An interview with Bettie Page Reveals All director Mark Mori

Bettie Page is undoubtedly a legend known worldwide for her pinup, nude, and campy bondage photographs and her trademark bangs. Beloved by many different subcultures and an endless source of inspiration for artists, including the new documentary film Bettie Page Reveals All by Mark Mori, Bettie Page is clearly an icon. Read the full, unedited interview with director Mark Mori which was not included in its entirety in the issue.

Bettie Page Reveals All

interview by : Ashley Godwin

[ the full interview not included in the February/March 2013 Issue ]

What initially attracted you to Bettie Page’s story? Why did you think her story was important enough to produce a documentary about her?
Mark Mori : When I first [heard] about Bettie Page, my entertainment attorney had taken me to lunch, and he had a prepublication copy of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pinup Legend. That was in 1996. I recognized her image, but I didn’t know her name, and I didn’t really know her story until I read the book, but he was able to put me in direct contact with her. I just thought it was a great subject for a documentary.

What do you think is the single most important aspect of her life that has caused her to stand out so much in history?
MM : The most important thing to me is her attitude, her spirit, who she was. Just the force of her personality… and she’s completely unaware of the affect she has, and that’s part of her charm. This very intense sexiness combined with this disarming innocence, so it has an appeal to everybody. Like, Marilyn Monroe is a big unreachable movie star, but Bettie is, like, the every-person’s sex symbol.

Bettie Page Reveals All

Bettie Page has often been depicted as naive, not really understanding the context of the pictures she was taking, whether it was bondage or nudes. Having spoken with her yourself, do you get this impression of her? MM : Well, naive is not exactly the word I would use. She was completely non-judgmental and in the moment. She really worked hard at what she did, I mean, she makes it look effortless, but she really worked hard at looking good and posing, and she was a natural at it. It was like, “well, this is the job, and I’m getting paid to do it, so I’m going to do it.” There was an innocence to her, but it wasn’t like she didn’t have any idea what was going on. There would be times when there were things going on that weren’t necessarily kosher, and [Bettie] would not involve herself in that.

In telling her story, what was your primary goal? What did you want to achieve with the movie?
MM : What I wanted to achieve was to figure out what is it about Bettie Page? All we have of her are these photographs from the 50s. No, she wasn’t in any movies. She was never famous, yet she became this huge phenomenon just through people finding her photographs and there was some force there, something going on, and I wanted to try to figure out what that was.

What parts of the film are you the happiest with? What would you do differently if you had another opportunity?
MM : I’m happy with Bettie being able to tell what happened during the so-called “missing years.” Nobody knew what happened to her, before she resurfaced, a lot of people thought she was dead. I was happy for people to know that at the end of Bettie’s life, or in the last fifteen years of her life, she was getting paid for the use of her image. And for people being able to hear Bettie’s voice, and have her tell her own story, and that’s part of how you really get what’s going on behind the pictures.

Bettie Page Reveals All

Did Bettie Page see your film? What was her impression?
MM : No, Bettie passed away in 2008, and it was only finished earlier this year. But given how Bettie Page was, she didn’t really care that much about it. She didn’t care about being famous, even in the 50s. She didn’t even fully understand, I don’t think, how big, amongst the people that followed her, how she was sort of the number one pinup of the 50s. She kind of knew it, but it didn’t really matter to her; it was just a job. The fact that I wanted to do a movie about her, well, she was okay with that and she trusted me, but if I hadn’t come along it wasn’t like she would have gone out and tried to find somebody to do that.

She didn’t necessarily feel like her story was worth telling?
She could not understand why people were still interested in her.

It’s fascinating because she’s still an icon even now, and people still try to replicate her image and she still has a big influence, especially in alternative culture.
MM : Right, exactly. I think, from what I can tell, she’s bigger than ever. It just keeps expanding.

Bettie Page Reveals All

If you had only been able to ask her one question, what would it be?
MM : Well, I was able to ask her every question I could think of, so that’s hard to say, and I already know all the answers. [laughs] Let’s see, what would be the one question I would ask her… I would ask her what it was that she brings to these images that makes them so compelling. And of course her answer, she gives the some of the answers to that in the movie, but it’s not what you would expect, she would just say that she loved posing. She never talked about herself as being pretty or attractive. She was the opposite of being stuck up because even when she was modeling she would dress down when she was not at a modeling session. She would put on flannel shirts and she didn’t want to be recognized on the street. It was so natural to her, besides working hard at her makeup and her hair. She designed and sewed her own costumes, and that’s part of what’s going on, because you couldn’t buy bikinis in those days, but that wasn’t anything to her. She knew how to sew and she didn’t know that she had this great design sense. She was unaware of all this talent that she had, she just lived it.

What lessons do you think young girls today should take from the life story of Bettie Page?
MM : One thing that you see in the film, but maybe people don’t realize so much, even with all the information that’s out there and available, is how much she struggled and how much she overcame to achieve what she did. She had some very rough things going on in her life, but she was always able to overcome it, so I think that’s one thing you can learn, and from what a lot of young women tell me, they’ve gained confidence in their own sexuality from the image of Bettie Page. We’re in this culture, this hypersexualized culture, where these impossibly beautiful women are the ideal of beauty and nobody can live up to that, but a lot of these young women tell me with Bettie they feel like they can be beautiful, they are beautiful, they’re confident in their sexuality. If you have Bettie’s attitude you can just be yourself, have fun, and be sexy.

Despite the modern affinity towards super-thin runway models, Bettie Page’s figure is still found attractive even today. Why do you think that is?
MM : Well, I don’t think her figure was ever unattractive. I think the fashion industry put forth the kind of models they wanted for fashion who then were promoted by the media who are not what normal women are. Even in the movie, one of the models says, “I think men like women that are curvy anyway.” Particularly the super skinny women are really not so sexy, but it’s been developed by the fashion industry as something. I don’t think, for men or women, it has ever changed, it’s just what the dominant, the cooperate culture is putting out there.

Bettie Page Reveals All

Why do you think Bettie Page is considered to be such a pioneer? Some say that Bettie Page was a feminist, do you agree with this statement, and why?
MM : Well, Bettie would never call herself a feminist. She didn’t think of it, but she lived it. I mean, she went to New York in the late 40s, a single woman, on her own to make her way. She was adventuresome. She was looking for something in the world besides being a housewife or doing something traditional. So, she was a successful, single woman in New York all through the 50s, so in that sense she was living the opposite life than the dominant culture was telling women that they were supposed to do. You know, “go be a housewife, have kids, live in the suburbs,” you know, that sort of thing and also, the posing and photographs she was doing were overcoming the sexual repressiveness of the 50s… This is the precursor to the sexual revolution in the 60s, and a lot of people think Bettie Page had a lot to do with that because it’s guilt-free sex with Bettie. That’s the kind of attitude that you get from her. I think you could even say that she had something to do with making fetish fashion mainstream.

Do you think that she helped popularize things like BDSM and/or bondage, or at the very least, made them less taboo?
MM : She brought them out of the closet in a way, if that’s what popularizing means. It was the bondage photographs that she was persecuted for. Of course when you see Bettie Page in a bondage photograph she’s just having fun. There’s no judgment or guilt or anything attached to it. So, in that sense, she kind of made it okay. People think that she was into that, but she wasn’t, but she had no judgment about it. So, yes, I think she had something to do with that becoming more acceptable and less judged as some kind of a deviation. In other words, something to do with the idea that whatever people want to do in their own privacy is up to them, and that was a revolutionary idea in those days.

What misconceptions did you have about Bettie Page going into the making of the movie that were proven wrong during the making of the movie?
MM : Well, I think the misconceptions might be [that] there’s a certain assumption about women, maybe particularly in the 50s, who are posing nude or in sexy photographs that they are somehow, I don’t know what you would call it, loose morals or they’re party girls or this kind of thing. That’s certainly true of some of the women, but Bettie, I mean, that’s one of the things that Bettie’s got all the contradictions inherent in her because she was a Christian and she went to church, and she even had this born-again experience, but she didn’t see a conflict between that and what she was doing. She was not out partying, she was not married, but she was a one-man-kind-of-woman, so I think it there’s any general misconception that people might have, or even I might even have had, it would be something like that.

Bettie Page seemed to have such an openness towards nudity and sexuality while still maintaining her religious faith, something that we see very little of in modern day. Why do you think that is?
MM : Well, she kind of reveled in the idea of nudity. Bettie was probably happier, I mean, some of her happiest moments were [spent] nude. She felt freed by that, and I don’t mean necessarily posing for a photograph. She tells a little story in the film about how she would take an air bath, run around the house with all the windows open. I think Bettie was as comfortable nude as any of us would be in clothes, in fact in our most dressed up outfit that we feel the best in; that’s how Bettie probably felt. And of course, she looked great nude which didn’t hurt anything, but I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction between those things. I think our society, particularly in the 50s, but still a lot today, sees that, creates that inherent contradiction. It’s moralizing by authorities or politicians or this sort of thing playing into people’s more backward inclinations.

How do you think her battles with mental illness affected her career?
MM : I don’t think it really affected her modeling career because she retired in 1957, but it was part of the missing years, so it may have extended the period, I mean, that was the last ten years before anyone discovered her, maybe someone would have found her if she hadn’t been in a mental institution years earlier. So, in a sense, she was gone for 35 years. It was kind of like when James Dean died or Marilyn Monroe died, they kind of became iconic because they weren’t available, they were kind of frozen in time, with their image as being young, so it wasn’t so much her career, but maybe her standing [or] the mystery surrounding her might have been increased just because she wasn’t around for even ten more years that people couldn’t find her.

Do you think that’s why she never wanted anyone to see her? Because she wanted everyone to remember her the way she was?
MM : No, because I think she was like that before that. I think there was a time in the mid-70s when she was married to Harry Lear that Bunny Yeager actually tracked her down and wanted to do something and [Bettie] refused, she said, “I’m not interested.” In other words, she made a complete break with the modeling, and she just wanted to go and have what you would call a “normal life”. She just walked away from it and wasn’t interested in fame and so forth, and didn’t want to do any of that.

Having been a victim of sexual abuse, do you think that affected Bettie Page’s choice to go into nude/bondage modeling? Or do you believe that she was able to rise above her past experiences?
MM : Everyone is a result of their total life experiences, and that was certainly traumatic for her, but she was able to talk about. She mentions her other sisters may have been more affected by it than she was. I know one of the other sisters refused to talk about it, and the second sister, Bettie thought, was actually permanently damaged by it. I think there is an idea out there that women that do that (modeling) it’s because they were sexually molested. I don’t know if there’s any studies on that and I don’t know if it’s true, but I certainly think Bettie overcame that and a lot of other things. So do I think she became a nude model because she was sexually abused? The answer is no. There are plenty of women who do that who weren’t sexually abused… a lot of people were mistreated by their mother or have horrible childhoods and they don’t become killers. So, I don’t think there’s a cause and effect, but it’s the sum total of your life experiences that leads you to do the things that you do.

At the time of her nude and bondage photos, the kind of photos that Bettie Page was doing had never been seen before, but in modern day, things seem to be getting raunchier and more risqué. Most models (and pornstars) have had some sort of body modification surgery as well. What do you think Bettie Page would have to say about this development, and what do you think it says about our society?
MM : I know she didn’t like body modification, plastic surgery, breast implants, whatever is being done, she didn’t like that. And of course she really did not like pornography at all, and she didn’t think that what she was doing was pornography, although some people did. But you have to remember that after the sexual revolution of the 60s, then in the 70s porn became mainstream. You had suburban couples going to the movie theatre to see Deep Throat, and that’s really when Bettie went out of favor and nobody was interested in her. Then she later on, I think, became an anti-porn, like a way to be sexy or see something sexy or for women to feel, “here’s a way to be sexy and not have it seem like porn.” I don’t think Bettie would like a lot of those things, but of course she had this great body, but she worked very hard to maintain it. She worked out three times a week and spent a lot of time on her hair and makeup and all that.

Bettie Page’s signature look is often duplicated, especially by those in alternative scenes. Why do you think she is someone that people in alternative culture can relate to or want to be like?
MM : Well, it’s funny, it seems to me that what you might called outsiders identify with Bettie. Almost any outsider culture whether it’s gay, fetish, comic book, tattoo, you know, it’s hard to think of an outsider culture that doesn’t think highly of Bettie Page or even have Bettie Page as their Patron Saint. Bettie essentially was an outsider in her time, I mean, what she did was not acceptable, and I think it’s her free spirit, and the fact that the mainstream culture still has not accepted her. Even though fashion designers have adopted her and been influenced by her and her influence is more widespread than ever, still mainstream culture is not into Bettie Page. If she was in mainstream cultures maybe these [outsider] cultures wouldn’t identify with her so much. But I think it’s also [that] she’s kind of campy… she’s doing up this whole kind of costume thing and having fun with it, and I think that’s part of it, at least for some subcultures.

Bettie Page Reveals All

Why do you think she’s remained so visible and important today, so many years after her career?
MM : Well, there’s a lot of reasons. There’s her beauty. In these photographs she achieves something nobody else has ever achieved. I would think Bettie’s the greatest still photograph model that’s ever existed. How can you not say that when all that exists is her still photographs and that’s what causing all of this. So there’s this spirit that comes through in her photographs and combined with her fashion sense… it’s the free spirit, and the sexuality, and the fashion sense, and it’s like “sexy wholesome”. She does sexy in a way that people can relate to.

What are the differences between Bettie Page the woman and Bettie Page the legend?
MM : One of the things about Bettie Page the legend that I realized is that she has this quality, or at least her images do, where people can project what they want onto her. People, especially some of these young women, feel a real emotional connection to Bettie, in a way maybe because they need to, there’s kind of a projection onto her of this idea of confidence in your sexuality, sexual freedom, and all of this, because it’s not like she was exactly advocating all of that. I think Bettie Page the legend comes from Bettie Page the person, but Bettie Page the person could not understand Bettie Page the legend. In others words I think it was ultimately the force of her personality that propels the legend. Obviously her beauty and her sexiness and all that [as well], but it’s the force of her personality behind that, driving that, that creates the legend essentially because without that there wouldn’t be anything.

view the original feature in the February/March 2013 Issue

Ashley Godwin
Ashley Godwin is a contributor for Auxiliary.
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