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Old Hollywood Glamour Files: Bettie Page

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In the late 1980’s, Bettie Page was nearing seventy and living in a group home just outside Los Angeles. Sitting around the TV with her fellow septuagenarian residents, she suddenly saw her younger self on the screen, in the midst of being featured on Entertainment Tonight.

For anyone with even a mild interest in 1950’s Hollywood, alternative retro culture or pin ups of yesteryear, Bettie Page is a household name. For Bettie herself however, her ongoing infamy was a total revelation.

 

Bettie Page is the antithesis of most 1950’s glamour icons. Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak, Sophia Loren and others tapped into their sexuality to create a brand image for themselves, but no one was quite so forthright about it as Bettie.

Full frontal nudity was considered taboo in the post WWII 50’s, yet Bettie was a proponent of embracing sexuality and your body – treating both as something to be celebrated as opposed to something to hide away or repress. She is perhaps best known for her fetish and bondage inspired photo shoots, considered scandalous at the time, but the kind of imagery we see in anything from music videos to advertising billboards these days.

 

Bettie Mae Page was born in 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee. She married her first husband when she was 20, and they moved to San Francisco together. They divorced four years later, and Bettie moved to New York, determined to become an actress. Pin up modelling was something to bring in some cash, as it was for Monroe and many more before and after Bettie. She was discovered by a policeman called Jerry Tibbs, who was a photographer on the side, and was also the one that told her that her forehead was too high, and encouraged her to have bangs (a fringe to the English) cut in, to hide it. Her bangs formed part of her trademark look, a look which is still emulated today.

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Bettie appeared in one of the first pin up calendars, posed for iconic photographers such as Irving Klaw and Bunny Yeager, and was one of the first Playboy centerfolds – Miss January 1955. She made most of the lingerie and costumes for her shoots herself, including now-famed outfits such as the leopard pattern ‘jungle girl’ costume immortalised in Yeager’s 1954 Jungle Bettie shoot, at the Africa USA park in Florida.

She was well known for the innovative and eye catching costumes that she designed for herself – anything from bullet bras to garter belts.

Bettie is often associated with S&M poses, but by her own admission, Irving Klaw’s work is the only example of any fetishist photography. She often posed nude, but never in sexually explicit content. Despite this, Bettie was implicated during the Kefauver hearings, set up by Senator Estes Kefauver that targeted indecent publications and pornography.

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In 1959, Bettie disappeared from the limelight altogether. Her departure from modelling was so sudden that it led many to believe that she was dead. Even researching her now, with the entirety of the Internet at your fingertips, it is a hard slog to find definitive facts, dates and corroborations. Even Dita von Teese is quoted as saying, “Now you know everything about a celebrity, but Bettie, you know nothing about.” She is truly enigmatic.

 

We do know that in 1959, she converted to born again Christianity. She was determined to become a missionary in Africa, but the fact that she had been divorced twice meant that she was rejected. There is no record as to whether the church decided that the fact that she had posed naked with bullwhips was also a deciding factor!

She married again for a third time, but this marriage also disintegrated and ended in divorce. It was around this time that Bettie reported hearing voices. She reportedly stabbed her landlady 20 times, explaining that “God made her do it.” According to other reports, this was not the first time that she had stabbed someone. After stabbing her landlady, she was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and spent 20 months in Patton State Hospital in California. After her release, she was arrested for assault after attacking another landlord, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She spent eight years living in a group home under state supervision, which was where she saw herself on television on Entertainment Tonight.

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Bettie’s iconic status and unsurpassed career were marred by the fact that she was rarely rewarded for her hard work. She recalls once going to a photo shoot where the photographer encouraged her to bring all of the bikinis, costumes and lingerie she had made. He shot her in them and then used the photos to replicate the designs, selling them as Bettie Page Bikinis. He never offered her a cent, and remarkably, she never sued him. After she left modelling, she was penniless, and this continued until she was rediscovered in the 1990’s.

Incidentally, it was Hugh Hefner who realised at a dinner at the Playboy Mansion in 1993, to which she had been invited, that she wasn’t being represented by an agent and had no control over the rights to her image or brand. He organised representation for her, and saw that she received royalties.

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Mark Mori, an esteemed documentary maker living in LA, began interviewing her in the late 1990’s. He kept the tapes for a few years, before eventually making a documentary in 2007, a year before Bettie’s death of a heart attack.

He says of her everlasting appeal as an icon for women to this day, "It has to do with not fitting into the dominant culture idea of what's good or sexy. I'm not a supermodel. I'm not Barbie. Whatever ideal it is that they are supposed to fit into. Whatever it is about Bettie, Bettie is the one they latch onto that allows them to feel comfortable in their own sexuality."

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