Her fascination with pinup-style photography started when she was just a young teenager and she spotted a movie-magazine layout on Rita Hayworth.
She was posing on a bed in what looked like a slip it was probably a nightgown, I know that now, but it wasnt like any nightgown Id ever worn, says Yeager. I got out one of my mothers slips, one with lace at the top, which looked a little bit like what Rita had worn. And my mother took my picture in it. I dont know whatever happened to that. I was always afraid it would fall into the wrong hands, like it was something bad.
Yeager was, soon enough, taking the pictures rather than posing for them, though just for fun. There wasnt much for kids to do in the rural area where she lived outside Pittsburgh even getting to the stop for the school bus was a three-mile hike and she started staging impromptu shoots with her girlfriends, posing them in funky outfits pulled together from the contents of old trunks in the family attic, taking the pictures with her moms Brownie box camera.
I remember one girl who used to hang around with me who was a little bit overweight, Yeager says. She was always there, hoping my popularity would rub off on her or something like that. And one time I asked her if she wanted to come over and pose for some pictures. She was so excited! I remember we made a bra for her out of a scarf, laying it across her chest, and I shot her like that out on the front porch. Pretty daring I cant believe we really did it. But we did.
Other sessions followed, with no shortage of girls willing to strike a risqué pose. They wanted to pose, Yeager laughs. They were dying to pose. Actual nudity, however, was out of the question. I wouldnt have known what to do with them, she says. Where would you even get something like that developed? We certainly didnt know how to develop anything.
A few years later, Yeagers family moved to Miami, where her buxom blond good lucks soon made her a top fashion model, working both runways and photo shoots. But the idea of taking the pictures rather than posing for them remained stuck in her head. And in 1953, Yeager began taking night classes at what was then called the Lindsey Hopkins Vocational School. And her very first class assignment caused a sensation.
The instructor told all of us to just go out and shoot anything we wanted, and the class would critique it together, she recalls. Yeager came back with film shot on a four-inch-by-five Speed Graphic press camera the kind you see pushy newspaper photographers wielding in old movies, with an exploding hand-held flash shot at Africa USA, a (mostly) cageless zoo in Boca Raton. But these werent your ordinary send-em-to-Grandpa pictures of zebras and chimps. They showed Yeagers model pals, wearing strategically cut leopard-skin bathing suits, cavorting with cheetahs in shots ranging from adventurous to pure Freudian meltdown.
Yeagers classmates were speechless. Her teacher ordered her to send them off to magazines immediately. Sure enough, a publication called Eye with a healthy appetite for cheesecake put one of them on its cover, and Yeagers new career was born.
Curiously, that photo wasnt one of those Yeager shot with her friend Bettie Page, a new Miami arrival who had already become a cult heroine back home in New York with the negligee-and-high-heels sessions she did with amateur camera clubs. Page would go on to become one of the most famous pinup models of the 1950s (thanks in no small part to a shot of her next to a Christmas tree, wearing nothing but a Santa hat, that Yeager sold to Playboy). But back then she was just mostly another one of Pages buddies, donating her time in return for free pictures for her modeling portfolio.