When I was invited to the "Hollywood Razzle Dazzle” by Pin-Ups For Vets, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. My lovely hula sister Cheryl found this volunteer opportunity and thought I would be the only one willing to dress up as a Pin-Up for this event. Cheryl met with Gina Elise and got to learn what her non-profit organization, Pin-Ups For Vets, was all about. The organization is dedicated to raising money and donate to hospitalized veterans. Gina Elise creates and personally delivers retro-inspired calendars to our Vets and to the Troops out on service, much like the popular World War II Pin-ups. The money donated also updates their rehabilitation equipment, plus it doesn’t hurt to get a thoughtful visit from a pretty lady.
After the "Hollywood Razzle Dazzle," I became friends with Gina and was very inspired and impressed by her desire to create this organization. Looking at both pages, you will see tons among tons of pictures where she has gone to bring a bright smile (with red lipstick on, of course!) and a calendar to appreciative Veterans in various hospitals. Gina is able to light up the room, bringing nostalgia and joy to our wonderful Vets who have served for the freedom we have in America. Pin-Ups For Vets has been featured on countless news stations across the United States, including Good Day LA, "Desert Car Kings" on the Discovery Channel and even Oprah.
With it just being Memorial Day, Gina was busy with many projects; including, more trips to visit Vets and a documentary premiere at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, but she took the time to answer some questions with us. We wanted to get to know Gina outside of her Pin-up persona and find out what compelled her to start Pin-Ups For Vets.
An Interview with Gina Elise
Founder of Pin-Ups For Vets
Where were you born and raised?
I am a Southern California girl at heart! I grew up in Claremont and Lake Arrowhead.
Do you have any siblings?
I have one younger brother.
What ethnicity are you?
I like people guessing!
At UCLA, what did you study? What have you learned from school that you have brought into Pin-Ups For Vets?
I was a theater history major at UCLA. I took classes in playwriting, screenwriting, directing, acting, history of theater, producing, etc. It was a great major because I was able to experience so many different areas of the arts. Producing the calendar is similar to producing a film, putting on a play, or creating an art exhibit. So many details have to come together to create the final product, and it takes hundreds of hours to make it happen. In college, I really learned how to effectively manage my time, and I honed my organizational skills. I had a lot of projects going on at once, whether it was writing chapters for a play, rehearsing actors for my directing class, or producing a magazine-style television show. I feel that a lot of what I did in college relates to my responsibilities today, as founder of a non-profit organization.
Can you tell us about your Grandpa Lou? How has he affected your life?
My grandfather graduated high school when he was 16 years old and had become a pharmacist by the time he was 20 years old. He was a Corporal in the Army Air Corps during WWII. When he served, they kept him stateside because they needed him to compound the medicine for the troops who were training to go into the European and the Pacific theaters. His basic training was at Ft. Pickett in Virginia, and then he was sent to Lincoln Army Air Field in Nebraska. He made suggestions about how the pharmacy could be run more effectively, and his superiors loved his ideas. After the war, he was honorably discharged with letters recommending him for Officer Candidate School. They felt that he would have a successful career in the military, but he missed being near his family and instead started his own insurance business back in Massachusetts. His clients were with him for 40 years! He passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was very young, but hearing stories about the kind of human being he was has really inspired me, and my project is a tribute to him and his service to our country. My mom told me that he always took her and my aunt to Veteran cemeteries on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, so that they would learn how important it was to honor our service members. He was proud of the years he spent in the service and felt that it was important to pass along this pride in one’s country to his children.
Who is Gina when she is pinned up and who is Gina when she's not a pin-up? Tell us about your life outside of Pin-Ups For Vets.
My friends can tell you that I act exactly the same when I’m a pin-up and when I’m not. I think the only difference is how I dress! When I’m doing events or visiting hospitals, I do 100% 1940s pin-up style with the rolled hair, the cat-eye liner, vintage inspired dresses, and platform shoes. In my day-to-day life as founder of the organization, I still wear red lipstick (it can make any outfit more glamorous), but I’m a bit more casual. I do have a lot of clothes that have a retro feel to them with red stripes or polka dots. I guess you could say that my style changes day to day depending on the “degree of pin-up” I’m trying to achieve.
In your spare time, what else do you like to do? Aside from Pin-Ups For Vets, what are you interests?
I love to go to flea markets, watch independent films, attend theater, check out art exhibits, hike, and spend time by the ocean.
What are your 5 favorite places to go in LA?
This is tough! Runyon Canyon, Will Rogers Beach, LACMA, the Farmer's Market and anywhere in Santa Monica.
If you were driving around Hollywood, what would you be listening to? What's on your playlist?
I don’t listen to my iPod in my car because it’s a 2003 and it doesn’t have a USB port! So, I listen mostly to Top 40 stations and Oldies on the radio. At home, I like to listen to Thievery Corporation, Natalie Cole, Florence and the Machine, Imelda May, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, Puppini Sisters, and Adele. I love music with great lyrics.
When & how did you think to send deployed soldiers some "care packages"?
I thought it was important for our deployed service members to know that we are thinking of them back home. So, one of the options on the website
is donating a calendar, posters, box of brownies, etc. for a deployed service member. I get requests from units weekly for Pin-Ups For Vets items, and I try to meet these requests. These care packages provide a little “taste of home” and have proven to boost morale in the combat zone.
Honestly, how grueling was the process of starting this non-profit in the Los Angeles area? Did people give you a hard time with your idea?
I could not have imagined that the Pin-Ups For Vets project was going to turn into what it is today. I had the idea back in the Spring of 2006, and wanted to produce a calendar where the proceeds would go to a local Veterans hospital to help buy rehabilitation equipment. When the 2007 calendar was released, I started sending the website link to the Milbloggers (Military Bloggers), and they immediately embraced the idea of the project. Towards the middle of 2007, the project’s first supporters started asking when the 2008 calendar was coming out…and the rest is history! To date, we’ve donated $50,000 to various VA hospitals across the US to help buy cognitive, occupational, and physical rehabilitation equipment and have also made visits to 35 VA and Military hospitals! When we were in the production stages of the first calendar, I did have a few people say, “Who is going to buy a pin-up calendar?”, but I just felt that it was a unique idea, to revisit the beautiful nose-art from WWII and create a fundraising calendar that would help our hospitalized Veterans and Wounded Warriors today. I just moved forward with my vision, and I’m very proud of what we have been able to accomplish since this whole project began! There have been 9 flags flown over military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan in honor of the project, and we have also received many community service awards.
Explain your inspiration for channeling your creativity in the retro vintage way. Every year since you started the calendar project, has it become harder to come up with scene ideas? Do you have a creative director for each year's calendar?
I collect pin-up art books, so every year before we shoot, I spend time looking through them to get new ideas for locations, poses, props, and outfits. There has never been a shortage of ideas. Sometimes, I will be in a location and be inspired by the aesthetic or feel of that place, and then borrow elements and incorporate those elements into one of my pin-up photos. Regarding a creative director, I come up with the concept for each shot, but the past two years, my good friend, Leah Adams, has acted as Artistic Director on the photo shoots. She helps out to make sure that the look of the scene is perfect, and she is skilled at coming up with great poses!
Have you explored any other different avenues, or thought of collaborating with other related organizations, to help out the hospitalized vets?
Yes! I love partnering with other organizations. In December of 2010, we partnered with non-profit organization, Cooking With the Troops. We raised money to make a visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, so we could cook a gourmet meal for our Wounded Warriors who were being treated there. I also did a calendar signing! We flew in Chef Ellen Adams from New York, to help create this wonderful cooking event. Our recovering troops LOVED it! This past January we collaborated with Classic Glamour Dolls to sponsor a contest called “Military Wives Pin-Up For A Day”, where we selected and pampered four very special Military wives and did a pin-up shoot with them in Beverly Hills.
You hosted the Pin-Up Palooza last year and the Hollywood Razzle Dazzle this year. How have these events helped out with the calendars and your cause?
The events help to fundraise and also help us to spread the word about our mission. We’ve featured burlesque dancers, 1940s-style singers, awesome raffle prizes, and a vintage swimwear fashion show. The events are always glamorous and attract a lot of supporters! Many of the attendees dress up in 1940s retro style. You see a lot of ladies with flowers in their hair, red lips, and many of the guys are in suspenders and hats. Stepping into one of our events is like a blast from the past!
What is the message that you most want people to receive?
I really want people to appreciate our service members and the sacrifices they have made for our country. They (along with their families) give so much, so that we can live the way that we do. I always try to encourage volunteerism at local VA hospitals. You really get back so much more than you give. These visits can be life-changing. There is a quote I love by Winston Churchill, “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give”, and it really is so true. Giving back to others truly are some of the best moments in one’s life.
What are 4 of your favorite memories visiting some of our nation's heroes?
There are so many memories. A lot of the patients start weeping because they are so moved that people are thinking of them! Many of the Veterans, especially the Vietnam-era Vets, did not get a warm welcome upon their return home. It means so much to our Vets to know that we appreciate them. To see them so moved at this small gesture, lets me know that we are doing the right thing. I get comments like, “Am I dreaming???” or “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day!” I want to take their mind off of the fact that they are in the hospital. I want to distract them with a little surprise visit and gift of appreciation. I think that sometimes this human-to-human contact allows them to forget about their pain or current circumstances for a short time, that is so necessary to the healing process. I remember that one time, I was in the room of a very young Veteran with a very new injury. He must have been in his early 20s and was a double amputee. He was sitting in a wheelchair when I entered the room. I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting from California and that this calendar was a gift of appreciation that had been donated by one of my supporters. I tried to ask him a few questions and he gave me very short answers. I couldn’t really get a sense of what he was thinking or if he was in pain. After the visit, I said goodbye to him, thanked him for his service, and just as I was about to leave the room, he reached out his arms to hug me. I just didn’t expect it. Thinking about that moment right now, makes me very emotional. As I hugged him, I realized then that he knew I was grateful to him for his brave service. I will never forget it.
What's next for Pin-Ups For Vets?
We are currently in production for the 2013 edition that will be released.
Happy Independence Day America!
Visit Pin-Ups For Vets' Sites
Summer Survival Kit
MAP teaches art education to New York youth and transforms into apparel
MAP's featured artist teaches print and
mixed media workshops in NYC