Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Mystique of Bettie Page

Photo via photobucket
As a heterosexual woman, I never had much of an inkling to look up Bettie Page videos and photos until one of my readers and fellow bloggers, Cliff from Burping Canary Feathers, mentioned her appeal to me. After giving myself a crash course in Bettie's career, I can see why she was referred to as "The Queen of the Pin-Ups", "The Dark Angel", and "The Tease From Tennessee." With her voluptuous figure (Betty's measurements of her chest and hips were almost exactly the same, paired with a tiny waist), trademark black hair and bangs and fun-loving, flirty attitude in front of the camera, Bettie became THE top American pin-up girl from 1950 to 1957. And then--at the height of her career in 1957--she abruptly walked away from it all. That's the mystery of Bettie which seems to have no easy answers, even from Bettie herself. 

Last year a small independent film was released that tried to explain Bettie's life and disappearance from the spotlight in her own words, called Bettie Page Reveals All. (The movie is still screening at some film festivals including this month; you can check out the link for more info.) Bettie Page Reveals All tells the story of Bettie's life using her own words from archived interviews.

Bettie's early life in Tennessee was anything but glamorous. She grew up during the Great Depression and her parents divorced when she was 10. She married and divorced shortly after high school and tried unsuccessfully to make it as an actress. During a visit to Coney Island in 1950, she was discovered by Jerry Tibbs, a policeman and hobbyist photographer, who thought she had a striking look and asked to take pictures of her at his studio. Some of the photos were published by a Harlem newspaper and soon Bettie was posing for men's cheesecake magazines such as Eyeful and Titter. Tibbs even helped create Bettie's signature hairstyle by suggesting that she get bangs cut to help flatter her large forehead. Before long, Bettie was gracing the covers of numerous magazine covers, calendars, and even playing cards.


Photo via BettiePageCafe
The amazing thing about Bettie's image even today is you can see how much of a natural she was in front of the lens and how much fun she was having. The camera clearly loved Bettie--and Bettie returned the favor. She would later say that she learned poses just from studying fashion magazines, and often pretended that the camera was her boyfriend, and that she was smiling and posing just for him. She was also very comfortable with nudity, claiming that it was only natural. It's been speculated that Bettie Page helped launched the sexual revolution of the 1960s--in the 1950s!

However, it was Bettie's involvement with another photographer which led to scandal and possibly her reason for existing her career.

Irving Klaw was one of the first fetish photographers, operating a mail-order business that featured photographs and 8 mm films of women in bondage and domination situations. The photos didn't depict any sex acts or nudity, but I still find them difficult to look at, and I certainly didn't want to include any in this post (anyone can easily find them by doing a search.) Bettie herself was not into bondage, but has said in interviews that she never felt exploited or that she was doing anything bad. But in 1955, a Senate investigation was launched into Klaw's business and Bettie herself was called to testify. Although the government had no real case against Klaw, the scandal hurt his business and he was forced to destroy many of this negatives--except for many of Bettie, which he discretely saved. 

Bettie also posed for Playboy and was now getting acting work on TV and stage appearances and in burlesque films. One of her most famous movies is Striporama, a 1953 comedy which was filmed in color; Bettie appears in two sequences, one of them where she's the object of affection of two unattractive lunkheads who share a dream about her:



One of Bettie's most famous photo shoots is the one called "Jungle Bettie", which features her in a Florida wildlife park posing in a leopard print swimsuit or nude with a pair of cheetahs from the park. 


Photo via michaelmay.us
In 1957, a young man killed himself and was found with several of Bettie's bondage photos. Shortly afterwards, Bettie stopped modeling. She would later cite her born-again Christianity as a reason, as well as the fact that she felt she was growing too old to model, having started her career at 27, which was considered older at the time. Mental health may have another contributing factor--in 1979, Bettie was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent almost two years in a state mental hospital. After attacking her landlord with a breadknife, Bettie was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent 8 years under state supervision, being released in 1992. 

Sadly, Bettie didn't have much luck with men, either. By the time she passed away in 2008, she'd been married and divorced three times. It's a funny thing how men are scared of beautiful women; she would say in an interview that as her popularity grew, men shied away more and more because they were afraid of her. 

Bettie enjoyed a resurgence in pop culture popularity in the 80s, especially when the comic book series "The Rocketeer" was released, which featured a female heroine that resembled Bettie. Dark Horse Comics created a series of books that followed the fictional adventures of Bettie, made for a modern audience. 


One of the best reports I've seen on Bettie Page is the above interview that she gave to an entertainment TV program in 1996. It was her last interview and while she asked that her image at the time not be shown on camera, a photo of an older Bettie does exist. Here she is with the late Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson, taken sometime during the 1990s. As you can see, the trademark hair and smile is still intact. 



I think it's safe to say that the world is never going to see another woman quite like Bettie Page. Many--such as Madonna and Dita Von Teese--have tried to emulate her but they don't quite have the sexiness and girl-next-door appeal of Bettie. Her iconic status marches on--there's even a Bettie Page-inspired line of clothing and in 2005, a movie about her life called The Notorious Bettie Page was released. Gretchen Mol portrayed Bettie in the film but I don't think she looks anything like her or quite captures her persona...but then again, who could? That's part of what makes her mystique so appealing. 

9 comments:

phairhead said...

One of my idols.....great post!

ApacheDug said...

Great piece Pam, thanks for sharing--they don't come any sexier than Bettie Page! (Well, Ann Margaret circa 1965 is a close contender...) ;)

I've gotta say, I was surprised to see that older photo here. I've seen and read just about everything out there on Miss Page & I knew how private she was about her older self--good find!

My Little Corner said...

Wow, that was very well said. My husband has two Bettie Page tattoos and I wore my hair like hers for years. I agree, the movie with Gretchen was disappointing as she didn't look like Bettie nor was she able to emulate her persona. As a long time fan, I think you did a very nice job with her biography.

I hadn't seen the photo with Pamela Anderson and Anne Nicole Smith - the first thought that came to mind was that only Pamela was still living. That must have been difficult to find.

richartedigital said...

One of my favorites besides June Palmer, Jane Fonda, and Ann Margret! Back then such lovely ladies earned their places with natural beauty and sex-appeal, unlike today's surgeon products. Thanks for sharing a very important piece of sexy history!

ChatterBlossom said...

This was really interesting. I didn't know much about her and had no idea about her personal life. Thanks for posting this!
-Jamie
ChatterBlossom

Lacey said...

I think Bettie Page's popularity with the entertainment industry stems from her "safe" appeal. Even in her "bondage" photos, there is nothing dark and dirty about her. She is almost the perennial virgin. The "safe" sexy that Hollywood and Madison Ave. traffics in.

As a former "booth bunny" I always admired how natural and comfortable she was. A real talent in those outfits.

Thank you for a wonderful post.

Johnny Seagull said...

Nice journalism. Admirable woman.

Luis said...

I was surprised that Bettie hadn't made an appearance here at GoRetro since she's the most retro of all pinup models. I myself have a couple of books on Bettie as well as assorted merchandise like stickers, comics and such. Really good writing on this article, Pam.

Camelia (R├ęzie) said...

She is amazing!

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