This week would’ve marked Bettie Page’s 94th birthday. The 1950s pinup model’s life was mired in dysfunction, controversy, mental illness, and spiritual revival. Looking back, however, Page never understood what the fuss was all about.
For all the hardships and controversy swirling around pinup icon Bettie Page, who became known in the 1950s for her semi-nude, nude, and bondage modeling, there seemed to be a certain practicality she steadfastly adhered to as she reflected back on her life in interviews conducted in the 1980s and ’90s.
But perhaps her unromanticized reflections about her life was a coping mechanism — her way of surviving the dysfunction and the hoopla that surrounded her existence. She started out with a troubled childhood: her parents divorced when she was 10, and she was forced to spend time at an orphanage. Her father, who served time in jail, had also allegedly molested her for years.
After marrying and divorcing her high school sweetheart, Page eventually found her way into erotic modeling in the 1950s, becoming known for her blue eyes, raven-colored hair and trademark bangs. Her unabashed nude photos, along with her stamp as “Queen of Bondage” for her BDSM modeling shoots, enraged conservatives who tried to tie her to a young man’s death who died from a bondage session. (Rumor had it that he had been inspired by photos of Page.)
But by 1958 Page had reached a different chapter in her life. She had turned 35 and decided to leave the public eye. She found solace in evangelical Christianity and served Billy Graham‘s congregation for some years. It was during her conversion that she felt ashamed for the first time about posing nude (but she would later change her perspective). The ensuing decades would not be so kind to her; Page would experience two marriages that would both end in divorce, and starting in the 1970s she would experience her first bouts of acute schizophrenia.
But in the 1980s Page was surprised to see a re-emergence in her popularity. She eventually gave interviews but on the condition that she didn’t have to show her face on camera (she wanted fans to remember her the way she was).
Before her death in 2008 at the age of 85, Page offered some very practical reflections about her life, her controversial career and the cultural legacy she left behind.
About her public “disappearance”
“All this hogwash about me disappearing and not contacting other people. I didn’t isolate myself, I just thought there were too many pictures of me out there. I decided I wanted to teach which was what I was trained to do in the first place.”
About letting her fans seeing her older
“I don’t think my fans want to see me old and fat. I’ve got to get another 20-25 lbs. off somehow–remember me as I looked when I was younger. I get sad when I see my favorite movie stars when they’re old. Who wants to see Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau now as the Odd Couple?”
“I was never one who was squeamish about nudity. I don’t believe in being promiscuous about it, but several times I thought of going to a nudist colony.”
“Being in the nude isn’t a disgrace unless you’re being promiscuous about it. 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!”
About her bondage photos
“The only bondage posing I ever did was for Irving Klaw and his sister Paula. Usually every other Saturday he had a session for four or five hours with four or five models and a couple of extra photographers, and in order to get paid you had to do an hour of bondage. And that was the only reason I did it. I never had any inkling along that line. I don’t really disapprove of it; I think you can do your own thing as long as you’re not hurting anybody else — that’s been my philosophy ever since I was a little girl.”
About her famous bangs
“For years I had my hair parted down the middle in a ponytail, tucked down around the sides . . .Well, I went and cut the bangs, and I’ve been wearing them ever since. They say it’s my trademark.”
About being a cultural icon
“I don’t know what they mean by an icon. I never thought of myself as being that. It seems strange to me. I was just modeling, thinking of as many different poses as possible. I made more money modeling than being a secretary. I had a lot of free time. You could go back to work after an absence of a few months. I couldn’t do that as a secretary.”
About her fans
“It makes me feel wonderful that people still care for me . . .that I have so many fans among young people, who write to me and tell me I have been an inspiration.”