GIRL POWER

Masters of Alt Sex: SuicideGirls Hits Puberty and Wants to Invade Your TV Set

The online community of tattooed pin-up models turned 13 this year. Co-founder Missy Suicide opens up about standards of beauty, controversy, and body art.

This past May, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal conducted a joint poll on body art. The findings revealed that, in 1999, only 21 percent of Americans claimed someone in their household had a tattoo. In 2014, it’s nearly doubled to 40 percent.

You see it in popular culture, too. Whether it’s the tattooed, heavily pierced hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, porn star Christy Mack, or Natalie Dormer’s Cressida in The Hunger Games flicks, inked “alternative” women have crossed over into the mainstream. None of this would’ve been possible without the SuicideGirls.

SuicideGirls was launched on September 3, 2001, as a website featuring pin-up photos and online profiles of “alternative” female models dubbed the “Suicide Girls.” It also functioned as an early online community—one year before Friendster, two years before MySpace, and three years before Facebook—where paying members could create profiles, blogs, and network based on mutual interests. The site was co-founded by Selena Mooney, a.k.a. Missy Suicide, and Sean Suhl in Portland, Oregon, and the name comes from a line in author (and fellow Portland native) Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel Survivor.

“It’s girls that choose to commit ‘social suicide’—girls that choose not to fit in,” says Missy Suicide. “It’s not really the days of John Hughes anymore where you claim your identity by the subgenre of music that you listen to. I’m not the greaser, or the grifter, or the weirdo. It seemed like a great catch-all phrase that wasn’t ‘alternative’ and that embraced all the outsiders and people choosing to live their lives their own way.”

What began as an online community featuring nude pin-up shots has since expanded into a site with celebrity interviews and celebrity bylines (ranging from Courtney Love to Rob Corddry), as well as a global brand boasting 2,700 SuicideGirls, DVDs, music videos, three books, comics, video games, and a series of popular burlesque tours. A few years back, Belle and Sebastian even penned a song, “Suicide Girl,” about a woman trying to audition to be one.

Missy Suicide, formerly known as Selena Mooney, is in New York for a series of brand-expansion meetings. We’re seated together at the John Dory Oyster Bar in Flatiron sucking down oysters and sipping on Riesling (at happy hour prices, so it sounds more bourgeois than it was). Missy, 37, is a petite, bespectacled gal with a green pixie cut, and her arms are adorned with tattoos. In short, she looks like one of her models. Her handle, she says, came from the Pixies tune “Gouge Away,” wherein singer Frank Black croons about a gal he calls “Missy aggravation.”

“We’ve been around for 13 years, which is a long time,” she says in her squeaky, unassuming voice. “We’ve got 15 million followers on social media, and are one of the top 25 brands on Instagram. We’re nationally known around the world. It’s definitely opened up the definition of beauty to a lot of different people.”

Back in 2001, that “definition” of female beauty basically fell into two categories: Playboy chic, or heroin chic.

“There were two types of beautiful women: The Pamela Anderson, silicone-enhanced buxom blonde, and the Kate Moss waif-thin supermodel blonde,” says Missy. “Those were the two bastions of beauty that you could aspire to. I thought, ‘That’s crazy, because so many of the girls I know are so gorgeous and have so many more interesting things about themselves.”

Missy was working for a ticketing company in L.A.—“a large corporation,” she says vaguely—and had worked with Sean, when she became jaded by the dot-com life, and returned back home to Portland to study photography at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The summer before classes began, she decided to take a few sets of pictures with her friends. When she got the pictures back, she met Sean for coffee and discussed how to exhibit the photos.

“A book didn’t seem right, and putting them up at a gallery seemed so ephemeral,” she says. “I felt like they had so much more to share than just that one image, so we thought we’d create a community with a website around them.”

SuicideGirls launched in September 2001, and by December, the site had exploded, and was featured on Nightline.

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The way to become a Suicide Girl, according to Missy, is as follows. First, you apply on the site, and then are helped through the process of submitting paperwork and getting a photo set shot by their staff of model coordinators. Once you submit your set, it goes into a “member review” and you’re granted a “hopeful account,” a restricted account which nonetheless allows you to interact with the online Suicide community, join groups, and generally explore the site. Once your set is released, which is usually about a month after the photos are submitted, members give you feedback on the site, and if you get great feedback, it’s elevated to “set of the day,” and you “go pink,” which means you’ve become an official Suicide Girl.

Once you “go pink,” you then sign a SuicideGirls modeling contract that states that if they buy the set from you, they own the photos and can use them in their various media.

“You get paid per set of photos, and you also get other opportunities like being featured in one of our movies, or our books, or going to events like Comic-Con and tattoo conventions, or appearing in music videos,” says Missy.

While it’s co-owned by Missy and Sean in what she describes as a 50/50 partnership, the brand came under fire in 2005 when, according to a damning feature in the Boston Phoenix, close to 40 Suicide Girls quit the site, calling it “a slap in the face to feminism” and claiming that Sean was “verbally abusive” to the girls. They painted an image of the company similar to that of Femen, the Ukrainian organization of topless female protesters that preaches female empowerment but was, up until recently, run by an abusive man by the name of Victor Svyatski.

“It’s the most offensive thing,” says Missy, who gets a bit quiet and noticeably uncomfortable when discussing Sean. “He’s… a normal person,” she adds. “That was the image they were trying to project for the company in 2005, but since then, there haven’t been any complaints. You’re not going to make everybody happy all the time. When you’re starting a business there are ups-and-downs, especially when you’re starting a business at 24. You put faith and trust in people who you shouldn’t put faith and trust in. It wasn’t anything that he did wrong, or that I did wrong.”

According to Missy, she runs the day-to-day operations of SuicideGirls, including their office above the Bourgeois Pig coffee shop in L.A.—and adjacent to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre.

“With the burlesque tour, for instance, I’ll come up with all the songs, themes, and routines, and [Sean] will be out there on the actual tour itself and managing that.”

She adds, “We have an ethos behind everything we do: to widen the cultural definition of beauty. We’re not raunchy, or lascivious. It’s just nude images. I don’t think anyone else has our niche of celebrating these women’s beauty, and the sense of camaraderie that we do.”

Missy also gets a bit tight-lipped when it comes to her personal life. She says she got married in 2005, lives in L.A. with her husband and two children, and her fella is “totally cool with what I do.” Her ultra-conservative grandmother wasn’t very cool with her choice of occupation when Missy first started. But when their first book, SuicideGirls, came out in 2004, she gifted her a copy. After spending some weeks with it, she told Missy, “Now I understand what you’re doing, and I understand your tattoos. If I ever got a tattoo, I think I’d get a butterfly.” So, to commemorate her 75th birthday, the two got matching butterfly tattoos on their wrists.

While family is largely off-limits, Missy is very excited about the SuicideGirls’ current burlesque tour, dubbed Blackheart Burlesque. While they’ve been doing burlesque shows since 2003, its most recent version is the most ornate yet, featuring everything from a Donnie Darko number with a woman in a bunny suit, Star Wars-inspired dances with women in Stormtrooper helmets, and a wild Planet of the Apes routine where girls dance about in silver bikinis to Disclosure’s “When a Fire Starts to Burn.”

As far as expansion goes, VH1 was in talks about airing a reality series documenting the Blackheart Burlesque tour, and television is something that Missy is very keen on doing. “The obvious path would be a TV show… there’s always discussions,” she says cagily.

But mostly, she’s proud of the message that SuicideGirls is sending to women everywhere. And she isn’t worried about her rebel venture getting too mainstream, either.

“Being from Portland, I’m very familiar with the ‘sell-out’ question,” she says. “But what SuicideGirls taught me is that there are people that feel like outsiders, and feel just like you did—people who grew up and didn’t have anyone understanding them—in cities all over the world. And that’s a very powerful group, if you get them to connect with one another. That’s been the most rewarding thing about SuicideGirls. If I’m selling out because people in Finland start to like it, well, I don’t really care as long as I’m helping to bring these people together.” She pauses. “Plus, it’s called SuicideGirls. Your grandma is never going to endorse something called SuicideGirls.”

Then again, Missy’s did.