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].
Your biography says that you weren’t aroused or particularly empowered when you were being photographed and it sounds like the bondage was never really your idea. Were you always playing a role, being guided by the instructions of the photographer, or were you sometimes being yourself, expressing your own desires?
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?
I don’t think it’s degrading to women. . . or disrespectful to women. Those pictures weren’t hurting anybody. It’s just something that someone likes to have, pictures of somebody tied up in the trunk of a car [laughs].
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.
And I thought, "What in the world! He wouldn’t even know it was me under there!" [laughs]
How do you think the role of pin up girl today is different from what it was in the ’50s?
I think so much of it has gotten out of hand. . . Years ago it was considered risqué if we even spread our legs with hose on or lingerie or a bikini. But nowadays anything goes. And that I don’t like. I think there should be a line drawn there somewhere.
Speaking of which, in 1955 when Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver formed a Senate subcommittee —
Kefauver, he was trying to become president you know, and he was on this crime-busting crusade, especially on pornography. And he ruined poor Irving Klaw, I’m telling you, he caused the man eventually to die. Irving quit his business, went to Florida, retired and was never heard from again by anybody who ever knew him before all, ’cause they had him on the stand, accusing him of being the instigator and the biggest dealer of pornography. Irving Klaw never even sold a nude picture in his life. Even when we were posing in lingerie he was so careful not to do anything against the rules of the post office — cause the photos went through the mail, you know — that we sometimes had to wear two pairs of panties and we always had to have the nipples covered. Not even a shadow of darkness down, you know, where it wasn’t allowed, that’s how careful he was. I’m telling you they were dirty dogs, those members of the Kefauver committee. They were gonna make me testify against Irving and say that he was a seller of pornography. And they came to see me and I told them, "No, no way Irving ever did anything like that."
I’m curious what your definition of pornography is. You mentioned pictures today crossing a certain line — what is that line for you?
Well, I just don’t think you should have sex poses and you certainly shouldn’t have anybody else in the pictures, certainly not a male with a female.
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.
They were. I didn’t mind doing any of it, even cracking a whip or spanking somebody for Irving [laughs]. Even the fetish stuff, wearing those six-inch French heels. For some reason, one of the most popular pictures of me that sold the second most copies after the bondage shot of me off the ground was a picture of me with my foot up on a footstool and a cigarette dangling out of my mouth. And that’s more popular with the young people than any other photo I ever took. And I never did smoke in my life.
You were pretty generous with the photographers as well as with your fans. So today, knowing what kind of financial rewards you might have reaped had you perhaps had a manager or been a little more shrewd business-wise, would you do things differently?
Well, when I went to New York and started modeling in 1951, I was not very ambitious. I was still brooding and unhappy over my failed marriage with my first boyfriend Billy, whom I should never have married in the first place. And I was unhappy because I had never wanted to have a divorce in my life, because so many divorces were in my family and there weren’t any in his family back then.
So when I went to New York I didn’t even have any ambition to get into the theater or anything; I was just drifting. And when I found out I could make more money posing for the camera clubs, I quit working a forty-hour week sitting at a desk. I just got into the modeling because it gave me a lot of free time.
But I would have done so much more than I did and made so much more money with the modeling if I hadn’t kept my telephone covered up all the time; I hated to hear the loud ringing telephone and I just had this small apartment on Forty-sixth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue and I didn’t want to hear it. So half of the time I had it covered up with pillows and blankets [laughs]. That’s how much ambition I had. I was just drifting during those years.
Did the Christian values you later nurtured at Bible school conflict with your previous work as a model to the point where you had to recognize that work as a sin?
I threw out all my pin-up costumes and stockings and everything having to do with modeling. I thought God disapproved of all that once I had turned my life over to the Lord — I never felt that way before. And I was getting all of this out of my life. I wish I had still kept some of my bikinis; I just would have liked to have them as souvenirs. I used to make all of my own bikinis. But I felt God would look down on me and so would other Christians if I was doing God’s work and continued to do any modeling or even talk about it, so nobody ever knew that I had ever been a pin-up and figure model when I was going to the Bible school.
While you were in Bible school did you ever regret having modeled?
I never regretted it because I never felt that God disapproves of nudity. I think God disapproves of promiscuity.
Now look at the paintings down through the centuries, a lot of the most famous paintings are women in the nude, reclining poses and things like that — they were a little on the hefty side compared to the ideal model nowadays, but they were nude. And some of the best known statues and sculptures are nude, even of men. And in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were there without a stitch of clothing on and if they hadn’t disobeyed God and listened to Satan they probably would have spent their lives with no clothes on.
We would all be naked today.
I know. And you feel so good when you don’t have anything on. Have you ever been swimming in the nude?
Uh huh . . . it’s pretty liberating.
Yeah. I’m telling you, you feel so unencumbered, so free. Even to go cavorting in the woods with nothing on, or along the beach — if nobody’s around — you just feel wonderful.
Today, all the models and women in magazines all have a similar body type. How do you feel about that?
Most of the models today are emaciated. I’m telling you, those girls must have to starve themselves. They can’t even enjoy their food. One of the pleasures, especially of old age, is eating. I’ve gained some weight that I’m trying to get off now, but if I had to give up my ice cream, my fried chicken and my spare ribs — my three favorite foods — I would be miserable.
And you ate that food back in the ’50s?
Back then I ate anything I wanted. Of course I was a member of the Park Sheraton Hotel Health Club and I went in their big heated pool a lot and worked out in the gym and I did a lot of dancing and walking too . . . But I think it’s a crime for them to make those girls stay so thin. I think they do it because they want people to look at the clothes and not the model. Who’s going to pay attention to a skinny-boned rail walking up and down the runway?
Do you think they’ve lost their feminine, sexual edge?
I think so. And so many young girls are trying to mimic them you know. And they’re having all kinds of problems with anorexia nervosa and bulimia where they eat and binge and up it all up. It’s bad for young girls.
Finally, how would like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as I was when I was young — that’s why I don’t have visual interviews, only by telephone.
I don’t think the fans want to see an old fat ex-pin-up model — I’m not that fat, but I’m much bigger than I used to be when I was young. When I see my good old favorite movie stars when they’re old on TV or news reels, I feel very sad and unhappy, just like when I see myself in the mirror compared to what I used to looked like.
Well, I’m sure you’re still beautiful, just a little different.
I was never very beautiful. They claim I was, but without my make-up I was just ordinary looking, cause I’ve always had sallow, sensitive skin. And without my pancake make-up and my eyebrow pencil. . . I always had thin eyebrows for some reason. I think it’s because when I was about thirteen years old I was trying to look like my mother, shaving off my eyebrows and penciling them in. And they never grew out. From then on, if I didn’t have pencil on my eyebrows, I looked like a nut up there above the eyes.
I think several million people would beg to differ with you on that.
Well, they never saw me without make-up [laughs]. Even today as old as I am, if I go out in public, I want my lipstick and my eyebrow pencil.
Well, is there anything else you’d like to talk about or say?
No, you’re a good interviewer, you didn’t make me nervous like some of them do. May God bless you with a long happy married life. . . Are you married?
Oh no, no.
Oh you’re not? Are you looking forward to it?
You know, I’m not quite sure.
Well, don’t be a fool and marry the first guy that asks you [laughs]. If I have any regrets in my life, it’s where men are concerned. I got talked into marriage, two times (the third time was my own doing), because I always wanted two boys and a girl. I couldn’t have children; every time I tried the doctor said I had a hormone imbalance, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I married a man with two boys and a girl, and we would have made it too if it hadn’t been for his ex-wife, the children’s mother, who was so jealous of me with the children and caused all kinds of trouble and disrupted the marriage. That one was my choice, but the other two I got talked into — no will power.
No, I’m keeping my wits about me, no one’s going to take me by surprise.
I hope not, now. Stand up and stick to your guns.