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Bettie Page Story: The Fetish And Fashion Icon's Strange Biography

Icons | August 12, 2020

Bettie Page left an indelible mark on popular culture -- first as an in-demand model and later as a symbol or template of the mid-century American good girl/vixen -- yet saw little to no compensation or credit for it during her lifetime. The Bettie Page look, even just her trademark bangs, came to denote an edginess with fetish overtones, reflecting the free and subversive career of a '50s model who posed not only in swimsuits, but nude and in bondage settings as well. The image of Bettie Page shines like a beacon in an era known for its repressive social attitudes, not unlike magazine mogul Hugh Hefner and Sex And The Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown, Page's persona seemed to ask what if? What if, in the midst of all these rules, we just... didn't follow the rules?

In famous photo sessions with Bunny Yeager, the appeal of Bettie Page found its clearest expression. Wearing leopard-print swimsuits and eyeing the camera hungrily, Page presented a woman who was a seductress, not a conquest. Rather than "Me Tarzan -- you Jane," this was "Me Bettie -- you'll do."

Tura Satana appropriated Page's look in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), though it wasn't until after Page was "rediscovered" in the '80s that the floodgates opened. Page inspired fifties revivalists, rockabilly fans and (later) Suicide Girl-type alternative models; her image was a favorite of comic-book artists including Jim Silke and Dave Stevens, the pinup/hot rod artist Coop, and latter day Vargas-style painter Olivia de Berardinis. 

Yet despite all the Bettie Page mania of the '80s, '90s and 2000s, Page herself was well off the grid, living a self-described "infamous and penniless" existence. Today, Page fans associate her look and choices with independence, empowerment and sexual self-determination, but the story of Bettie Page, the real person, is considerably different from, and less glamorous than, the legacy of Bettie Page, the icon.

Bettie Page Had A Rough Childhood

Source: (messynessychic.com)

Bettie Page, the “Queen of Pinups,” was born on April 22, 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee, although her family did not stay there very long as they travelled the country looking for work. Her father was convicted of car theft when she was young and spent two years in a Georgia prison, leading Bettie to have increased responsibility for her younger siblings. Bettie’s parents divorced when Bettie was 10, and her mother worked two jobs to support the family. However, she was unable to do so, and placed her children in an orphanage for a year. According to Page, her father, who had remained in the area, began molesting her when she was 13.

Page Was A Good Student And An Autodidact

Source: (Vintage Everyday)

Despite her turbulent childhood, she was a good student and was voted “Girl Most Likely to Succeed” by her graduating class. At a young age, she also began doing her own makeup, a skill that would follow her into her days as a model, and she learned to sew. She would sew her own outfits when she modeled. The salutatorian of her high school class, she attended George Peabody College, initially studying to become a teacher, but she switched to studying acting. While there, she worked as a typist for author Leland Crabb. Before she graduated from college, she married Billy Neal in 1943, although the marriage would end in 1947. She got her first modeling job, with a furrier, in San Francisco, where she had moved to be with Billy.    

A New York Cop Spotted Page's Potential

Source. (Wikipedia)

In 1947, she moved to New York to try to find work as an actress. She found work as a secretary at the American Bread Company, but she moved back to Nashville after she was sexually assaulted by a group of men. However, she returned to New York after a few weeks, and once again found work as a secretary. While walking near Coney Island in 1950, she met Jerry Tibbs, an NYPD officer and photographer, who gave her his business card. He offered to create her first pinup portfolio for free if she would allow him to photograph her. He was the one to create her iconic look, suggesting she position her bangs in front to hide her high forehead. Ironically, she did not possess traditional beauty, and the Ford Modeling Agency did not think she would be a successful model because she didn’t have the right figure.  

Bettie Page Excelled At Both Mainstream And Bondage Modeling

Source: (Wikidata)

Page began working with Cass Carr and her uninhibited style made her popular in men’s magazines such as Wink, Titter, Eyefull, and Beauty Parade. From approximately late 1951 through 1957, Page worked with Irving Klaw, producing images with BDSM themes. She also appeared in short “specialty” films Klaw produced for his clientele in “camera clubs,” in which Page acted out their fetishes; his work was all-female and never featured nudity. These “camera clubs” operated under the guise of producing artistic photography, but were really a front for pornography. Because of her work with Klaw, she was labeled as the “Queen of Bondage,” though as she said, she only posed for the pictures because of the money. She began to study acting in 1953 under Herbert Berghoff, while completing an apprenticeship at the Sea Cliff Summer Theater in Long Island. Berghoff encouraged her to audition and she had roles in commercials, several off-Broadway shows, including Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. She also had an appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show. In January 1955, she was the centerfold in Playboy. By this point, her pictures were appearing everywhere, from playing cards to record albums, and she was called “The Girl with the Perfect Figure.”  

Page Was A Muse To Bunny Yeager

Bunny Yeager and Bettie Page posed at the Africa, USA theme park. Source: grapefruitmoongallery.com

During this time, she frequently traveled to Florida, where she posed for photographers such as Bunny Yeager, who often featured her in outdoors shots. In 1957, she left New York to move to Florida. In 1958, she married her second husband, Armond Walterson, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1963.  

Bettie Page Struggled With Mental Health Issues

1972 mugshot. Source: (Pinterest)

In 1960, she went to Los Angeles and around this time, became a born-again Christian. She eventually worked as Rev. Billy Graham’s secretary. She seemed to disappear after this. Her third and final marriage, to Harry Lear would also end in divorce. In 1972, Lear accused her of being violent, waving around a gun while shouting about God’s retributions, and eventually, making him and his two children pray in front of a picture of Jesus while she held a knife to them. She was then hospitalized for four months. She was accused of attacking her landlord with a knife but was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and then readmitted herself to the hospital. She was confined again in 1980 and was hospitalized in 1982 after attacking another landlord with a knife. She was hospitalized until 1992. 

Bettie Page Also Went Uncompensated For Her Contributions To Fashion

Source: (KPCC)

Page had designed her own bathing suits, creating suits that were a departure from the designs of the time. Unfortunately, her designs were adopted by other designers, and she did not receive any royalties. She also was not receiving any royalties for the many times her image was used and so eventually hired the Curtis Management Group.  

Today We See Bettie Page Everywhere

Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Source: (bettiepage.com)

In the ‘80s and ‘90’s, years after she disappeared from the public eye, she once again became popular. She has inspired comics as well as Performers such as Madonna and Katy Perry. The influence of her style pervades contemporary culture, even down to the body positivity movement. She appeared on the Forbes list of top earning dead celebrities in 2011, and by 2013, she had earned $10 million. Unfortunately, her earnings were posthumous.

After a three-week hospital stay related to pneumonia, she had a heart attack, slipped into a coma, and died at the age of 85 in 2008.

Tags: Bettie Page | Fetish | Models | Pinup

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!