On a luminous day in San Diego’s Kate Sessions Memorial Park, a young woman with alabaster skin and black hair in bangs exposes her 1940’s white bikini. She sits on a blanket, softly stroking herself. The woman then lifts her locks from her arched back and opens her mouth, forming an o-shape with her thin, Persian red lips. She stretches her petite body, shielding her figure behind sheer fabric. The vibrating saxophone entices the woman into leaning forward and spreading her legs, giving a closer look at her cleavage while placing her hands between her thighs. She smiles, playfully trying on a wide brim hat. The model then waves goodbye.
“It’s so funny, I’m actually quite shy and get nervous before going out!” responds the 5’2″ stranger. This wasn’t a scene from one of the many short films starring Bettie Page, a legendary 1950s model with similar physical features. The seductress is 29-year-old Bernie Dexter, contemporary pinup pioneer. Originated in the 19th century, pinups were first exhibited by French artist Jules Cheret illustrating posters of women with low-cut bodices. In 1942, lonely American soldiers fighting World War II “pinned up” photographs of shapely starlets, such as Betty Grable. By the 1970s, pinups were replaced with raunchier, pornographic shoots. Today, Bernie not only teases viewers into purchasing the fashion threads of yesteryears, but has made a male-dominated pastime accessible to everyone.
Bernadette Belle was born on January 13, 1978 in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, a lovechild to Joe, a retired sailor from the Philippines, and Sherry, a burlesque dancer from Oklahoma. “My father was 39 when he saw my mother dancing at a club. She was already married with three children at 22!” she exclaims. “She got pregnant with me before she was divorced.” Fascinated by her mother’s profession, five-year-old Bernie studied tap dancing, continuing for the next 10 years. At 18, she became a beauty pageant participant, winning “Miss Teen San Diego.” However, her modeling was cut short.
Bernie, who wasn’t the typical blonde model, became a licensed M.A.C. cosmetologist in 1995. “If I couldn’t be a model, then I’d be working on shoots,” she explains. “The funny thing is that I was always showing the models how to pose.” Levi Dexter, her 50-year-old British husband of eight years, agrees. “Many times, photographers told her, ‘I don’t know why we just didn’t get you.'” After leaving M.A.C. and marrying Levi in 1999, he proposed another collaboration that changed her career.
In 2003, Levi, a veteran rockabilly musician who merges 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and country, purchased a camera and began photographing his wife. Today, the Dexters own a studio with over 150,000 photos on file. As photographers sought after the aspiring model, Levi made his rules known. “There were only a couple of photo shoots where I had to explain what Bernie would not be wearing. I would also be standing guard outside their door and show them I was armed.” Sabina Kelley, a 29-year-old tattooed pinup from Las Vegas, feels the relationship works for and against Bernie. “She is smart to shoot with just her husband because she owns all the pictures,” she says. “On the other hand, I feel she misses out on getting her name out there even further.” Once Bernie was featured as a spotlight model for Bettie Page’s official website that same year, her legal woes began.
Like the famous Olivia De Berardinis painting, Bernie posed as a naughty nurse, ripping open her vinyl costume. Despite teasing viewers with whips and stilettos, she insists on never impersonating Bettie. Danny B. Harvey, a composers from the 2004 film Bettie Page-Dark Angel, believes Bernie is like Bettie Page “without the flaws.” “Bernie is the Bettie Page of this generation and reflects the changes that society has taken over the past 50 years.” In 2006, CMG, who owns the rights to Bettie Page’s name and image, forced the model to remove her online tribute gallery. “The comparisons stressed me out because I’ve never had surgery to look this way and never thought I looked like her,” she utters. Olivia declares, “I’ve seen many models develop over the years. It takes real talent to create your own style and character. I’m a fan!” Thanks to the Internet, designers saw Bernie’s photographs, giving her the shot she needed to become one of the most photographed pinups.
“Just looking at her brings new ideas to my mind,” Julia Statch, German designer of Lucky Diva Clothing reveals. “I guess you can call her my muse.” Bernie’s blossoming career inspired the vintage trend. She models clothes from past eras for companies selling designs that accentuate a female’s silhouette. In wearing corsets and wiggle dresses, Bernie shows how classic garments can make any woman feel sexy, no matter what size. Levi continues to photograph her in outfits by Stop Staring!, What Katie Did and many other vintage-inspired designers from their home in San Diego. In August, she and Michelle Landry of Lucy B. Lingerie, launched the first line influenced by Bernie’s personal collection titled “Bernie Dexter for Lucy B.” The re-created pieces, ranging from small through x-large, include a 6-strap garter belt and bullet bras. A DVD is also in the works on Raucous Records and a magazine for fans is expected to debut next year. “I have and see no need to shoot other models,” Levi remarks. “Our work takes long hours and everything runs past her for approval.” Ultimately, there’s just one thing she hopes to accomplish. “I just want to be immortal,” she coyly says.