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It’s not surprising that in the tattooed and pierced world of SuicideGirl erotica, some tempers would flare, some feathers would ruffle, some sexpots would get sullen. That’s all part of the growling appeal of the alterna-porn Web site, which features DIY provocateurs posing in hair-dyed, body-modified, mostly nude glory, and which has created an online community for these "real" girls and the Web surfers who love them (at $9 a month).
But few could have predicted that almost 40 of the close to 1000 SuicideGirls would stage a Web-out and stalk off the Web site amid claims that despite all its go-girl messaging, SuicideGirls.com is run by people who don’t care much about female empowerment.
"What’s going on right now is a slap in the face to feminism," says Jennifer Caravella, a/k/a Sicily, a thin, raven-haired woman with nipple piercings and big eyes. "If SuicideGirls portrayed themselves as Hustler, or Playboy, that would be fine, whatever — people have the right to make their own choices. But don’t pretend to be alternative and punk rock. There’s nothing punk rock about that Web site."
Founded in late 2001, SuicideGirls.com was the brainstorm of two Portland, Oregon, residents who called themselves Spooky and Missy Suicide. The onetime couple designed the pin-up softcore porn site to showcase "the most crush worthy women we could find on the planet, the girls with style and grace and sexiness that we love." The girls would post their own "photo sets," keep journals, and eventually run Web cams.
Visitors could get a free peek at the girls, but if they wanted to become part of the community, they would have to pay for membership, which offered access to all of the photo sets and gave users the ability to e-mail the girls and talk on message boards. "[T]he women on display at Suicide Girls look a lot like the indie-rock chicks you’d expect to see at a Strokes show but never thought you’d get to see naked," Nick Phillips wrote in a 2002 Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages article.
2001 was a big year for alt-porn (Burning Angel, Supercult, and FrictionUSA all launched in the same year), but SuicideGirls managed to get a leg up, probably because its founders reached way beyond money shots. Models and members alike appreciated the widely read and commented-on journals, as well as the site’s interviews with luminaries such as Chuck Palahniuk (who’s credited with providing inspiration for the site’s name).
Plus, it was fronted by Missy Suicide, a young woman who wanted to expand beyond traditional ideas of the beautiful. Spooky, whose real name is Sean Suhl, toiled anonymously behind the scenes.
"When I joined, it seemed like this community of girls, where girls could express their sexuality," says 28-year-old Caravella, one of the women who left the site over the last month. "I really thought it was a new feminist outlet, where girls could look up to SuicideGirls. I really thought I was a part of something that was almost revolutionary."
PROBLEM WITH THE BOSS
"Dia," a famous — and fuming — former SuicideGirl, was one of the first to bail almost three years ago. (Dia, who’s now a businesswoman in California, prefers to go by her screen name, as did several of the women interviewed for this article.) In photographs that remain archived at the site, Dia’s dark hair, red lips, and theatrical costumes evoke the smoky sexuality of Juliette Lewis, Kathleen Hanna, or Fairuza Balk.
The recent wave of SuicideGirl defections has reignited Dia’s anti-SG passion. Like many of the women who have shared their stories in the blogosphere, Dia describes a prickly relationship with SG president Suhl. This man, she says, is the SuicideGirls puppeteer; he is "verbally abusive" to his models and wields more control than Missy does. "It’s exploitational to women, and abusive," she says, "because it lures women in with a marketing scheme that purports feminism, when in actuality the sole owner of the company is an active misogynist."
A March 2003 story in Oregon’s Willamette Week describes Suhl as a Canadian-born, neoconservative Hampshire College dropout who rarely meets SG members and is estranged from his family — but who is "friendly and casual" in person.
Indeed, "when he just meets you one or two times he is peachy," writes 24-year-old Kelly Kleinert, a/k/a Shera, via e-mail. "But when you are forced to be around him, like the original models and the tour girls, he is almost inhuman. He is a miserable person that takes his life/business problems out on the models." The former SuicideGirl from Pennsylvania says Suhl called tour girls "talentless, whores, and ugly."
(Multiple calls and e-mails by the Phoenix to SG headquarters elicited this e-mail statement from publicist Jennifer Vogelmann: "Despite our best efforts we are not always able to meet the individual needs of each and every model. We recently parted ways with several of the SuicideGirls for various reasons. We feel saddened by their accusations and wish them well in future.")
If nothing else, Suhl is a tough businessman. SG models get $300 per photo set, plus additional money if they go on tour, shoot videos, or pose in photos with another girl. Meanwhile, they’re free to model elsewhere, unless it conflicts with SG interests. But Suhl has no qualms about stopping payment on checks for photo sets (as he allegedly did to "Apnea," a 20-year-old Houston college student who left SuicideGirls about a month ago when she found that she could make more money modeling for several different companies than she could abiding by the SG exclusivity rules), or unleashing lawyers on former models who go to other sites (23-year-old "Dusty" got a cease-and-desist letter just this week).
Of course, it makes sense that a company would protect its interests and guard against competition. But disgruntled models say that what goes down at SuicideGirls amounts to more than ruthless management.
Caravella, on the phone from San Francisco, joins the chorus of former SGs who blame the wave of sour defections on Suhl, saying he wavered on the question of paying royalties for DVD sales, ridicules women in front of other people, and uses Missy as a pro-woman front.
But why are Sicily, Dia, and other women on the warpath — why not just leave, quietly?
"I just feel like people should know what they’re paying for," Sicily says. "You’re giving money to a man who treats women like shit."
GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
To some, that might not matter. According to the site’s most recent count, there are 952 SG models, including a handful currently on a burlesque tour (it’ll be stopping at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 12). So far, most are staying loyal.
"Besides having the best message boards I’ve ever encountered, it has this distinct flavour to it that has much to do with the non-professionalism of a lot of the sets," instant messages 21-year-old "Alukh," whose photo set went live just a few weeks ago. "Most sites feel too impersonal or corporate. I like that SuicideGirls produce all sorts of different sets."
The redhead, whose first photos are a tribute to old-school striptease, says she doesn’t put much stock in the recent accusations. While Alukh acknowledges that every SG model has a different experience with the site, she suggests that "some people like to cause and perpetuate drama."
Indeed, that’s still the word from the SG camp.
"There is a very small group of people who hate SuicideGirls and actively campaign against the company," writes "Olivia," the site’s programmer, in a recent journal entry. "Just because someone is an SG model doesn’t mean they’re always telling you the truth or looking beyond their side of the story. Sometimes people just like drama. Sometimes people lie to make themselves seem better.... I can’t stop anyone from believing bullshit — and believe me, I have heard so much bullshit I am surprised my ears haven’t turned brown — all I can say is that no one is infallible, and that works both ways for models and staff."
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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