InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. ELIXHER recently sat down with Elizabeth Rivera, a Brooklyn-based pin-up model and go-go dancer.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
ELIZABETH: I was born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. I was raised there for sixteen years of my life. I came up to Georgia and lived with my mom for a while. I had previously lived with my grandmother and grandfather. I finished high school in New York and then went to the New School and studied Literature there. It was easily the most formative years. I created some of the most important relationships in terms of friendships and early lesbian dating. [Laughs.]
I worked a random gamut of jobs. Somehow I’m at the Queensboro Community College as an officer manager. I get to experience the other side of higher education in terms of community college. (I went to a private college.) I appreciate seeing these women who are coming from having a kid right out of high school or in the middle of high school and trying to get their life back on track. I like helping them create that for themselves. Listening to their stories makes the day worth it honestly.
I have currently been go-go dancing which is one of the best things because it gives me the chance to get some frustration out and meet some really great people. I mainly go-go dance queer parties. I’m open to straight parties but I feel safer and more comfortable with my own people. The venture that gives me most of my self-expression and joy is my pin-up modeling, which I’ve been doing for a little over a year now.
ELIXHER: What drew you to the craft?
ELIZABETH: Go-go dancing mainly because you get to have great relationships with different DJs and promoters. Also, it’s wonderful being up there and bringing a party to life. You’re up there giving them a reason to enjoy themselves. It’s wonderful.
When you’re raised by older people, you are going to know the TMC channel like it’s the back of your hand. So I was raised around these classic films and vintage clothing because of my grandmother, and also my grandfather’s demeanor. He was very much an older gentlemen. A lot of his tastes were very clean-cut and tailored. A lot of that is part of the 1950s/60s look and I was definitely drawn to it immediately as a young child.
As I got older, a lot of my style has very much been pencil skirts and blouses. When I started pin-up modeling, I realized that this is where I wanted to be. The people I’ve met in it and the cultures that are intertwined in it are really beautiful and make me really happy. Also somehow they are very accepting of queerness, tattoos, hair color and whatnot because a lot of it also intertwines with alternative modeling, which is very heavily part of the punk and rockabilly scene. I love it.
ELIXHER: Where does your name “Betty Chantel” come from?
ELIZABETH: [Laughs.] It’s funny because naturally you want to get a persona or change your name a bit. But this woman named Betty Red, who is the Madame of this site called Pin Up Lifestyle which is where you get an amazing network of the culture, was talking about it with me. She was like it makes me really happy to know your real name is Elizabeth because there are so many Bettys in this culture that aren’t actually named Elizabeth. If you’re named Shannon, rock Shannon and rock it hard. Don’t play with something that you don’t know how to own very well.
As a kid my nickname was Betty. When I came to America is when I chose Liz. When I came to Georgia there were three other girls in my class named Betty. It was Betty Ann, Betty Sue and Betty Luanne. And I was like, this is not happening in my life right now. [Laughs.] So it became Liz. It’s easy, it’s standard and it connects to my name Elizabeth very easily. Chantel is my actual middle name.
ELIXHER: Who is Betty Chantel? What’s she like?
ELIZABETH: It’s the more playful side of me. It’s the more flirty side of me. It’s the more creative side of me. I really appreciate that it’s like wearing a hat for the day or evening. And it’s very much part of yourself. It’s just something you want to bring out that’s different. When I’m in the office, I’m Elizabeth Rivera and I have to get work done. But when I’m able to get on stage and I’m able to be behind the camera, it’s a whole other experience. It’s completely freeing. I think people should have that option for themselves, something that’s other than who they are every day.
ELIXHER: As a lesbian who embraces this kind of hyperfemininity as an art form and plays on these very traditional gender roles, do you experience any backlash?
ELIZABETH: [Laughs.] As a femme, there’s this concept that you are not allowed to live your everyday life and not wear a flag. As if somehow as a femme, you need to let everyone in the room know, “P.S. I’m gay.” I don’t understand that. I don’t think I ever will completely understand it. I’m not nearly as presenting as my girlfriend is and I probably never will be. It’s because I’m proud to be a femme. I love being a femme. I don’t hide the fact that I’m a lesbian. I’m very open about it. It’s not something that I put on in the morning or at night. I present this every single day and I’m very happy about it.
Thankfully in the current pin-up culture being queer is very accepted. Every single person on set knows I’m a lesbian. My girlfriend comes to sets all the time where there will be male photographers that acknowledge her as my partner.
My main experience has been with other queer brown women who don’t think I present enough as a lesbian and I should be wearing bracelets or put my hair differently or it should be part of my [stage] name. I’m like, no, bitch. This is how I live my life.
I have had a few difficult conversations about being a part of a culture that at one point, as brown people, we weren’t allowed to do a lot of basic things like share the same doctor, go to the same bathroom, all these Jim Crow era issues. These are very real things, which is why I want to be a part of this culture. And last time I checked there was a huge Doo-wop sensation and musical experience during that time period. Motown was in existence. There were all these brown and black actors and actresses during that time period. Yes, they could not share the same stage at the same time with white performers, but they were still there and still real. That’s why I think the idea that we weren’t treated fairly in that time period is ridiculous. That’s true but we were still there. We existed. The Doo-wop groups were huge and were black female-centered. If anything, I want to give homage to that.
ELIXHER: You’re also a self-described feminist. How do you reconcile being a pin-up model and continue to challenge things like patriarchy and the objectification of women?
ELIZABETH: Without a doubt what I think the feminist movement was trying to say and is still trying to prove is that women should be treated equal. It’s kind of ridiculous this idea that you must some how strip down your femininity to be taken seriously. If you decide to be hyperfemme or if that’s how you relate as a queer woman, as a black woman, as a woman in general, that’s how you feel comfortable, then you need to deconstruct that, be aware of your actions, be aware that somehow this is still a projection of something you’re supposed to ideally be, turn that on its head and still be connected to your political beliefs. And I do that every day. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t wear high heels and makeup. You shouldn’t have to reconcile things. You can integrate things.
Turning these hyperfeminine looks into something that is part of my own political exchange is kind of revolutionary. It’s this idea that you can be as feminine as you want to be and still want to be treated as an equal. It’s like you should be whoever the fuck you want and be given respect. No matter what you’re never going to make the entire room happy. It’s more about making yourself happy and making the room aware that you don’t give a fuck.
ELIXHER: Absolutely. So switching gears a little. I know you’re also a lover of vintage.
ELIZABETH: Oh my god. My girlfriend could tell you right now, I’m not allowed to buy any goddamn thing. [Laughs.]
ELIXHER: What has been your greatest vintage find?
ELIZABETH: Without a doubt, the one thing I love the most about New York is that because there’s so much old money here for so long and women loved getting furs made for themselves, you can get a fur for $38 that’s vintage. I bought one the other day and it’s real. And I’m not in the mood to hear the PETA people get at me. I don’t really give a flying fuck what your opinions are. I respect that you have your own, but it’s been dead. I’m not going out getting one personally made for myself. I understand that somehow it makes y’all upset and angry. I respect the tofu-eating, kale-loving lesbians. Great. But I like nice things. [Laughs.] Nice things include fur. [Laughs.] I got this beautiful ankle-length black rabbit fur coat for $38. Yes, ma’am.
ELIXHER: [Laughs.] Who or what inspires you?
ELIZABETH: It’s an insane compilation of people. My grandmother has to be the most inspiring person ever. Mainly because she was a nurse and got left by her husband with two small children, put herself back in school and became a teacher. And married a man later on in her life who was actually her art teacher in grad school and raised me. She has never stopped feeling as if she can become something better than she is right now. She has never settled which I really appreciate.
Shifting to college, Ann Snitow who still works at the New School. She is this amazing second wave feminist who’s wonderful. Traceyann Williams who is this black feminist who teaches at the New School and also Barry Karp who is the cookiest and the most lovable woman possible. She would probably scare you, but she’s wonderful.
It runs the gamut with revolutionaries and also old Hollywood stars and burlesque dancers—their own ways of flowing back and forth and feeling as if womanhood is not defined by one thing.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be part of the black queer community?
ELIZABETH: There isn’t one specific way to be a black queer woman in this community [in New York City]. I’ve been different places where there was a definition that I didn’t always fit into. What’s really beautiful to me is the fact that Brooklyn is such a wide gamut of [queer] women, which makes dating very small. [Laughs.] But which also makes dating complicated in a wonderful way. I also love that you can constantly change yourself in the queer community and it is accepting in that way.
ELIXHER: What are some changes you’d like to see?
ELIZABETH: I see the need for spaces that are just ours and having the minor groups in that. But sometimes things become a little too cliquish. We should be a more accepting of including people in what we define as our groups. There is currently a change happening in a lot of spaces where I know there’s less acceptance of others. There needs to be a dialogue that happens between the inclusion of transhood and lesbians, and having the conversation in a mature manner. Having both sides be seen. Seeing the need to have just a queer brown women’s space and trans people respecting that. This concept that we are all one is bullshit. We should admit that to ourselves. I don’t know what it is to be you; I never will be. I want to see more respect given to the need for separatism and also inclusion. And have that dialogue in a space that’s also safe to have that conversation. It shouldn’t be on either turf. But I also think that because of that is where you get this amazing growth. This kind of tension. Tension is necessary for growth. I don’t think we should ever be complacent.
ELIXHER: Very true. So what’s next Betty?
ELIZABETH: [Laughs.] Right now I’m working on a lot of collaborations. I’ve been chatting with a woman named Elli Roe. She’s a brown woman who is also a pin-up model and who wants to do a shoot together. I want to see more brown women in the pin-up culture. I want women to feel comfortable walking into these spaces. That’s part of why I think what I do is so important. I’m proud to say I’ve been getting paid jobs for what I do. I love the fact that I’ve been published several times now in magazines. The next thing for me is traveling more. I’m spreading my own definition of a pin-up model. I love the fact that because of what I do, I’ve gotten to meet so many other great brown women who do what they do in terms of burlesquing, in terms of go-going, in terms of pin-uping. I love that there’s a space for that. As a queer brown woman, I’m proud to be experiencing these new spaces that I never been in before. I think just self-growth and growth of my own work.
To see more of Elizabeth, visit bettychantel.com.