Without Bettie Page, it's likely none of these women would look the way they do. The legendary 1950s pinup girl, whose titillating pictures bridged the gap between burlesque and hard-core fetish porn, died in Los Angeles on Thursday at age 85. An inspiration for generations of movie and musical performers, as well as naughty-but-nice average ladies who emulated her sexy poses, Page helped spark the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
A virtual recluse for the past 20 years, Page had been in the hospital for three weeks with pneumonia and was slated to be released December 2 when a spokesperson said she suffered a heart attack.
Born on April 22, 1923, in Nashville, Bettie Mae Page was the second of six children born to an auto-mechanic father, who Page claimed in interviews molested all three of his daughters. With her now-legendary nearly nude and nude poses in magazines such as Wink, Eyeful, Titter and Beauty Parade, the former teacher and secretary began her career in 1950, thanks to a chance meeting with police officer and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs, who helped her get her first pinup portfolio together. By the next year, the once-aspiring actress was appearing in cheesecake spreads wearing barely-there jungle prints and in more hard-core sadomasochistic images, in which she wielded whips, wore spiked heels and corsets and posed in bondage gear.
Soon enough, Page was a staple in 16mm "stag" films screened in smoke-filled living rooms, lodge halls and garages across the country, with her big break coming in 1955, when she appeared as a centerfold for a Christmas-themed Playboy spread, in which she wore only a Santa hat and a smile. Over the course of her career, Page was seen in more than 20,000 photos, but by age 35 she walked away from it all.
After being summoned to testify in 1955 anti-pornography hearings held by a Senate committee, the woman known as "The Queen of Curves" and "The Dark Angel" was spooked out of modeling and moved to Florida, where she suffered through a pair of failed marriages and became a born-again Christian. After moving to Southern California in 1979 she suffered a mental collapse and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and sent to a mental hospital for nearly two years following a fight with her landlady.
As she receded from view, her legend continued to grow through a series of picture books featuring her most famous poses, as well as the comic book homage in Dale Stevens' 1982 "The Rocketeer" series, in which the love interest was based on Page. A 1991 movie based on the series also helped spark the career resurgence Page found out about only after being released from a mental hospital in 1992.
Though Page refused to have her picture taken over the past two decades of her life, because she wished to preserve the classic image in most people's minds, her influence could be seen all over the cultural map: in Christina Aguilera's fetishistic Stripped phase, as well as her current liquid-leather look; in 2005's "The Notorious Bettie Page" movie starring Gretchen Mol; in the early look of DC Comics villain Poison Ivy; in the explosion of burlesque revues and live shows across the country; and in products ranging from Zippo lighters to shot glasses, action figures and dress-up magnet sets.
Page has also been the inspiration for a number of photographers, clothing designers, models and actresses over the years, from Todd Oldham, Betsey Johnson and Dolce & Gabbana to Eva Herzigova, Shalom Harlow and actress Debi Mazar.