“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!” — Bettie Page

“I was not trying to be shocking, or to be a pioneer. I wasn’t trying to change society, or to be ahead of my time. I didn’t think of myself as liberated, and I don’t believe that I did anything important. I was just myself. I didn’t know any other way to be, or any other way to live.” — Bettie Page

It’s her birthday today.

There are probably as many photographs of Bettie Page as there are of Marilyn Monroe. In the pin-up world, there is no one who even comes close. What was it about Bettie Page that elevated her above others? Why the myths, why the decades-long (and counting) adoration and fascination? This gets into one of my primary obsessions, and that is: charisma, star power, the blend of exhibitionism and withholding that all the great stars had (and have, although it’s rarer today, in our more literal and explicit era). When you blend “come and get me” with “you’ll never have me totally” – and both of these are organic and true to the person exuding them – that’s star power.

Bettie Page’s comfort with nudity (she often said she considered joining a nudist colony) is part of her appeal, because there is no shame in it. We don’t feel like she was being exploited. We don’t worry about her, and so we can just relax and enjoy her. There’s a famous story about Page getting arrested, along with a little camera crew, during an outdoor photo shoot. The charge was “indecent exposure.” Page protested. Not the fact of her arrest – she knew that was a risk she always took – but the word “indecent.” There was nothing “indecent” about nudity. One of her most famous quotes was the one in this post’s title. It was the DEVIL who made nudity sinful, not God. So why in God’s name (literally) was humanity taking the Devil’s side? THINK about it.

This question still needs asking.

Page said, “I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times. I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.”

She experienced many traumatic events in her life, including rape. There were the photographers who loved and valued her (who stood in line to photograph her: she was the perfect subject), and those who were assholes. Page came up rough. She knew there were good appreciative men and bad mean men. She did her best to avoid the latter. The bondage shoots she did were not her thing, but they paid well, which meant she had a little bit more freedom to do the kinds of photos she liked doing.

Page got out of modeling when she was in her 30s, and then proceeded to have a harrowing time of it for many decades, including 10 years in a mental institution. Her life as a model was a Paradise on Earth compared to what came after. She then had a conversion experience and became very religious. Her newfound spiritual devotion did not lead her to renounce her past (as often happens). She accepted her past, and felt gratified that she still had so many fans across so many generations. But she chose almost-total seclusion in her later years. She didn’t want her fans’ fantasies of her to be ruined. She understood the power of fantasy, and how fantasy can actually be life-giving, life-affirming, a positive thing.

Her collaboration with pin-up photographer and pin-up model Bunny Yeager resulted in some of the most famous photographs of Page: the ones with the cheetah, the ostrich, the ones of Page splashing in the ocean, her gorgeous shapely legs kicking up into the air.

You can almost hear her laughing. I wrote about Bunny Yeager here. Here they are, Bettie Page totally chill, bookended by cheetahs. She’s like Snow White.

More of Yeager’s photos of Page:

It was through Bunny Yeager that Bettie Page got the 1955 Playboy centerfold. A major moment, but it was the moment right before Page stepped away.

Back to my initial point:

The secret of her enduring appeal is that – despite her obvious charms and beauty and vividness of expression – there is still a secret about it. Charisma is never easily explained. It’s like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 definition of pornography (speaking of which): You know it when you see it. Charisma is natural. It exists. Cats have charisma, for example. Cats have perfected the “come hither + yet also stay away” alchemy. But charisma can also be cultivated. Cultivated charisma can only exist in someone who, to some degree, knows who they are, knows what they have to give, and knows how to give it. There are those who would wish Bettie Page could have found other ways to give it, and unfortunately some of these people call themselves progressive. Look out when progressives join hands with conservatives to condemn something as immoral/amoral. This attitude casts women as victims who need to be “saved”. Bettie Page did not need to be saved because she saved herself. She did what she did because she wanted to do it and then she stopped doing it when she no longer wanted to do it. The word “agency” is so overused I no longer use it myself. But here it applies. Page had it. You can SEE it in the photos.

I had some serious issues with the documentary Bettie Page Reveals All, but it’s worth it to see just for Page’s revealing voiceover.

To hear Page’s voice – after only becoming acquainted with her through photographs – is a revelation. It’s a cynical voice, a humorous tell-it-like-it-is voice, an unsentimental voice, a voice that knows the world, recognizes its sins, a voice that still – even after everything – refuses to feel ashamed.

“I was just myself,” she said.

That’s really the secret, isn’t it. So few people manage it.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “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!” — Bettie Page

  1. It can’t have been an easy life, but she seems joyfully buoyant in her photographs, and that, to me is what makes her so interesting. She appears to be enjoying herself, and enjoying her sexuality. She does not look like she is being manipulated, or that she is manipulating anyone else. She’s just having a blast, and invites the viewer to do so along with her

    • sheila says:

      Bill – yes, I agree. Her joy and her fun is what translates – and I think is what gives her the staying power as an “image”. When she winks, it seems genuine to me. Playful. Not serious.

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    What did you think of The Notorious Bettie Page? I thought Gretchen Mol was terrific, as was the supporting work from Lily Taylor. The fictional boyfriend was a drag – pretty much every fictional boyfriend in every bio-pic is a drag – and I thought the director/screenwriter really wanted to make Page’s story a tragedy, or a cautionary tale, which misses the point of her story, as you make clear here. It was still worth seeing for Mol’s performance, though.

    • sheila says:

      Yes! I thought Mol did a very good job at capturing Page’s innocence as well as her sense of humor – those bondage scenes were really funny. Page was like “you want me to do what? this is so hilarious” – which took the edge off of those scenes, which COULD have been played as totally exploitive.

      I haven’t watched it in a long time – I do remember thinking about it the way you describe here – it’s irresistible to see her as a victim – but all you need to do is listen to the voiceover of the doc I mention – It’s a tough chick voice. A practical survivor of truly horrifying things. To boil her down into “victim” just misses the point, like you say.

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