Photo by Mike McGillA pair of soggy softball shoes is drying on the porch of the Huntington Beach townhouse that Miss April Atomic shares with her toddler son, her boyfriend and his mother. "Sorry about those," she says when she opens the door, scrunching her perfect nose at the shoes. Then she laughs and points at the puffy leopard-print slippers on her feet. "And sorry about these, too."
No apologies necessary.
Above the tops of those slippers, plump cherries are tattooed on each of Miss April Atomic's ankles. Far up her long legs, she's wearing a short, black pencil skirt. Past a bare midriff there is a skimpy red bandanna halter top. From there, it's nothing but naked shoulders and neck until another red bandanna comes along, this one rolled and tied to keep her auburn hair out of her face, which is cosmetically painted and shaded with flawless expertise—from her high bangs to her severely arched eyebrows to her heart-shaped lips to her sculpted chin.
"The softball shoes aren't mine—they're my boyfriend's—but these slippers are my favorite," Miss April Atomic is saying. "But I have softball shoes, too. I play on recreation-league teams two nights a week—one that's co-ed, one that's only for girls. I play catcher. I'm not, like, the best player out there, but I can get pretty mean. I shove people if they block the bases. But I don't slide."
Miss April Atomic looks down at her flawless legs.
"No," she laughs, "that's not gonna happen."
There's a striking black-and-white poster of 1950s pinup icon Bettie Page hanging above a bland, earth-toned couch in Miss April Atomic's living room. "She's my hero, obviously," she says, casting her eyes upward admiringly as she settles into the cushions. But the overriding motif of Miss April Atomic's place is Early Toybox.
"Justice, I want to introduce you to someone," she says, and her two-year-old son breaks into a welcoming grin. He's already mannerly enough that he leaves the Little Bill cartoon he's watching and the picture he's drawing to come over and shake hands.
"I work with him on things like that," Miss April Atomic confides proudly, and suddenly all her perfectly executed Bettie Page accouterments transform into nothing but gushy maternal pride.
"You know, they say that kids absorb some huge percentage of their basic knowledge of the world during their first three years," she says. "I just feel so fortunate that I'm able to be here with him—except for when I'm in school, you know, and then my boyfriend's mom can watch him."
It's been a little more than a year since 19-year-old April Gilliam, a devoted rockabilly scenester from a Riverside family of car nuts, became Miss April Atomic—the future star of retro pinup girls, if her boyfriend, Damien Evans, has his way. He's the one who started all this, taking pictures of April decked out in her post-World War II and early rock & roll fashions and sending the images to a couple of online pinup contests.
"I didn't want to do this," admits Miss April Atomic. "I mean, I like doing it now, but it wasn't something I was interested in at all. But Damien had some wild idea that this was something I should be doing."
Damien, a project supervisor at a video-game company in Irvine, also pitched Miss April Atomic in an e-mail to the Weekly. He insists it was mostly common sense that led him to objectify his girlfriend's timeless beauty and period style.
"It's something she has the look for, just classically, not to mention that she's been into this whole scene since she was a kid—going to car shows and listening to the music with her parents," he says. "One look at her, and everybody can see that."
Apparently so. Miss April Atomic won both of the online contests she entered, which led to a gig on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. Now she's doing a little modeling, posing for ads with rockabilly bands, making appearances at car shows and music festivals. But mostly she operates her website—www.aprilatomic.com—which earns enough money to allow Miss April Atomic to be a stay-at-home mom and pursue a degree in interior design at an Orange County community college. She won't specify which college. "I'd rather not. I've already had to change schools once because of a guy who recognized me and kept following me," Miss April Atomic says. "I filed police reports, and he has stopped, but you never know. You get some weird people sometimes. Then it's not fun."
If you send her, say, $65 or $75, Miss April Atomic will send you the bra she's wearing. For $25 or $30—"Depending on whether you want cotton or silk," she says—she'll drop her panties in the mail. Almost every article of Miss April Atomic's attire has its price.
"Guys actually pay it," she says, simultaneously appreciative and incredulous—and a little bit embarrassed. "But only if I've worn it—if it's something they've seen in one of my photos. Otherwise, they're not interested."
Miss April Atomic anticipates the next question.
"Washed!" she answers in a whisper. "I mean, people have asked that I wear 'em—panties, especially—and just send 'em on out. That bugs me. No, I don't do that. That would be crossing a line."
As questionable as it may sound for a woman to be sending her used—albeit laundered—clothes to men through the mail, Miss April Atomic insists her boundaries are defined and her priorities are in order. "I don't want to do anything that will embarrass my son," she asserts, "so I've had to pass up a lot of so-called opportunities. Not just mail-order things. I mean like pretty lucrative modeling and pinup things. Because I will not do revealing nudity. Photographers and magazines have asked, and they've offered really good money. But I'm not gonna go there."
Miss April Atomic calls herself "a pinup and cheesecake model," which to her means she will pose in revealing clothes—and even naked, sometimes—as long as her positions aren't raunchy and her nipples and crotch aren't showing. "There has to be class to what I'm doing—and I get to determine what that is," she says.
Even so, she hasn't told her parents about her website.
"My mom would have a heart attack," she says. "There are pictures where I am not nude, but I'm not fully dressed—you know, I'm lying down, only wearing shorts, but you don't see anything. She would flip. So I'm just gonna wait until they find out on their own. And then I'll just say, 'Mom, I'm just being me.'"
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Miss April Atomic says that authenticity is the essence of her attraction to the life of a pinup model.
"I just like the old music, the old cars, the vintage clothing, the whole stuck-in-the-'40s-and-'50s kind of thing," she says, helplessly happy. "Everything about it appeals to me. I was exposed to some of it growing up, going to car shows with my parents; once we drove as far as Oklahoma in their red 1937 Ford slantback sedan. Then I really got into it when I was 13."
She expects to be into it forever—much longer than April Gilliam will be Miss April Atomic. "I'd love to do the pinup modeling forever, but that doesn't seem realistic, does it?" she chuckles. "For the moment, the pinup thing—the lingerie thing—is just something that's helping me out, getting me money for school. Who knows where it's going to lead me? But I don't want to be stuck with nothing to fall back on. Because I've got this little man to take care of, and that's scary.
"But when it comes to a way of life, I think this style is going to be something I stick with. If I'm going to be an interior designer, I obviously can't go around in halter tops and pencil skirts, but I can always wear 1940s suits with little hats and gloves. I can't see myself fitting into this whole Britney Spears thing, with the hip-hugger jeans and the little tank tops. That's scary, too."