by Remy Hogan
photography by Maydeen Merino
She walks down a long hallway at a veteran hospital, clad in a classy 1940s dress and clutching a calendar. She turns into a patient’s room and sits to visit with him. As she hands him the calendar in which she is portrayed tastefully in pin-up, she sees a small, shy smile brighten his face. She begins asking questions and making conversation. He responds, albeit very quietly. When it is time to leave, the patient’s nurse pulls her aside and delivers humbling news: “That was the first time he has spoken in about a month.” Says Gina Elise, founder of Pin-Ups for Vets, “This kind of work makes you realize that sometimes it’s the small things, and giving your time can mean everything to someone else.”
Pin-Ups for Vets is a non-profit organization that has served the veteran and military community for 14 years by hosting events for veterans, fundraising for veteran rehabilitation equipment, and, most notably, by producing calendars made by female veterans for other veterans.
The calendars evoke a sense of triumph, not only because they are meant to celebrate those who serve, but also because they celebrate women. The female veterans who model for the calendars have the empowering opportunity to rediscover their femininity after returning home from serving their country in a male-dominated, masculine environment. A model for the 2020 calendar, Erikka Davis, served her country in the Army for six years. “I have worn red lipstick only three times in my life, and all three times were with Pin-Ups for Vets. I have been a fan of the pin-up era going back as far as I can remember. Hardening my personality seemed to be an effective way to keep up with my fellow male soldiers. This has been a difficult switch to turn off. Pin-Ups for Vets is slowly reminding me that I am not only allowed to be a veteran, but a lady as well.”
“There are many different genres and styles of pin-up. I think it’s a beautiful celebration of a woman,” Gina says. “We’re very classy; we wear dresses below the knee, and we have rules about what we wear to the hospitals.” Pin-Ups for Vets is inspired by American painter Gil Elvgren’s “girl next door” range of looks. “Should I have named it something different? Maybe. But that’s what it is!”
Gina, who splits her time between Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, first learned about pin-up as a theater history major at the University of California, Los Angeles. She graduated in 2004, and in 2006 American troops were coming back from Iraq needing lots of medical care and help assimilating back into American society. It was then that she learned about how, historically, pin-up images were painted along the sides of war planes to help boost morale for those serving their country.
A classic symbol of American society, pin-ups lifted spirits and brought bright smiles to faces during dark times. Exclaims Andrea Lewis, a Pin-Ups for Vets model who served in the Army for 7.5 years, “I still take pride in our service men and women. I want to be part of a cause that benefits service members both past and present. I love my country and the history that made it stand out from the rest of the world. Pin-ups were and still are a huge part of that. It’s an honor to be part of history.”
“We girls will be visiting patients in long hallways at the veteran hospitals, and as we walk back down the hallway and head to the next floor, we can see that in every single room the veterans are flipping through their calendars,” Gina proudly explains.
The process of getting those calendars in the hands of excited veterans is a long, arduous yet extremely rewarding process for Gina, who never expected to do what she does today. “I thought I was going to be a choreographer when I was younger. But my mom always used to say that ‘nothing from nothing is nothing’ so I took that concept and ran with it when I first had the idea for Pin-Ups for Vets. I take risks, and I like to call myself a ‘pinupreneur’ because I see obstacles as bumps and not the end.”
Gina’s dedication to her organization is not new to those who know her. She was heavily involved in school extracurriculars, serving as junior class president and director of activities in high school. She loved history, directing, acting and producing. She especially enjoyed a production class that she took at the film school at UCLA that required her to produce a show with a team of people. “I had never been so satisfied; it was so fulfilling to create something out of nothing.” She first worked as a hotel manager until she became inspired by the stories and needs of veterans and wanted to help. Thus, Pin-Ups for Vets was born.
“I never intended to be running a nonprofit organization, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Gina says, pride clear in her tone. “Where I thrive the most is having an idea and seeing it to the end, bringing a million details together to create something that wasn’t there before.” A million details is not an exaggeration. Over the course of a year, Gina and her dedicated team of veterans work tirelessly to organize fundraisers, hospital tours and the calendar. “My life is planning, planning, planning, execute,” Gina laughs.
While the 2020 calendar features 19 veteran women, Gina used to be the only model when Pin-Ups for Vets first started. She wore different wigs in each shot in the hopes that people would think it was a different woman on each page. “Now I’m only on the cover and the January page,” Gina jokes, although she appreciates every veteran and volunteer who puts her heart and soul into making Pin-Ups for Vets successful.
The calendar takes up most of Gina’s year. This is her full-time job. “It’s a huge process that takes between five and six months,” Gina explains. The process starts with a casting call and then moves onto scouting locations in La Verne, San Dimas and Claremont. It is then time to select vintage outfits, schedule photoshoots, make over each veteran, collect the final images, and edit them. Graphic design and printing wraps up the colorful, creative process. “It’s like making a film, like my own art. It challenges my brain and keeps me sharp.”
Creating the now famous calendar begins when Gina sends out a casting notice in the spring. There are months of pre-production during which Gina reads the stories of applicants and chats with them via Skype to decide who would be a great fit to represent the values of Pin-Ups for Vets, and who would be comfortable in 1940s style pin-up. This past year, she received more than 200 application entries from throughout the United States.
Once the cast is confirmed, Gina goes location scouting. Many of the veterans she works with love classic cars and airplanes, and Gina takes great care to track down locations in the Inland Empire that feature collector cars and vintage aircraft. The 2019 and 2020 calendars feature pictures taken at locations in La Verne, San Dimas, Claremont, Montclair, Upland and Glendora.
One of her favorite locations is the Hotel Shangri-La on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. Featuring Streamline Moderne art-deco design, the hotel was opened in 1940 and originally provided living quarters that functioned both as an apartment and hotel. During World War II, the United States Army Air Forces used the Hotel Shangri-La as a rehabilitation station. In fact, Shangri-La was the site where the idea for today’s modern Navy Seal program was born. Five watermen, including Santa Monica Lifeguard Robert Butt, Arthur Garrett, Frederick Wadley Jr., John McMahon and Frank Donohue were responsible for the birth of the program. In 1944, the Air Force began using Hotel Shangri-La to give aerial combat veterans some rest and recuperation before re-deploying or returning to civilian life.
Once locations are confirmed, Gina works with a company called Voodoo Vixen to select classy outfits and find the appropriate model sizing. From there, she works with her armed forces veteran models to make sure that they have ample time to secure their travel and hotel accommodations since many of them reside outside of California.
And then it begins. Three full days of 6 a.m. call times and assembly lines of veteran models head out to locations. “I’m very organized, and I have the days planned out hour-by-hour,” Gina laughs. She works with her trusted hair and makeup guru, Ana Vergara, who operates out of Los Angeles. Ana transforms the girls into classic 1940s pin-up models at local salons; it takes about an hour and a half for each model to complete her transformation and step into the world of 1940s style. As each model is ready, Gina takes them to their shooting location before returning to pick up the next model.
Her next major tasks are to make sure that each model feels comfortable posing and to ensure that the weather holds up. Gina remembers how stressful it is when it rains during the photoshoot, like it did for the 2020 edition. “This year, it rained two out of the three days we had the photoshoot. I could have been a meteorologist that day!” She was even location scouting the day before the photoshoot in order to secure backup plans since her models were flying in, and she wanted to respect their time and find solutions for them. But it was a job well done. “You would never know that it was raining, looking at the calendar now,” Gina says proudly. After three long days of taking pictures, Gina goes into post-production editing and graphic design. The final step is to send the calendar to the printer.
When she is not working on the calendar, the rest of Gina’s year is spent organizing fundraisers to support the organization’s multiple initiatives—everything from a 50-state Veterans Affairs and military hospital tour where the Pin-ups for Vets Ambassadors have visited with more than 14,000 veterans, to assembling care packages for deployed troops around the globe, to doing morale-boosting makeovers for military wives and female veterans, to donating rehabilitation equipment to veteran hospitals. “This was created very organically. Our first year, we donated $5,000 to the Loma Linda VA Hospital. The second year, we supported the Naval Medical Center San Diego.” Pin-Ups for Vets grew exponentially from there. In total, Pin-Ups for Vets has donated more than $70,000 to veteran and military hospitals to provide rehabilitation equipment and to improve veteran healthcare. “If I could pick one thing that is most inspiring, it’s the sense of resilience that these veterans have,” she says.
Visiting the veterans in the hospitals always humbles Gina and gives her a “giver’s glow,” but she especially loves working with the women who help her put the calendars together. “The women are multifaceted; they’ve served in combat, but they love getting dressed up. It’s an honor to work with this community to help them bring out their femininity and embrace that again.”
Oftentimes, the visits to the hospitals are what help the female veterans reconnect most with their femininity. The makeovers that the female veterans go through gives each of them a pep in their step. “Many of the women haven’t seen themselves that way before, and they get a little fierce,” Gina laughs fondly. “Many times the patients don’t realize that the ladies visiting, dressed to the nines in 1940s attire, are also veterans. It’s such a special surprise for the patients when they find out. It’s a beautiful brotherhood and sisterhood that I get to see in hospitals,” Gina says. Pin-Ups for Vets has helped female veterans break down stereotypes, rediscover their femininity, and serve those who have served alongside them.
In the words of Marine Corps veteran and Pin-Ups for Vets ambassador Jovane Henry: “I came for the service. I stayed for the sisterhood. There is nothing that says I can’t be a hard-charging Marine, and a lipstick-wearing pin-up, so I choose to be both.”