Bettie Page certainly defined the concept of a pinup in a way that had never been done before. To this day, she still has a cult following and there are Bettie look alikes still present in Hollywood (Dita von Teese has built her career off of the image of Bettie). It’s truly no surprise that she is the “Queen of Pinups.” She is one of the most iconic Playboy models and furthermore, Bettie paved a path forward for women’s empowerment in a way that was ahead of her time.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1923 as the second of six children and faced a life of great challenge at a young age, where her father was convicted of car theft, serving time in person and left Bettie to care for many of her siblings at a young age. Eventually, she was put into an orphanage with two of her sisters siblings for a year because her mother could no longer take care of all of the children while working two jobs. During her time in the orphanage, she dreamt with her sisters that they were Hollywood starlets.
During her teenage years, Bettie learned how to do makeup and to sew, which became an essential part of her pinup career, as she designed and created her pinup costumes much of the time. Bettie graduated high school top of her class and went on to college in hopes of becoming a teacher in Nashville. Her adventurous spirit led her otherwise… her path did not work out as a teacher and she moved to San Francisco to become a secretary and modeled on the side. She met a man who had a talent agency and he encouraged her to go to Hollywood.
She went for a screen test at 20th Century Fox which didn’t go as well as she would have hoped and she returned to San Francisco disappointed. She eventually returned to the south with her husband, Billy, who had returned from the war as a changed man. Their marriage crumbled and Bettie eventually moved to Miami to follow her dreams. She took a trip to Haiti for a few months which re-inspired her to pursue her career with a newfound zeal. She moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Bettie worked as secretary in New York for a couple of years and then in the Fall of 1950 she met a NYPD officer who offered to take her photos. That was officially the beginning of her pinup career, her photos started showing up on the covers of Harlem magazines. By 1955, she was a Playboy Playmate. Bettie was 32 years old when her career really took off.
Her career did falter though and not by her own doing. During a time of extreme sexual conservatism, she was called upon to testify in the Kefauver hearings for the US Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce where she was effectively intimidated and was urged to say one of the photographers she had posed for, Irving Klaw, was violating the law. This was untrue as there was no nudity in the photos that she had posed for and Bettie stood by that. The public pressure made Bettie buckle and she moved from New York City to Florida again. She stopped modeling and ignited an old flame in Florida and married Armond Walterson in 1958.
Bettie was almost 35 years old when she left modeling and left the public eye, wanting to focus on starting a family and settling down. Their marriage was sadly troubled as he was not as adventurous as she was and there was a large age gap, as he was much younger than her. They divorced in in 1963. During this marriage, Bettie converted to Christianity in 1959.
Bettie went on to spend many years attending Bible colleges and worked full time for the famous Rev. Billy Graham, leaving her fame as a pinup behind. She married Harry Lear in 1967 and their marriage also ended in divorce in 1972. There were significant custody problems with his ex-wife which sadly sabotaged their marriage in a circumstantial way.
By 1978, Bettie moved back to California to live with her brother Jimmy and around this time she was unfortunately diagnosed with mental illness and was held under state supervision for eight years. She would be released from that supervision in 1992 at the age of 69. Bettie only learned of her own icon status by 1992; she had been unaware of the fact that she had a large cult following until then. Bettie died at age of 85 of a heart attack. Bettie lives on by representing images of feminine allure and defying sexual oppression.