Bettie Mae Page (April 22, 1923 Nashville, Tennessee – December 11, 2008) was an American model who became famous in the 1950s for her fetish modeling and pin-up photos. She has often been called the "Queen of Pinups". Her look, including her jet black hair, blue eyes and trademark bangs, has influenced many artists.
She was "Miss January 1955", one of the earliest Playmates of the Month for Playboy magazine. "I think that she was a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced sexuality, taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our society," Playboy founder Hugh Hefner told the Associated Press.
In 1959, she converted to born-again Christianity, and later worked for Billy Graham. Her later life was marked by depression, violent mood swings and several years in a state psychiatric hospital. After years of obscurity, she experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s.
A good student and debate team member at Hume-Fogg High School, she was voted "Most Likely to Succeed". On June 6, 1940, Page graduated as the salutatorian of her high school class with a scholarship. She enrolled at George Peabody College, with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, the next fall she began studying acting, hoping to become a movie star. At the same time, she got her first job, typing for author Alfred Leland Crabb. Page graduated from Peabody with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944.
In 1943, she married high school classmate Billy Neal in a simple courthouse ceremony shortly before he was drafted into the Navy for World War II. For the next few years, she moved from San Francisco to Nashville to Miami and to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she felt a special affinity with the country and its culture. In November 1947, back in the United States, she filed for divorce.
Following her divorce, Page worked briefly in San Francisco, and in Haiti. In 1949, she moved to New York City, where she hoped to find work as an actress. In the meantime, she supported herself by working as a secretary. In 1950, while walking along the Coney Island shore, she met Jerry Tibbs, a police officer with an interest in photography. She was a willing model, and Tibbs took pictures of her and put together her first pinup portfolio.
In late-1940s America, "camera clubs" were formed to circumvent laws restricting the production of nude photos. These clubs existed, ostensibly, to promote artistic photography; but in reality, many were merely fronts for the making of pornography. Page entered the field of "glamour photography" as a popular camera club model, working initially with photographer Cass Carr. Her lack of inhibition in posing made her a hit. Her name and image became quickly known in the erotic photography industry; in 1951, her image appeared in men's magazines such as Wink, Titter, Eyefull and Beauty Parade.
From 1952 through 1957, she posed for photographer Irving Klaw for mail-order photographs with pin-up, bondage or sadomasochistic themes, making her the first famous bondage model. Klaw also used Page in dozens of short, black-and-white 8mm and 16mm "specialty" films, which catered to specific requests from his clientele. These silent featurettes showed women clad in lingerie and high heels, acting out fetishistic scenarios of abduction, domination, and slave-training; bondage, spanking, and elaborate leather costumes and restraints were included periodically. Page alternated between playing a stern dominatrix, and a helpless victim bound hand and foot. Klaw also produced a line of still photos taken during these sessions. Some have become iconic images, such as his highest-selling photo of Page—shown gagged and bound in a web of ropes, from the film Leopard Bikini Bound. Although these "underground" features had the same crude style and clandestine distribution as the pornographic "stag" films of the time, Klaw's all-female films (and still photos) never featured any nudity or explicit sexual content.
In 1953, Page took acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, which led to several roles on stage and television. She appeared on The United States Steel Hour and The Jackie Gleason Show. Her Off-Broadway productions included Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. Page acted and danced in the feature-length burlesque revue film Striporama by Jerald Intrator. She was given a brief speaking role, the only time her voice has been captured on film. She then appeared in two more burlesque films by Irving Klaw (Teaserama and Varietease). These featured exotic dance routines and vignettes by Page and well-known striptease artists Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm. All three films were mildly risque, but none showed any nudity or overtly sexual content.
In 1954, during one of her annual vacations to Miami, Florida, Page met photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau and Bunny Yeager. At that time, Page was the top pin-up model in New York. Yeager, a former model and aspiring photographer, signed Page for a photo session at the now-closed wildlife park Africa USA in Boca Raton, Florida. The Jungle Bettie photographs from this shoot are among her most celebrated. They include nude shots with a pair of cheetahs named Mojah and Mbili. The leopard skin patterned Jungle Girl outfit she wore was made, along with much of her lingerie, by Page herself. A large collection of the Yeager photos, and Klaw's, were published in the book Bettie Page Confidential (St. Martin's Press, 1994).
After Yeager sent shots of Page to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, he selected one to use as the Playmate of the Month centerfold in the January 1955 issue of the two-year-old magazine. The famous photo shows Page, wearing only a Santa hat, kneeling before a Christmas tree holding an ornament and playfully winking at the camera.
In 1955, Page won the title "Miss Pinup Girl of the World". She also became known as "The Queen of Curves" and "The Dark Angel". While pin-up and glamour models frequently have careers measured in months, Page was in demand for several years, continuing to model until 1957. Although she frequently posed nude, she never appeared in scenes with explicit sexual content.
In 1957, Page gave "expert guidance" to the FBI regarding the production of "flagellation and bondage pictures" in Harlem.
The reasons reported for her departure from modeling vary. Some reports mention the Kefauver Hearings of the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce (after a young man apparently died during a session of bondage which was rumored to be inspired by bondage images featuring Page). In fact, the Senate committee called her to testify to explain the photos in which she appeared, but then excused her from testifying; however, the print negatives of many of her photos were subsequently destroyed by court order, which ended Klaw's bondage and S&M mail-order photography business. For many years after, the negatives that survived were illegal to print. However, the most obvious reason for ending her modeling career and severing all contact with her prior life was her conversion to born-again Christianity while living in Key West, Florida in 1959