ICON Bettie Page

Posted on 09. Feb, 2009 by in Profiles


photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


by Randy Gambill

Bettie Page, who passed away at the age of 85 this past December, has the distinction of having her icon status declared by no less a purveyor of all things in voyeuristic pop culture than Hugh Hefner: “She became, in time, an American icon, her winning smile and effervescent personality apparent in every pose. A kinky connection was added by Irving Klaw’s spanking, fetish, and bondage photos, which became part of the Bettie Page mystique. They were playful parodies that are now perceived as the early inspiration for Madonna’s excursions into the realm of sexual perversion.” 

The infamous pin-up with the trademark bangs and the knockout curves is renowned for her cheesecake/fetishistic bondage photos and “specialty” films from the 1950’s, but was hardly appreciated in her own time, at least not publicly. In her heyday, 1952-57, Bettie was an underground sensation, featured in a series of titillating photos and short films, frequently in bondage, sometimes in jungle girl regalia, always dangerously sexy yet somehow wholesome. Bettie’s alluring poses and killer smile, according to Playboy, “suggested forbidden fruit as well as apple pie.” It was a dangerous combination. 

She graced the pages of 50’s magazines with titles like, Wink, Twitter, Eyeful, Whisper, and Flirt, eventually grabbing the T & A brass ring by appearing in the January 1955 centerfold of a new little magazine called Playboy, wearing only a Santa hat and a wink. Page graduated to starring in 8mm & 16mm epics with titles like Dominant Betty Dances With Whip and Rumble Seat Bondage. She earned the title “Miss Pin-Up Girl of the World”. She also earned nicknames like “The Dark Angel” and “The Queen of Curves”. Bettie Page was the dirty little secret of Eisenhower’s perfect 50’s utopia, the kinky treat underneath the tract homes and perfectly manicured lawns that World War II bought and paid for. 

Bettie was born poor in Nashville, Tennessee, the second of six children. Her father was a lout who allegedly molested Bettie and her sisters. After he was imprisoned for car theft, Bettie’s mother, who she felt ignored by, had trouble keeping the family together; Bettie and her two sisters spent some time in an orphanage. Bettie rose above it all, becoming an honor student who was salutatorian of her high school class. She won a scholarship to George Peabody Teachers College, where she earned her degree but that career path didn’t pan out. “I couldn’t control my students, especially the boys,” she is quoted as saying. 

Movie stardom was what Bettie really craved. She had said that her favorite actress of all times was Bette Davis, specifically her role in Dark Victory (1939). Bettie moved to New York, studied acting and struggled in the actress game, to little success. She supported herself as a secretary until one fateful day when Bettie was discovered Lana Turner- style while wandering the beach at Coney Island, playing hooky from a boring secretarial job. An off-duty policeman and amateur shutterbug named Jerry Tibbs noticed Bettie’s curves and asked her to pose for some pictures (Poor Bettie, even NYPD’s finest saw her ripe for exploitation!) Tibbs helped her get a pin-up portfolio together, convinced her to wear her trademark bangs (Bettie had a lot of forehead real estate) and steered her into posing for photographs by amateur cheesecake aficionados who legitimized their illicit hobby by forming ‘camera clubs’. Page quickly segued into posing for professionals, making money and liking the work. Bettie recalled in one interview, “I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.” 

Then came Bettie’s association with the infamous Irving Klaw and his sister Paula who produced the series of bondage pictures and videos with titles like Leopard Bikini Bound and Hobbled in Kid Leather Harness that formed – the quintessential images of her sexual legacy. Bettie’s work with the Klaws which featured her clad in black lingerie or leopard print, wearing 6-inch spiked heels and leather bondage gear, and acting out sado-masochistic scenarios – would provide the iconography of her career. Bettie found steady work with other photographers as well and reached another career peak in a series of photos by Bunny Yeager entitled “Jungle Bettie”, with her posing nude with two cheetahs named Mojah and Mbili. These photos feature a radiantly naughty Bettie at her most risqué and jubilant. 

But all of Bettie Page’s pin-up work, estimated at up to 20,000 pictures alone, is stunning; all the more so due to the crudity of the still photography and peek-a-boo films in which she performed. The photos were amateurish and the movies were badly made but Bettie was the real deal. Her star quality was incandescent, she made soft-core pornography joyful, her wickedly delicious smile and delectable curves made bondage games, jungle scenarios, and frolicking with cheetahs irresistible. There was a sense of innocent fun in her work that took the edge off the smuttiness and helped bridge the gap between burlesque and hardcore porn. Many feel she helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 60’s. In the world of underground smut Bettie was an undisputed star! 

And then she vanished. After a Senate Committee investigation into pornography targeted her, Bettie left New York for good. Like Garbo, she walked away from it all at the height of her career, knowing at 35 that her days as “The Girl with the Perfect Figure” wouldn’t last forever. 

Like many artists who no longer practice their art, she found God. Disappearing into obscurity for more than 30 years, Betty became a devout Christian, tried unsuccessfully to become a missionary, and did a stint with the Billy Graham ministry. There was a string of failed marriages and a series of bouts with mental illness, the last of which kept her institutionalized for eight years. By the 90’s Page was at a low ebb and completely unaware of the profound impact her work had made on pop culture and sexual mores, not to mention the cottage industry in full swing exploiting her 50’s work. 

A fanzine called “The Betty Pages” had sprouted up in the 80’s. Artists from the worlds of erotic painting, fashion, music, movies, and comic books such as the aforementioned Madonna, Dave Stevens, Harlan Ellison, Katy Perry, Uma Thurman, Rihanna, Christina Aquilera, Todd Oldham, Dolce & Gabbana and Olivia have created work inspired by or outright ripped-off from Bettie’s signature look and poses. Countless websites, various books, tribute songs, and rockabilly/retro clothing stores sprung up in her honor. By the early 90’s the woman’s image was becoming as ubiquitous as other legendary icons like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. But they were dead and Bettie was alive. Where was she? 

Bettie Page finally re-emerged in the early 90’s to tell her story. In 1996 her authorized biography was published and was followed a year later by a more salacious but possibly more truthful tell-all. A 2006 biopic was produced. She retained a lawyer and was able to benefit from the merchandise that bore her likeness. Bettie Page, in the twilight of her life had finally arrived. 

Through it all, Bettie maintained that air of mystery that all great stars do, preferring, in Garbo fashion, not to be photographed in her last years, “ I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times.” She finally agreed to be photographed, fittingly enough in 2003 at the 50th anniversary party for Playboy. Still beautiful with that killer smile and those trademark bangs, now gray, Page finally got her close-up. Now, sadly she he has passed but her remarkable legacy is in its infancy. 

Pop culture critic and author Mikal Gilmore describes the enduring appeal of Bettie Page in this way, “No matter how much you stare or dream or pray, you could never get enough of what it is that her face and body seem to promise.” Bettie Page has done what an icon should do, she has left us wanting more. 

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