Listen to “Betty Page”
Time offers a different perspective on most events. Some mysteries should stay what they are – uncovered. Some need to be approached with care and understanding. Unfortunately, people are not good at handling with care and while pottering into something unknown to us, we tend to totally mar it and smash it along the way. People like to cling onto gossip and juicy details. That will never change. I would really like to approach this topic with great care because Bettie Page was, has been and will be The Icon.
The first thing one learns or most people remember about Betty Page is her titles: “Miss Pin-up Queen of all times” and “Miss Bondage”. And then they look at the images of this incredibly beautiful woman and copy her stance, her movements, her hair style, her make-up, girls today take with readiness all she brought to the world and don’t even know who she was. Madonna, Katie Perry and so many more could not come up with ideas of their own, or what? Instead, they had to go back to the 50s and copy-paste Bettie to the last detail in the hope that the world has forgotten about her. Bettie’s influence is even stronger today than it was at the time her career took off like a jet plane, and she deserves all the respect and none of the hate.
The problem with beautiful women, as usual, is that people rarely tend to see past the looks and the stereotypes immediately kick in – “pretty, hence not so bright”. Bettie was the oldest of six children, born to a poor family with a father alcoholic, who molested her, abused his other children and her mother. The family kept moving all the time, since he could never keep a job. Poverty and hunger were a routine. When Bettie was 10, her mother finally got a divorce. Since she had to work all the time, Bettie was a mum and a dad for her younger siblings. She cooked for them, looked after them with her broad sincere smile and entertained them – she made a stage out of old crate planks at the back of the poverty stricken house and sang and danced for them. She was in love with movies and music and dreamt of becoming a movie star one day.
Then, there came the time when her mum had to choose – expose her children to starvation and death or give them up. Bettie and her sister ended up in the same orphanage. Bettie would tell her: “Imagine it’s just a movie, it will end soon, but play your best part, pretend, pretend.” It was just a movie, because in a few years, her mum was able to take them back and the family was together again. Bettie made a promise to herself: never to be like her mother – dependent on a man for money and support. And she never was. Most girls dropped out of school at the age of 16, but she marched on, achieved the highest grades, graduated with honours and she was among the very few girls to go to college. After Peabody Teachers’ College, she went back to Nashville and started teaching at school, already married to her school sweetheart, Billy Neal. She was just a few years older than her students and stunningly beautiful. Her hour-glass figure immensely attracted the boys and she was constantly harassed. The school staff hated her, the mothers despised her. No one could see her for the person she was. All they saw was a sinful body and that naïve face with everything women thought they didn’t have.
When Billy was transferred to the military base in Los Angelis during the war, she was happy to leave with him. Bettie became a secretary, again harassed by men all the time, despite being married. Still, it gave her the chance to audition for a few movies. At the first audition she was required to dye her hair blond and to put on tons of make-up and, of course, sleep with the producer. She refused to do all three and never got the part. In fact, that became a routine. Page never went to bed with anyone to get a part, she never changed anything about her looks, she never compromised and everything she did was on her terms only. At that time, Billy was free to go back home and he insisted they left Los Angelis, but she dreaded the thought of going back to being verbally abused and mistreated as a teacher and she still believed in her dream of becoming a movie star. That led to the first of four divorces.
In fact, her first photos were taken quite accidently by a policeman who happened to be a photographer in his free time. Jerry Jibbs offered her to make a few photos in his house and she went. Luckily, he was a nice man and before taking the photos, he mildly made a suggestion about her hair style. It was that policeman we should be thanking for her famous bangs which she never changed later and which millions of women have proudly imitated.
From here on, it was all uphill for her. Her photos spread so quickly and were admired by men and women. She was the new Pin-up girl and soon she topped them all. The post-war times screamed for beauty and Bettie gave hers to the people with her absolute genius at modelling and striking a pose. The camera loved her and she was so genuine. Her fame was inevitable and soon she was invited to join “The Camera Club”. Bettie began earning loads of money and the hungry years were behind, although she had to lie about her age. Now, almost 30, she didn’t look more than 20. Not that anyone asked. When she started shooting nudes, she felt no regrets and she didn’t do it for the money. “Being in the nude isn’t a disgrace unless you’re being promiscuous about it. After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked.”
There was nothing wrong about any of the stuff she did. Yet, she was arrested during a photoshoot in the nature with all the staff and а few other girls. She protested and did her time, but strangely enough, the same people, who were ordering private tapes, were the ones pointing a finger at her.
In 1955 she was sought out by Hugh Hefner to cover the January Playboy issue, wearing just a Christmas hat and a huge smile. Hugh was known for sleeping with 11 out of 12 girls on the cover of his magazines, and Betty was the odd one out, the one he had so much respect for, that he didn’t even try to take to bed. I wonder how those teachers back in Nashville felt, seeing her on the glossy sheets of the magazine. “I told you so!” might have been murmured. After all, as she says: “I was never the girl next door.”
That was the time when orders for private one-reel shoots were coming from rich businessmen and when some of her BDSM and bondage pictures started leaking out. The girls were not naked, there were no men in the scenes, and yet, it was declared as straight pornography. These photo-sessions were the reason she was crowned with yet another title – “Miss Bondage” and later books were written about that. However, for Bettie “sex is just a part of love and one should not do it if there is no love.” Despite her beliefs, she was an outstanding professional – she trained every day, looked after her figure, but was not obsessed with diets. She proved that a woman’s curves are her advantage and women loved her more. She was never into blindly following fashion, she wore what she felt comfortable in. Bettie designed her own underwear, and later, during the time she dropped off the face of the Earth, companies made the exact same undergarments and earned billions, never paying her a cent.
After 1958 it was all downhill. A young boy was rumored to have died during a bondage session inspired by her photos. She had nothing to do with the case, but the long-awaited scandal was seized by the media and her haters. Her name was all over the papers, screaming abuse and accusing her of low morals and “sluttiness”. And then… she vanished.
What happened in the next almost 45 years was and still is considered a mystery, but it’s not really, and what is not known should remain an enigma. She tried teaching again, but her alleged “sins” caught up with her, and she turned to the Church, where she was convinced she was not worthy of God and brainwashed beyond recognition, taught self-loathing and was persuaded she was no good for the Church since she was a divorcee and had sinned so many times, exposing her body.
Her breakdown was inevitable. She believed in God and her unworthiness, but she found it difficult to face the contradiction between what she had believed in and what she was taught.
Unlocking severe schizophrenia, she attacked her landlady with a knife, thankfully causing no harm to anyone, and unfortunately bringing on herself a 10-year isolation in a mental asylum where her brain had to be reprogrammed again after having been brainwashed by cult beliefs.
The world forgot her name, but exploited her images, sold her trademark clothing, women went for her hairstyle and her bright red lips while she was in a world where she didn’t know who she was. Penniless and totally alone, at the end of the 80s she was discovered again, living in a common home with dozens of other jobless and penniless people. Her mental state was stable.
In the 80s a cult was formed around her name. What used to be shameful, was now acceptable. Olivia De Berardinis stated: “These are Bettie Page signatures…. Although the fantasy world of fetish/bondage existed in some form since the beginning time, Bettie is the iconic figurehead of it all. No star of this genre existed before her. Monroe had predecessors, Bettie did not.”
Her followers and admirers helped Bettie pursue her royalties and her life became stable and relatively content till her death in 2008 at the age of 85, when she was taken to hospital with pneumonia, but died of a heart attack and… strangely enough, her closest people and family discontinued her life support on the fifth day – yet another mystery.
Whatever the case is, she helped young women stand for what they believe in and come out of their shells and express their sexual desires.
Although judgement had forcing her feel shameful of what she worked and how she looked had driven her to insanity, although her life after her early retirement is something the world will gossip about with sickening excitement, Bettie Page was, has been and still is that girl all women want to be and all men want to be with. And then, they would condemn her for all the sex, the love, the fetish, the desire, the glamour and the smile of a child who used to sing and dance in the shabby house and who dreamt so big.
Read more in Diamonds Production Magazine MARCH 2021