Way before Madonna was about to become popular for her fetish style and even before Dita Von Teese was adopting her look to turn into a burlesque diva, there certainly was Bettie Page,the Pin-ups Queen.
Above: picture by CMG Worldwide via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
It was the 50’s when the so called “Sexual Revolution” was about to blast and the pictures of half-naked girls were seen as a threat to society, so dangerous that the US set up a Special Committee to investigate on all the activities that could be considered under the name of pornography.
Bettie Page though, despite her daring pictures and short films, was far from a porn star. She was born in the Far South of the US in Tennessee, in 1923, during the years of the Great Depression, which certainly marked her childhood. Her father, a lowlife, molested all his 3 daughters and her mother, who divorced from her father when Bettie was 10, place the 3 girls in an orphanage for a year, while keeping with herself just her sons.
Like many other families, the one that Bettie had moved around the country looking for work and stability, but this didn’t prevent Bettie from finishing College with great results and obtaining a degree to become teacher. But her beauty represented a double edged sword because she could not control her students, especially the older guys.
Then the marriage when she turned 20 and her husband left for war, while she started to attempt the career of actress by using that body which did not allow her to be a teacher.
In Hollywood though she did not have success, perhaps for her look still too simple. The suggestion on how to style herself came from an amateur photographer, Jerry Tibbs, who she met on the beach of Coney Island in 1950, when she was based in New York and had by then divorced from her husband. It was Jerry who suggested to have her hair long and black with a fringe, hairstyle which then became the distinctive sign of the pin-up. Bettie, who was working as a secretary at the Rockfeller Center, in order to save up some money started to pose in the Camera Clubs, places born to con the laws on pornography, trying to pass off as artistic images what instead were nudes.
Bettie became a star of that particular sector, the very first famous bondage model, with her black leather look and the sadomasochist poses. However in neither of her pictures nor in her short films there is ever an explicit sexual scene. Between the 1950 and the 1957 Bettie carried on with the career as a model, with some apparition in the burlesque films, but her true popularity arrived with the publication of one of the pictures in the big central page of Playboy in 1955, as a January playmate.
Then, from the 1958, after 2 marriages behind her back, Bettie disappeared out of the blue
No one at the time knew what had happened to her and her real reasons are still not very clear today. Perhaps the convocation from the committee against pornography, perhaps some episodes of stalking, maybe the revelation occurred during a religious ceremony while on holiday in Florida. Once she abandoned her career as a pin up, she desperately tried to become a missionary in Africa, but no Christian community accepted her application.
After all she was an ex pin-up let alone divorced multiple times
Above: public domain
So her descent to the underworld started here, tormented by demons which were making her hear voices and commit violent gestures. After having attacked her landlady with a knife, she was sent to a Psychiatric hospital and found to be suffering from Paranoid Schizofrenia.
she came out of it only in 1992
Above: public domain
In the meantime the character of Bettie Page had come back on the scenes with many reprints, loads of books and magazines, used as a muse for paintings and comics while she was in misery unaware of all this new popularity. When she found it out though, she tried to recover some rights on her image, thing which was possible only thanks to Hugh Hefner, Playboy’s publisher.
She died of pneumonia in 2008 after years of forbidding everyone to take pictures of her:
“I want to be remembered as when I was young, in my big days. I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people’s point of view on nudity in its natural form”.
According to MTV, the transgressive looks of many rock stars – Kate Perry for her fringe and close fitting corsets; Madonna for her book “Sex” and her love for fetish objects; Rihanna, for her interest in leather and lace – were not possible without Bettie Page, who was designing and sewing personally all her costumes. Even actresses such as Uma Thurman in her role in Pulp Fiction, Dita Von Teese for her whole career and many other women from the showbiz.
Many inspired ones, but the only true Pin ups Queen remains her, the incomparable Bettie Page.