Controversial model Bettie Page paved the way for future icons such as Kate Moss, writes Stephanie Wallace Chavanne.
If we think of the cabaret scene that has suddenly been revived, we think of people like Dita Von Teese; tiny-waisted, black-haired, smouldering-eyed, sexually confident women that make the mightiest of men weak at the knees.
If we think of the 1950s, we imagine cheeky grinned, wholesome-beach-bathing women in polka-dot bikinis with figures to die for. If we think of the Hollywood sirens from the early 1960s, we think of people like the beautiful Audrey Hepburn; with her nymphish eyes and elfish cheekbones. If we think of Playboy Bunnies, images of blonde bombshells with gravity defying breasts pop into our head. If we think of models such as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Lily Cole, we think of their tiny frames and symmetrical features, making some feel fat and ugly by comparison.
And if I asked you if you had any notion as to what all of the above things have in common? Well I’d presume you’d look at the headline of this piece and hazard a guess that Bettie Page is what ties them all together… And you’d be right.
Born in 1923, Bettie Mae Page experienced a lot of things most of us could never claim to have been around for, such as World War II and the Sixties, along with lots of sexism and suffocating conservatism.
Her first husband was drafted into the navy and during this time, she struggled to make ends meet working as a secretary. She eventually divorced him, moved to New York to become an actress and one day bumped into Jerry Tibbs, a police officer with an interest in photography. And the rest as they say, is history.
It only took a year of crude photography before Bettie hit the big time in erotic lad magazines like Eyeful, Titter and Wink. She made all of her costumes herself. She started acting in ‘speciality’ films that incorporated leather, restraints and some quite questionable objects such as Irving Klaw’s ‘Leopard Bikini Bound’ (circa 1956). Yet what’s great about Bettie was the fact that she never did pornography; there was no nudity or sexual content in Klaw’s work.
Bettie was a sex icon without behaving in a crass manner. She did burlesque and Broadway shows, catering to vastly different audiences compared with those men prone to sneaking into Basic Instincts in Temple Bar. So successful with the ‘stag’ audience of men, Miss Page was January 1955’s Playmate of the Month and also became that year’s ‘Miss Pinup Girl of the World’.
She stopped modelling in 1957 due to the death of a teen inspired by images of S&M. And then Bettie disappeared. What had happened to ‘The Queen of Curves’ whose measurements were 36-23-35? Men pined for her, comics were inspired by her, fanzines were published and women cut their hair to look like her. The American Fetish Scene was lost without her.
Had an obsessive fan kidnapped her? Had she fled abroad after the US Congress attempted to try her for the photos she had appeared in? No, the answer is far more unbelievable; Miss Betty Page had converted to Christianity!
She remarried her first husband, went away on the missionaries in Africa and then divorced him again (you would have thought that he would have learned the first time). She threw off her old image, lying to people if they approached her for an autograph. Bettie Page the fetish model was gone, at least temporarily.
But some men didn’t forget Bettie, they couldn’t, she had inspired so many. In 1976, A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page came out and was followed by Betty Page: Private Peeks (1978), and In Praise of Bettie Page – A Nostalgic Collector’s Item in 1983. Comics resurfaced, new ones were created, Bettie inspired the character of Poison Ivy in Batman, games mentioned her, singers wrote about her, articles were written on her, her distinctive bangs became fashionable again, TV shows mentioned her, it was ‘Bettiemania’!
Amazingly, this movement is still going strong. She posed for Playboy in 2003 at the astonishing age of 80, and in 2004, a biographical film was made, with another, The Notorious Bettie Page, coming out just one year later. In 2006, she collaborated with a guitar maker to release ‘Bettie Guitars’.
The fandom has yet to slow down. You can now buy Bettie bath and body washes, posters, T-shirts, costumes, postcards, face clothes, socks, poker sets, key chains, lunch boxes, even incense. The list of merchandise is endless.
Bettie Page laid the foundations for many young models. The fact that she dared to be different and risqué, yet remained ladylike ensures that her legacy will continue long into the future.