Since 2007, Gina Elise has raised tens of thousands of dollars for military and VA hospitals in the western United States through sales of her "pinup girl" calendars, posters and T-shirts. She's generated $5,000 for the VA medical center in Loma Linda, Calif.; $15,000 for the naval hospital in San Diego; and $15,000 for the VA medical center in Portland, Ore.
With a background in theater and a nostalgic appreciation for Betty Grable and other World War II-era pinup girls, Elise decided the best way she could raise funds for wounded warriors was by hearkening back to the days of Grable, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Jane Greer - and becoming a 21st-century pinup girl, herself. American Legion Post 360 in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., sponsored her efforts and soon she was off and posing.
She spoke recently with The American Legion.
Q: Describe how your "Pinup Calendar" fundraising effort has evolved.A: The project started out in June of 2006 and since then it has raised more than $35,000 for VA and military hospitals. It's basically a three-pronged effort. When people go onto our Web site, they can order calendars for themselves, for hospitalized veterans, or for someone who is deployed overseas. All of the donated calendars that people order for hospitalized veterans, I take them and travel across the U.S., delivering them personally to our injured veterans recovering in military and VA hospitals.
For calendars going to deployed military - I have tons of units from overseas asking for calendars. So I send thousands of them to units all over the world, to boost morale.
Q: What kind of reception do you get when you deliver calendars in person?A: I could write a book from my experiences. A lot of times you've got recovering troops who just don't get visitors. So they're lying in bed all day with not much stimulation, so when I come in - and I always come into the hospital dressed up in my pinup outfits, with a big smile - I think they're a little bit shocked! They usually have no idea that I'm coming in, so I'll go in and introduce myself, and tell them what the project is about, then ask them to tell me about themselves.
It's usually such a great response - they're usually so thankful. And the thing is, when I give them a calendar, I write on it specifically who it's from. I'll say, "This is from so-and-so in New York City," so they know it's coming directly from a person.
One of the best stories I have is when I was in the San Diego VA hospital and I went into a room, and I was talking to this man, and he was answering my questions but very quietly.
Then I walked out of the room, and the nurses just rushed up to me and just could not believe it. They told me the man had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and it was the first time he'd spoken in a month.
So you just never know, when you volunteer. It's a great feeling to know that you can make a difference in someone's life.
Q: How did you decide to start raising money for our wounded troops by becoming a pinup girl?A: Well, back in the summer of 2006, we were hearing stories about wounded vets coming back to hospitals in the U.S. They were coming to hospitals that were underfunded and couldn't properly care for them. So I thought, "If anyone should have proper care, it should be our veterans." They're putting our country before their own lives, so why aren't they getting the care they deserve? Some things just strike you in life. They kind of hit a chord inside of you. I just thought I needed to do something about it.
I've always been a big fan of the whole pinup girl era - Betty Grable and all the others. People do fundraisers all the time by selling calendars. So I thought it was the perfect idea for me to do a pinup calendar and give the proceeds to military hospitals.
So, one, I wanted to do something to help out, just as an American citizen. And, two, it's kind of a tribute to the period when my grandfather was in uniform. He was an Army World War II vet.
Q: What's involved in the taking of all the photographs, in various costumes, for the calendars?A: Because my background is in the theater, I have a lot of friends who are designers, photographers, stylists, things like that. And I've kind of pulled together all my friends, and we schedule these photo shoots. In the past, I've done a lot of location scouting: military planes and vehicles. It's a ton of production work that takes months and months of pre-production.
I do have a team of makeup artists, a photographer, a Web site designer. We work together to produce the actual calendar, and my friends think it's a great project. It's already won numerous awards and been featured on different news networks. I've even gotten U.S. flags from seven different units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: You've been connected to The American Legion for some time now, haven't you?A: Oh, yes. When I was in high school, there was an American Legion post - 360 - up in Lake Arrowhead, where I grew up. I had applied for a college scholarship, and they gave me one. I ended up graduating from UCLA, and I was always so thankful to them for that scholarship.
Then, when I came up with the pinup girl project, it would be great to have them sponsor it. So I spoke with the post commander, and he was really gung-ho about it. The first two calendars, for 2007 and 2008, were sponsored by Post 360, and that made it easier to get donations. I mean, I was just this girl in California saying "Hey, I want to raise money for these rehab programs for vets and troops." But when my Web site and calendars said, "Sponsored by American Legion Post 360," it made it a lot more credible.
I am forever grateful to Post 360's former commander, Nick Nerio, who believed in my project from the very beginning and was willing to get behind my idea to support this fundraiser for ill and injured veterans.
Q: Do you ever hear that what you're doing is somehow inappropriate or politically incorrect?A: I can honestly tell you that I can count on one hand the number of negative letters I've gotten compared to thousands of e-mails that support my project. People see this project as a really fun cause they can support. So many wives and girlfriends support my project, too.
It's a very tasteful calendar, really. Bathing suits and fun costumes. It's nothing too provocative.
I have so many amazing e-mails from veterans and from our troops serving overseas, thanking me for what I'm doing.
It's a unique project, and maybe some people are a little bit shocked that someone in my age group is doing this.
Q: How tuned in are people of your age - in their 20s - about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?A: The mainstream news doesn't seem to cover a lot of what's going on. When I went to Walter Reed for the first time, it was quite a shock to me to see these injuries that happen and the men and women who have to deal with them.
So I really try and encourage people to volunteer at their local VA hospital. Because they can learn something there. A lot of people don't know much about our veterans and our troops and what's going on. I really try to encourage people to volunteer at VA hospitals.
Q: What do you have to say to those serving in uniform overseas right now?A: I'd like to say thank you. I don't think they hear it enough - and for them to know that people back home are thinking about them. I get e-mails from people all over the world who say they're thinking about the members of our military deployed overseas. That's what I say when I visit the hospitals. I go in the room and say, "Thank you so much for your service." And a lot of the vets, especially those coming back from Vietnam, didn't hear that. They didn't hear "thank you."
To learn more or purchase a calendar visit www.pinupsforvets.com.