Think you know which model has had the most pictures published? Think again. It’s not Karlie Kloss, Cindy Crawford, or even Marilyn Monroe. Astonishingly, it’s a woman who stayed in the business for just seven short years and was never featured in a mainstream fashion magazine—pinup queen Bettie Page.
With her signature blunt-cut bangs and jet-black hair, Bettie didn’t fit the mold of 1950s international sex symbol. In fact, she completely tossed the roadmap used by the most iconic of women of the 1950s to achieve international notoriety: bleaching your hair to the whitest of blondes, adopting a ditzy baby voice, holding your shoulders back, chest out, and pointing straight to Hollywood.
Not that she didn’t knock on Hollywood’s door early in her career. A Nashville native who was raised in a broken home, Bettie grew up in and out of orphanages, placed there by her single mother in order to save money. After marrying at 20 and moving to San Francisco, Bettie won the chance at a Hollywood screen test in 1944 after her husband submitted pictures to 20th Century Fox. The studio made her up to look like superstar Joan Crawford. It wasn’t a sound fit.
The marriage fizzled. Three years later Bettie moved to New York City. As a child she had emulated images of movie stars printed in magazines and newspapers by studying their postures and posing, along with her sister, for fun. She started her modeling career in San Francisco, but in New York she failed to secure agency representation.
Meanwhile McCarthyism and “wholesome” sexual repression painted a new picture of morality, just as youth culture and hip-grinding rock ‘n roll were exploding in post-war America. In New York underground “camera clubs” became an off-the-radar way for amateur photographers to take pictures of bikini-clad and topless babes without breaking the law. Page, a devout Christian, was approached by a Brooklyn police officer (and camera club photog) to model for his portfolio. She accepted the invitation, along with his brilliant suggestion to cut her bangs. Her modeling career skyrocketed.
It wasn’t her 24-inch waist or homemade bikinis that Bettie sewed especially for shoots that made her stand out. It was the absolute freedom with which she approached modeling—smiling and exuding a joy that shot right through the camera and landed eye-to-eye with the viewer. “I would imagine the camera was my boyfriend,” she said. Who didn’t connect with Bettie? Even when growling and wearing a leopard-print bikini the viewer can feel her giggling and smiling underneath.
After appearing on the cover of men’s magazines such as Wink and Beauty Parade, Hugh Hefner featured Bettie in Playboy as a January 1955 Playmate. The same year she was named “Miss Pinup Girl of the World.” So uninhibited, natural, and playful was her sexuality, that later in bondage shots directed by Paula and Irving Klaw, Bettie’s pictures radiate a lighthearted tone, despite the misogynistic imagery.
How did Page square her risqué image with her religion? “Being in the nude isn’t a disgrace unless you’re being promiscuous about it,” Page said. “After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird, too!”
Though her timeless images of frisk and frolic emit universal and approachable sex appeal, Bettie became a target of the righteous 1950s political landscape when a US Senate committee investigation worked to prosecute pornographers. Thousands of her photographs were destroyed.
In 1957, at the height of her career, Bettie suddenly left New York and modeling and took up a quiet life away from the media and cameras while rumors swirled. (She was murdered by the mob! She married a duke!) But her absence did nothing to satiate the public’s desire for all things Bettie Page. Comic books, playing cards, record covers, and calendars were made bearing the world’s most famous pinup.
In the 1980s and 1990s a demand for Bettie’s likeness resurged. Burlesque dancing made a comeback, harkening back to her films such as Teaserama (1955). The new flicks made stars of women wearing Bettie Page bangs and retro lingerie. Artists such as Dave Stevens as well as Olivia and Robert Blue painted Bettie in powerful images. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier famously fashioned the cone bra for Madonna after a style worn by Page some 30 years earlier. And merchandising befitting a boy band flowed, bobbleheads and all.
Bettie continued to live mysteriously out of sight, which prompted rumors about the long-loved, long-lost icon. Though she famously kept her life private until dying in 2008, she did establish a special connection with Hefner in her later years. In the 1990s, years after she moved to Southern California, Hefner, who had never met his famous Playmate from January 1955, arranged for a media-free showing of the Dave Stevens film she inspired, The Rocketeer (1991), at the Playboy Mansion.
After decades of not profiting from a single item licensed with her image, Hefner helped establish proper representation for Bettie, finally allowing the American legend to benefit from the innate, sexually sweet so-called “bad girl” that has and will long capture the attention of a nation.