Bettie Page died last night at eighty-five. Former Nerve editor Lorelei Sharkey (of Em & Lo fame) interviewed the publicity-shy icon in 1998. In remembrance, we’ve reprinted that interview here. — Ed.
Bettie Page is a difficult woman to reach. Since voluntarily ending her seven-year pin-up career in 1957, this legendary model, who personified both ’50s ideals and taboos, has not made a single public appearance. Writers, historians, cult-followers and old associates searched in vain for her for years, but it was not until 1995 that Page "came out of hiding" and granted her official biographers a face-to-face interview on the condition that they come alone and camera-less. Because only a precious few are privy to her phone number, we spoke via a conference call.
Bettie Page’s humility has always gotten the best of her. Figuring that at age thirty-four her modeling days were over, she graciously stepped down, dropped out, found God and enrolled in Bible school. Unaware of her overwhelming — and ever-growing — impact on collective American sexuality over the years, she lived simply and quietly, as always. Although some of Page’s more obsessed fans have recently brought the extent of her popularity to her attention (hence all the mystery about her whereabouts), she doesn’t pretend to understand it, nor has she exploited it.
Over our once-removed phone connection, she spoke with a low and lilting, almost hypnotic Southern drawl that was periodically punctuated with rolling high notes denoting disbelief or enthusiasm. I was immediately charmed. We didn’t talk much about the poverty, incest, sexual assaults, infertility and divorces she experienced over the years; though a small current of sadness occasionally surfaced, Page’s vitality and good humor clearly had the upper hand.
For the most part she responded to each question with relaxed ease, innocent simplicity, and an unconscious disregard for the nuances of sexual politics. Her answers suggested that the images of her frolicking along the beach wearing a wide, inviting grin and not much else — rather than clad in black, wielding whip and rope — capture the true spirit of Bettie Page, an accidental American icon. — Lorelei Sharkey
Do you have any explanation for why the ’80s and ’90s have seen such a resurgence in your fandom and appeal?
I’m still baffled by it all, to say the least. I have never heard of any pin-up model, fashion model, actress or what-have-you who, after forty years or so, has gotten more popular, more publicity and more money than when they were doing the modeling.
I really can’t explain it at all. I have many fans — even among teenagers, even among young girls — who claim I’m their inspiration and I’ve changed their lives and everything. It’s very flattering and uplifting and I enjoy it.
Are you flattered by any and all of the work that’s been done or created in your honor, or do you find any of it odd or misplaced?
The only thing I find upsetting [is that] over the years, especially in the last ten years, they keep referring to me in the magazines and newspapers and everywhere else as the Queen of Bondage. The only bondage posing I ever did was for Irving Klaw and his sister Paula. Usually every other Saturday he had a session for four or five hours with four or five models and a couple of extra photographers, and in order to get paid you had to do an hour of bondage.
And that was the only reason I did it. I never had any inkling along that line. I don’t really disapprove of it; I think you can do your own thing as long as you’re not hurting anybody else — that’s been my philosophy ever since I was a little girl. I never looked down my nose at it. In fact, we used to laugh at some of the requests that came through the mail, even from judges and lawyers and doctors and people in high positions. Even back in the ’50s they went in for the whips and the ties and everything else.
So bondage and fetishism was never your shtick, so to speak?
No, I never had any inkling toward it. The only other reason I agreed to do it was because the men were never allowed to tie any of the girls up. Only Paula was allowed to tie us up, and she was very gentle and took her time. I just had one bad experience where I was tied spread-eagled between two big [beams] with my arms up and out and my legs spread and my feet were about six inches off the ground and before they got through taking what seemed like umpteen pictures, I thought it was gonna pull the sockets right out of my shoulders. And I started hollering, "Hurry up, I’m hurting." That’s the only bad experience I had during the bondage. And guess what? Later, Irving Klaw told me that those pictures of me spread-eagled off the ground sold more than any pictures he ever sold in all of his years of selling pin-ups and even movie-star pictures, those things of me in agony [laughs].
Nobody ever gave me any instructions. I did my own posing. Everything I’ve done — the wild ones, the crazy ones, the ridiculous ones — they were all my own concoction, my own making. One of the things I tried to do as a model was to try to think of something different every time I posed, especially for the same photographer, so that my pictures wouldn’t all look alike.
The sexual scenarios that you played out for the camera, did they ever reflect your own personal sexuality?
Now, I often times would imagine that the camera, not the cameraman, was my boyfriend. And that I was playing up to him [laughs]. Especially in some of the smiling shots. I sometimes tried to look sexy but couldn’t pull it off. Marilyn Monroe could pull it off; I couldn’t. I thought I looked ridiculous in those shots where I was trying to be sexy.
I’m thinking of one particular picture where you’ve apparently tied and gagged a young woman with a particularly scared expression on her face in the back of a car. Have you ever felt that pictures like that could be detrimental to the way women are perceived and treated or is that purely fantasy, completely separate from reality?
The wildest request that ever came to anybody through Irving: this one fella sent Irving a black leather pony outfit, now, with a hood that looked like a horse’s head and he wanted me to get down on all fours on the floor and Paula put this thing on me and I was covered head to foot, eyes and all.
How do you think the role of pin up girl today is different from what it was in the ’50s?
Speaking of which, in 1955 when Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver formed a Senate subcommittee —
I’m curious what your definition of pornography is. You mentioned pictures today crossing a certain line — what is that line for you?
I think what’s in Hustler magazine and even some in Playboy now is on the dirty side. And it shouldn’t be allowed to go through the mail and be on the newsstands where kids and young people can be looking at that stuff.
The only bad thing that happened to me like that. . . There were a few open photos of me out because of the one time I went to a party. There were five camera clubs there and a bunch of models and you know I had never been drunk in my life because I hate liquor, I don’t even like the taste of it except blackberry brandy, and they got me drunk, having me taste this that and the other. I remember starting to pose for them — but that’s all I remember. And one of those creeps — I had him arrested — sold the pictures under the counter to one of those underhanded little bookstores and they were open poses. He claimed he needed the money or he was going to get beat up by his bookie.
Besides that, I got the sense from your book that most of the photographers you worked with were very pleasant and nice and caring.