Pin-up pioneers

(First published in the June 21, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Local women are turning nostalgia into a new genre of entertainment

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Ashley Simpson strikes a pose during the Miss High Octane contest Sunday.

Rachel Jean Davis had never entered a pin-up contest before the Miss High Octane event Sunday on the 400 Block in Wausau. So she was excited. Davis spent two hours that morning creating her 1940s-era hairstyle and another half hour on the outfit and makeup, checking every detail of the retro look she was taking to the stage.

Pin-up costuming is definitely an art, and Davis is no stranger to the art of transformation. She’s a performer and costume designer with Wausau Community Theater, and organizer of the haunted house in the Wausau Center mall last year. But this stage appearance—dressing up as a pin-up gal, strutting the outdoor stage while striking poses, and answering a question with attitude—gave her a different sense of excitement, nerves, and empowerment.

Pin-up refers to the posters and magazine pages from decades ago, of female models and celebrities that men would pin up on their wall. The pop culture phenomenon dates back to the 1920s flapper era, but saw its heyday in the 1940s, 50s and 60s—think Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, and Betty Grable.

Today, pin-up events that recreate that sense of vintage pop culture have become a new kind of entertainment genre. It has especially taken off in central Wisconsin, thanks largely to a key set of performers who make the rounds and encourage newbies like Davis to join in.

Besides the sheer spectacle of it for the audience—there were 14 colorful contestants on Sunday—what’s especially alluring about the modern pin-up phenomenon is how it includes women of all ages and body types. Ladies in the pin-up scene say their meticulously created characters make them feel empowered, that these events are thrilling and leave them feeling ready to take on the world.

For the audience, pin-up contests add a creative style and personality to an event. Sunday’s Miss High Octane show marked the third year pin-up was included in Wausau Events’ Summer Kick-off car show. “It was really fun,” says Wausau Events’ director Sara Hujar. “A lot of people like to see the girls dressed up in the fancy clothes and hairstyles. It brings them back to a different era.”

Hujar started the job late last summer, and though she has been in the events businesses for six years, this was her first exposure to pin-up entertainment. And she was impressed. “The gals put so much effort into it. They started early in the day getting into their outfits… They were thoughtful about their costumes and putting energy into the performance.”

Pin-up contests now happen regularly throughout Central Wisconsin, often in small towns like Gleason, Symco and Iola. They almost exclusively follow car shows, since the performers’ vintage vibe matches the vintage cars. After the contest photographers often shoot photos of the contestants with the cars, often to the delight of their owners.

From the outside, it might be hard to distinguish beauty contests from pin-up contests, because appearance is such an important factor. But there is a big difference. It’s not about picking the most model-perfect woman; contestants are judged by how they put together their outfit, how they present themselves on stage, the poses they strike, and how cheekily they answer a question from the host—a recent example being, “Young Elvis or fat Elvis, and why?”

Pin-up contests are in fact shows, and feel more like a loving caricature of beauty pageants and vintage pop culture fashion.

And pin-up might be ahead of the curve, considering that the Miss America pageant only recently removed the swimsuit portion of the competition and is promoting a shift away from superficial appearance. Pin-up contests don’t discount appearances, but they’re more about celebrating showmanship, and in as many forms as the women participating. Tall and short, thin and plump, young and decades older.

A creative sisterhood


Rachel Jean Davis struts the stage of The 400 Block during the Miss High Octane contest Sunday.

Ashley Simpson of Waupaca has been competing in pinup contests for five years and is now the host of Miss Iola, a competition held at the annual Iola Car Show. She dreamed of being a model since she was young. But at 5-feet 2-inches tall, Simpson knew the odds of becoming a professional model were slim, as the industry has height requirements she could never reach.

She was intrigued and terrified of participating in her first pin-up contest five years ago, in Stevens Point at the Pfiffner Pioneer Park bandshell. But it turned out to be surprisingly empowering. “In pin-up, it doesn’t matter what size you are, or how old you are,” says Simpson, 29. “Pin-up is versatile and literally anyone can do it.”

Simpson then traveled to her next show, hosted by the winner of that Stevens Point event. She didn’t win that Mississippi Mayhem in West Salem event, but did attract the attention of photographers who wanted to work with her. From there, her modeling career took off, and she has since traveled the country to do pin-up style shoots under the name Ginny Rosewater.

Beth Juris runs the Miss High Octane contest at Wausau Events’ car show in Wausau. She got her start at that same show with Simpson, and they’ve since become friends. Juris says that three years ago, when she first pitched the idea of a pin-up show in Wausau, there was a concern about whether it would be family friendly. No worries, and that’s part of the appeal. While pin-up is meant to be sexy, it’s sexy in a sentimental, old-fashioned way. Miss High Octane, like many shows in the area, have standards to make sure no one wears anything too revealing or scandalous.

Juris also says she purposely doesn’t use crowns or tiaras. “In my eyes, that makes it a beauty contest,” Juris says. Judges for the shows are usually women and often participants of other contests.

Both Juris and Simpson credit Stevens Point singer Carmen Lee with launching the pin-up scene in central Wisconsin. Lee organized that pin-up contest at Pfiffner Pioneer Park in 2013—the very first one in the area, held in conjunction with the Kustom Kars of America car show. That’s where Juris and Simpson started, and now both are running their own pin-up shows too.



Carmen Lee, ready to hit the 400 Block stage on Sunday

Lee, founder of the band Carmen Lee and the Tomorrow River Two, always had a flare for vintage style, which perfectly fits her retro country rockabilly music. She got her first taste of pin-up in 2011 after entering a contest in the tiny town of Symco, with encouragement from its organizer at the time, Sarah Schimke. She entered several other contests, and after getting on a calendar for the first time, Lee started her own pin-up photo studio. She also set up a vintage clothing line called Big Star.

Those first years on the pin-up circuit weren’t always easy. One magazine owner was especially unkind, and Lee says she nearly quit until she received a note of encouragement from Doris Mayday, a world-famous pin-up model. That inspired her not only to keep going, but to start her own contest.

“I realized I wanted to give gals what I wish I had when I was starting out… support, encouragement and kindness,” Lee says.

Pinup has an important impact on body image. Lee says she suffered from eating disorders in her youth and participating in pinup has helped her and other women achieve a positive body image.

Then the organizers of Kustom Kars of America asked if she would organize a pin-up show at their 2013 event. From that beginning, Lee has been determined that the shows she runs be encouraging and supportive. That vibe carries over to the contests she has inspired others to run. The competition aspect of the shows isn’t as important as the camaraderie among the women, Simpson says. “You make a whole group of friends who, maybe outside of this scene, you would be intimidated by,” Simpson says. “They are all the sweetest, nicest girls. Everyone is ready to help each other out.”

That was apparent on Sunday’s Miss High Octane show. My interviews with the contestants were interrupted by frequent congratulations and compliments from the other pin-up ladies. Audience members at these shows (and I’ve been to several across the state) are just as supportive and enthusiastic.

This was the vibe Rachel Jean Davis experienced at her first pin-up show and it left her ready for more. “I felt a lot of energy from all the people, and the atmosphere, the old cars,” Davis says about the 400 Block that day. “It’s really exciting. There’s a real sisterhood here.”

Want to see a pin-up contest in action? Here are some upcoming events in the area this summer:

• The Northern Roundup in Gleason holds a pin-up event at 3 pm as part of its car show June 30 at the MC Festival Grounds, N5890 County Road H

• Iola Car Show July 14

• Symco Weekender (east of Iola) Aug. 11.