By Larry Borowsky
Cairn Atkinson felt uncertain about her body image after limb loss. Flamingo Florence liberated her from self-doubt.
The first thing you notice about Flamingo Florence is the dress. It spills off the page (or digital screen, as the case may be), a technicolor gusher of chiffon and lace, pretty patterns and pleats. If you’re of a certain age, the dress calls to mind American Graffiti or Laverne & Shirley; if you’re younger, maybe Mad Men or Queen’s Gambit. This audacious attire walks a fine line between retro reverence and impish irony, and it works either way. Not everyone can pull off a high-wire act of this type. Flamingo Florence does so with style.
Then you get to the hair. Flared wide here, piled high there, often Crayola-hued or festooned in flowers (maybe both), the daring ’do shifts the ensemble firmly into just-for-fun territory. Sure, we want to look and feel sharp, the hair seems to say, but let’s not take any of this too seriously. We’re only making cartoons here, not classical paintings.
Finally, there are Flamingo Florence’s eyes. They’re having fun, too, twinkling brightly through layers of liner, shadow, and lash. But if you come at them from a certain perspective, you see a depth of experience as well—hard-won knowledge. Piercing through the gorgeously curated costume that frames them, the eyes are disarmingly frank. They’re not afraid to be seen.
It’s only after you absorb all those details that you might notice how this Flamingo is standing on one leg in every shot. Or how she’s always inclined to her right when she poses sitting down. Flamingo Florence—née Cairn Atkinson—is making a name for herself as the nation’s top (only?) amputee pinup model. In April, she took home Best Dress honors at the annual Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, the nation’s oldest and largest celebration of ’50s culture. While there, she hosted RockAbilities, the first meet-and-greet for people with disabilities in Viva Las Vegas’ 25-year history.
“I started doing these photo shoots because I wanted to represent hip amputees,” says Atkinson, and by “hip” she doesn’t mean “cool”—she underwent a hemipelvectomy in 2018 to cure epithelioid sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer. “Hip amputees are so uncommon, and there’s not much information for us. Doing these photo shoots helped me build confidence in my new body.”
Atkinson felt painfully self-conscious in the months immediately following her surgery, as her limb difference drew unwanted attention from friends and strangers alike. She was so shy about her unfamiliar shape that when she started documenting her recovery on YouTube in 2019 under the handle “Smooth Hoperator,” Atkinson only shot herself from the waist up.
“I was embarrassed,” she says. “I felt like my missing leg was the first thing anyone noticed about me whenever I went out.” Her embrace of vintage fashions came in direct response to that dynamic, a deliberate strategy for directing gazes away from her disability.
“Changing my outfit created an opportunity for people to engage with me in a normal way,” says Atkinson. “They started coming up to me and asking me about my outfits instead of just staring—you know, ‘I love your dress, that’s so cute. Where did you get it?’ And then sometimes they would ask about my leg, and we would end up exchanging stories about people in our lives who’ve had cancer. Or maybe they knew someone who’s struggling with limb loss, and they would say, ‘You seem very positive, can I connect you with them?’”
At first, all Atkinson wanted out of her throwback threads was a way to break down barriers and get comfortable in new skin. But that changed last year when an old high school friend (and fellow ’50s aficionado) shared some pinup photos on her Instagram feed. Atkinson subsequently discovered other pinup models on social media and thought: Why not? She bought some new apparel, hired a hairdresser and photographer, and arranged a shoot.
Atkinson posted the photos on her social media channels, not hoping for anything beyond a few extra likes. “I was very new to the scene, and I didn’t realize that these photographers would submit their work to magazines,” she says. To her surprise and delight, a local publication picked up her story and included some of the images, which helped Atkinson gain her first sponsor, a local vintage clothing store. She beefed up her wardrobe, expanded her modeling portfolio, and started getting immersed in the pinup pageant world.
This burgeoning community has grown exponentially in the last decade, fueled by baby boomer nostalgia and the proliferation of popular movies and TV shows set in the ’50s and ’60s. The subculture is particularly robust in Southern California, where Atkinson lives, and it’s supported by car clubs, vintage boutiques, music venues, hair salons, indie magazines, and other merchants of mid-20th-century taste. Contrary to the cliches about cutthroat beauty contests, the retro scene is decidedly generous and judgment-free—a safe space for a relatively new amputee still coming to terms with her body image.
“I needed a stage name,” says Atkinson, “and I have a great-aunt Florence who’s 100 years old, who I just love so much. And, of course, flamingos stand on one leg. So my mom put two and two together, and that’s how I became Flamingo Florence.”
After debuting last October at a pageant in Culver City, California, Atkinson took fifth place at a Pasadena show and second place at a Santa Barbara event. A couple of magazine photo spreads ensued, bringing Atkinson some additional sponsors and a more polished, professional look. Last January—just three months after her first appearance on a pageant stage—Flamingo Florence was crowned the winner of the inaugural Ms. Pinup Queen contest, an online event with a national reach.
That’s when she set her sights on the Viva Las Vegas Queen of the Car Show competition, which takes place each April. It was an audacious goal for a pinup newbie—sort of akin to a small-town councilperson running for the US Senate—but Atkinson rallied support from her social media supporters and received enough votes to earn an invitation. “This year was the 25th anniversary of Viva Las Vegas, and I thought it would be a fabulous way to represent hip amputees on one of the most famous stages there is,” she says. “So that got me motivated.”
After securing her spot in the pageant, Atkinson asked event director Tom Ingram if she could host a disability-themed gathering, which would be a first for Viva Las Vegas. Ingram was skeptical at first, because the weekend schedule was already jam-packed with concerts, dances, fashion shows, car exhibitions, and more. But he eventually agreed to add it to the lineup.
“It was called RockAbilities,” Atkinson says, “and we invited anybody who has limb difference, uses a mobility aid, has ongoing health issues, or whatever. One girl came in who was a heart surgery survivor, and she was ashamed of her scar. Another gentleman had lost the fingertips on his left hand and always wore a glove. And by the end of the meeting, she had shown everyone her scar, and he took off his glove, and we’re all crying. It was amazing.”
That was the highlight of an incredibly busy weekend for Atkinson, at least as thrilling as her unexpected Best Dress trophy in the pageant. The experience was so touching that she’s begun to think about how she can expand RockAbilities into a nonprofit venture.
“When I lost my leg, I was blessed to have support not only emotionally but also financially,” she explains. “People would drive me to appointments. And so I started thinking, how can I give back? I want to tie in the pinup world somehow—to raise money for people, to help them find resources, to help them make adaptations to their new body. It might even be something where we just go to cheer people up, just sit and have a cup of tea and provide some companionship. I’m still brainstorming, but it’s definitely something I want to do in the midst of everything else.”
Despite a cancer recurrence earlier this year, Atkinson has hardly paused to catch her breath since the Las Vegas show. In addition to keeping a busy pinup-pageant schedule this summer and fall, she has fielded a growing number of requests for magazine photo shoots and walked the runway a couple of times in more contemporary fashions. She’s altered her YouTube channel to focus on public venues’ accessibility (or lack thereof) for people with disabilities. Atkinson has also started pursuing an acting career, memorizing scenes, and going on casting calls in hopes of realizing a lifelong dream.
“Ever since I was a child, I have always wanted to be an actress,” she says. “All through school I acted in plays and was a stage manager; I was always front and center in front of people. So ultimately, I really do want to be out there in the public eye. I would love to be on a poster for Target or something like that. I feel like my passion for modeling is helping raise awareness for my fellow hip amputees, and I hope to encourage them to follow their heart. Everyone deserves to be loved, seen, and included.”