With this ongoing series celebrating the historical, cultural, and artistic importance of Bettie Page, I’m trying to honor the legacy of a real, honest-to-goodness icon. There aren’t many of those, truly, in our popular culture. What I’m really doing with these posts is celebrating Bettie’s legacy as an artist and not so much delving into her personal life. That’s been covered elsewhere, and there are a number of books and articles that detail her early days in Nashville, her years working as a model in New York City, her post-modeling struggles, and her ultimately triumphant later years. For a long time after she quit modeling in the late 1950s Bettie lived in relative obscurity, but then in the late 1970s and through the 1980s a generation of fans—led by artists like Olivia De Berardinis and Dave Stevens—brought her to prominence and elevated her to her rightful place as a major American cultural icon.
I’m very interested in exploring some of that resurgence period, when artists began creating gallery shows focused around their Bettie art, or when Stevens based the curvy character of Betty in his Rocketeer comic book on the Queen of Curves herself. These days, with her image adorning so many products and art pieces, Bettie might seem larger than life (thus my use of the funny cover image here, which I’m borrowing from the official Bettie Page site/clothing company/empire). Detailing her post-modeling struggles might be a way to humanize such a massive star, but as an artist myself I’d rather keep the focus on her art. Bettie was ultimately so enormously successful because of how she injected such humanity into her pinup modeling. That humanity is what inspired other artists, collectors, and fans, whose devotion and championing made Bettie one of the most recognizable celebrities of all time.
Bettie seemed like a remarkable woman. She was a college graduate a time when something like 4% of women earned college degrees. Her positive attitudes towards modeling, sex, and nudity were very progressive for the time. She was by all accounts during those years incredibly good-natured and always hard-working. That she also dealt with mental illness over her lifetime only enhances her specialness. She was clearly a determined fighter. I’m thrilled she overcame some difficult times and lived long enough to see all of the love from her fans.
Ultimately I’m trying to show that while Bettie may seem larger than life these days, it was really her down to earth humanity that truly illuminated her work. That’s why we love her. Many women posed for camera clubs or fetish magazines in the fifties, but Bettie simply had that It factor that made her the most popular among photographers and fans at the time. Decades later, it also made her one of the most influential cultural icons of all time.