Need a diversion? How about a documentary about extraordinary and everyday women who compete in a Pin Up contest? That’s the story behind “Bombshells and Dollies,” a new documentary on Amazon (and other platforms) by Santa Monica resident and producer Dan Halperin, and it came about almost by accident.
Dan was in Las Vegas exploring the possibility of a TV show about cars and found himself at Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, where “25,000 people come from all over the world, celebrating rockabilly music, classic cars, vintage style, pin up and burlesque culture. It takes over the Orleans Hotel for four days, a huge hotel off the Strip that turns into the 1950s for four days.”
PIN UP CONTEST
Focused on the cars, Dan says he noticed “almost peripherally” a number of women dressed unusually colorfully in vintage style clothing. The TV show he came to pitch didn’t fly, and he thought the story of these women might make a good reality show.
“Several hundred women from around the world submit to compete in the Miss Viva Las Vegas pin up contest, and of the hundreds who submit, 12 are selected as finalists.” The pople Dan pitched the idea to liked it, but wanted it partly-scripted to feature the kinds of signature catfights seen on other reality shows.
Dan went back to Rockwell DeVil, founder of the Miss Viva Las Vegas Pin Up contest with that proposal, and she said flat out, “We would never do that.” Till then, Dan thought that pin up was just about dress up. “It was a shocking blow to me. She said, ‘We would never demean ourselves that way,’ and that flipped a switch for me. We decided to do a documentary, and I ended up following the 12 finalists through the final competition.”
The stories the women tell paint a picture of female empowerment, embracing all body types, races, sexual orientation and cultures. For them, pin up is an emotional and creative outlet. As a producer who leans toward embracing social issues in his work, Dan says, “This film is very much about women’s freedom of self-expression and developing self-respect, about total body acceptance, no matter what size or shape, and celebrates every woman’s right to look and feel gorgeous.”
PIN UP CULTURE
It might be easy to dismiss Pin Up culture as skin-deep, but “Bombshells and Dollies” presents a personal look at the lives of this diverse cast of adult women. From different backgrounds, classes and geographical locations, they all have full lives outside their passion project.
Most are employed, some have their own business, others are single moms or homemakers with families, still others share a life with a same-sex partner. What they have in common is that they share a commitment to community engagement as volunteers or doing charity work.
And while pin up focuses on beauty and ideals of femininity, it isn’t just a vanity project: these women have overcome great challenges to get to the Miss Viva Las Vegas competition. Which that makes for some dramatic, moving and inspiring moments in the documentary.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
In a way, Pin Up could be said to have come full circle.
Dan says, “We take our film back to the 40s, when men were overseas fighting in World War II, and women were not only raising their families but holding down 40-hour-a-week jobs to fill the mens’ places. Pin ups were images of beautiful women, often celebrities, posed in a sexy but modest style, that the soldiers ‘pinned up’ in their barracks, their lockers, painted on their airplanes. Even the ‘girl next door’ was sending cheesecake pictures to the GIs, to remember what they were fighting for and coming home to, knowing they were being supported.
“Like today’s women, they had very full lives. And clothing from the 40s and 50s included much fuller body types. As contemporary women were finding that today’s clothing just doesn’t fit every body type, they hearkened back to these styles. Pin up today takes the best of the 40s and 50s, and leaves the more oppressive aspects of womens’ lives from that era behind, turning it into something positive instead.”
BUT IS IT FEMINIST?
As the post-war years passed, the 50s came roaring to life with rock and roll, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and rockabilly culture began influencing styles. “Rockabilly is a huge aspect of pin up culture,” Dan said, “and the music embraced women wearing a whole new fashionable, brightly colored style of clothing. Often you’ll see them posed with vintage cars, another aspect of the rockabilly lifestyle at Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend.”
One of the judges of the Miss Viva Las Vegas contest is professional model Angelique Noire, Dan said. “She says in the film that she gets hired by major brands to model all over the world, and ‘they decide what I’m going to wear, they do my makeup, my hair, select the photographer, location and pose. But in pin up, it’s my own creativity, where I’m in control of all aspects of my image.’”
So is pin up feminist or not? According to Dan, “The women who do pin up say ‘I celebrate my sexuality and physical presentation, but not at the expense of my intellect and what I do for the community.’ It is ‘woman strong, look at me, I am all of this.’”
This year’s Viva Las Vegas Weekend has been cancelled due to COVID-19…leaving Dan Halperin with 1000 DVDs he intended to sell there. So do him a favor: Find out more at the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/bombshellsanddollies/ (and click through for the trailer). For a direct link to “Bombshells and Dollies” visit Amazon.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.