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

Page had already vacationed a number of times in Florida, hooking up with Yeager to produce what fans now consider classic black-and-white photographs of their dreamgirl. One series shows Page in her birthday suit on a yacht in the Keys, reeling in a fish. In another series, shot in what was then the Africa USA theme park in Boca Raton, Page frolics in the "jungle" clad in a skimpy leopardskin bodysuit. One famous photograph shows her hanging from a tree, a knife clenched between her teeth. She poses with chimpanzees, zebras, and, in the shots many fans cherish most, cheetahs.

But in 1957, Page had not come to Florida to pose. Not only did she retire that year at the ripe old age of 34, but she dropped utterly out of sight.

And, at least at first, out of mind.
Although Page's pinup photographs and bondage films were coveted collectors' items as early as the Seventies, the number of aficionados remained small. "There was no way for other people to discover her unless they were indoctrinated by this tiny group of people," says Greg Theakston, who has spent years researching the topic. The situation, he explains, changed in 1981, after David Stevens launched his Rocketeer comic book series, featuring a character named Betty who had a sweet smile and long black hair with bangs. "Interest started climbing after that," Theakston recalls. "Dave was enamored of Betty Page and his art was so impressive, people wanted to know who this woman was."

It was an information gap that Theakston and his collaborator, Joe Anderko, were determined to fill. Launched in the fall of 1987, their fanzine, The Betty Pages, was an immediate hit -- the first printing of 2500 copies sold out in a few weeks. "I guess people were fascinated with all the tidbits I was discovering piecemeal about [Page's] career," Theakston says.

The publication, whose ninth and final edition is on newsstands now, has also helped revive an interest in Bunny Yeager's work. "In The Betty Pages we've reproduced dozens of Bunny Yeager photographs, more than anyone else in the past two decades," Theakston boasts. "Thousands of readers now know who she is."

Yeager herself had sought her former model by running a newspaper ad in the late Seventies asking for information. "I was considering doing a book on her, using a lot of my old photographs," she says. "I thought it was interesting how she had disappeared so suddenly." Page's ex-husband responded to the ad and supplied a telephone number and the fact that Page was living in a cottage on one of his Hialeah properties but refused to disclose the exact location. "I called her up and told her I wanted to write her life story, but she turned me down," Yeager remembers. "And I said, 'Well, could I just come over and see you someday and we'll just talk about the past?' She said no. She didn't want to pursue the friendship. She was polite, but she was into a whole new life. There were a lot of references to the Lord." Yeager would learn in a subsequent telephone conversation with Page that the model had experienced a Christian rebirth on Key Biscayne in 1959 and moved to California.

But Yeager had no idea there was any Page cult when Eric Kroll approached her in the mid-Eighties with the idea of putting together a series of her shots for sale to the public. She had the good sense to insist on the inclusion of two nudes of Page. "I wanted her included because she was absolutely the best model I had ever worked with," Yeager says. "I wasn't aware at the time of all the renewed interest in her."

Kroll subsequently became Yeager's agent. Though he had loved her work ever since coming across one of her old photography books, he wasn't enamored of Betty Page. "When I was starting to put together the portfolio, I said to myself, 'Gee, all I can remember about Betty Page is that she was this bitchy, nasty-looking woman,'" he recalls. "I associated her with all the bondage stuff. But then Bunny sent me a couple of images and I saw they were quite beautiful and glamorous. There's a softer edge to Betty Page that Bunny captured marvelously. So I put them in the brochure, and bam, out of nowhere comes this amazing reaction of people saying, 'Give me more -- give me anything you have of Betty Page."

If Yeager didn't know about Page's following then, she certainly knows now. Page mania has broken into mainstream pop culture, and while the mystery woman still refuses to come out of hiding from her home in California, she has begun talking. And not just to cognoscenti -- last year she granted a telephone interview to the syndicated television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, thus giving Robin Leach the opportunity to bellow her name to millions of viewers.

Also last year, Yeager self-published "Betty Page in Jungleland," a $4.95 souvenir in comic-book format, filled with many of the black-and-white images from the Africa USA shoot. Yeager's own chatty telephone interview with Page ran in the July 1993 issue of Interview. And she just signed two contracts to provide Betty Page photos A 52 for a series of pinup trading cards, and others for a set of lithograph prints.

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