The warm California sun drenches the buildings in reds and oranges as another hazy January day comes to a close in Los Angeles. On the rooftop bar of the Standard, a swanky, downtown hotel, you have a panoramic view of the whole city, with the Hollywood sign a distant and blurry beacon for men and women hoping to find fame and fortune. A handful of 20-somethings traipses around the bar, which is decorated in flashy hues of hot pink and red neon. Outkast's "Hey Ya" plays lightly in the background as conversation is punctuated by splashes in the pool. Two young men, one short and plump, the other tall and greasy, sit at the bar, sipping mimosas.
"Did you see all those chicks over there?" asks the plump one.
The taller one, with a gravity-defying pompadour, twists around and takes off his sunglasses. "Yeah, I think they're strippers or something. I heard they were in that video." He casually slips his shades back on and looks down at his drink.
Four of the "strippers" lounge poolside in the hotel's art deco waterbeds; large, domed plastic beds that look more like giant Warholian spinning tops. Some are wearing bikinis, some tank tops and skirts. Sitting together, with their tattoos and piercings and industrial hair dye, they look like an unfinished graffiti mural. A young man walks by and asks if he can take a picture with them, and one of the girls grabs another girl's nipples through her thin, white tank top while mugging for the camera. The girl getting the titty twister laughs: "God, you could control me with these things!"
No, these girls aren't porn stars, or strippers, or actresses. They're SuicideGirls, a new post-millennial breed of model/performer. Want to meet them but can't make it into the rarefied atmosphere of a place like the Standard? Catch them online. Like, naked. SuicideGirls appeared on the web in September of 2001, after two decades of punk music that teetered dangerously close to asexuality. The hard-core punk scene of the '80s enforced a rigid and unspoken boys club ideology that turned up its nose at commercial sex. The 1990s were filled with images of Morrissey swimming in a pool of pain, emo boys crying into journals, women coordinating their menstrual cycles at Lilith Fair, Riot Grrls scrawling "slut" and "whore" on their bellies, and Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna screaming "We don' t need you!" with gut-wrenching fury. But just as the frigid '50s gave way to the swinging '60s, the 1990s water broke and Suicide Girls was born.
SuicideGirls offers access to steamy and tasteful images of "pinup punk rock and goth girls"-- real girls with real bodies, tattoos, piercings, and no implants. The name itself evokes an image of a new breed of pissed-off women, combined with a girl-gang mentality. It's all about tight sweaters, machine-gun tits, and a short fuse.
The website is already something of a cyberphenomenon. SuicideGirls gets more than 500,000 visitors a week and 24 million hits a month. The number of models on the site has doubled since its inception, and currently, about 250 are on the site, including six who are now SG employees. Eighteen-year-old Chloe Rice, who goes by the name Nixion, has been on the site for almost a year now. The Boca Raton resident is going to school for fashion photography, and she works part-time at a restaurant. She has flown out to L.A. for the weekend for a photo shoot. It's not her first time. She was there last year to appear in HBO's Real Sex special on SuicideGirls and to be in a video for Probot, Foo Fighter drummer Dave Grohl's side project with Motörhead front man Lemmy Kilmister. But this time, she is going to shoot sets with Missy, the site's photographer and cofounder. This is a big step up in the SG ranks and, in her view, a nice little vacation from the geriatric confines of Boca.
"In Boca, everyone looks the same, talks the same, listens to the same music," she says. "It's hard to stand out. SuicideGirls definitely gave me the boost to want to do fashion photography. I've wanted to do it for a while now; then I came across the site. And I was really expecting it to be horrible, but it was decent! They asked for a photo, and I sent them one of me topless, holding a doll over my chest -- as a joke -- and I guess they didn't believe I was 18. The first time I did a set in front of people was a two-girl shoot for the Real Sex special. There were cameras everywhere, and here I am naked with some girl I barely know. So I was really nervous."
Today, though, is more laid-back.
Nixion's weekend starts among a flurry of scantily clad women and ringing cell phones. Tucked away in the Los Feliz area of Hollywood, up a winding road flanked by palm trees, the SG headquarters is like a set plucked out of The Real World: hardwood floors with a scattering of large leather chairs and couches, some old drugstore signs bought from a garage sale, and a patio that overlooks the tiny lights of the city through a layer of smog. A pool table is strewn with proofs and photos of aspiring SGs. The house serves double duty as a studio and office for the site, and it's also home for 28-year-old Sean, a short, affable guy with dark hair and a goatee who happens to be the cofounder and web guru of SuicideGirls. He and six SGs are in the living room watching the new Probot video for the song "Shake Your Blood," the plot of which essentially is: Girls dance in skimpy clothing, Lemmy acts like his bad-ass self, girls lose more clothing, Lemmy flicks his tongue around like a lizard, a mob of girls writhe around, the end.
Sixty-six SGs were picked to be in the video, and this is the first time any of them has seen it. Hoots and catcalls reverberate off the walls, and it sounds more like a high school slumber party gone wild. Instead of "Ohmigod, I can't believe you like him!" the girls are exclaiming, "Ohmigod, that's hot!" and "That was me!" And instead of painting one another's toenails, they're watching the camera swirl around rapid-fire shots of girls -- many of whom are sitting there today -- kissing, licking, scratching, and whipping one another. In the den, a young man named Ryan sits in front of a computer, going over the guest list for tonight's SuicideGirls burlesque show in Silver Lake, the hipster-tastic area east of Hollywood.
"Well," he says looking through his Palm Pilot, "we have to let Dave Grohl in."
A staircase leads to two rooms; one is painted lavender, with a pair of twin beds in each corner. Shirts, bras, and socks explode from suitcases as girls prepare for the show that night. A creepy "I shouldn't be seeing this" vibe runs through the room as a teddy bear is spotted on the floor. The other room is a soothing shade of red, and a bed sits in the middle of the room, white sheets tousled. Nixion stands in the middle of the room with a contemplative look on her face.
"Hair up or down?" Nixion asks. She is dressed in a sheer white tank top. Her fine, poker-straight blond hair falls against her skin as she tries to hold it all up. She looks in the mirror while holding her breath before letting her hair fall squarely around her face, exhaling, and straightening the long white satin skirt against her lithe, leggy frame.
At any other photo shoot, makeup artists and hairstylists would be fussing over Nixion, trying to create the perfect look with an army of assistants. Not this SuicideGirl. Like most, Nixion doesn't have an agent, and she wasn't "discovered" by a talent scout at Starbucks. Today, Nixion has simply decided to be a fairy for her set. She brought her own clothes, makeup, and accessories. Her tiny bare feet scoot across the floor as she casually searches the room for a missing wand. Her hipbones peek out of the top of her skirt, and her eyes are a piercing swirl of blue and green flecks, highlighted with green glitter eye shadow. She has a strikingly expressive face and no visible tattoos, and her hair is not dyed. In fact, she doesn't look like a "typical" SuicideGirl (the majority have at least one tattoo or piercing), but you get the feeling she would totally kick your ass if she had to.
Missy, SuicideGirl's 26-year-old cofounder, walks in. A bookish-looking girl with a smattering of freckles, a septum ring, and black cat-eye glasses, Missy (she and Sean are adamant about not divulging their last names because of the kinds of stalkers and con men attracted to the sex business) has just returned from a press tour for the burlesque show in San Francisco and for an upcoming SG photography book due out in April. Missy circles Nixion, who sits on the floor, the bright photo lamp making her look like she's the subject of an interrogation. The house has become eerily quiet, so Nixion lets out a beefy Whhaarff to lighten up the mood. Watching her flawless 18-year-old skin glow red under a photo lamp while posing for a punk porn site, you have to wonder if her parents are back home wringing their hands.
"So has your mom seen the site?" Missy asks, as if sensing the curiosity.
"Yeah," Nixion laughs as she lets one strap fall down her shoulder. "She wants to know why it's called SuicideGirls. Ya know, she's a mom."
Missy and Sean came up with the idea for a sexy marketing venture. Missy had background in freelance photography and Sean in web design and television production, so they combined forces and took a stab at the adult entertainment industry. They started out photographing friends in the Portland area. Missy's goal was to shoot pinup-style photographs that were more sensual than sexual. Since the beginning, the models on the site have chosen the themes of their photo sets, often taking the pictures themselves, styling their own hair, and picking the makeup and clothing.
But wait -- there's more. On SuicideGirls, you don't just get to ogle naked chicks; you get to know them. Each girl has a journal that she updates periodically -- not Penthouse-letters style either. There are no gauzy "last night I was so horny" entries. The journals are introspective, witty, and at times very personal. The girls list why they decided to join the site -- one answering with the subtly stinging remark "to make myself feel fat" -- as well as more diplomatic responses ("Nudity isn't always about sex"). The models also list their favorite books, music, and movies. Among the common favorites are Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, and works by Charles Bukowski and Chuck Palahniuk ("suicide girls" is a phrase taken from Palahniuk's second novel, Survivor). Members can leave remarks for the girls, and they can also post photos of themselves to see if they're worthy of being an SG.
So if punk rock has always reveled in nonconformity, the antibeauty, and a do-it-yourself spirit, is this just porn dressed in lacy pink undies, fishnets, and a fancy bra? Are thousands of "punk" girls logging on to become the next "(t)it" girl because of self-esteem issues or just as a big punk "fuck you" to everyone who said they couldn't?
For Nixion, it's a little of both. Becoming a SuicideGirl has given her validation and the feeling of being part of something special. "I've never really been picked first or above anyone," Nixion says as we sit on the patio, watching the city lights flicker on. She is still dressed in her white skirt, the sunset reflecting the glitter on her eyes. She seems unfazed by all the attention; the realization that 15 minutes ago she was posing naked in someone's bedroom is jarring. "So to get picked for the site made me feel better about myself," she continues as she eats a slice of the pizza that Sean bought for the girls. "When my mom found out about the site, she mentioned something about having to deal with the fact that I'll have those pictures online forever, and that when I meet a nice boy, he probably won't want me because of SuicideGirls, and that when I go for a job, they'll look back on it and not want to hire me. It's fucking dumb, because I would never want any guy or job that looks down on what I'm doing. I'm far from remorseful for anything I've done on the site."
In addition to validation, Nixion explains the "fuck you" aspect: "The site is our way of showing ourselves and not being ashamed of who we are," she says. "SuicideGirls makes me feel more empowered. The fact that I'm not being picked at or teased for being a SuicideGirl definitely gives me a lot more self-esteem to do a lot of things I wouldn't have been able to do before. Like, I feel more confident to go up to a boy and start a conversation without the constant thought of him thinking I'm weird or ugly."
Other SGs also talk about getting positive feedback and the growing self-esteem.
Quinne, 19, a petite girl with honey-brown hair from Tennessee, got involved after a friend told her she had the "nice boobs" to qualify for the site. "I lived in a Catholic household and went to Catholic school until I was 18," Quinne says, "and when you're an awkward teenager in those surroundings, you don't really get to know your body. I was really shy and self-conscious about the size of my breasts. So the site was a way to try new things and feel comfortable with my body. It was really liberating."
Later that night, at the burlesque show, Nixion and Quinne proudly stand behind the SuicideGirls merch table, seductively eating candy and schmoozing with guys and girls who are there solely to say they met a SuicideGirl.
Of course, there has been the inevitable backlash. An anti-SuicideGirls live journal site was started a few months ago, which in turn whipped up a shitstorm of responses on the SuicideGirl message boards. One member calling herself Wuvmonki responded to the live journal posting citing the lack of plus-size SuicideGirls. "I mean, are women that don't die [sic] their hair going to go all up in arms because of it?" Wuvmonki poses. "No. So women who are not a size 2 shouldn't freak out because there are no larger sized women." But even the members recognize the subtle double standard: "I mean it's not like I could be a SuicideGirl myself," she continues. "I am too old, too short, got too much chubby in the tummy and my thighs could crush a watermelon they are so big."
Sean is remarkably candid about the exploitation issue. Asked by a Seattle paper if he thought the SGs were being exploited, Sean said: "I really, honestly don't know. I would like to say we're not exploiting the women. They chose the pictures; they did the Photoshop; they chose exactly what they wore and how they were represented; they wrote their description; they write their journal entries. I mean, it is totally them. We just give them the forum. But at the same time, in five years, is that girl going to regret doing this? I sincerely, honestly hope not. But until that time is past, there's no way to know whether what we're doing is right or not."
What does it take to be a SuicideGirl? Well, imagine if there could be a punk-rock Miss America pageant. Many apply, but only a few are chosen. An average of 250 women a week apply, ranging in age from 18 to 37. If they are chosen to advance to the next stage from the photos they send in, they must complete an essay and question-and-answer section on why they want to be on the site. Ultimately, it is up to Missy to handpick the girls she thinks have a unique face, something interesting to say, and a personality indicative of the SG "way of life."
"Being a SuicideGirl is about self-confidence," says Missy (who herself appears on the site, but not nude) in the office before Nixion's shoot. "Either she is or she isn't," she continues. "Sexuality is intrinsic to being human, and it's fun. There's no reason to repress it. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy. Real girls are far sexier than fake boobs, bleached hair, and all those impossible poses on hard-core porn websites. Real girls are attractive, and SuicideGirls are real girls."
Missy and Sean say they're aiming for a "real girl" aesthetic. And it's true the girls aren't all impossibly beautiful, airbrushed prom queens with fake tans and vacant stares. They're grad students, moms, writers, waitresses. And for all the naked ladies on the site, they point out, there's not one degrading penetration or cum shot to be found.
But some of the street grit of the Portland-based site has disappeared, according to former members. Dia, a 28-year-old former SG model from California, was among the first 50 models on the site. "The early models were awesome," Dia says. "A lot of them were strippers, and were doing it for extra money. None of them were doing it for fame. What really attracted me to the site was the sense of despair. The girls back then were broke; a few were homeless. Do you think any of the models now are homeless gutter punks? The girls now are doing it for self-esteem." Dia won't go into details, but she says she was removed from the site for "being too sexual, a die-hard feminist, and opposing people's political views."
"I think the site really reduces solidarity amongst women and tends to pit them against each other," she explains. "They have a lot of rules you learn about after the fact. You were encouraged not to go to events, you were not allowed to argue with other models publicly, and you can't shoot for other sites. Individuality in the true sense of the word is frowned upon."
As close as it comes to bellying up to the feminist bar and creating a place for individuality -- letting the girls call the shots in their shoots, giving them creative license in their journals -- it still feels like porn, with a lot of the crass trappings of commercial sex. Call it soft porn. The bottom line, though, is that SG is a business that sells sex. There are consumers and products, and there will always be people with a hankering for some pictures to make them hot.
And that's just fine with Missy and Sean. The site is getting ready to branch out even further: Missy puts out the book in April. There is talk of developing a reality-TV show involving some SuicideGirls. They've recently joined forces with Playboy, creating a "SuicideGirl of the Week" feature on the Playboy website.
And the pitches from would-be SuicideGirls keep coming.
Transsexuals, drag queens, and actual porn stars have all tried to get into SGs virtual pants. "I get men all the time," Missy says. " Every guy who applies thinks that he is the first one to think of the clever idea of being the first boy on SuicideGirls, like we sit around going, 'There are all of these hot girls here just waiting for some guy to take turns shooting with them.' You would think the name of the site is a pretty big hint as to the gender of the models."
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So where does all this leave the girls on the site? When SuicideGirls first started, models were paid $150 to $200. Now, the pay is slightly more but not enough to make a living. Missy and Sean won't say how much the site makes a year, but they're clearly not hurting. Sean concedes they've already made back the initial money they invested.
Back at the Standard that gorgeous Sunday afternoon, Nixion stands against the thin, white railing separating her from the tiny cars 20 floors down, posing for pictures with other SuicideGirls from L.A. in a baby-blue bikini top and green skirt, dancing to Prince, and grinning from ear to ear. Her trip to the City of Angels will end soon, though, and Boca awaits. The thought that she has to go back to Florida doesn't make Nixion happy. "I don't want to go home," she says later as she lies on her side in the waterbed, a sliver of sunlight falling across her golden locks. "It's not like I have many options in Boca, not like here. Maybe if I was old, I would think Boca rocked, but it doesn't."
But Nixion returns to Florida with a sense of accomplishment -- and a few new photo sets. "I definitely feel like I got something accomplished," she says. "Missy shot three new sets for me. I was never really completely satisfied with the pictures I take myself, since you can only get certain angles." She has an even stronger belief that what she's doing is right, she says.
"I'm not gonna stop doing it because of other people's thoughts on it," she says. "You'd have to pry me from the site with a nuclear bomb. I don't consider myself a feminist. I think feminists are more sex-negative than sexually positive. I can't say I've gotten much personal negative feedback from being on the site, which means what I'm doing couldn't possibly be that bad. Right? I love the expression on SuicideGirls. Always have, always will."