With her cinched waist, red lips and simmering blue eyes, it's hard to believe that burlesque queen Dita von Teese was born a shy little girl from Michigan by the name of Heather Sweet.
"All through school, in debate class or anything like that, I was always sick that day," she tells Woman's Day from her home in California. "I could not imagine getting up in front of people and speaking."
With a fledging career as a ballerina and a mother who loved Golden Age Hollywood films, in her mid-teens Dita developed a fascination with lingerie and sought inspiration from the past to begin burlesque dancing by the age of 20.
"I do what I do to feel beautiful because I don't look like a Victoria's Secret supermodel," says the 47-year-old. "I looked to the stars from the '40s and decided I was going to paint my way to that.
"I'm not even a good dancer and people would point that out to me, but it's not about just doing fancy steps – that's not why people come to see you. I started to really think about the things that make someone compelling and interesting to watch."
It was a steep learning curve for the now-famous dancer, who believes that talent isn't rare and success is about embracing your imperfections.
Dita explains, "There are many good people who have character with flaws. They're interesting to watch but not necessarily perfect, yet that's who becomes a star. I always found that fascinating because it made me feel like I had a chance too.
"Failure as a ballet dancer is what led me to burlesque. I was going to do something off the beaten path – and then it became a thing."
But it wasn't until she hit her 30s that Dita realised her "15 minutes of fame may turn into half an hour", with a few pivotal moments that sent her career skyrocketing. While she had modelled for Playboy before, in 2002 she became a cover star.
"That was at a time when Anna Nicole Smith, Pamela Anderson, Naomi Campbell, Drew Barrymore and all these big stars were still on the cover – and then I was! That was a really defining moment," she gushes.
She caught the attention of fashion greats Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier, and performed at their events and walked on their runways. She started writing books, sharing her incredible journey, quickly becoming an inspiration for women around the world.
She also wed shock rocker Marilyn Manson in 2005, but the marriage ended the following year.
Now in her mid-40s, with her own lingerie line and perfume to her name, the stunning brunette is set to perform in New Zealand for the first time this December. But deciding to do the show, which features dancers from around the world, meant confronting her own – and others' – ageism.
"I just thought to myself that I can be better than ever if I want to be," she shares. "I can be better than I ever was in my 20s and 30s. I thought how important it is when I see someone older than me standing for sensuality and eroticism and beauty.
"I look at someone like Salma Hayek, who's 53, or Gwen Stefani, who is four years older than me, or Jennifer Lopez and I think it's important to have these wonderful examples."
But Dita admits that she sometimes has to force herself out of her comfort zone. "In show business, it builds you up to tear you down. It's been going on forever," she says.
Plus Dita has to deal with the often vocal and sometimes negative voices on social media. To protect herself, she has launched her own app where like-minded people can come together.
She is also careful about looking after herself, trying to keep a balance between work and fun – but admits it's hard when she's her own boss! However, Dita ensures she gets lots of sleep, meditates and sets careful boundaries with people.
"You can get this, 'Oh, she's a b**' mentality, but it's not. It's actually, 'No, I just don't want any vampires or sycophants around me any more. I'm not allowing it!"
While the talented dancer loves performing, it's using her unique experience as a stripper that truly inspires her.
"For me, that's sharing my stories about confidence and my life, and how I turned my lack of God-given talent or beauty – and all of the things I think that I lacked – into something else."
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