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.)