Text Josie Pyke Photos Jessica Evans
Nowadays the name “Bettie Page” is infamous. Some may relate her to coinciding pin-ups such as Marilyn Monroe or even present day icons such as Dita Von Teese, others may recall her more x-rated work, however despite all this, what Miss Page did have was something that the standard 50’s pin-up did not. Page was a highly educated, creative and innovative woman. A playful mistress of temptation, a taboo turned Monroe. Quite simply the queen of fetish pin-up.
On April 22nd 1923, Nashville Tennessee had its first glimpse of the jet-black hair and blue eyes that would soon make history. Bettie Mae Page was born the eldest of six children. Sadly the family circle she was born into was far from perfect. Page and her family were extremely poor, causing her and her two sisters to stay in an orphanage. Her father had been labelled a thief and a womaniser resulting in a divorce from her mother. Things worsened as shockingly Page claimed to have suffered molestation from her father at the mere age of thirteen. Although her traumatising childhood was a struggle, Page found refuge in her studies; she was a top student at school and graduated with a scholarship. She also spent a lot of time with her sisters dressing up and practicing hair and make-up to resemble their favourite movie stars. Page also learnt how to sew; little did she know that this talent would be an important part of her future.
Fundamentally, Page wanted to become an actress, she graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944 then moved to New York to pursue it. However, things took a turn when she fortuitously met a police officer with a passion for photography: Page created her first portfolio, which made her think twice about her aspirations…Page entered the field of modelling; her lack of inhibition, daring poses and carefree ways made her a hit within the erotic photography industry. Bettie Page quickly became a recognised name, an underground sensation. In 1951 her fresh and alluring images began appearing in well-known men’s magazines. Page had a beautiful hourglass figure. She stood at 5ft 5” with well proportioned measurements of 36-23-36.5. This wonderfully slim but curvaceous form is often strived for nowadays and usually only acquired through plastic surgery.
Page excelled with bondage and sadomasochistic themes, the images she created were “out of the box” and seen as somewhat controversial. These themes helped create Page’s reputation as the first bondage model. Some of her most eminent work appeared in fetish photographer and filmmaker Irving Klaw’s short black and white movies, showing Page being spanked, tied and dominated. However the content wasn’t as explicit as it sounds. Quoted from Page herself, it was “gentle” during filming and photo shoots and the “ropes were never tied too tight”. Klaw was the only photographer Page would do bondage for, and although the themes may have been shocking and amatory, nudity or explicit content was never involved. That applied for all of Page’s work. Who said bondage had to be vulgar?
‘Page was always proud of all her work “I never thought it was shameful. It was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day which gets monotonous.’
Though not exploited through the majority of her work, casual nudist Page had no objection to being nude in everyday life. “I like to go cavorting in the nude in the forests. It is just another world. You’re free as a bird!” After the peak of bondage and fetish, Page took acting classes, which earned her role in 1953 burlesque film Striporama; it was during this role that Page’s voice, for the only time in her career, was ever captured on film. It featured exotic dance routines and vignettes, accompanied by a touch of humour.
The year of 1954, Bettie Page is New York’s top pin-up model. The celebrated “Jungle Bettie” photo’s are released, showing fearless Page, clad in her own handmade garments, posing with two fully grown cheetahs. It was thanks to the photographer, Bunny Yeager that Page landed a deal with notorious men’s magazine Playboy. Yeager sent several shots to founder Hugh Hefner, who then crowned her 1955’s Playmate of the Month. He chose a photo of Page sitting nude, with the exception of a Christmas hat, decorating a tree, playfully winking at the camera, entirely defining the phrase “naughty but nice”.
Page was always proud of all her work “I never thought it was shameful. It was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day which gets monotonous”. Later in the year, Page won Miss Pin Up Girl of the World and acquired herself the titles The Queen of Curves, The Dark Angel and The Tease from Tennessee. It is quite obvious that 21st Century burlesque queen Dita Von Teese is a present day product of Page, channelling both themes of burlesque and fetish, however not fully grasping that innocent free spirit which Page so famously delivered. In her later years, after a one time encounter with Dita, Page actually branded her “attractive” but a “poor mimic” of herself!
Accounts of her departure from modelling vary. Some rumours say Page was slated for inspiring members of the public to practice various acts of bondage as shown in her photos, causing one young man to lose his life. Others say it was her sudden and somewhat unexpected conversion to Christianity in 1959. Her later years grew more turbulent. Swamped by schizophrenia, divorces and insecurity about her once perfect figure, Page mysteriously disappeared from the public eye. She died aged 85 in Los Angeles, 2008.
From Page’s life, we are left a motif of beauty, enticement and freewill that has inspired and influenced many. Yes she was sexy and erotic, but there was a freshness and innocence about Miss Page that seems to not exist in the 21st century, something that perhaps has become unattainable. She made sex appeal pure and approachable, something that we rarely see now. Her career will continue to inspire fashion, photography, modelling and art industries globally and will remain a symbol of 1950’s innovation and beauty.
Photos Jessica Evans
Styling Vivian Kramer Gezegd Freher
Models Dena Massque & Rachael V
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