Tampa hosts convention for sexy pin-up culture

TAMARA LUSH Associated Press Published:

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Kelly Ackley, a 30-something mom of three, is wearing a black bustier, pink taffeta tutu and pink, kitten-heel boots. She's straddling a small rocking horse and with a saucy glance over her right shoulder, giggles as her is photo is snapped. Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," squawks softly in the background.

Ackley sounds out some vowels, as she was instructed by the photographer: "Aaaa, eee, iiii, oooo, uuuuu," she says, exaggerating her mouth so her facial expressions look alternatively seductive and coyly surprised.

"Cute!" says the photographer, 66-year-old Richard Strawn.

"It helps to make a sound when you pose," said Ackley, smiling demurely with Ferrari red lips.

Welcome to the sexy world of pin-up modeling. This isn't the 1950s: these days, pin-up models are all ages, all sizes and sometimes tattooed.

"I give women the opportunity to see themselves as beautiful," said Strawn, who co-owns a Tampa photo studio and a magazine called "Pin-Up America," with his business partner, April Catalano.

"In the world of pin-ups there's no stereotypes," Catalano said.

Strawn and Catalano are organizing the first-ever American Pinup Burlesque Fest in Tampa's historic Ybor City neighborhood to run March 23-25. A pin-up pageant, hot rod demonstration, rockabilly bands and workshops on hair and makeup are in the lineup, which will be held in a restored, 1920s theater called The Cuban Club. There will also be a burlesque show.

Two other pin-up conventions, unrelated to this one, take place later this year, both called "Glamourcon," one in Chicago and the other in Long Beach, Calif.

Examples of the retro sexy style found in the pin-up world are easy to find in pop culture. Think singer Katy Perry's look when she performed her duet with "Sesame Street'''s Elmo (later pulled from the show), Lana Del Rey's jet-black eyeliner and Prada's 2012 Spring/Summer collection. And burlesque star Dita von Teese has created a line of affordable, pin-up-inspired lingerie for Target in Australia. (No word on whether the lacy back-and-red underthings will be available in the U.S.)

Even with all the implied sexiness, there's a sweetness and girl-next-door look to pin-up style -- especially when you compare it to the in-your-face raunch of some of today's starlets.

"Back in the '40s and '50s, it was sometimes associated with being a little risqué, but there was a fine line between naughty and innocent," Catalano said. "Sometimes people think that if the word 'pin-up' is used, then it means that it's porn. I have to help break that mold, whether it's through the magazine or photo shoots."

Very little of what Catalano and Strawn do could be considered racy by the standards of the 21st century. There's a lot of cleavage, but in the magazine, no nudity.

Catalano and Strawn started careers in pin-up two years ago when they collaborated on a calendar for the Cigar City Tattoo Convention (the area where their studio is located contains old Cuban cigar factories). "Miss Cigar City" was named and then the "Pin-Up America" magazine was born. Today, they have correspondents in Australia, Poland and California and thousands of Facebook fans. They also produce a monthly pin-up Internet TV show.

The women who model for the magazine don't need experience -- for a recent issue dedicated to the troops, three military wives posed on the cover in sexy fatigue shirts. A group of regulars -- semi-professional models or local burlesque dancers -- drop by the studio for the Internet TV show and magazine spreads. None are tall or ultra-thin.

"I've had issues with my weight and how I look," said Christina Frasciello, aka "Judy Pop," one of the magazine's most popular models and TV show host. "It gives you confidence. At 30, through pin-up, I embrace my body."

Frasciello, of Bradenton, who works at a hot rod and custom auto body shop, is curvy, with a full sleeve tattoo, Bettie Page-inspired black hair with bangs and red lipstick.

"There's a respectability and sweetness that comes with pin-up," she said, noting that one of her favorite outfits is a white blouse and pencil skirt hemmed at the knee. "A girl walking around half-naked, that gets old."

Women who come to the studio for photo shoots sometimes make it a party, bringing wine, friends, moms, even grandmas. Some are curious but insecure.

"A lot of times, it's when women think they're going downhill, and I get to show them that they're not going downhill," said Strawn. "I'm famous for saying that you're just learning to be a 10 when you're 40."

Ackley, the mom, admitted being nervous about the shoot as a friend brushed dramatic eyeliner on her lids and stuck on thick fake lashes. Within an hour, Ackley was transformed from suburban mom into a 1950s pin-up cowgirl. She planned on giving the photos to her husband, who always says she's beautiful -- something she doesn't quite believe.

But wants to.

"In real life, women have curves, and I think that we should be able to show them off without being embarrassed and without feeling insecure," she said.

And with that, she grabbed her cowboy hat and headed into the studio, kitten heels clicking on the concrete floor.

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