Male Fans Made Bettie Page a Star, but Female Fans Made Her an Icon

Her risqué pinup photos made her famous in the 1950s, but as a new documentary reminds us, Page's liberated sexuality and unflinching body positivity are what still resonate today.
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Bettie Page Reveals All

Nearly 60 years after her modeling heyday—which made her the most-photographed model of the 20th century—and five years after her death at age 85, Bettie Page continues to fascinate fans worldwide. The so-called Queen of Pinups tied with Einstein at No. 8 on Forbes’ 2013 list of top-earning dead celebrities, and Time recently named her one of the 100 most influential people on fashion; her impact is so enduring that Madonna, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry borrow style cues from her (they’ve all donned the U-shaped “Bettie bangs” and bondage couture Page popularized).

But Bettie Page Reveals All, a new movie about her life, is the first film to tell her story in her own voice—in fact, she’s the narrator. Based on a series of interviews with Academy Award-nominated director Mark Mori several years before her death, the film recounts how—despite a childhood in Nashville, Tennessee rife with neglect, sexual abuse by her father, and extreme poverty—she managed to graduate at the top of her high school class, earn a college degree, and forge her own career. Page also reveals details of her struggle with paranoid schizophrenia, which included 10 years spent in a psychiatric hospital after abandoning her modeling career.

One of the biggest surprises Mori discovered in making the movie, however, was the changing nature of Page’s fan base. Once comprised mostly of men, the bulk of her fan base is now young women—so much so that now, they’re the film’s target audience. Heterosexual men tend to love Page for obvious reasons, but for many women, Page symbolizes self-confidence, unapologetic sexuality, and bold authenticity.

“Bettie’s female fans often feel a deep emotional connection with her, which I think says a lot about the rigid expectations women still face,” Mori says.  

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During her modeling career in the ’50s, Page’s fans were mostly male, for the simple reason that her job was posing for men’s magazines—which women typically did not have access to—and private photos for her employer’s male customers. The wide circulation of nude magazines started in 1953 with the first publication of Playboy, which was clearly designated exclusively for men. Page was one of their earliest Playmates of the month in 1955, with her now-iconic Christmas tree pose by photographer Bunny Yeager.

When she did bondage modeling for Irving Klaw, those photos were often done at the specific request of customers—all of whom were, presumably, men. Page’s nude and bondage photos were considered pornography, and some were published in catalogs that could only be sold in illegal, under-the-counter transactions. (As explored in Mori’s movie, people were commonly arrested for selling and buying such photos, and mail could be confiscated if someone was suspected of doing so.) Back then, it would have been unheard of for a woman to even enter a place where those magazines were sold.

But in 1957, she disappeared from the public eye. A few years earlier, then-Senator Estes Kefauver had attempted to eradicate “indecency” like gambling and nude photos. After a teenage boy died from what appeared to be accidental autoerotic asphyxiation, a Senate committee drew a (largely unfounded) connection between the death and Page’s bondage photos, and she was subpoenaed to testify in 1955 about unfounded accusations that she contributed to juvenile delinquency.

“That link was made by sexually repressive authorities—it was a completely concocted witch hunt,” says Mori. Page was never called to testify at the hearing, but she inadvertently ushered in America’s sexual revolution when people began resisting the oppression of “the McCarthyism of sex” spearheaded by Kefauver, according to Mori. The hearings led to the demise of Klaw’s business and left a dent in Page’s enthusiasm for modeling.

Since then, however, several historical events have fueled women’s growing interest in Page. It began in the ’60s with dawn of the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution—the latter of which Page has been credited with setting the stage for. As writer Hubert Vigilla says in his film review for Flixist, “She was a sex-positive feminist before the classification even existed.”  

In the 1960s, “women began gaining access in large numbers to erotic material, and they gravitated toward the images that resonated with them,” says Maria Elena Buszek, Ph.D., a professor of art history at the University of Colorado Denver, and author of a book called Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture. For many women, especially feminist women, the most compelling photos were those of Page. “She started becoming popular with women as they discovered her.”

Later, illustrator Dave Stevens modeled a main character after Page in his famous comic book The Rocketeer, which debuted in the early 1980s and was made into a movie by Walt Disney Productions in 1991 (one year before Page was released from California’s Patton State Hospital). Stevens’s work has been cited as a major catalyst in bringing Page back into the public eye after many years in obscurity. (He and Page were friends until his death in 2008.) Her popularity soared with the widespread adoption of the Internet throughout the ’90s, and it has continued to climb steadily ever since: In 2011, she appeared on Forbes’s list of the top-earning dead celebrities list at No. 13, and in the next two years, her ranking climbed to No. 10 and then No. 8. In 2013, she posthumously earned $10 million dollars.

***

Almost all the female Page fans interviewed for this article (who range in age from 18 to 55) felt compelled to learn more about her after first being captivated by her image, which they discovered in a variety of ways: on the Internet; on Bettie Page lunchboxes and other merchandise that Tower Records used to sell; in Dad’s old “stag magazine” stash—even on a stranger’s T-shirt.

“I saw a boy with a photo of her on his shirt, and I was in awe of what a badass she was. She just had a darkness to her that I’d never seen before in a celeb or pinup from the past,” says Angelica Luna, 32, of San Bernardino, California. “Soon after that, in 1998, I saw a special about her on E! True Hollywood Story and I fell in love. Step down, Marilyn. You had nothing on Bettie, is what I thought.”

Before long, Luna had bought all the Page-themed books, posters, and shirts she could find. “Kind of like your typical teenager and their craze for a boy band or something, but mine was Bettie Page,” she says. Her passion for Page initially inspired her to do some pinup modeling, but she found being behind the camera more fascinating, so she started her company Strawberry D’Lish, where she is a photographer, hairstylist, and makeup artist.

But Page’s comeback appeal owes just as much to her life story as it does to her image. Her story bears out the very impression people often get from her pictures: She was vibrant, creative, strong-willed, resilient, and fun-loving, despite her life’s near-constant hardship. (The film adeptly captures these traits: Page frequently caps off her recollections with a hearty chuckle, and her personality is palpable through the accounts of those who knew her.)

Page wasn’t only a model but an artist; she styled her own hair and makeup for shoots, and handmade most of the clothes and bikinis she wore when modeling. Her designs were so unique they were ripped off by a clothing catalogue company, as she recalls in the film. Those scanty two-pieces were considered highly risqué at the time and were rarely worn in public.

Even more taboo, however, was what she often didn’t wear. She wasn’t ashamed of nudity, and in an interview in Bettie Page Reveals All, Page talks about how she loved to take “air baths” with her clothes off and windows open.

“Bettie lived in a sexually repressive society, and we still live in one,” Mori says. “By identifying with her, women are able to access a sense of sexual confidence and the freedom to express it.” Sure, female nudity is now a constant in pop culture—pick any one of our plentiful pants-less pop stars as an example. But Page embraced nudity, not just for the entertainment of others, but for her own enjoyment. As Page told the L.A. Times in 2006, “I want to be remembered as the woman who changed people's perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form."

In the movie, Page recalls a time when, along with a bunch of camera-club members who had been taking nude photos of her on a farm, she got arrested for public indecency. She refused to plead guilty, insisting, “I’m not indecent!” and held up court proceedings until officials reduced the charge to disorderly conduct.

All these decades later, it is still a radical act to declare a woman’s nude body “not indecent” (even while, somewhat paradoxically, women are still often expected to display their bodies and perform sexuality for the benefit of others, but not to experience it for their own pleasure). But Page, even in the 1950s, dismissed the idea that there is an inevitable choice between nudity and virtue. “She’d be flitting around nude in the woods for photo shoots, and then show up at church on Sunday morning,” says Mori. She was a devout Christian who regularly attended church services, even throughout her nude modeling career. To some, these two interests might still seem irreconcilable. “It’s a contradiction for some people, but it wasn’t for her,” he says. As Page puts it in the film, “I don’t even believe God disapproves of nudity. After all, he put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden naked as jaybirds.”

“I think she represents a freedom to express her womanhood in a very repressed time,” says fan Paige 'Paigey' Pumphrey, 33-year-old pinup artist and designer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. “Even though her outfits (or lack thereof) aren't as shocking today as they were when they were taken, she unabashedly owns it. No matter how over-the-top or scandalous or even downright silly, you can see her rock it. Such confidence is inspiring.”

But while Page’s progressive attitudes and choices are certainly just as compelling as her look, it shouldn’t be overlooked that her very look itself was radical. The fact that Page is notably larger-bodied than the vast majority of famous models—even those of her era—makes her confidence and lack of inhibition that much more transgressive. Today’s average fashion model is typically a size zero and several inches taller than Page, at just over 5’5” and fluctuating around a weight of 130 lbs., was. But even back then, she was rejected by a major modeling agency (Ford Models) for being too short and “hippy.” Page recalls in the film that Eileen Ford herself told her that.

Some of her photos also reveal human flaws amidst her endless allure, like imperfect teeth and a slightly droopy eye. “She offers an alternative to the narrow and often unattainable ideal of beauty that the dominant culture imposes on women,” according to Mori. “They find her unconventional beauty appealing, but it’s mostly her attitude: It’s fun, accessible, and completely open, and there’s a sense that anyone can do this.”

Burlesque star and model Dita Von Teese, who first found fame as a Page lookalike in the early days of her career, says this is another aspect of Page’s appeal to women: She reminds them that it’s possible to feel comfortable in their own skin. “You can see imperfections—like a bit of cellulite—in some of her photos,” says Von Teese. “You see her being a woman, and she’s not ashamed, nor should she be.” 

“To me, Bettie was a gateway into subcultures like rockabilly and burlesque, which are very body-positive environments to women with ample curves who want to celebrate their bodies,” Pumphrey says. Her interest in Bettie led her to discover other pinup models, and then burlesque stars and showgirls. “I surround myself with images of powerful women and try my best to ignore what the standard of beauty is that other people or entities try to push on me.”

***

But there are deeper reasons Page continues to resonate so strongly with women, many of them having to do with anxiety over women’s roles in sex. She often combined elements that seemed contradictory, easily moving between conflicting rolessexy but sweet; nude but unguarded; seductive but playful. Even while posing submissively, as in the famous Irving Klaw bondage catalog photos (in which she also sometimes portrayed the dominant role), Page appears to be in charge and genuinely enjoying herself.

“You see her going back and forth between this fun-loving character to a stern dominatrix,” says Von Teese. “She had this ability to bring a playful quality to something that was very taboo (whether nudity or bondage), and you could tell she was in control—even hog-tied and ball-gagged, you sense she can get out whenever she wants.” Page’s overt hamming it up successfully subverts the expectation that women always submissively play along.

According to Buszek, Page stands out among ’50s pinups precisely because she wasn’t at all passive. “She’s definitely in on the set-up, and she was very ahead of her time on that level,” Buszek says, and points to the then-ubiquitous “oops-I-dropped-my-panties” pose (popularized by illustrator Art Frahm) and many of the models in Robert Harrison’s postwar “girlie” magazine photography as examples of the standard “passive, humiliating turn-on.” (Though Page herself also posed for Harrison, she says, her photos were quite obviously over-the-top and cheekily dramatic.) Some of Page’s shots, like those of her joyously splashing around in the ocean exhibit sheer vulnerability and delight; in others, like a lot of the bondage photos, she’s very visibly acting, often in a very comedic way (and she had studied and aspired to be a film actress)—with a clearly exaggerated scowl or pout or her famous, put-on look of surprise. There is a sense that “she was a partner in the process, not someone who was being exploited,” Buscek says.

“I think the women who are into Bettie Page look to her as a model of empowered femininity,” Buscek says. “Her ability to take on a range of roles that seem contradictory reflects that one’s sexuality and gender are not inevitable, but actually fall on a spectrum.

"Sexuality is very complex, but we don’t see it represented that way—even now when you’d think we would know better,” Buscek adds.

Page’s immense comeback appeal may never be fully explained. But as 42-year-old fan Brett Mary Drew, of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, puts it, “Bettie has 'it.' Not too many people have 'it.' I think lots of women want to achieve 'it,' and we need a role model. Bettie Page is 'it'.” Perhaps it could be said that in displaying her power and complexity, Page reminds women of their own.

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Tori Rodriguez is a journalist and psychotherapist based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Women's Health, and Real Simple.

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