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June 18, 2021

Bettie Page and the Iconic Cheetah Pinups: Here’s the Story Behind the Famous Photos Taken by Bunny Yeager in 1954

In 1954, during one of her annual pilgrimages to Miami, Florida, Bettie Page met photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau and Bunny Yeager. At that time, Page was the top pin-up model in New York. Yeager, a former model and aspiring photographer, signed Page for a photo session at the now-closed wildlife park Africa USA in Boca Raton, Florida.

The photographs from this photo shoot are among her most celebrated. They include nude shots with a pair of cheetahs named Mojah and Mbili. The leopard skin patterned Jungle Girl outfit she wore was made, along with much of her lingerie, by Page herself.

The night before the shoot, Bettie finished sewing the leopard-print one-piece that she wore in the photographs. It had an off-the-shoulder Tarzan look, a triangle front flap, and five thin ties up the side. She examined the fit of the suit in the mirror and then took it off to practice modeling naked.

Bettie heard a scratching sound at the window. At first she thought it was the wind, then she recognized the sound of the screen latches unhooking. She grabbed her robe and turned out the light. “I’ll give you two seconds to get away from this window or I’ll blow your brains out!” Shouted Bettie.

Fortunately, the intruder fled. She called a night watchman who came over, replaced the screens and sat on her porch all night. Despite this, Bettie couldn’t sleep. She called Bunny the next morning to cancel the shoot. “I look like I’ve been on a big drunk,” Bettie warned. “I have big bags under my eyes.”

Bunny insisted that she had already arranged for the location and picked Bettie up at 7:30 the next morning. At the Safari Park, Bettie posed hanging from the trees, near a waterfall, and with animals, including zebras, ostriches, camels and a chimpanzee.

If you look closely at several of the images from the photo shoot, the eyes on both of the cheetahs look glassy. The trainer introduced Bettie to the pair, named Moja and Mbili, (meaning one and two in Swahili.) He told her to be sure and hang onto their chains because they would be hard to catch. He also said that the cheetahs were ill and had been up most of the night.

“The cheetahs didn’t look well either. I felt a little uneasy; I thought they might take it out on me. But I think the worst thing that happened was that they licked me,” recalled Bettie.

Bettie and the cheetahs came through and Bunny Yeager took some of her most fabulous images of Page that day.

In the late 1940s, a teenager named Linnea Eleanor Yeager rechristened herself Bunny, after a character played by the femme fatale Lana Turner. The choice was one of the first indications Yeager had her pulse on what was considered the height of female glamour, and her decades long career as a model and pin up photographer would see her join Turner as one of those who defined American female beauty in the 20th century.

Statuesque and with a beaming smile, Yeager began entering beauty contests shortly after moving to Florida at 17. She enrolled in modeling school, and signed to Coronet Modeling Agency upon receiving positive attention during her six-week training. She won many of the pageants she entered, and was crowned Miss Trailer Coach, Sports Queen, and--most fittingly--Queen of Miami. The colorful titles suited her, and her early modeling work shows her vivacious personality, and ideal 1950s curves.

Not visible in the images though, was Yeager’s relentless drive and creativity. Rather than paying photographers for the many prints she needed to get her name in front of scouts to book jobs, she decided to take darkroom photography to develop her own pictures, and began learning how to use a camera.

On assignment for this class, she took the Marilyn Monroe look-a-like Maria Stinger to a local wildlife park (where she would later return to shoot one of the most enduring pin up images of Bettie Page), and ended up selling the work for use as the March 1954 cover of the girlie magazine Eye.

It was clear Bunny Yeager had found her path. 1954 would prove to be a transformative year for Yeager and pin-up photography as an art form.

She was approached by Bettie Page—at that time known primarily to the fetish community as the whip wielding dominatrix who enthralled Irving Klaw—but was eager to break through to more traditional figure and pin up modeling. Page was on vacation in Miami and approached Yeager as one of a few photographers she thought might be able to capture a different side of her.

The first photos Yeager took of Page showed the model nude in Yeager’s family home beneath a Christmas tree in Santa cap. The shoot established a working relationship between the pair that defined both women’s careers, and raised their profiles significantly.

Though when she first picked up a camera in the early 1950s, cheesecake photography was considered taboo and prurient, she lived to see her work shown in fine art galleries worldwide. Diane Arbus once called Yeager “the world’s greatest pinup photographer.”

Bunny Yeager died in 2014 but her popularity only continues to grow.

1 comment:

  1. Where are the rest of the photos from this shoot? You didn't even include the good ones! WTF?!




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