Ever since the first pin-up models began to be created, there has been a subculture of photographers who have continued to experiment with the genre. In recent years, we have witnessed the reemergence of the pin-up model thanks to the internet. The biggest pin-up girls of all time arrived to between the Roaring ’20s and 1960s. These were not just women who appeared in front of a film camera — many were some of the biggest Academy Award winners and nominees in Hollywood. There’s even one pin-up girl who went on to create a radio-technology that we still use in modern Wi-Fi networks to this very day. In celebration of this art form, we present you with some of the most well-known and controversial pin-up models of the past 100 years.
Kim Novak is a retired American film and TV actress. In 1954 she signed with Columbia Pictures and quickly became a star. She acted in various successful films including The Man with the Golden Arm, Pal Joey, and Alfred Hitchcock’s hit movie Vertigo. The pin-up movement was strong in the 1950s and Novak was one of the most popular models, thanks to several bathing suit photo shoots. At one point, Kim Novak was in a relationship with Sammy Davis, Jr. However, it was considered extremely controversial because he was black and she was white. It’s even been reported that Henry Cohn had mobsters threaten Davis in order to make sure she stopped dating him. Novak is still alive, at the age of of 83, and resides in Oregon.
In 1941, Ava Lavinia Gardner was signed by MGM Studios. She appeared in various smaller roles until her performance in The Killers in 1946. By 1953 she had been nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Actress after starring in Mogambo. She continued to work in dozens of films until her death in 1990.
Ava Gardner was also known, at least through gossip, as a bit of a man eater. She was said by some to have broken the hearts of both Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes. She was married three times, to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and finally, Frank Sinatra.
Sofia Villani Scicolone is an Italian film actress who was first discovered in 1950 at 15 years old. Her career started with some big roles in films. She floated around Hollywood until 1962 when her performance as Cesira in Vittorio De Scia’s Two Women earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
She continued to act late into her career, appearing in Grumpier Old Men and Nine. Her love life is not without scandal. It’s said that while she and Cary Grant were filming the 1958 film Houseboat, they were also having an affair. To make matters even…more interesting, Grant’s wife wrote the script.
Elizabeth Ruth “Betty” Grable was known for her talents as a dancer, singer, actress, and pin-up model. Grable appeared in 42 films in the 1930s and 1940s, which grossed more than $100 million. In fact, the Treasury Department reported that she was the highest-paid American woman in 1946-1947.
That’s some claim! This famed pin-up model started her career as an actress in 1929 when she was just 12 years old. Her first big film was Down Argentine Way in 1940. She is perhaps best known for her bathing suit poster, which was named by Life magazine as one of “100 Photographs that Changed the World.” She retired in 1955 but continued to make occasional the appearance in films and television.
Clara Gordon Bow was an American actress who skyrocketed to fame in silent films in the 1920s and then by way of “talkies” (movies with sound, what we just call movies today) after 1927. She was the personification of the Roaring Twenties and a leading pin-up symbol. Industry experts say her name attached to a film was guaranteed to secure funding from investors.
She appeared in 46 silent films and 11 talkies. In September 1965, Bow died of a heart attack at the age of 60. While she was alive, she was the subject of many an urban myth. Most if not all were not true. She was accused of addiction issues, incest, bestiality, among other things. These were just signs that society didn’t like a women like her having so much power or attention.
Carole Lombard was recruited at just 12 years old by film director Allan Dwan to appear in his 1921 film A Perfect Crime. At 16, she signed a contract with Fox but appeared monthly in short comedies from 1927 through 1929.
Eventually she started appearing in high profile films such as High Voltage and The Racketeer. Lombard’s life and career were sadly cut short at just 33 years old. She was returning from a War Bond tour when her plane crashed in Mount Potosi, Nevada. She was killed in the crash. She was married to her second husband, Clark Gable, at the time.
Brigitte Anna-Marie Bardot is a French born actress and one of the best known pin-up symbols of the 1950s and 1960s. She began her acting career in 1952 and appeared in 16 comedies that received only limited international release. In 1952 Bardot became a world-renowned actress after appearing in the controversial film And God Created Woman.
Bardot retired from Hollywood in 1973. She had starred in 47 films, several musicals, and recorded 60 songs by the time of her retirement. She was also heavily involved in fighting for animal rights. Among many causes, she was passionate about protesting bullfighting and was a vegetarian.
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in 1926. Best known by her film name, Marilyn Monroe, she is largely considered the greatest Hollywood pin-up symbol of all time. Monroe rose to fame by playing “dumb blonde” characters in the 1950s. Unlike many of the other models on our list, Monroe actually started her career as a pin-up star. She was discovered by a photographer while she was working in a factory in 1944.
Her pin-up career led to a short-lived film contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. In 1948, she then signed with Columbia Pictures, only to re-sign with Fox in 1951. She eventually became famous for her roles in Young as You Feel and Monkey Business. Monroe later faced a scandal when it was revealed she had posed for a set of nude photos before her film career took off. She was found dead at her home in Los Angeles on August 5, 1962. Her death was ruled a probable suicide, but various other theories have surfaced over the years.
Born Betty Joan Perske, Lauren Bacall was an American actress known for her distinctive voice and sultry looks. She was a central figure in the Golden Age of motion pictures but actually began her career as a model.
She made her debut in the Humphrey Bogart film To Have and Have Not in 1944, and was a major player in the film noir genre for years to come. She co-starred with John Wayne in his final film The Shootist in 1976. A star of film and stage, she won Tony awards for “Applause” and “Woman of the Year.” One month before she turned 90, Bacall died of a stroke at her home in New York City.
Born Diana Mary Fluck, this famed pin-up model and English actress came to fame through racy film-comedies and risqué modeling. It was discovered that her first husband, Dennis Hamilton, was exploiting her finances for his own personal gain. To save her career she started to play up her seductive image by hosting adult parties at her home.
She eventually re-established her career as a star of TV and cabaret. She died fairly young, at the age of 52, from ovarian cancer in 1984. She had supposedly hidden away millions and given her son a copy of the codes to the banks. However, the money was never recovered. It’s all shrouded in a bit of mystery.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian and American film actress. She began her career in Germany with the controversial film Ecstasy. She eventually fled from her husband and moved to Paris. There she met MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a Hollywood film career. From the 1930’s through the 1950’s she was a bonafide Hollywood star. She wasn’t just a pretty face.
During the start of World War II she worked with composer George Antheil to develop a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. The system used a spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. Her technology is widely used today in Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technologies.
Rita Hayworth was a dancer and American actress who rose to fame in the 1940s. During her 37 year career she appeared in 61 films. As a glamorous screen actress she was known as the “love goddess.” She was the top viewed pin-up girl for GIs during World War II.
Her greatest Hollywood success was the 1944 hit Cover Girl which she co-starred in with Gene Kelly. In terms of her love life, which was never boring, Rita Hayworth was married five times to Edward C. Judson, Orson Welles, Prince Aly Khan, Dick Haymes, and James Hill. She passed away at 68-years-old after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in 1933, Jayne Mansfield was an American actress of film, TV, and theater. She became a huge Broadway star in 1955, a major Hollywood player in 1956, and a top celebrity by 1957. She also moonlighted as a nightclub entertainer, a singer, and one of the very early Playboy playmates.
Born in 1933, Jayne Mansfield was an American actress of film, TV, and theater. She became a huge Broadway star in 1955, a major Hollywood player in 1956, and a top celebrity by 1957. She also moonlighted as a nightclub entertainer, a singer, and one of the very early Playboy playmates. In the 1950s and early 1960s she was considered a main Hollywood pin-up symbol, alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Fun facts: she was the Playmate of the Month in 1955, She won a Golden Globe for her role in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, and she got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
Luigina “Gina” Lollobrigida is an an Italian photojournalist, sculptor, and actress. During the 1950s and 1960s she was one of the biggest international pin-up symbols in filmdom. She began her career as an actress but as film roles slowed worked as a photojournalist and sculptor.
In the 1970s she scored a high-profile interview with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In 2013, Lollobrigida sold her jewelry collection for nearly $5 million and donated the money to stem cell therapy research. Now retired, she lives in Sicily, Italy, where she has lived since the late 1940s. Quirky fun fact: Lollobrigida often refers to herself in the third person.
Cleo Moore was a blond bombshell who starred in various Hollywood films in the 1950s. She quickly became a well-known pin-up girl and then signed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1950 before landing at Columbia Pictures in 1952. The studio attempted to make her the next Marilyn Monroe.
She starred in a handful of movies but after the studio signed Kim Novak, they lost focus on her career. Moore retired from acting in 1957, but not until after starring in the film Hit and Run. Moore died in her sleep in 1973, she was 48-years-old. She remains a cult favorite to this very day.
Veronica Lake was an American star of film, stage, and television. She was a critically acclaimed star who most notably starred in the film Sullivan’s Travels. Like many on this list, Lake had quite a few husbands. Four, specifically. She was married at various times to John S. Detlie, Andre DeToth, Joseph A. McCarthy, and Robert Carleton-Munro.
All of her marriages ended in divorce. Sadly, her career started to decline in the 1950s because of a bout with alcoholism. She attempted to get her career back on track in 1966, but the film Footsteps in the Snow failed to revitalize her career. Lake died in 1973 after suffering from hepatitis and acute kidney failure at 50-years-old.
She began her career as a child model working in commercials before transitioning to film in her teenage years. Sandra Dee is best known for her portrayal of ingenues, earning a Golden Globe Award for her performance in Robert Wise’s Until They Sail.
You might remember her being referenced in the musical Grease in the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” which the character Rizzo sings to make fun of Sandy. By the late 1960s her career was on the decline. She died in 2005 at the age of 62, of complications from kidney disease which was caused by a lifelong fight with anorexia.
Jean Harlow was an American actress and one of the best-known and admired pin-up symbols of the 1930s. She was signed by director Howard Hughes and made her first big appearance in Hell’s Angels. Her next several films were unsuccessful and she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932.
She became a leading lady at MGM, appearing in a string of major hit films. In the 1930s she was Hollywood’s biggest leading lady. She was given the nicknames “The Blond Bombshell” and “The Platinum Blonde.” She also wrote a novel, titled Today Is Tonight, which was not published until after she passed away.
When we talk about pin-up models it’s impossible not to talk about the “Queen of Pin-ups,” as she was often referred. During the 1950s Page worked with dozens of photographers. She was named as “Miss January 1955,” making her one of Playboy magazine’s earliest Playmates.
“I think that she was a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced…taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our society,” Playboy founder Hugh Hefner proclaimed after her death in 2008. She would later suffer from depression and violent mood swings. She spent several years in a state psychiatric hospital and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
You can’t have a discussion about modern day pin-ups without talking about Fernande Barrey. Barrey left her home in Picardy in about 1908. She moved to Paris where she began making a living as a prostitute. Painters in Paris were soon inspired by Barrey and began to paint her.
During the first World War, her image appeared on the side of airplanes and other vehicles of war. Not afraid to show ample cleavage and full frontal nudity, her pictures were soon admired by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Modern day pin-ups in many respects owe their career to Fernande Barrey.
Adele Jergens was an American actress and leading pin-up during World War II, who was also famously named “Miss World’s Fairest” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She also briefly performed as a Rockette, and was called the “Number One Showgirl in New York City.” She, then, landed a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1944.
She took on roles in Down to Earth (1947) and The Dark Past (1948), Armored Car Robbery (1950), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), and The Cobweb (1955). In all, she appeared in 47 films. According to Producer Alex Gordon, “Her image was always that of the tough chorus girl or gangster’s moll or the best friend of the lead. She passed away on November 22, 2002, from pneumonia, just days before her birthday.
Allison Hayes was an American film and TV actress, as well as a famous pin-up model, even representing DC as Miss District of Columbia. She debuted in Francis Joins the WACS (1954), and continued with minor roles after Sign of the Pagan. She even made guest appearances in the Perry Mason series, and she took on a minor role in Elvis Presley’s Tickle Me (1965).
Hayes also became an unexpected activist who protested to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), when her severe symptoms and ongoing illness was not taken seriously by doctors. After conducting her own research and hiring a toxicologist to test a calcium supplement, she was able to prove that it contained extremely high levels of lead. Her activism, and indeed her own personal tragic death, inspired the implementation of an amendment, which further controlled import of nutritional supplements. She died one week before her 47th birthday.
Anita Ekberg was a Swedish-Italian actress, model, and sex symbol. She was Sylvia in the Federico Fellini film La Dolce. She won the Miss Sweden contest in 1950, and even competed in an early version of the Miss Universe pageant.
Although she didn’t become Miss Universe, she did receive a number of perks as one of the finalists for the pageant, including lessons in elocution, dancing, drama, and horseback-riding. She appeared in a number of films, famously had an affair with Gary Cooper (and others), and even danced barefoot at the over-the-top birthday-party for Peter Howard, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. The whole excessive debacle was closed down by the police, and Howard was reportedly “dragged” out of Italy.
Ann Miller was an American actress, dancer and singer. There were rumors of a fake birth certificate, but she was still considered a dance prodigy as a child, supported she and her mother by dancing in nightclubs when they first moved to LA, and then became a showgirl.
The fake birth certificate reportedly allowed her to get an RKO contract in 1936, when she was 13-years old. She also claimed to have invented pantyhose. The studio claimed she could tap dance at 500 taps/per minute, which was actually looped in later. The Smithsonian Institution displayed her tap shoes, “Moe and Joe,” to honor the contribution of Ann Miller in tap-dancing history.
Candy Barr was an American burlesque dancer, stripper, adult model and actress. She worked as a stripper in Dallas, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but she also became known for the violent confrontation she had with her estranged husband, where she shot him.
She was traumatized by sexual abuse by a neighbor, when she was young. She ran away when she was 13-years old, and quickly began doing tricks to survive until her brief marriage at 14. She became an exotic dancer, and also appeared in an “underground” adult film, Smart Alec (1951) when she was 16 (she later said she was drugged and coerced into appearing). She was also arrested for drug possession charges, convicted and spent time at the Goree State Farm. She later published 56 poems that she’d written while in prison as A Gentle Mind…. Confused, in 1972.
Carroll Baker was an American film, theater, and TV actress, as well as a dramatic pin-up model during the 1950s and 60s. She stared in Westerns, was a glamorous-beauty in The Carpetbaggers (1964), Sylvia (1965), and Harlow (1965). She was described as someone who not only had looks but could also act.
She said, “The press attacked me viciously at every opportunity. I came very close to suicide.” Under contract dispute with Paramount Pictures in 1966 (they fired her when she turned down roles), she moved to Italy, and then returned the US to appear in a number of roles for TV: Murder She Wrote, L.A. Law, and Roswell. She became a writer in 1983, with Baby Doll: An Autobiography. She said that she’d wanted to write, and that an autobiography would be easier to get published. She went on to publish To Africa with Love (1986) and A Roman Tale (1987).
Cyd Charisse (born Tula Ellice Finklea) was an American actress and dancer. She famously appeared with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon, Van Johnson (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957). She also received the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities in 2006. Astaire even called her “beautiful dynamite.”
Imagine being one of the few women who appeared with both Astaire and Kelly. She compared the two in her autobiography, saying: “To sum it up, I’d say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen. But it’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.”
Dagmar Lassander is a German actress, who was also a costume designer for the Berlin Opera early on. She was known for The House by the Cemetery (1981), Blood Brides (1970) and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970).
She appeared in more than 31 movies, especially in Italian crime, horror and erotic movies, but she also appeared in several TV series as well as other international films. She became so well-known in the horror-movie genre that a character was named after her, in We Are Still Here (2015), a horror film.
Dorothy Dandridge was an American film and theater actress, as well as a singer and dancer. She was part of The Wonder Children, which was renamed The Dandridge Sisters. In films like Tarzan’s Peril, she was recognized for moments that were termed “provocatively revealing,” which also earned her other unremarkable roles.
She was the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for Carmen Jones, which won her favorable reviews and landed her as the first black actress to be featured on the cover of Life. She’s also been recognized for her work, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was the target of various scandalous tabloid stories by Confidential, which were all proven to be libelous by the court and the judge’s directed them to stop publishing questionable stories.
Eartha Kitt was an American actress, singer, dancer, and comedian. Although her singing has been considered provocative, she claimed, “I don’t sing naughty songs. Innocence is one of the most exciting things in the world… It’s a little-girl mischief, like going out and throwing stones at windows.”
Orson Welles called her the “most exciting woman in the world.” And, Brooks Atkinson stated, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary but she can make a song burst into flame.” She famously made anti-war comments at a White House luncheon, which effectively curtailed her career for a number of years.
Even with her career hiatus, she achieved top, award-winning status. She famously voiced the villainous Yzma on The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). She was awarded three Emmy Awards (one was posthumously awarded for her appearance on Wonder Pets).
Gloria Grahame was an actress who appeared on stage, in films and also on TV. She appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and she appeared on the cover of Life the same year, but MGM then sold her contract to RKO Studios. She then appeared in Sudden Fear (1952), Human Desire (1953), The Big Heat (1953), and Oklahoma! (1955).
She was beaten “black-and-blue” by one husband. Then, scandal erupted when she admitted that she preferred to sleep without any clothes on, and she also slept with her stepson (she later secretly married him, and had two children by him). She was also in a volatile relationship with comedy writer, Cy Howard, who badly scratched her when she was invited to meet the Queen (without him). She later cut up all Howard’s clothes in one squabble, and then held a gun on him.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974, went into remission, recurred in 1980, and refused to seek treatment. She declined rapidly, developed peritonitis, and died in 1981.
Hazel Court was an English actress, known for her roles in horror films. She was awarded a British Critics Award for her role in Carnival (1946). She also appeared in Holiday Camp (1947), Bond Street (1948), and Ghost Ship (1952).
She published her autobiography, Hazel Court – Horror Queen, in 2008. She famously said, “Just in case I should pop off to Heaven in the night, I always remember to wash up, punch up the cushions, and straighten up after a dinner party. I wouldn’t want everyone to come in and find it a mess. It’s very English of me.” She also died of a heart attack in 2008.
Ingrid Berman was a Swedish actress, who won three Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, a BAFTA Award, and the Tony Award for “Best Actress.” She represented “the ideal of American womanhood.”
Director Anatole Litvak said she was one of the “greatest actresses in the world.” He also said, “She is a simple, straightforward human being. Through all her troubles she held to the conviction that she had been true to herself and it made her quite a person.” She died on her 67th birthday from cancer, four months after she wrapped the final film of her career.
Lana Turner was an American film and TV actress, with her first film role in Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937). She started acting when she was 16, bleached her hair, and played ingenue and femme fatale roles.
She married 7 men, and had one daughter, Cheryl Crane (by two-time husband Stephen Crane). Cheryl also incited controversy and scandal when she stabbed her mother’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, to death in an incident that the coroner ruled was self-defense. She was diagnosed with throat cancer, and passed away in 1995.
Leslie Brooks was an American actress, dancer and model. She was a photographer’s model in 1940, and then started acting in bit parts. she signed with Columbia in 1941, bleached her hair, and eventually appeared as femme fatale in Nine Girls (1944), Cover Girl (1944) and Blonde Ice (1948).
She appeared on the cover of National Police Gazette in 1943. She was also called “the girl with the most beautiful figure” by the International Mathematics Society in 1946. She retired after her second marriage, and then moved to Hawaii with her kids. She died in 2011.
Mara Corday was an actress, model and showgirl. She was a famous Playboy Playmate and cult figure. She started as a photographer’s model, and then appeared in Two Tickets to Broadway (1951). She also moved from showgirl to actress in Earl Carroll’s Vanities.
She began appearing in bit parts, and then moved on to co-starring Sci-Fi roles in The Black Scorpion and The Giant Claw. She also appeared in Western films: Man Without a Star and Raw Edge. Critic Leonard Maltin indicated that she had “more acting ability than she was permitted to exhibit.”
Myrna DellMyrna Dell was an American actress, dancer, writer and model, who first took the stage with her debut in A Night at Earl Carroll’s and then in Ziegfeld Girl (1941). She later told a reporter: “After a time….a girl gets bored with the glamour, the atmosphere, the drinking, the cigarettes to smoke, the wolves.”
After her myriad of roles in movies and TV, she later became a writer for Hollywood: Then and Now Magazine, where she shared personal stories from her time as an actress. She died in 2011. Her daughter scattered her ashes around the Hollywood sign.
Suzy Parker was an American actress and model (her sister was also a top model), who infamously appeared on the covers of some 70 magazines (Elle, Look, McCall’s, Paris Match, Vogue, etc), and also appeared in advertising campaigns for Revlon and Solo Products. The Beatles named a song after her, and she earned $100,000 (she was the first model to do so).
She famously said, “It’s easy to be beautiful — just be born that way.” She first appeared on the cover of Life magazine when she was 15. Vogue proclaimed that she represented the “confident, post-war American woman.” She passed away in 2003, following a long-and-painful struggle with ulcers and finally kidney failure.
Yvonne De Carlo
Yvonne De Carlo was an internationally known Canadian-American actress, singer and dancer. Walter Wanger called her “the most beautiful girl in the world.” She was also voted “Queen of Technicolor” three years in a row.
Director Cecil B DeMille once said of De Carlo, “I sensed in her a depth, an emotional power, a womanly strength…” She was recognized with two stars for her contributions to movies and TV on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She had a stroke in 1998, and then passed away from heart failure in 2007.
While so many of the pin-up girls also found fame and fortune with singing, dancing and acting careers, the pin-up artistry also found its way into calendars, and even on the side of fighter jets and bombers. Those seductive and scantily clad pin-up girls were seen as “morale boosters” for the soldiers overseas.
In all the various forms and formats, pin-up girls quickly permeated popular culture. While you may not see pin-up girls on fighter jets anymore, you can still find them in their various artistic forms. With ever-more-provocative photography, the pin-up girl in photography has grown up a lot too! What are your thoughts on the pin-up girl?