Queen of the Centerfold

Bunny Yeager was a Miami model -- and an innovative pioneer who conquered the male-dominated world of cheesecake photography in the Fifties

Imagine the subject of this article, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, five feet ten inches tall, with long white hair that falls onto a page exactly like this one as she examines each sentence with an unforgiving eye. A red pen is poised, ready to strike through any mistake or unflattering phrase. "White hair" is probably already history -- it should be "platinum blond" or maybe just "blond." Reference to her age has likely been given the ax, too -- Bunny Yeager does not like any mention of it.

In recent years, the red pen has strafed scores of sentences marching like tiny lines of troops against Yeager's fortified public image. Her reputation, as deserved as it is protected, is that of an energetic, courageous pioneer, a glamour model who refused to limit her work to one side of the camera. Instead she became one of the only female members of the club of "cheesecake" photographers who churned out pinup shots in the late Forties and Fifties. Her career is summed up concisely beneath the "About the Author" heading on one of her seventeen books: "She began in the glamour industry as a model and holds over a dozen beauty contest titles. From there she studied photography and is now recognized as one of the top glamour photographers in the United States. Her work has appeared in Life, Playboy, U.S. Camera, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook."

Yeager is not afraid to lambaste any lazy, uninformed, or just plain dimwitted person who doesn't report the details of that career correctly. She holds a low opinion, for example, of the man who wrote a profile of her for the July 1987 edition of American Photographer. To anyone interested in writing about her, she is likely to hand over a copy of the piece spattered with her markings. Though implied, the message is clear: do better or face similar humiliation.

That article's ill-fated author -- whose name, out of kindness, shall not be mentioned here A begins all right, gliding through Yeager's childhood in Pittsburgh and Miami, her early love of posing for the camera. But as the writer moves on to her photographic accomplishments, bursts of red appear on the page. "No! No!," reads Yeager's comment beside a paragraph describing how she would "overlight" her models to "blast away" their wrinkles and blemishes. "My exposures were perfect!" the red cursives exclaim. "Overlit exposures would be impossible to use or sell." As the narrative attempts to lock onto its target, the salvos become heavier -- words are crossed out and changed, information is added, flak such as "Never!", "No way!", and, simply, "Wrong," takes its toll, until finally the writer plummets into the crimson sea.

Obviously Yeager was not a person who would let herself be taken for granted in 1987, nor at the outset of her photography career in the early Fifties, nor now. Especially not now, when she is riding a wave of renewed interest in her photographic work, owing in no small part to the cult following of her most famous model, Betty Page, the Eisenhower-era pinup queen with the trademark jet-black bangs, who posed for Yeager and others in South Florida before disappearing into obscurity.

For years Page's unexplained exit from the cheesecake stage has intrigued a small band of worshipers. Some are middle-age men whose eyes first feasted on a Bunny Yeager photo of their fantasy when they were boys, clutching, perhaps with no more than one hand, Peepshow or some other magazine furtively swiped from their father's bureau. Page nostalgia has also blossomed among younger men who, following their hearts, a trend, or both, have opted to accessorize their lives with Fifties iconography. The Page craze has spawned fan clubs, trading cards, T-shirts, coffee mugs, comic books, and other publications featuring photographs by Yeager and others.

Yeager, who works in a small studio near her Miami Shores home, did not start the revival, and like many people, she may only vaguely understand it. Always alert to an opportunity, however, she is trying to to take full advantage of it, through a number of deals to supply Page pix. Indeed, she seems determined to capitalize on her past work, but not to dwell on it. More important, she feels, is that admirers understand and support her numerous plans for the future, plans that have nothing to do with Page nostalgia, and she is ready to rebuke anyone who doesn't get that straight.

The person least likely to get Bunny Yeager straight, though, is almost certainly Bunny Yeager. She jumps from one facet of her career to another with such enthusiasm that one is tempted to believe she really can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. But with her focus shifting so much A from Betty Page in the foreground to a dozen or so other projects further back -- the picture threatens to blur.

Yeager's undertakings have multiplied over the years so that now, in addition to selling prints of her vintage work, they include publishing and writing most of Florida Stage and Screen News, a monthly newspaper for the in-state film and television industry; serving on the board of the Metro-Dade Film, Print, and Broadcast Advisory Board; writing both an autobiography and an adventure novel set in the Caribbean (to be transformed, possibly, into a screenplay); organizing material for a book about her work to be published later this year; and, of course, maintaining her photography business, through which she shoots everything from family portraits in her studio to glamour shots on the beach.

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