"You know what vintage car owners are like — they don't want to let anyone else drive their cars," said Dita, slyly. She paused.
"Do you own a vintage car?"
I had never wanted to answer 'yes' to a question more in my life.
In the foyer of the theatre where the performance was being held stood the merch desk. Along with tour posters, programs, and books for sale, was a makeshift sign offering "Meet 'n' Greet" tickets for $300. A small group were contemplating the wares. Two staffers behind the desk.
"Hi, how can I help you?" one asked.
"Hey, I'm considering going for the Meet 'n' Greet tickets-"
"Do it! It'll be worth it!" It was a very animated woman who had just bought hers, wearing a yellow wristband. "When are you going to get a chance like this again?"
"You're right. I think I should." I said, sold. "What do I get?"
"Well," the other, taller staffer began. "After the show you get a tour of backstage to see the sets and props. You're also able to get a photo, talk with Dita, and get things signed."
I paid and wrote my name down on the clipboard holding a checklist. Eighteenth. One of the staffers very carefully attached a yellow wristband to my arm. I went back to the lounge bar upstairs to rejoin the pre-show cocktail party, with its mixed crowd and interesting personalities.
It was fantastic to see so many people dressed to the nines.
I met Francoise ("Or 'Fran'," she insisted. "Never 'Franny'.") and her boyfriend Roberto. I was stationed near one of the small round tables of finger-foods. Their friend, a burlesque performer whose vintage dress was channelling a ladybird, was actually the one to amicably greet me in the first place. She seemed to know almost everybody else there; she was soon taking conversations with people far across the room. Seems the burlesque scene is a tight-knit group. We three stayed closer to the bar, which was bustling. There must have been at least fifty people up here.
Fran, a schoolteacher, recounted to me the perils of teaching and school life. First time teaching as a graduate, this year. Robert, who is in a band, laughed when I mentioned my friends were off watching the Warcraft movie. None of my other friends were really into this sort of stuff, I told him. So I was here alone.
There were party pies which had been sitting on their tray for a while too long, a stark contrast to the atmosphere which was warm and friendly. There were sandwiches, which were simple and plenty decent. I scoffed a few cheese ones while people-watching and waiting.
After the show, us twenty or so yellow-wristbanders formed a queue to the right of the stage. Seeing the stage setup from this angle was interesting since my seat for the main event was upstairs. Right up at the rear of the theatre, last row. Fortunately the sightlines were fine. We could see everything, especially when the older couple next to me suggested to everyone in the row that they would see better if they sat on the seat-backs. It was a good idea.
They had introduced themselves as people who work in mental health; important work. I didn't push for details, they looked like they were here to take a break. Both of them, they explained, had decades of experiences working with patients both here and in England. We got to talking some more, and I asked them about what made them decide to see the show. The gentleman said he was just tagging along. The woman told me that she had read about Dita in a vintage style magazine given to her by a co-worker, and she had only really been interested in that sort of thing for about a year. She seemed equally surprised as I was that they had decided to tour 'Strip Strip Hooray!' to Perth, since usually international acts don't bother with the west coast due to distance. We were glad that they had.
"There are so many cool hairstyles around tonight!" I said. It was great.
"Yes, some people have put in a lot of effort." She looked up at my hair. I'd had it done up a few days before at a barbershop, just for tonight. Couldn't tell you the last time I had a proper haircut.
She nodded. "Yours looks pretty good, too."
Back in the line from the stage and its blue velvet curtain with gold trim, I caught the eye of the animated woman from the start of the night. She was in line by herself like I was; a few people back.
"I'm excited!" I said to her, over the electronica house music they had playing in the background as we queued.
"Are you glad you got that ticket now?"
Yes, I was.
At some point we were handed posters to be given to Dita to sign for us personally. Yellow post-it stuck to the front with our name on it, clearly written. This crew were organised. I didn't mind waiting — I had nowhere else to be, and the night was staying fun. Nobody else in the line seemed too bothered either, even as the minutes moved on. I alternated between looking up at the stage, and sort of staring into space enjoying the experience. There were other people milling about; theatre staff lugging a crate of Asahi backstage, performers mingling with audience members, ushers doing a cursory clean-up. And then I found myself sort of half-dancing on the spot in a mix of excitement and passing the time. Robyn's 'Dancing On My Own' came on at one point. Every now and again we would all watch the previous guest emerge through the threshold and the new one enter.
The stage itself had seashell lamps, and a little thrust section in the middle with stairs flanking either side. At the base of the stairs where the line started was a security guard. On the stage itself in front of the curtain, was a crew member. Another one, on the other side of the curtain (whom I only knew was there because her arm appeared every now and again) directed the outgoing guests by holding the curtain break open for them as they left. The gatekeepers of efficient guest-flow management.
The process went like this. The guard would gesture for the next person in line to go up the stairs. They would then chat to the crew member, who would look after your handbags or jackets or other items that you weren't bringing with you past the officious blue curtain. But you wouldn't be admitted until the last person had left. It was somehow both time-savingly tidy and quite casual both at once.
The woman behind me was also bopping her head along. (I guess I wasn't dancing on my own.) Her eyecatching red-dyed hair up in what looked like to be a victory roll. So I asked her if it was.
"It's an attempt at one. I used so much hairspray. I thought I might catch fire."
Well, it looks great. Good work!"
The show was in two halves, with each end bookended by a performance by Dita. The five other acts — Catherine D'lish, a spiderweb climber; Jett Adore, a caped-wearing man inspired by Zorro; Natasha Estrada, a tassle-spinner; Pearle Noire, a Charleston-dancing high-kicker; and Ginger Valentine, who had a fluffy dress and a feather boa — were in between those, and the whole thing was led by a masterful MC, Murray Hill. At one stage he even held a dance-off competition, inviting victims up to dance their hearts out, winning the glory of the audience. (One of the involuntary dancers impressed the crowd so much that she earned a spot in the Meet 'n' Greet line as a result!) But as well as these little fill-ins covering time while the props and sets were changed over, they often involved a little extra bit with the performers, showcasing some of their extra tricks that they didn't include in their routines. Like counter-rotating nipple-tassle twirling. Or Murray directing the spotlight onto one of the clean-up crew, since they were already on stage from cleaning up anyway. And making fun of stage security. ("Wait, so. You're a security guard, and your name is ... Bash?") Cheeky. These things really helped keep the energy up in the theatre. Definitely at least as entertaining as the burlesque acts themselves, and it was easy to see everyone involved was having fun.
Along with the cast, Dita had two male assistants ("The Vontourage"). And behind that, a touring crew — four members of which were running the system of getting the yellow-wristbanded Meet 'n' Greet guests in to meet her. The guard had beckoned, which was my cue to head up the stairs to the first crew member. A man with dark hair, square-framed glasses — the handbag and jacket minder. I didn't have anything for him to look after, though. He was currently holding a white handbag with a large golden clasp. He asked if I enjoyed the show, I told him I thought it was fantastic.
"Where were you sitting?" he asked.
"Ah," I pointed. "Up there. Right at the back, last row."
"Think I got the last ticket, full house. But it's alright! I could see everything. And the energy in here was great. Are the other houses you're playing about this size?"
"Great! Yeah, Adelaide's about this size, fifteen hundred. Melbourne is two-thousand — but it's all seated. Dita prefers having a general admission sort of standing area towards the stage, more close-up. It works a lot better."
"You've toured a lot with her then?', I asked.
"I've known Dita for 18 years, so yeah, we go a bit back." Grinning, he continued. "Nice to take this show on the road, get it out there, get people to see it. See how it's changed."
The blue curtain parted and a man with a shaved head gestured at me in with both hands, like a vaudevillian boxer with open palms. Next crew member. Kindly, minder-man stepped back. I followed on through.
It was a lot like walking into someone's bedroom for the first time, by accident.
Dita, draped in a red silk robe and hair still done up from the show — (Actual hair? Hairpiece? Couldn't tell) — was seated almost regally on the bed used in the closing act. Flanked by two yellow industrial floodlights shining onto the bed, stood a brunette crew member, mouthing the lyrics of the electronic song that was playing to the clean cut crew member I was with.
"Do you have a phone on you, or something you can take photos with?" he asked.
"Well, I have this. But it's kind of old." I switched my non-smartphone-with-a-slide-out-keyboard to camera mode and offered it to him. He turned it over in his hands.
"I'm sure we can manage something." He grinned.
We watched a blonde woman — the previous guest — hug Dita, then get up to leave.
It had caught me off guard. The Dita Von Teese had just greeted me. I sheepishly smiled back. Dita turned, eyes following the blonde woman as she crossed the floor and exited through the blue curtain. Full attention to the guest at hand.
She motioned for me to sit, so I sat. I handed her the poster and she signed it with a gold marker while I remained silent, slightly stunned and inwardly nervous, listening to her write. Left-handed! She asked if I enjoyed the show, I said that I did. Then an amicable pause, slightly too long, lingered. I sensed she thought I might not have anything else to say — Okay, this one's shy, or something — when I finally found my voice.
"So, I was wondering... how long does it take you to go from an idea to a fully finished act on stage?"
And it came out a lot clearer than I thought it would, from someone who was quietly internally freaking out.
Her green eyes looked up, and her look was disarming.
"It varies. Usually six months. This —"
She gestured with her eyes at the setpiece around us, which was themed around the Orient. Immaculate detail. An ornately decorated four-poster bed, with tassled lanterns hanging from the black panels which had gold-leaf designs inlaid, engraved and carved, and an abundance of cushions texturing the mattress where we both sat, which itself had some red-and-gold patterned sheet.
"— took three years. I was travelling through China visiting friends — I have a lot of friends in China — and I was inspired and wanted to do an act as a homage to all that. But then I got stuck on the music. It needed to be right. Took a long time to get that perfect.
"Then, I got stuck on the ending. I wanted something clever, something technical-"
"Well, it definitely was!" I interrupted, my freak-out leaking.
"Thanks!" She smiled. "And that's when I came up with the gloves and butterflies..."
The end of the final act involved several red-gloved hands (The Vontourage's) supporting her mass through a black curtain (which had the effect of making her look ethereal and floating), as strobe lights flashed and two confetti cannons loaded with red butterfly shapes exploded and impressively filled the airspace above the audience as the accompanimenting soundtrack crescendoed.
She shifted closer, almost imperceptibly.
"And then there are the costumes. The Swarovski crystals are all individually placed, and it takes about two-thousand hours per piece. All done by Catherine D'Lish," she continued. I must have looked a little lost. "...The Spider-Lady," she offered.
"Wow," I responded. "Oh! One other thing: Do you ever drive any vintage cars when you're on tour?"
"You know what vintage car owners are like..."
And then she asked if I owned one. Little old me, a vintage car owner? At 23? I was flattered, to say the least. I must've been looking old for my age again.
"No, no. I don't," I managed. I wish. Definitely would have let her drive it, too. "And I'm not sure where you'd go to find any here," I said, beaten, unsuccessfully searching my head for a better answer.
"I haven't seen any around."
"But there's bound to be something, right? They're everywhere, surely?"
I realised a few nights afterward that Perth has a motor museum, and I was instantly disappointed in myself that I didn't remember that at the time.
Dita shifted again, closer.
"Yeah. This is an old country too, right? Surely...?"
Much later after I realised about the motor museum, I concluded that a savvy person as herself would have figured something out, had she wanted to do a thing like that in the first place.
We sat looking at each other, gears ticking in our respective heads.
"Time for a photo."
The crew member took a few shots from between the floodlights, and handed back my ancient phone. I thanked her and pocketed it.
I hugged Dita.
"Thanks, you're amazing."
I got up to leave and she handed over my poster, which I'd totally forgotten about.
"And good luck for the rest of the tour."
"Thanks!" came the reply from over my shoulder. I felt her eyes follow me out.
Full attention to the guest at hand.
The fourth crew member, an older lady, smiled at me and directed me out. I thanked her too.
Back through the blue curtain, back onto the ground.