Rebels Without Their Clothes
It's been five years since these inked-up, pierced and painted beauties took the Net by storm
Missy Suicide will tell you that although her rebellious soft-porn site exploded in popularity, it's still subversive. The religious right has not yet hopped on the Suicide Girls bandwagon, she laughs, and that's who makes the decisions these days. The ride over the last five years hasn’t always been smooth; there's been a touch of controversy here and there. Some folks, for instance, were troubled to find out the site isn’t woman-owned and operated. Instead, Missy (Selena Mooney) and Sean "Spooky" Suhl cofounded it in Portland, Ore., in 2001. Also, some models have revolted against the company, claiming a stifling contract and mistreatment, allegations Missy refutes in the "trash can" section on the site.
That's the name of the game.
Suicidegirls.com flaunts subculture girls, the ones with all the tattoos, gauged piercings and electric hair colors, in pinup poses. Certainly, on some level, it's the hot angry chicks that make it so popular. Sure, there's plenty of erotica around, plenty of naked chicks—costumed, posturing as counterculture, or otherwise. But women make up 45 percent of the subscribers to Suicide Girls, an unusual number in an industry often concerned with stewing up eye candy for the male gaze. What's the secret?
No one's saying for sure, but there are three factors that made SG different: Models choose all of their own pictures. Models and members alike keep blogs. Chat rooms, interviews and guest columns make up a large portion of the content and attract a lot of the traffic. We only read it for the articles, right?
I know you've told this story a million times, but give me the condensed version of why you started the Suicide Girls.
I started the site to make a place for girls who I thought were the most beautiful to express themselves in not only their images but through their own words and be celebrated as being beautiful. That's the Readers' Digest version.
What's been the evolution of the site over the years? Did its trendiness change the aesthetic?
We've always been true to the same ideals. Though the site has gotten bigger and the community has gotten larger, the most impactful change in the community is that it's much more international now. We've got Suicide Girls on every continent, including Antarctica.
Do they pose with penguins in Antarctica?
She couldn't pose with penguins. I asked her to, and she was like, "I can't pose with penguins. It's illegal." I'm like, "What?" Yeah, can't disturb the penguins.
So, no penguins, but she did shoot it outside in the summer in Antarctica with tanks and all sorts of crazy stuff.
How does it work? If someone wants to be a Suicide Girl, how do they go about it?
They can apply online at suicidegirls.com/model. They fill out an application, with some essay questions. They send in some images. A model coordinator contacts them and gets in touch and sets them up with a photographer, if they're near somebody that shoots for us on a regular basis. If they're not close to anybody, like the Antarctica girl, then we instruct them on how to shoot their own set and give them tips and get their submission in.
Have you posed for the site as well or are you just a photographer?
I'm a photographer. I shot most of the images initially. The whole first book is all my work.
Would you ever pose for the site?
I'm much more comfortable behind the camera, not in front of the camera. Like most photographers, we don't make the best faces. We don't look very comfortable.
The girls choose all their own poses, right?
They choose how they're presented, how they feel sexiest about themselves in the set. In a way, most modeling jobs are about the photographer’s vision or the advertiser’s vision or the designer’s vision. Suicide Girls is really about the models' vision of what's sexy and how they feel sexiest about themselves.
Who decides who's good enough to be a Suicide Girl and what shoots are good enough for the site?
I still decide. I still have to approve every set that goes up on the site.
Are there other people involved, too?
There are other people that share their opinion as well, but the final word is me.
What makes a shoot viable?
It has to be clear, beautiful pictures of the girl that enhance her vision. If they're the same scene over and over or if they're grainy or shadowy or the pictures just aren't very good quality, then those aren't going to be accepted. The girls have to be really expressive and confident in their images.
How many Suicide Girls are their now?
There's over 1,200.
How much are models typically paid for a shoot?
Models are paid $500 per shoot.
Does it primarily go by shoot? Say someone becomes a Suicide Girl. They turn in a good shoot and then they turn in a bad shoot ...
It's per shoot. Just because you get one accepted doesn't mean from now until eternity we will accept all images of you.
Can they pose for other sites if their contract is with you?
They can pose for things. Grail Clothing just used Suicide Girls in their next campaign. There are girls that have modeled for Hot Topic and stuff like that. We encourage the girls to do other mainstream sorts of modeling things.
What kind of girls do you look for?
We look for girls that have an air of confidence about them and have something unique they want to share with the world.
So there's not necessarily some kind of tattoo requirement?
(Laughs) No. There are plenty of girls with no tattoos.
Some of the girls become really popular and develop a following. Why do you think that happens?
The girls that are more active in the community tend to make friends. If they're very open with their personality and participate, that definitely helps.
They have blogs, right?
All the girls keep blogs and journals. There are groups. There are message boards, interviews with everybody from Woody Allen and Maggie Gyllenhaal to The Shins and Lady Sovereign. There's newswire, with columns from Wil Wheaton and Rob Corddry from "The Daily Show." There's a lot of content and a lot going on.
There are groups where all the members and all the models come together and talk about whatever interests them. Or you can have more specific, honed conversations on every topic from subgenres of music to Japanese animation to pets to support groups—just about anything you can imagine.
If you can't find a group for it on Suicide Girls, you can start one and within a week you'll have plenty of friends from around the world who want to talk to you about whatever it is you want to talk about.
That's new in the scope of pornography, to allow people to talk, to allow the subjects to talk, to allow viewers to interact with models ...
I think Suicide Girls is pinup. It's a celebration of how women feel beautiful about themselves. It's in the same vein as Bettie Page images. The whole impetus behind starting Suicide Girls was not only to post images of girls; but they've always kept journals. They've always interacted with members and had a voice. They've got so much more to share than they can say in their images.
Are they allowed to say whatever they want?
Yeah, we don't edit. They say whatever they want.
Do you think those blogs are part of the site's success?
Members and models both keep journals on the site. The community is a large part of the site. About 80 percent of the traffic is to the interviews and to the newswire.
Are there any male models on the site?
No, it's Suicide Girls.
Is it all heterosexual women?
There are some two-girl sets. With over 1,200 girls, where they fall on the spectrum of straight, gay, bi, whatever, varies.
How about the subscribers? Are they primarily men, or does the demographic break down differently?
It's about 55 percent male, 45 percent female.
Is that remarkable, that there are so many women?
I think the thing that appeals to women about the site is that it's very rare where you can find women with tattoos and piercings and crazy-colored hair or just with a slightly different style being celebrated as beautiful. Mainstream media has the homogeneous view of beauty that Suicide Girls [doesn’t], with 1,200 girls from around the world, 1,200 unique individuals that all have different body types, different styles, different views on the world, and they're all celebrated as beautiful.
That gives women confidence because most women can find a woman on Suicide Girls they can identify with. It's also a place to go to look at fashion and hairstyles and stuff like that that you wouldn't get many other places.
Once someone becomes a Suicide Girl, what, if any, are her responsibilities to the site?
They don't have to blog any certain amount, and they're free to blog if they like. There are other opportunities that come up and other things they can participate in if they want to.
Still owned by you and Spooky?
Others have offered to buy it up, right?
I don't know what you're referring to.
I read in another article that people have offered to buy it from you.
Um, yeah, rumors are rumors, you know?
Nobody's offered to buy it from you? I find it hard to believe that with the success of it ...
There's nothing that we've seriously considered. There seems to be a rumor going around that Playboy owns us, which is completely not true. Whenever I'm in an interview and they're like, "So, are you owned by Playboy or are you owned by somebody else?" I'm like, "No. No, no, no, no, no."
Would you ever consider selling it?
I don't know. It would have to be the exact right fit. I love it and I still enjoy every day at work.
Were you surprised by the site’s success?
I thought it was going to be just a Portland thing, honestly, at first. I had no idea the demure would hold such an appeal. After five years, it's grown to so much more than a Portland thing. It's kind of crazy. I couldn't have ever envisioned it being as big as it is today when I started.
Are you a rich lady, now?
I wouldn't say that.
How old are you?
Do you consider the Suicide Girls subversive?
I think they push the boundaries, so I guess, yes.
Even now, with its popularity?
It's popular now, but it's popular around the world and it still holds an appeal to communities that ... well, I don't think the religious right will be jumping on board any time soon, which seems to have the majority of the votes in this country. Giving people a place to air their voice is important.
Is it empowering?
I think it gives women a place to share how they feel most confident and most comfortable with themselves and their bodies.
Are you a feminist?
That's such a tricky word, because there are so many different views of what a feminist is. It's not like there's a definitive list. You know, like, if you follow this doctrine and check eight of the 10, then you're a feminist. If you check less than six, you're not a feminist.
I personally feel like a feminist. But I don't think the site is something that is representative of all feminists out there around the world. I don't think it's the end-all be-all for every woman. I think it provides the voice for some women.
The site is not feminist then?
No, because people put that in print and it always ends up being very controversial. It's a very limited word, and people feel very passionately about it. I refrain from labeling anything right now with such a hot-button word.
I feel it gives a voice to women, that it gives a place for women to share their voice, a platform for women to share what's sexy about themselves. That's all that I can say.
What do you hope subscribers gain from the site?
I hope they gain friendships and connections with people they wouldn't have met anywhere else. I hope they appreciate the photos and the hard work that goes into them and the courage and confidence the women display in them. I also hope people enjoy the community and feel like they made a connection.
Any thoughts on the name?
I think it's a general catchall. Nobody really goes by, "I'm a goth," "I'm a punk." Nobody really identifies their whole persona with the subgenre of music they listen to anymore. It's a good catchall phrase. People misunderstand the word "suicide" and think it's got evil, dark undertones—sinister undertones.
So it's not a dark term ...
No, I think it's women who've chosen to live outside of what society's norm is, so in a sense, they've committed social suicide. I don't think there's anything wrong with that in that connotation.
One could argue that being naked in a sexualized setting is not necessarily outside the norms of society, that it is, in fact, very normal.
I think having piercings, tattoos, subversive ideas, being in control of how you're presented in those photos, in sexy photos, in any photos as a model, is pretty outside the norm.
Tell me about the live show.
It's an updated version of burlesque in the same way the site is an updated version of classic pinup. The live show is an updated version of classic burlesque, where instead of doing the classic martini glass number, they dance around to AC/DC with beer. There's a lot of attitude and personality in the show. There are a lot of pop culture send-ups and humor. It's a sexy show. It's really well-choreographed, and it's a fun show that's just like no other experience out there at this point.
Why do you think there's been such a resurgence in burlesque?
It's fun. It's empowering for women. As a movement, it gives women the ability to feel confident and sexy and make political statements as well as incorporate humor into things. It's a fun platform for women to express themselves, in a nutshell.
If the Suicide Girls were in a fight with the Pussycat Dolls, who would win?
Oh, dude. The Suicide Girls. Think if a Pussycat Doll broke a nail—they would have the paramedics called. Suicide Girls are pretty tough.
The Suicide Girls Burlesque Tour hits the Launchpad for a 21-and-over show on Thursday, Nov. 9, with Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re and The Rocket. Tickets are $12 in advance at $15 at the door and can be found at virtuous.com and Natural Sound.