Bettie Page, one of America’s most enduring brands, is finally taking her inevitable place alongside Gap Kids and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. In March a boutique bearing her name and stocked with demure polka-dot dresses and opaque ladies’ undergarments—panties, how retro!—opened in the mall at the Planet Hollywood Resort in Las Vegas. In an age when Britney’s pudgy, bald sugar dish attracts more tabloid coverage than most network sitcom stars, it’s ironic, isn’t it, that the 1950s pin-up queen who helped pioneer mainstream exhibitionism may jeopardize the spontaneous celebrity vulva eruptions that now give our lives meaning? Bettie, say it isn’t so!
Or, actually, please say that it is. Fifty years ago, snapshots of Page ball-gagged and hog-tied, her arched eyebrows transmitting hokey cartoon alarm, were deemed such a threat to the American way of life that they prompted a Senate investigation. By today’s standards, even Page’s most extreme photos seem charmingly chaste. But if her power to shock has lost currency, the sensibility she displayed remains as contemporary as that other beautifully upholstered mid-century masterpiece, the Eames lounge chair.
Page’s modeling career lasted only seven years, from 1950 until 1957, but during that time she posed for an estimated 20,000 photographs. She wasn’t the first figure model to shed all her inhibitions, nor even the first to do it with a great big unashamed smile. But at the exact moment when soft-core erotica was evolving from under-the-counter specialty item to news-rack staple, Page was willing to show more than any woman prettier than her, and prettier than any woman who was willing to show more.
It wasn’t just her industry or her openness that distinguished her. Out of those 20,000 photos, how many show even a hint of boredom or fatigue, or anything other than complete commitment to the moment? While Page is often credited for normalizing kink, for showing how even sun-kissed girl-next-door types could have a secret taste for lesbian spanking action, what’s most notable about her oeuvre is how little sexual heat she radiates. Naked, fresh-scrubbed, practically incandescing with exuberance, she looks like she’s posing for a vitamin ad. Rarely can one detect any libidinal ache, or even a mild hunger for something carnal. Clearly, the camera excited her—but not in that way. Its promise of fame was what got her off, and ultimately the potential for celebrity overwhelmed anything more specifically sexual her photos were supposed to communicate.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in her fetish work. Plenty of Page’s contemporaries could drain the sexual tension from scenarios where only sunny beaches were involved, but only she could turn ball gags, stilettos, and all the other totems of sex as a dangerous, primal, overwhelming force into mere props for picture taking. Wielding a whip, sheathed in black nylon—none of it obscured her star-struck giddiness at the sight of a camera. Forever ready, it seemed, to break into a cheerleader’s chant for deviance—“Gimme an S! Gimme an M!”—she reduced kink to kitschy fashion.
Before Page, porn was about sex, not publicity, and the ladies who posed for French postcards never got famous. But with publishers like Hugh Hefner serving unadorned cheesecake to the masses, new opportunities presented themselves. Page never became a mainstream celebrity while she was actively modeling, but she was certainly a ubiquitous visual presence at the height of her career—gracing magazine covers, record album jackets, playing-card decks—and the measure of renown she achieved, without a hit song or a bit role or anything more than a willingness to exhibit herself more provocatively than her contemporaries, provided the template now followed by Paris, Nicole, and the dozens of reality TV stars who are semi-famous for being semi-famous.
Unfortunately, her other great lesson goes largely ignored. In Page’s heyday, details of her life were as scant as her costumes, and when she stopped modeling she disappeared altogether. But as porn rags recycled her old photos, the mystery of Bettie Page grew irresistible. Who was this woman whose image kept showing up decade after decade, unchanged? And what became of her? When journalists tracked her down in the 1990s, Page remained discreet, rarely allowing herself to be photographed. After a career of exposing herself, she’d discovered the power of discretion.
A pair of panties could add 10 years to Lindsay Lohan’s career. If the young star ever realizes this, the Bettie Page boutique is ready to sell them to her.
Greg Beato, a freelancer based in San Francisco, is a frequent contributor to Reason.