, and then suddenly she’d be otherworldly – I wanted to do that in real life.”

Tellier, on the other hand, is so extraordinarily Gallic I wonder if he isn’t putting it on a bit, in the same way that the late Serge Gainsbourg was fond of cranking up the hon-he-hon for his own amusement if a British journalist was in earshot. I don’t think he is, but, nevertheless, were he any more French he would probably nip out in the middle of the interview to have an affair with my wife: he makes the philosophising maître d’ on First Dates look like Eric Bristow. “Ah, Diteuuuuur! Beautiful! So beautiful!” he cries on arrival, in lieu of the more traditional “hello”.

His voluble answers to questions tend towards the metaphysical. When I ask about the songs on Dita Von Teese, the album the pair have made together – Tellier and his wife, Amandine de la Richardière, are responsible for the music and lyrics – he tells me they are about “attraction and desire”, and then starts talking about the cosmos.

“It’s like in the universe, in space, you have the planet, and it moves around the star, no? It creates a kind of ballet. And I try to do the music of this ballet through Dita. Composing the music, I was dreaming of Dita, a Dita of the stars. Dita is not a woman but a planet. It’s true, no? Also, I like paradoxes, so when the lyrics are happy, the notes are sad, and when the lyrics are sad, the notes are happy. So it’s never totally sad, it’s never totally happy. It’s like the life, yes? Something complicated.”

Von Teese is softly spoken, more reserved and noticeably less given to flights of philosophical fancy. She has a reputation as a savvy operator who art-directs and copyrights her own photoshoots and performances and “owns a lot of intellectual property”. She says she is extremely nervous about releasing an album. “It’s outside my comfort zone, I’m not a singer, I don’t do karaoke, I don’t sing Happy Birthday.” But there’s no mistaking a certain don’t-mess steeliness about her.

This, she says, served her in good stead in the early years of her career, when she operated on the fringes of the porn industry, modelling for men’s magazines and starring in bondage films. “I’ve always set really strong boundaries for things. I’ve always been regimented and disciplined. People have asked me about that with regard to the #MeToo thing, but I always showed up with my boyfriend, or two girlfriends and was always very strict: ‘I’ll be here from this hour to that hour and I don’t do this and I don’t do that.’ So I guess that, coupled with how I looked, I came out unscathed. And burlesque is very different from what it was in the 30s and 40s. It’s not ruled by men any more. I was ruled by myself when it came to that.”

She met Tellier backstage at the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris, where she was performing. She invited him to see her show after a French boyfriend introduced her to Tellier’s work, a series of concept albums released on Air’s label Record Makers, which he claims are made according to a plan he wrote down in a “book of destiny” when he was 20. They had a curious bit of shared musical history involving Eurovision: Tellier represented France in 2008, with a bizarre, knowing performance that involved him driving a golf cart around the stage while singing a song called Divine; Von Teese appeared the following year as part of a burlesque-themed German entry, despite the fact that she “had no idea what Eurovision was and was kind of shocked it existed”. Yet she had no intention of working with Tellier.

She had sung on a couple of tracks before – with South African provocateurs Die Antwoord and underground British electronic duo Monarchy – and acted as a kind of muse for Marilyn Manson [they married in 2005, but split up a year later] on his 2003 album The Golden Age of Grotesque, but says she felt terrified when Tellier mentioned a potential collaboration: she thought he had mistaken her lip-syncing during her show for live vocals. Tellier, however, had other ideas: “I had a few little pieces of songs, and was trying to imagine who could sing them. So, not Britney Spears, not Shakira, not a French singer because we are so bad. So I say to myself, who is the most beautiful girl on the planet? Dita! She is so beautiful, she is infinite beauty, she is mysterious and also unreal. It was perfect because she is not like a singer with a career, trying to be the greatest singer in the world. It’s something else, it’s just artistic; it’s not a job, it’s a pleasure.”

No, he says, he wasn’t concerned that the end result would be seen as gimmicky. (Actually, what he says is: “Dita is a stair to heaven, working with her is heaven, because we work, we go to a very beautiful hotel and drink a lot, super-party, so for me it’s not risky, it’s glamour and glamour is not risky because we love glamour, everything we do is glamour, glamour is almost the point of life.” You get the gist.) And in fact, the album is rather good: pillowy, atmospheric electronic pop not a million miles removed from Air, with Von Teese’s vocals adding a charming vulnerability. It feels rather Gainsbourg-esque – French pop’s boozy maestro being famously fond of working with untrained female vocalists and creating extravagant imaginary worlds for them in song – but Tellier looks a bit put out by the comparison: “I tried to be very different from Serge Gainsbourg because when he sings it’s almost talking and this is a high voice, very melodic. Maybe the common point we have with Serge Gainsbourg is we smoke and” – he lifts his wine glass up – “we destroy the brain with this.”

For her part, Von Teese says she wasn’t uncomfortable singing songs ostensibly about her life written by someone else. “It’s like his perception of what I might be like in private, which I think is more mysterious and fun to play with. It’s like having your Tarot cards read: some of it is right on and some of it is more … ‘maybe’, you know?” Besides, she says, maintaining a certain mystery is part of what she does. “Well, I try to maintain a certain dignity and sometimes I think if I let go of that dignity a little then I’d probably have a lot more followers on Instagram and Twitter. Those people that have got 12 or 15 million followers, it’s because they have a feud and they love to stir the pot and get shitty and everyone reports it. It’s a great way to make money, I guess. But I’d just be mortified: I’d rather just keep my niche and my privacy and try and set a good example and show what it is to be gracious.”

She says she feels a little out of place as an artist in the music world. “I don’t have any plans to pursue music further, I just did it because I’m a fan of Sébastien’s music. I really can’t imagine myself doing it again. But then, she says, she is used to feeling out of place. When she started working as a stripper, she would be the only girl in the club turning up with feathers and old-fashioned outfits. “And I can remember performing in London at a Torture Garden event and people being really mad: why is she at a fetish club? I was … insufficiently fetishistic.” She laughs. “And now you can’t swing a cat without hitting a burlesque star.”

Still, the pair have plans to work together again, albeit in a different capacity. Tellier wants to make a stage musical about her life: Jean Paul Goude, the French designer and photographer best known for his work with Grace Jones in the 70s and 80s, is apparently involved. “For me, it’s very original, the life of Dita, really interesting, it’s beautiful, like an old movie, that’s why it’s great. Dita, she’s in the tabloids and magazines, but she’s still really mysterious. I know her for a few years now, and she is still, even for me, a mystery.” And off he goes again. “The force, the power of Dita, sometimes people have a deeper soul, a deeper personality. It’s impossible to explain,” he shrugs, then drains his wine glass and heads outside for a cigarette.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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