In the 1950s the legendary pin-up queen, Bettie Page was the most photographed woman in the world. You couldn’t walk past a newsstand without seeing a picture of her in one magazine or another. But the Page Craze didn’t last long. Her brief heyday was from 1950 to 1957, a time in which she was immortalized as one of the inaugural Playboy centrefolds and then in recent years named “the model of the century”. She was even voted the “ultimate sex goddess” outscoring others such as Marilyn Monroe.
So why did such a celebrated pin-up slip into obscurity, to the point that many assumed she had died long before she did finally succumb to pneumonia at the age of 85 at the end of 2008?
In 1958 Bettie vanished suddenly. Her departure was a complete mystery and only served to power her notoriety. For decades, fans searched. Even the television program 60 Minutes tried doing a story.
It took until the mid ‘90s before the truth was finally revealed.
While battling some fierce inner demons, Page had secretly fled New York for Florida. In 1958 she underwent a religious epiphany and retreated entirely from the public eye, tried marriage again, and gave her life to Jesus Christ as a born-again Christian, working for Billy Graham’s ministry, among others. After her third marriage failed in 1978 Bettie suffered something of a mental breakdown with violent mood swings and some serious trouble with the law. It wasn’t until 1992 that she was able to emerge from what was a dark period, having been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
Incredibly, during this time Bettie Page remained completely oblivious of her own profound impact upon America’s pop culture, not to mention an industry that had arisen around her image – everything from Bettie Page action figures, calendars, comic books, lighters, DVDs, T-shirts and playing cards.
The Bettie Page phenomenon began in 1947. She had just divorced her first husband, Bill Neal when she drifted into cheesecake modelling for fun. Almost immediately she was the ubiquitous face and figure adorning such publications as Wink, Eyeful, Sir!, He, She, Jest, Bare, Stare, Gaze, Vue, Titter, Sunbathing, Beauty Parade, Chicks and Chuckles and many more. Her saucy pictures decorated offices, lockers and garages all around the world.
The pin-up queen never worked as a dancer or stripper, but did appear in three burlesque films that suggested as much: Strip-orama in 1953, Varietease in ’54 and Teaserama in ’55. She also performed for the camera in countless 8 and 16mm so-called “film loops” shown in peep shows and sold through the mail. Many of these were staged and issued by the brother and sister team of Irving and Paula Klaw of Movie Star News in New York.
It was for the Klaws that Page gained infamy posing in bondage. According to her arrangement she had to do an hour of bondage in order to get paid for the other modeling work.
Images of Bettie Page continue to inspire imitation by curious young girls who have discovered the so called “Dark Angel” whose personality reflected the lethal combination of sweet apple pie, as well as dangerous forbidden fruit. What seems to resonate with young women is how Bettie Page owned her own sexuality. Whether projecting innocence, or being completely wild and uninhibited, it seemed to be her choice, and either choice, wholesome or edgy, was fine with her, and she embraced them both. She was confident her audience did as well.