A while back, my dear friend Ilona Royce Smithkin and I were invited to a party for burlesque superstar Dita Von Teese in New York City. Dita had seen some videos I made with Ilona and was inspired by her creativity and individual spirit.When these two incredible ladies finally met in New York they hit it off right away, united by their shared love of style, personal expression, and performance. After the event, I asked Dita if she would interview Ilona for my book and was thrilled when she agreed. Those of you who have the Advanced Style book may have already seen this, but for those of you who haven't, check out this insightful conversation by two extraordinary artists below:
Dita von Teese interviews Ilona Royce Smithkin
Ilona Royce Smithkin: Dita, I wanted to tell you how delighted I was to meet you, you really a very exceptional person and I was just so enchanted by you.
Dita von Teese: I feel the same way about you, there is so much monotony going on in mainstream media that I really just look for people like you who are individuals and that are self-reliant on their glamour and style.
D: When and how did you start performing your cabaret act, and why did you start performing later in life?
I: That was about nine or ten years ago – I was in a nightclub in which they had an open mic. And I was with a friend from Berlin who had never heard me sing. I said, “I’ll sing something special for you.” So I went over to the piano and performed. And Zoe Lewis, who was on the piano, asked if I would perform in her nightclub act, so that’s how we started our relationship. Then the Arts Commission Museum in Provincetown needed a fundraiser and we volunteered to do it. That’s how my Eyelash Cabaret started – it’s about an hour and a half and it’s every August, and I do Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf songs and some American songs and I tell funny stories. That’s it.
D: When is the first time you performed? Did you perform when you were younger, or did you wait until later in life?
I: No, I never did, but I always loved the theater. I loved theater and backstage and all kinds of things that had to do with make-believe and fairy tales.
D: What was your profession when you were younger?
I: Well, I’m an artist. I do portraits and landscapes and nudes and I love my work. I have been privileged to do portraits of people in the limelight – people like Ayn Rand, Tennessee Williams, Bobbi Short, Senator Kennedy’s children. I hope one day I can paint you!
D: What do you think is your key to remaining vital and creative?
I: Well, Dita, it’s when you can see beauty in everything, when you can be open to people, when you don’t have to think about “me, me, me” – that is the moment when you can really live and enjoy other people, enjoy a tree, enjoy the streets, anything that you do or touch or see. It’s a matter of concept, you know – that you are open to it. You know, everybody in my older life now seems twice as nice looking, twice as exciting and twice as interesting. Even the flowers look prettier.
D: Ilona, do you follow fashion at all?
I: No, I make my own. I mean, I look at it and I am always amazed at it and I’ve always been interested in it, but from an outsider’s point of view. I have been doing a lot of changing of things like taking a skirt that I didn’t wear anymore but loved the material, turned it upside down, and made a blouse out of it. Or I took a cover of an old umbrella, cut it out, and made a rain cape out of it. Or with jewelry. I played with all kinds of things. I call it “creative dressing”.
D: Yes, I think that’s more important – real style icons don’t really follow fashion, they just watch it, admire it, and get inspired by it but aren’t slaves to it. I think you and I have that in common, Ilona -- I go to shows, and look at magazines, and I see the way that fashion fluctuates, but I never really try to keep up with it…we have a very distinctive idea of how we want to look, and that is really what every fashion icon is truly about.
I: Dita, I wanted to let you know, the gown you wore when I met you was so lovely and elegant, it was both understated and overstated. It was shocking in its simplicity and beauty. It was detailed. The best way I can describe it would be as elegant.
D: Oh, thank you. I like the word “elegance”, because it really means something not about looking wealthy or having expensive things- it’s about a carriage – the way you walk, the way you stand, the way you speak.
I: Absolutely – style has nothing to do with money. You can take paper and make a dress out of it. It has to do with what looks good. If a drape comes natural, you can do all kinds of things if you’re inventive. It depends on how you feel about your body. If you have something nice, show it off! If you’ve got it, flaunt it!
D: I started dressing in vintage clothes because I couldn’t afford designer clothes – and hey, it worked in my favor in the end.
I: Dita, you could put on a sackcloth and look good in it.
D: [Laughs] I like the way clothes make me feel, like they change the way you walk, the way you carry yourself. You can be whoever you want with just a change of clothes.
I: Well, that’s true. They can make you feel good, or make you feel awkward if you’ve got the wrong thing on.
D: Now, I’m an eccentric dresser, and I know you are too -- so I wanted to ask if you were always dressing this way when you were younger, or did it take time before you were confident that you could wear whatever you liked?
I: I always had the idea, I couldn’t always do it because I was brought up very conservatively by my parents who didn’t want me to stand out, but I always had a craving for something extraordinary, something colorful, something special, something different… and when I dressed up on my own in ways I couldn’t on the street, I would do very crazy things – I would pile things up, and drape them around, and I had a great time with that [laughs]… but only later in my life, Dita, did I come into my own, that I really became who I am now.
D: Yeah, you know – it’s hard sometimes when you’re young, because you’re influenced by what everyone else says you should look like, and I’ve found there have been times in my life when it’s been hard because someone would tell me they didn’t like what I was wearing or that I was too attention-getting, so I can relate to that.
I: Yes, yes.
D: Do you have friends that dress like you?
I: Never, no, no. My friends always thought I was a little bit way off, because I always did something different. I still remember I had a boyfriend who used to say, “You always have to have an extra sausage! You always have to do something different. Why can’t you do what everybody else can do?” And I felt very humbled by it, because at that time, I didn’t know who I was, what I had to offer, and I just took somebody else’s word for it. But now, of course, you know – it’s so different. It’s not that I don’t care about other opinion, but I know what is beautiful, I know what is nice, I know what’s too much, I know what’s too little. And it’s not a matter how I appear, or the impression I give, it’s a matter of enjoying it, and creating a painting. When you get dressed, you create something.
D: You make a work of art. The Marquis de Sade said, “I want to be a living work of art.”
I wanted to ask you about something you would like to say to young girls who are afraid of being different, because there are a lot of young girls who would say, you know, I would love to look like that, but I’m too afraid that someone would make fun of me.
I: Well, to them I would say, look in the mirror and see, and find your own beauty. Look how wonderful your eyes are – and they can see! Look at your ears, they can hear. Look at your nose, it can smell. Look at your mouth, it eats, it can whistle, can sing, it can kiss. You have so many beautiful things – use them! Be aware of what you have, never mind what somebody else has. You have so many wonderful, special things. Use them.
D: Is there someone whose style you’ve always admired, or anyone that’s influenced you?
I: When I was a young girl, the person I most admired was Marlene Dietrich. You are young, and I don’t know if you remember her clothes, but she had clothes which were just so beautiful. She had a knack for dressing very, very beautifully.
D: Yes, and she had lots of different looks, from the menswear to glamour. And she was such a smart lady, and would dress herself instead of having other people dress her. She was a genius, I think.
I: Yeah, you know some people have it inside of themselves. You have to find out what is most you, and then you take it from there. I think any young woman or young girl should try a lot of things and see what makes them feel most comfortable. It’s very important that you’re feeling comfortable in your clothes.
D: You have to know what’s right for you and what isn’t. I love clothes from the 20s, but I can’t wear them because I have my curves, and…
I: But you can be happy – everyone would want your curves, kid. Be happy with the curves – to hell with the fashion!
D: What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
I: Now that is a difficult question. Because at my stage, at 91 years old, wherever I look I see something which to me seems extraordinary. Maybe because I have only a short time here. Maybe because I rediscover the world. Maybe because I rediscover everything which I’ve ever learned. But for me, to pick one single thing, would be difficult.
D: Well, that’s the perfect answer.