When she arrives at the photo shoot—before hair or makeup—model Sabina Kelley already looks spectacular. She has that eternal beauty—hourglass figure, fairytale-princess hair and perfect features—that men paint on fighter planes and carve onto the front of ships. With terrycloth sundress, ponytail and flip-flops, she resembles a dressed-down trophy wife who’d make you rubberneck at the grocery store. The only thing preventing the illusion of a living Barbie doll—and keeping her from the world of high-fashion modeling—is her choice of expressing herself with tattoos.
Sabina’s love of the arts started with dance. She performed for two and a half years with Jubilee! at Bally’s, a show that is famous for requiring its cast to be at least 5 feet 8 inches, possess prodigious dance ability and have absolutely no body modifications. She wanted tattoos, though; during those years, she was the only one of her friends with virgin skin. After she left Jubilee!, Sabina got her first tattoo, a large horseshoe with a swallow, flames, the No. 13 and flowers on the back of her swan-like neck. The bosses of her next gig, the Moulin Rouge in France, were not pleased.
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At the Vegas Seven cover shoot, she’s relaxed and friendly—patient during the tedious process of primping. She sits under the bright lights of a makeup mirror as a stylist twists her long platinum hair into curlers. Next is a thin layer of base airbrushed over high cheekbones. Powder, eyeliner, the precise application of individual false eyelashes. Slowly, a goddess emerges from what was merely a beautiful woman. Sabina’s 9-year-old daughter, Savannah, watches the transformation intently. Already doing some modeling herself, she likes to tag along at Mom’s photo shoots. Sabina worries that Savannah will be bored, but she never is.
When Sabina has picked her outfits, a tub of coordinating pink pigment acts as eye shadow and lipstick. The curlers come out. Bobby pins, hair spray and texturizer lock the style into place. The finishing touch is blush, and now it’s time for her close-up.
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Sabina left the Moulin Rouge after a month of rehearsals and returned to Vegas to model and get more tattoos. At first, Sabina’s family (and more than a few photo editors) wanted to know why she would, in their opinion, mar her beauty with tattoos. And her answer is this: “I love being myself. Some people hang artwork up on the wall, and some people put it on their bodies. I love that I can be an individual and get tattooed. I’m still doing everything I want to do, and it’s not holding me back from anything.”
She’s on a mission to change the beauty industry’s perception of tattoos. She wants the world to know that a girl can be just as beautiful and as classy with tattoos as without (even though her parents are somewhat skeptical). Toward that end, she’s appeared with two of her three children in fine art photography by living legend David LaChappelle (her proudest accomplishment). She’s posed for Bunny Yeagar, the photographer who shot Bettie Page for Playboy. She travels around the world to model and appear in tattoo shows. She runs Bombshell Tattoo Removal because people can relate to a tattooed removalist. (It’s not all about regret—sometimes it’s about cleaning out the old art to make room for the new.) And she’s just returned from six weeks filming in L.A., where she is a judge for an upcoming reality show that is like Project Runway for tattoo artists.
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Sabina sits on a stool and faces a black backdrop. She has positioned herself in a way that preserves her modesty while her dress is pulled down to her waist, revealing an elegant yet incomplete back-piece. She twists toward the camera and pouts, blushes, smiles. There’s a question of where to put her arm for the best view of her full-sleeve tattoo. (It’s an intricate geisha design created by her husband, Kent, who owns Las Vegas’ Staytrue Tattoo). Even so, the right image is captured in the first three shots. The rest are taken just to make sure. But also for the sheer joy of it.