Her name is Snow, and her devastatingly pretty face is truly the stuff of fairy tales: translucent, porcelain skin, rosy cheeks, raven hair and pouty pink lips. But unlike fictional damsels in distress, Snow is in no need of rescue. Tattooed with multicolored stars, she seems absolutely gleeful stark naked on the Internet. You won't find her in any mainstream porn rag; Snow is no airbrushed, plasticine bimbo -- she's a SuicideGirl.
You've admired girls like Snow from afar before. She's the scarlet-haired rockabilly gal with flames tattooed on her back that you spot at the Reverend Horton Heat show. She's the cute barista in a Weezer T-shirt who serves up your double-tall latte with soy milk at the coffee house. She's the dread-locked vixen with a pierced septum who works at the indie record store. In high school, she sat at the back of the class and doodled fairies and devils on her notebook while the math teacher droned on about algebraic formulas. Maybe you'd find her hanging out in the commons listening to Mudhoney or Iggy Pop on her Walkman, or reading Sartre or Voltaire in a quiet corner of the cafeteria. She was as intriguing and mysterious as Mata Hari -- and equally out of your reach. You might glimpse an outline of a nipple ring beneath her vintage 1950's frock, but all you could do was fantasize about what might be underneath. Until now.
A teaser flyer for SuicideGirls (www.suicidegirls.com) boasts, "Somewhere in your city there is a secret cult of dangerously naked goth, punk and raver girls." And SuicideGirls has pictures of them. Red haired, blue haired, almost-no haired, mohawked, pierced in their most private places, tattooed with tribal art and guns, donning striped stockings and vinyl miniskirts, platform boots, tight Hello Kitty tees and any other adornment that might pop up during a punk-rock sex fantasy. SuicideGirls has them all and then some.
A brief history of digital smut
Internet porn is nothing new, but up until a few years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything other than your typical college-coeds-take-cum-shots-on-the-face brand of misogynistic, jerk-off smut. And if you were part of any indie-rock subculture looking for visual stimulation, good luck finding any in the vanilla-smothered, male-fantasy-dominated world of Web pornography. Even if you found a site claiming to have "punk" or "goth" girls, they'd more likely be professional X-rated models dressed up in black wigs and metallic-blue nail polish. They might fool the average horny bank manager, but any hardcore KMFDM fan could spot the hoax. Thankfully, SuicideGirls ain't the porn your dad beats off to.
The idea for the site began sort of in jest, says founder and head photographer Missy Suicide. Shortly after the big dot-com bust, she and male cofounder Sean Suicide (aka Spooky, who handles the business end of SuicideGirls, including marketing and promotions), began mulling over the idea while having coffee in Portland's Pioneer Square. Both were surviving on freelance work and nest eggs and decided to brainstorm a way to put their combined experience in photography, graphic design and website development to profitable use. They talked about starting their own pay site but weren't confident in their knowledge of such endeavors.
"We were like, 'What makes money on the Internet?' Well, porn and gambling," says Missy. "And we know nothing about gambling -- even less about porn. We were both just laughing about it."
Thus began a long discussion about why neither of them knew much about porn. "There was just no porn out there that appealed to either of us," Missy explains, although both were living in a city known for having more strip joints per capita than anywhere in America. "We started looking around at Pioneer Square in Portland, where all of the punk rock and goth girls hang out, and we were like, 'How come there aren't any pictures of girls that look like us out there? How come there aren't any pictures of girls that are not the typical silicone-filled, tanned, fake hair and nails ... ?'"
Missy and Sean decided that their site would defy existing, white-bread porn standards. They set out to find punk, goth, emo, rockabilly and raver girls for an alternative porn site that would put the sex back into "sex, drugs and rock & roll." But not in a head-banging, cock-rocking, cheesy Mötley Crüe-video kind of way. SuicideGirls would feature and appeal to those on the pop-culture fringe.
The site began small and didn't make a dime. Missy and Sean started out by getting about 10 friends to pose, and as word of mouth spread, "it just kind of took off and kept growing and growing and growing," Missy says. Today, there are about 150 SuicideGirls, from as far off as Finland, the U.K. and even Russia. "We started out adding one new girl a week. But there's just so much interest in the site, and so many new girls applying, that we're up to three new girls a week now." (Although Missy won't reveal dollar amounts for the site's rapid growth, she says SuicideGirls now operates deep enough in the black to support her and the staff, which includes four full-timers.)
With the growing popularity of the site, the SuicideGirls have developed a fan base worthy of rockstardom. So much so that, in true rockstar form, some of the girls -- Snow, Siren, Jessica and Ruby -- are hitting the road for a national tour of their very own, with a modern, burlesque show done in a fashion that only the SuicideGirls could conceive. And yes, you can expect to see some skin.
The site's name comes from Portland author Chuck Palahniuk's (of "Fight Club" fame) "Survivor:" "These suicide girls ... Crying with their hair wet down in the rain at a public telephone ... Curled up in a ball alone for days ... It's so perfect some nights to hear them in the dark."
A SuicideGirl, ofttimes protecting a fragile soul under a tough exterior, lives fearlessly, unapologetically comfortable in her own skin. And she's not afraid to bare that skin to the world. Literally. She finds solace in literature, art and rock & roll. She brazenly speaks her mind, spits in the face of traditional beauty standards and flaunts her sexuality like a glorious swan, just like her many female, punk predecessors: Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Siouxsie, Hazel O'Connor, Nina Hagen, Lydia Lunch, Wendy O., Kembra Pfahler -- you get the idea.
SuicideGirls pictorials fall somewhere between the post-modern pin-ups of pleasure activist Annie Sprinkle and the World War II-era cheesecake girls of George Petty, Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas. Each photo set plays out like a retro striptease. There's photographic foreplay here, with the girls starting out fully clothed and gradually getting more and more naked. "The Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page and Betty Grable pin-ups were the only erotic images that I ever found appealing," Missy says. "The women looked like they knew they were sexy, and it almost didn't matter that the camera was there. They weren't putting on an act, whereas a lot of the modern-day erotic images seem like it's all such an act."
Although she trained in photography, Missy says that SuicideGirls was her first foray into shooting nudes. But she was always turned off by the airbrushed plasticity of made-for-men nudie rags, which tricked the camera's eye with soft focus and ambient lighting. Such photographic shenanigans are shunned on SuicideGirls; Missy favors hot lights and sharp focus for her work. "We're trying to show the girls in their sexuality," she says, "and there's something so off-putting to me about that soft focus, soft form. It's so patronizing in a way, to feature girls all soft and out of focus. It's like, 'Oh look, they're so innocent and fluffy and soft.' But female sexuality is raw, and it's harsh."
The girls on the site are real, not models who raided the clearance rack at Hot Topic for their photo shoots. So in striving to capture each girl as authentically as possible, Missy allows a degree of freedom unheard of in the porn industry. The girls choose their own wardrobe, settings, props and poses. And they can show as much or as little pink as they please. "I tend to be a rather quiet photographer. I'll joke with the girls and stuff, but I'm not like, 'Hey, pose this way. Do this.' I'm not very instructional. I just take a ton of photos of the girls to get the more natural glances. I like to capture moments where they're just being themselves, rather than putting it on for the camera."
More bang for the buck
Besides the authenticity of the girls, SuicideGirls stands apart in many other ways from the myriad sites that have cropped up in the proliferation of alternative Internet porn. Barely Evil (www.barelyevil.com), Gothic Sluts (www.gothicsluts.com), Friction (frictionusa.com), Supercult (www.supercult.com) and Porn for Punks (www.pornforpunks.com) also offer naked pictures of punk, goth and emo girls, but SuicideGirls offers an unparalleled interactive community experience for its members -- and for a fraction of the price in most cases.
From a consumer-satisfaction standpoint, SuicideGirls has done for Web porn what Target has done for designer home accessories, offering top-notch, ferociously bad-ass product for a fraction of competitors' prices. A full-access membership on SuicideGirls can be had for four bucks per month (versus an average of $15 to $20 for many other sites), and members get a bag of Internet goodies: a live journal, image hosting, web-cam hosting, message boards, access to the
SuicideGirls photos and movies, the calendar of events, the girls' "candid" photos of their lives outside of SuicideGirls, and the "Hookup" section where members can meet other members. Even better, members can communicate with each other and the girls on groups and message boards, with topics as diverse as the mix of girls -- everything from film to kittens to Eastern religion. There's a group called "The Kitchen" where members can exchange recipes, and another called "Depression Outlet" for those suffering from that particular emotional affliction.
The photographic content of SuicideGirls is also significantly different than other alt-porn sites, which tend to be graphic and hardcore. SuicideGirls is more playful and whimsical, keeping with Missy's pin-up girl sensibility. And she plans to keep it that way. "I don't think that we'll ever do penetration or anything really hardcore. The site is supposed to be fun and light and happy. The penetration line is ... it can only be downhill from there."
That doesn't mean the pictures won't continue to be hot masturbation material for both boys and girls. "I think a natural byproduct of having naked women on the Web is going to be that you're going to have men jacking off to it. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. But the theory behind the site is that it's a place where women can express their sexuality, how they feel and how they want it shown."
Though the second-wave feminists of yesteryear might perceive SuicideGirls as yet another pornographic degradation of women, to SuicideGirls members, fans, the girls and the site's founders, it's third-wave feminism in action, which could explain the site's popularity with women. Astonishingly, more than half of the SuicideGirls' members are female. "The overwhelming majority of women that have seen the site have identified with it," says Missy. "I think that sexuality is an essential part of being a woman, and that it shouldn't be something that women should feel the need to suppress. It's something women should be able to express as a beautiful part of being a woman. They should be able to celebrate it. And if they're able to express themselves in a way that they feel comfortable and attractive, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. They're not being exploited. They're not doing it to the downfall of their freedoms."
Missy Suicide's fiscal savvy -- at the tender age of 25 -- has to be noted. There was a time not long ago that any woman who participated in or produced porn for any reason, much less monetary gain, was viewed by feminists as not only perpetuating objectification and negative stereotypes, but contributing to the socio-political oppression and abuse of women. Old-school feminists of the Andrea Dworkin ilk might see Missy as a twisted, female misogynist simply for the fact that she makes her money by getting other women to pose for naked photos -- photos that may or may not be considered pornographic, depending on the beholder.
But in this brave new world where female sexuality is radically redefined, a world where porn queen Jenna Jameson makes it to the cover of Forbes for her impeccable business sense, Missy Suicide herself might be hailed as simply a shrewd businesswoman who figured out how to capitalize on a niche market in the oversaturated Internet-porn industry and reap the financial benefits.
While there will always be people and groups who decry Missy Suicide as a sleaze merchant, she's not losing any sleep over sanctimonious denunciations of her career. "I'm proud of the work that I've done, and I don't mind when people call it porn," she says. "Pornography is what images or tools [people use] to explore their sexuality. I think there's nothing wrong with exploring your sexuality."
Making the cut
So what does it take to become a SuicideGirl? With some 200 applications flooding in per week, the competition is stiff. "There's a long process that the models have to go through in order to become a SuicideGirl," Missy explains.
She meets with new girls no less than three times before a photo session, and of course, there's the business of verifying the girl's age and making sure she knows what she's getting into. Because of the level of online fame that comes with being a SuicideGirl, the girls and staff typically adopt "Suicide" as a faux surname to maintain some anonymity. While the girls are free to reveal as much or as little personal information as they want, Missy and Sean strongly discourage them from divulging too many details about themselves. Being a SuicideGirl requires the intuition to outwit would-be stalkers and other drooling psychos.
But being a SuicideGirl is not all about a certain look, either. True, for the most part these are girls who don't fit in with the mass-conformity of mainstream society, but having tattoos and piercings does not in itself gain admission into this sorority of naked alterno-girls. "They all have a certain attitude more so than looks," says Missy. "Each girl is different. Yesterday, we had a new girl that has liberty spikes, and today we had a girl that looks more bookish and retro. And not all the girls are tattooed or pierced, but they all have this similar attitude ... a 'no regrets' attitude."
The laborious screening process for new models also helps to weed out the girls who are interested in posing nude for the wrong reasons, such as money (the SuicideGirls are paid nicely for their photo sessions, $200 per hour to be exact) or to get back at their ex-boyfriends. It's imperative to the SuicideGirls staff that the girls who pose know exactly what they're doing, understand all the ramifications of posing nude on an Internet porn site, and are really into it for the right reasons.
"We strongly deter any girl from doing it who has any reservations about people finding out," says Missy. "The pictures are up for a long time -- forever."
The girl behind the girls
Naturally, Missy herself is a SuicideGirl, although she does not appear nude on the site. Having lived most of her life outside the frame of mainstream culture, she fully understands what it means to not fit in. She lived in a commune until age five and attended an art-school alternative to traditional high school. She sports black-rimmed glasses, a septum ring and an ever-changing spectrum of hair colors from magenta to electric blue. She listens to Hot Hot Heat and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and her favorite book is Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections." She has a crush on Ewan McGregor, but her ultimate fantasy is "to be immortalized as a Sanrio character."
In a sense, SuicideGirls is Missy's love letter to other girls like her, girls who don't fit in. She's created a sanctuary for these girls and seems to adore each and every one of them. She's like an Internet madam in a cheeky sort of way. "We're very protective of our community," she says, "and we do take members off. They have to be respectful of the girls and other members. If anyone is personally insulting ... they're removed. And if anybody is harassing in any way, we take them off the site."
Missy takes her business very seriously. Aside from proving her entrepreneurial wits, in a strange way, SuicideGirls is a lifelong dream come true for her. "When I was a little girl growing up, I wanted to be a photographer, and that's what I am," she says. "It's not exactly the way I imagined, but it's somehow not too far off. I wanted to kind of make a difference, and in my own way, I think that it does."