Bettie Page is an ambitious, naïve, and devout young Christian woman who longs to leave Nashville, Tennessee, following a childhood of sexual abuse, a failed wartime marriage, and a gang rape. In 1949, she departs for New York City, where she enrolls in an acting class. Amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs discovers her walking on the beach at Coney Island and she agrees to model for him. He suggests she restyle her hair with the bangs that would become her trademark.
Bettie becomes a favorite of nature photographers (including Bunny Yeager, who films her posing with two leopards), and she has no hesitation about removing her clothes for the photographers when asked. Before long images of the shapely brunette reach brother-and-sister entrepreneurs Paula and Irving Klaw, who run a respectable business selling movie stills and memorabilia, but also deal with fetish photos, magazines, and 8- and 16-millimeter films for additional income. Their top model Maxie takes Bettie under her wing, and she soon finds herself wearing leather corsets and thigh-high boots while wielding whips and chains for photographer John Willie, frequently at the request of Little John, a mild-mannered attorney with unusual tastes. Bettie is innocently unaware of the sexual nature of the images that rapidly are making her a star in the underground world of bondage aficionados.
Bettie is called to testify before a 1955 hearing, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, investigating the effects of pornography on American youth. Though she waits patiently for 12 hours to answer the committee's questions, Kefauver (for reasons unknown) decides to not bring her before the committee and dismisses her without an explanation. When it becomes apparent that casting directors are more interested in her notoriety than in any acting talent she might possess, Bettie heads to Miami Beach. Drifting along with limited career prospects and a virtually nonexistent social life, she stumbles upon a small Evangelical church, walks inside and rushes forward to embrace Jesus Christ during the altar call. Although she insists she is not ashamed of anything she has done in her life, she appears happy to leave her past behind and return to her spiritual roots by preaching the word of the Lord on street corners.
Back in New York, Irving is stressed out and suffering from ill health. He decides that his sister and he must burn their vast collection of erotic photos, and movie footage to avoid potential prosecution. Paula reluctantly complies with her brother's request, but secretly saves the negatives of many of Bettie's pictures and movies from the bonfire, therefore ensuring that Bettie's work will survive for future generations.
In An Inside Look at the Pin-Up Queen of the Universe, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, producer Pamela Koffler and screenwriter/director Mary Harron discuss their decision to film most of the movie in black-and-white, which they felt not only perfectly captured the nostalgic mood of the period but also had a psychological impact on the audience. While writing the script, Harron knew she wanted to film the Miami scenes in color in order to provide a sharp contrast between Bettie's professional life and the escape she ultimately made from it. Cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III used old color stock to approximate the cheerfully vivid hues of Technicolor common in 1950s films.