She was Playboy's" Miss January" in 1955. I was two years old. In the era of the "sweater girls," it would be years before I became aware of Bettie Page and what a "pin-up" was. Mangham, Louisiana in the early '50s was about as sexually liberated as Victorian England. Mr. Harper's corner drug store had comic books displayed on spinner racks. All the other magazines were lying in stacks on top of a nearby counter. I didn't see magazines displayed like we have today until I was in high school. Somewhere along the way, the "Santa's Helper" shot from Playboy filled my eyes and I fell for an icon.
Back in the early '60s, I didn't know much about Bettie Page other than her irresistible appeal and charming good looks. For me, an important aspect of her appeal was her confidence and comfort showing off for the camera. Over time, the more I learned, the more we had in common. We both grew up in rural farming communities, she in Tennessee and I in Louisiana. Small towns, small Protestant churches, strictly disciplined childhoods connected us as well. However, it would be almost 30 years before I broke free of the Victorian bonds from my childhood. Bettie fared much better.
Bettie Page was the salutatorian of her class, got a BA in 1943, and soon was in New York City working as a secretary with the desire to become an actress. Camera clubs had sprung up as a way of circumventing pornography laws and as soon as Bettie got in front of those guys with her lack of inhibition, the dominoes began to fall faster and faster. From the time I was born until I started kindergarten, she was in the prime of her modeling career posing for pin-up shots and performing in motion pictures, sometimes nude, but never sexually explicit. Like most farm girls of that era, she had learned to sew and was responsible for much of her own wardrobe, particularly the leopard skin outfit seen in the famous "Jungle Bettie" shoot. By the time I was in first grade, the most famous pin-up model, the uninhibited, fun-loving Bettie Page, had returned to Christianity and was posing professionally no more.
When we lived in Gulf Port, Mississippi in the early 2000s one of our favorite shops was Hot Topic in the Biloxi Mall. The manager there, Jason, directed a movie in which Bob and I had speaking roles. It was in his store that I purchased my Bettie Page T-shirt. Over the years, Bettie had acquired some stiff competition. Gil Elvgren, Alberto Vargas, and other prolific artists had produced some amazing and tempting work at the height of the pin-up era of the '40s. Coca-Cola, Pangburn Chocolates, and even Ovaltine were using their work, as were calendars like Brown & Bigelow.
Fifty years after their debuts, these iconic pin-up queens were enjoying a new spike in popularity and Bettie was right there in the mix, in fact leading the pack. Although work by Elvgren and Vargas, et al, is popular (and many times they used live models) the real-life Bettie Page has achieved the enviable marketing goal of "top-of-mind-awareness." After all, how many other pin-up models have had movies made about them? Recently, pin-up artist Olivia published work with Bettie Page as her subject and these are authentic likenesses. Fifty-three years after she stepped from in front of the camera, she's still an icon. Generations of teenage boys yet to come will likely hold her photos up with one hand just as many of the baby boomers did in the '60s and '70s.
For years, prior to her death in December 2008, she avoided the limelight (working for Billy Graham) and would not allow photos. There were reports that she had consented to a shot for Playboy (with Anna Nicole Smith, of all people) at a party, but I chose not to view. It's just as well (she was 85). My crush on her has always been a fantasy anyway, so why alter a good thing with reality?