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The Bettie Page Revival: 1

Alex Henderson
April marked two major events in the life of 1950s erotica queen Bettie Page. On April 22, the 1950s pinup model/burlesque star celebrated her 83rd birthday, and April 14 was the U.S. release of "The Notorious Bettie Page," a 91-minute mainstream film starring actress Gretchen Mol as Page and directed and co-written by Canadian director Mary Harron of "I Shot Andy Warhol" fame.

"The Notorious Bettie Page" comes at a time when Page's popularity and influence are at an all-time high. Page retired from modeling 49 years ago, but the demand for her 1950s photos and short films has never been greater. From the many documentaries, books, websites and songs that Page has inspired to a long list of fetish models and professional dominatrixes who have capitalized on her distinctive look (long, jet-black hair with short bangs), Bettie Page has been a cottage industry during the past 20 years.

Page's image is being marketed aggressively by her agents at CMG Worldwide, the intellectual property powerhouse that has represented the images and estates of Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and many other celebrities of the past — and presumably, Page is receiving a great deal in royalties from all the T-shirts, posters, beach towels, coffee mugs and other items depicting her.

One easily could spend a few hundred dollars purchasing all the Page-related DVDs that are sold online at Amazon.com and elsewhere, and the Page-inspired paintings of erotic artist Olivia DeBerardinis have been hot sellers.

New Converts
But in the 1970s and 1980s, Page's image was more of an underground phenomenon, and it wasn't until the mid-1990s that a new generation of converts rescued her from obscurity. Although Page is a member of the WWII generation, she has become a Generation X and Generation Y icon. One of the young Page admirers who have embraced her look is London resident Kittie Klaw, a well-known fetish model/neo-burlesque performer whose stage name was inspired by photographers Irving and Paula Klaw, two siblings who documented Page extensively in the 1950s.

The 24-year-old Kittie, who grew up in Scotland and operates the popular Ministry of Burlesque website with James Malach (a webmaster for Britain's leading fetish fashion magazine Skin Two), told XBIZ, "It seems like Bettie's fame skipped a generation and lay dormant until now. My parents had never heard of her; they didn't know who she was. But my generation has been very quick to pick up on images of her. It's almost as if people are seeking information from a bygone era — possibly seeking advice from the ancients the way that people in ancient pagan societies sought advice from the elders."

But fellow London resident Tony Mitchell, who is Skin Two's editor and is widely regarded as one of Britain's top Page experts, notes that while most baby boomers were unaware of Page in the 1970s and 1980s, that wasn't true of all boomers — and Mitchell stressed that the Page revival actually started in the 1970s with people who were in the underground punk, Goth and BDSM/fetish scenes.

"The Bettie Page revival didn't just start in the 1990s, it exploded," Mitchell explained. "It had been gradually building up since the 1970s. There was 20 years of gradual underground buildup, but it went seriously mainstream in the 1990s. That was when a lot of people who weren't interested in fetish noticed Bettie Page, but people who were seriously interested in fetish had been aware of her in the 1970s and 1980s."

Mitchell added that in the 1980s, he had a girlfriend, journalist Beverley Glick, who used Bettie Page as a pen name. Most baby boomers didn't get the reference back then, but Glick's pen name inspired big smiles from underground punks, goths and fetish/BDSM enthusiasts who were hip to Page's legacy. Mitchell said that Page's image has since become so ubiquitous in both Europe and North America that a professional journalist like Glick wouldn't dare use Bettie Page as a pen name today — it would be wildly inappropriate now.

Von Teese Appeal
Of all the fetish models who have been greatly influenced by Page's look, the most famous is Heather Sweet, better known as Dita Von Teese. In March, the 33-year-old Von Teese was busy promoting her new book "Burlesque and the Art of the Teese" when she addressed the Page revival for XBIZ.

Von Teese (who married alternative rocker Marilyn Manson in 2005) pointed out that during the Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower years, Page was very much a cult figure.

"Bettie Page was just one of the many pinup models of her day," Von Teese told XBIZ. "She wasn't a big star at the time. Some people knew her, but I would liken her fame to that of one of the many modern Playboy or fetish models — a certain degree of recognition, but nothing compared to the international fame she has attained in the past decade. I even remember noticing nearly overnight the change in her fame. In early 1990, I had Bettie Page's look down. I was usually called Cleopatra, but then one day, the E! Channel had a special about her, and suddenly they knew what the look was. Before that, the only people who knew who Bettie was were fetishists and serious pinup collectors."

Von Teese went on to say: "Bettie is part of an elite group of style icons that will always be remembered. One hundred years from now, we will remember Marilyn, Marlene, Garbo, Bettie, Rita and even a few modern women like Madonna and Cher. But the current 'young hot cookie cutter stars' will most likely be forgotten. It's the unique women who weren't afraid to be true to themselves and celebrate their differences rather than try to fit the mold that we will remember."

In part two, we'll look at the Klaw connection, societal attitudes, the Sex Queens and beyond.

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