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Punk Burlesque

Two great radical traditions meet on Suicide Girls website and tour

By Traci Vogel

SUICIDE GIRLS began in a coffee shop in Portland, Ore., one unceremonious afternoon when two friends were discussing, as friends often do, how to get rich off the Internet. And as friends often do, these two, who call themselves Missy and Spooky Suicide, came to the conclusion that when it comes to making money, there's only one surefire strategy: showing some skin.

It was 2001, and--especially in Portland--punk rock and porn were beginning their money-slicked slide into the mainstream. Punk rock had never been afraid of a little nudity, but the porn industry had never been punk rock. Conventional pornography favors slick images, plastic women and, most of all, the money shot. Missy and Spooky Suicide had something else in mind.

"Seeing hot punk-rock chicks naked," Missy and Spooky have cited only partway tongue-in-cheek when asked about their reasons for starting the their website, SuicideGirls.com. In interviews, however, Spooky (whose real name is Sean Suhl), gives a more business-savvy reason: There was nothing like it out there.

Yes, SuicideGirls.com is a pay-to-view soft-core porn site, complete with the requisite photos of naked women. But these women look less like balloon-chested big-hairs than like half the audience at a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show. Suicide Girls often sport tattoos, piercings and pink and purple hair. They choose their own poses and backdrops, and they keep online blogs in which they post their opinions about music, politics, fashion and even viewers who post.

In fact, the site reads like a hybrid of punk pinup, Friendster and Vice magazine. Suhl emphasizes the community aspect of the site, saying, "The members like to hook up with each other in person, whether it's going to a show or to parties or just hanging out at a coffee shop." In fact, he claims, "We have had quite a few couples--both girl/boy, girl/girl and surprisingly enough boy/boy--meet on the site who are now dating very seriously."

In fact, since it debuted in October of 2001, the website has leapt into the public consciousness with astonishing speed. It has found press in the pages of Spin, Playboy and The New Yorker. Suicide Girls have shown up in music videos and appeared on MTV with Courtney Love. Suhl estimates that the site is visited by users on more than 300,000 individual computers a week.

Unlike many amateurs who pose nude on the web, Suicide Girls are not afraid of a little real-life public exposure. Suicide Girls parties in Portland and New York have attracted frenzied crowds. Now, the site has taken its show on the road and has found its way to San Jose. What do the women of Suicide Girls have to show? Skin, of course. They perform good old-fashioned burlesque.

Simultaneous with, or maybe because of, the upsurge in punk rock and porn, a revival in burlesque has been bumping and grinding away on the indie club circuit. Burlesque, to some, is nothing more than timid stripping. But this recent burlesque boom owes some of its popularity to punk's who-cares-what-you-think spirit, Third Wave feminism's kitschy nostalgia and--thank goodness--a sense of humor.

All kinds of people are attracted to the new burlesque--recent revues in San Francisco have drawn audiences that include staid-looking 50-year-old couples and rockabilly die-hards. Despite what one thinks of burlesque, there is real art to it, and the women involved in these revues pride themselves on the individual novelty of their acts. Reportedly, the Suicide Girls incorporate flame tricks, pink cupcakes and belly dancing into their burlesque. One online blogger described a pirate-themed performance to music "that was half punk, half Pogues" and employed a head scarf, eye patch and black electrical tape.

Suhl has claimed in interviews that the audience for the website is anywhere from 45 percent to 65 percent women, and these are certainly fair estimates for most burlesque shows, too. Who do you think the pink cupcakes are for?


The Suicide Girls Burlesque Tour performs with Courtney Love on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 8:30pm at the Catalyst. Tickets are $25 advance, $30 at the door. (831.423.1336)


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From the October 27-November 3, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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