Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Monday afternoon with Dita Von Teese

Monday morning was a blur. I stumbled in early to work on the Weekly Newsletter after clapping and shouting the previous night away at the Tokyo Police Club show at the Bowery Ballroom. At some point I realized it was 3:40 p.m. and I had to get to the Ritz-Carlton to interview burlesque performer and fashion icon, Dita Von Teese at 4 p.m. about her newest position as brand ambassador for Cointreau.

As I hustled towards Central Park South I kept turning the questions I had over and over in my head. I basically had two or three core questions to ask her about her signing on with Cointreau with some possible extras, but I felt like I was missing something and polled colleagues before I left the office about whether or not there were any other questions they wanted to ask.

I'm not going to lie, I was nervous. This wasn't my turf. I could talk to a chef, restaurant operator or bartender all the livelong day, but this was something entirely different. I also pretty much knew going in that I was being squeezed in during a very busy day of interview cattle call and had to make any of the first couple of questions I had to ask good in case I got cut off and shuffled out of the room so Dita could talk to glossy fashion mags. This was hardly going to be a Barbara Walters tell-all session. I mean, if anything, what if my Cointreau-oriented line of questioning would bore her?

"You should get your picture taken with her!" my colleague Elizabeth Licata had excitedly suggested before I left.

"NO!" I practically shouted, horrified. "Are you insane? She's GORGEOUS. There's no way I'm going to stand in a picture next to her looking like I do. I have no right doing that."

I was worried about being late and missing my interview slot, but ended up sort of hanging out in the anteroom of the suite that was larger than my apartment as interviews and a fashion shoot were going on at the same time all day in the bedroom area. I got to chat a bit with Stéphanie Fasquell, Cointreau's international marketing director.

I mentioned that while I was aware with Cointreau's "Be Cointreauversial" campaign for a while now, it seemed like it was the first time I'd seen a famous face attached to it.

Stephanie said it was indeed the first time and the company wanted a spokesperson because there was feeling that the campaign had a lack of life to it. The process of deciding on who would represent Cointreau was a difficult one because they wanted someone with international appeal.

"Ninety-five percent of sales are from outside of France," Fasquell said. "We wanted someone very French, but who's not from France. Someone who had a sense of style."

The search was also difficult because "A lot of famous stars don't want to work for alcohol brands."

"Dita was very open from the beginning. She said she was interested in promoting as long as it was a good product...and she enjoyed the history of Cointreau."

Fasquell continued, "Dita has an international side to her that's not linked to any country. People in Europe think she's European. Anyone can see what they want in her."

So what about Dita appeals to Cointreau?

"She's very retro and very modern...she brought retro back to modernity and reinvents something from the past...people respond to that."

Makes sense for a brand with a 150-year history. And it doesn't hurt one of her famous acts involve a giant martini glass.

Dita signed a two-year contract with Cointreau. Fasquell said that there was a possibility that they might extend their contract with Dita, but it definitely is not part of the plan to have a long line of different brand ambassadors. In fact, when I asked her whether or not there were other brand ambassadors in mind, her exact response was, "Absolutely not."

"It is a good match, and we do not want to dilute the face of Cointreau," she stated.

As I continued to wait for my turn, I reordered, reworded and rehearsed my questions. Finally, I heard my name.

If I was nervous before, it certainly didn't help that Dita is as radiant in person as she is in photos. Sitting at the head of the bed, she was all glossy black hair, black eyeliner and red lipstick. She had on a light pink gossamer dress with a fitted bodice.

As I entered the room I was announced as if I was a dignitary visiting royalty.

"This is Sonya Moore, she's with Nation's Restaurant News," said Cointreau's marketing assistant Karlyn Monroe, "She's here to ask you more about the technical side of things, not about your lipstick."

I smiled sheepishly at the last part as I walked over to Dita's side of the bed and shook her hand and introduced myself.

Then I realized there wasn't a chair for me to sit in. I looked around the room a few awkward moments to try and figure out where to place myself. I thought the windowsill would be a good bet, but ended up almost sitting in a plate of lemon wedges. Dita smiled and said I could sit on the bed across from her. I was nonplussed for a few seconds, but then slowly lowered myself onto the bed. I didn't want her to think I didn't want to be too close to her and apologetically said, "Sorry I just wasn't sure what was proper."

She answered, "Oh, don't worry about being proper."

I asked her what made her decide to lend her name and image to Cointreau.

"It was their approach, and in learning about the history of the brand," Dita said.
"As I am interested in the history of what I do, I also was interested in the history of Cointreau...it's such a glamorous French brand."

The company's storied brand appealed to her. She said she was drawn to how the brand seemed very committed to the "elegance of cocktail hour" as well as its presence in the ingredients for many sophisticated cocktails.

In addition to having her be the face of Cointreau, the company also created a cocktail, the Cointreau Teese (Cointreau, apple juice, lemon juice, and violet syrup). The process of creating a Dita Von Teese cocktail involved finding out Dita's likes and preferences.

"They asked about fragrances, what perfumes I used and things like spices or flowers that I like," Dita explained.

One of the flowers and scents she specified was violet, and it makes its appearance in the cocktail with violet syrup. The drink is also garnished with an violet. Miss Von Teese also added that she likes violet liqueur admitting, "I'd bring it back with me from Paris in my suitcase."

Dita said, "I really wanted to have a very unique and very European cocktail."

She also described herself as "a big fan of ginger," so the Cointreau Teese is rimmed with fresh ginger.

"There were other cocktails using spices like chili and those didn't appeal to me as much," Dita said.

She said it wasn't the first time she was approached by a liquor company to promote their product and Dita certainly isn't new to being a spokesperson, having been involved with a variety of products in the fashion industry from make up to lingerie (MAC Cosmetics, Wonderbra and Frederick's of Hollywood to name a few). As much as she is a famous face, it would be naive to not see that companies come to her in part because of her meticulous attention to detail about her image. An image that is in itself a brand. It comes packaged with qualities and characteristics advertisers can highlight. She walks a tightrope of portraying both the beauty, glamour and femininity, but also a sexuality and provocativeness.

If anything, she's definitely different, and advertisers are picking up on personalities and strong images even if it means having a less "conventional" spokesperson. As long as the qualities are there and the person is well known, any controversy that comes with it is part and parcel of the image. Let's not forget that Cointreau's tagline for the past five years has been, "Be Cointreauversial." Cointreau fully embracing this idea with Dita is pretty apparent and as part of her ambassadorship, Dita even developed a "Be Cointreauversial Show," burlesque act.

So how does an image maven keep her own image from being diluted? Does she have any hard fast rules for picking and choosing brands to represent?

Dita answered that it was important that the product mean something to her, whether she likes it or uses it.

"It's easy for me to talk about things I believe in. The brands have to be something that is special to me whether it's lipstick like MAC's Viva Glam or lingerie," Dita said. "I can't talk about it unless it's something I believe in with every fiber of my being."

Her choice in brands certainly show she's aware of that. No Dita Von Teese spaghetti sauce or Von Teese brand car wax.

She went on to say that she's started drinking Cointreau on the rocks, having tried it while helping with the cocktail development.

"I've been telling all my friends they have to try it...I'm sure I'm driving them nuts going on about Cointreau. I can't help but start saying something like, 'Well, did you know...'"

I asked if she had any other cocktails or drinks that she enjoyed.

Champagne cocktails, she said. "I love champagne and the whole celebration aspect of it...life's too short, you should celebrate."

She said she doesn't know how to mix cocktails, but learned to make the Cointreau Teese and has taken to mixing it for herself and friends.

"I just know how to pour champagne and make the Cointreau Teese," she said with a laugh.

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