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Photos by Dina Scoppettone

Cover girl Dia says she was never attracted to porn and its 'fake and bake aesthetic.'

Obscene But Not Heard

As the Suicide Girls phenomenon peaks, a number of former models accuse the company of not living up to its feminist-friendly marketing

By Peter Koht

The female form has inspired monumental acts of both artistry and idiocy over the course of humanity's existence. In addition to spurring on the creativity of Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin, it has also fostered the growth of the gargantuan entity that is America's adult entertainment industry. And while Frenchy's is still packing them in at the video booths over on 41st Avenue, in recent years the adult entertainment industry has reached new levels of saturation with the advent of broadband Internet connections.

In addition to cluttering up Google's results and filling the nation's collective inboxes with spam, this segment of the industry is responsible for billions of dollars of revenue. And although it is now possible to have the most obscure European fetish tape delivered to your desktop, the lion's share of the Internet's adult offerings are frighteningly bland.

Frankly speaking, the vast majority of Internet porn features fake blondes with fake breasts having fake orgasms.

Sean Suhl and Selena Mooney, better known to the world as Spooky and Missy Suicide, decided to do something about this absence of variety in digital pornography. In 2001, according to the official creation myth posted on their site, they founded SuicideGirls.com, an Internet haven for women whose idea of beauty fell outside the purview of San Fernando Valley smut directors.

Featuring models with tattoos, body modifications and a wide variety of piercings, the site set out to create a Playboy for the alternative set, but instead of questionnaires filled out in bubbly handwriting about long walks on the beach and champagne, each Suicide Girl was given her own blog to post whatever she wished, whether it be rumors about the Pixies reforming, the general lameness of her last boyfriend or how that labret piercing is healing up. For once, Internet porn wasn't anonymous; each model had a personality and a real voice in how she was perceived in her online environment--at least according to the marketing materials.

But while the Suicide Girls Empire has expanded to include a newswire, a touring burlesque show and an extremely popular line of clothing, the site's growth from indie maven to alternative web portal has not been without a certain amount of growing pains. According to a number of models, both active and former, the rosy feminist image of Suicide Girls bears little resemblance to the reality that awaits the girls once they sign their contracts and confidentiality agreements, collect their $300 and begin their lives as alternative pinup girls.

In recent months, allegations surrounding the site's administration have cropped up in a number of publications including the New York Press and Wired magazine. In addition to these print outlets, the "blogosphere" (which is either a wasteland of unsourced innuendo or the future of American journalism--depending on how you look at it) is practically in flames over these allegations. Friendships have been broken, lawsuits have been filed and cease-and-desist orders flow frequently from the offices of SG Enterprises, Suicide Girls' parent company.

The most troubling allegations surround censorship. According to a number of sources, those girls who were vocal about their treatment while part of the Suicide Girls community have had their postings removed, their profiles either frozen or deleted and their "free, lifetime memberships" revoked.

Despite these punitive actions, the excommunicated Suicide Girls' images are still up on the site, but now they are stripped of all the journal entries which were supposed to supply the images with personality and context. It was this feature that was supposed to set Suicide Girls apart from the mountains of other soft-core porn found on the Internet.

In addition to these actions, some model's blogs and postings on external sites, including MySpace.com and Livejournal.com, were also taken down. As if that weren't enough, allegations surrounding the behavior and business model of Sean Suhl would not leave most subscribers to Ms. magazine with a warm and fuzzy feeling.


Signing Up for the Suicide Army

One theme that emerges when talking to Suicide Girls models is their desire to participate in a site that allowed them control over the presentation of their sexuality. Many had previous modeling experience and were thrilled to be able to join a community that celebrated their uniqueness rather than forcing them to cover it up under wigs and concealer.

"I was doing some mainstream modeling and always had to cover up my tattoos," says Claret [pseudonym altered at subject's request] Suicide, a Santa Cruz-based Suicide Girl whose striking beauty is augmented with numerous, intricate tattoos on her arms, back and legs.

"While I searched online for a modeling agency that wouldn't want me to cover my tattoos, a freak incident on Google led me to Suicide Girls."

While SG is far from a standard modeling agency, Claret didn't mind the nudity aspect of the site. With the aplomb that she exhibits in her journal entries, she told Metro Santa Cruz rather matter of factly, "I didn't naively go into it. It wasn't like, oops, my clothes came off."

Jennifer Caravalla, who until her departure from the site was known as Sicily Suicide, is another model with local roots. She attended UCSC and used to waitress at the Saturn Café. Now based in San Francisco, she was happy that Suicide Girls both allowed for alternative expression and "wasn't as creepy" as other Internet sites that she looked into modeling for.

Her experience is echoed in how Dia Suicide first became involved in the website. "I didn't like porn at all," Dia says. "I had done some modeling but was never specifically attracted to porn and its fake and bake aesthetic."

Choosing to abandon her modeling agency, the Northern California-based Dia entered into the Suicide Girls universe with great excitement over the possibility of controlling the context of her images. Rather than a pornographic exploit, she saw her participation as a kind of living art project. "I wanted to make something that was my own and thought that it was different."

Suicide Girls, for all its punk rock rhetoric and DIY packaging, has always had its legal ducks in a line. When models sign up for the site, they are asked to sign several contracts. For most, a simple modeling agreement is sufficient to begin posting on the site. These agreements carry some restrictive legalisms that stand in stark contrast to the empowering language that is used to market the site.

For example, the site's Personal Release states: "The Images will constitute the property of SG Services, and Model hereby grants, assigns, transfers and conveys to SG Services, all right, title and interest of every kind and character in perpetuity throughout the universe that Model may now or hereafter have in and to the Images and the results and proceeds of the Images."

This is pretty standard language for commissioning a work for hire, which is exactly what each of these photo shoots are legally considered. SG Services pays cash on the barrel for these photos, retains the rights on their usage and considers all models as independent contractors. In short, they are stringers--like freelancers and session musicians. They have no employment rights, and the company doesn't declare them as employees and doesn't cover their payroll taxes. In short, they are both expendable and replaceable. The site claims to receive over 1,500 applications for new models a week, so there is no economic incentive for it to change this employment strategy.

Initially things progressed happily for all five of the models who were interviewed for this feature. After signing releases and scheduling photo shoots, they received those free, lifetime memberships and began to contextualize their images with entries into their blogs and online profiles.

Like Friendster and MySpace, Suicide Girls is an online community, complete with forums, groups and direct email. In addition to these virtual offerings, the site also spawns real-life "meet and greets" and member dinners. It is this aspect of the site that sets it apart from so many other sites on the Internet.

The nature of the site placed its owners in the enviable position of being able to market a successful brand to a built-in audience across many media. While it may have been born as a way to check out the hot rock chicks, it has since spawned a clothing line, a burlesque tour and the obligatory DVD documenting the antics of the dancers on that tour. The brand has engendered strong feelings of loyalty across a desirable demographic population. It's a crossover phenomenon not seen since the heady days of Hef.

In fact, almost every model who was interviewed for this story claimed to have at one point been "addicted" to Suicide Girls. Claret freely admits that "for the first year, I got a bit obsessed and posted almost every day. I got a lot of friends on my 'friends list' and was reading responses to my journal entries all the time."

According to Apnea, another former model, "Suicide Girls had many similarities to a cult. When they say that SG is a lifestyle, they aren't joking. Lots of models are all about the site and their entire lives and friendships revolve around it."

For a site whose selling point is empowering strong, opinionated women, Suicide Girls has always kept a tight reign on its electronic charges. Former model Apnea says that in her days as a Suicide Girl back in 2003, "they warned the girls about talking to the press. They said that you can talk to them, but that reporters will manipulate what you say."

Perhaps in response to the recent controversies that the site has suffered, the company has tightened its grip on press inquiries. For this article, Metro Santa Cruz tried to contact all of the local models that appear on the site. Responses varied, from absolute silence to cautious cooperation.

An email from one local SG suggested an explanation for some models' reticence. "We are supposed to clear all 'press'-type requests through the staff," she wrote. "I'd love to answer any of your questions once you get the go ahead from [SG press officer] Auren."

Meanwhile, repeated requests by Metro Santa Cruz to secure an interview with any of the staff at Suicide Girls were also denied. The site's publicist directs reporters to two pages on the website, titled "press" and "trashcan." The former contains glowing reviews of the site from such sources as the BBC and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, while the latter contains the company's responses to some of the issues raised in this article.

The "trashcan" responses--a number of which are cited elsewhere in this article--make for an entertaining read, but also serve as an indicator that all is not well within the Suicide Girls empire. As the site expands and its pop culture profile rises, it's clear that its DIY roots and feminist-friendly rhetoric may be a smoke screen for what amounts to yet another business venture aimed at separating hipsters from their disposable income. The question is whether this is a new development or was built into the business model to begin with.

The Keys to the Castle

According to the Suicide Girls official bio, the website first went live in late 2001 in Portland, Ore. The founding partners, "Sean Suicide" (Sean Suhl) and "Missy Suicide" (Selena Mooney), first dreamed up the concept not only to see their favorite baristas au naturel, but also to feminize Internet pornography. Since its inception, one of the site's main selling points was that it was marketed as a female-owned operation.

According to a Business Registry filed with Oregon's secretary of state, the site's parent corporation, SG Services, has two officers. Suhl is listed as the president and Mooney is registered as the secretary. On its "trashcan" page, Suicide Girls regularly and rightly reminds its readers, detractors and inquiring reporters that "'president' is not synonymous with 'owner.'"

Helming a privately held company, Sean and Selena also share ownership with Steve Simitzis and his wife, Olivia Ball. Simitzis doubles as the site's server admin, and Ball, in addition to modeling as "Olivia," is also responsible for a large portion of the site's coding.

But while the exact percentages of the partners' interest in the company are not publicly disclosed, the power behind the administration of the organization apparently resides in Suhl.

The "trashcan" proclaims that Suhl is responsible for the "boring business stuff," but his presence seems to loom large in SG's home office. So what about Mooney, the company's only other registered officer? If she is not minding the "boring business stuff," what is her role?

In the opinion of Jennifer "Sicily" Caravella, who lived in the same apartment as Suhl for a time and was a frequent visitor to the firm's Los Angeles offices, "Sean needs her; she does a lot of the work. Up until recently she did most of the photography and does the majority of the press, but when it comes to the ultimate decision-making, it's all him."

Suhl does appear to be a brilliant businessman. The still twentysomething entrepreneur has gone from dropping out of Hampshire College to designing websites for HBO to heading a rapidly expanding merchandising and marketing empire. Under his supervision, Suicide Girls has licensed photo sets to Playboy.com, put out multimedia releases on Epitaph Records and placed its tour DVD into regular rotation on Showtime.

But while Suhl can be commended on his hard work and success, the ethos behind the site--that of an empowered, new kind of pornography--is only so much marketing in the view of some ex-models.

"The philosophy behind the site has nothing to do with him," insists Caravella. "He knows that it's good to have a community, but if he had his way there would just be a bunch of nude pictures for everyone to stare at. The only reason that it's the other way is because it is a philosophy and a gimmick that makes him a lot of money."

Dissent Deleted

Other SGs express similarly disillusionment. "I thought that one of the things that being a Suicide Girl was all about," says Dia, "was being permitted to be a strong-minded woman."

But the company sees little merit in allowing unfiltered posting on its site when it runs counter to the brand's image. "If something comes up in a post that is seen as a negative, and the business doesn't agree with it, then it gets deleted," says Claret.

"In my last post I told everyone not to freak out about me leaving the site," says Apnea, who was taken off of Suicide Girls for modeling for a competing site. "They erased that and took my website address out of my profile. My last post now reads, "'Hello everyone.'"

Sicily's last journal entry, which vociferously explained to her friends and fans why she was leaving the site, was posted normally, but according to her, "within thirty seconds everything was gone."

In its defense, Suicide Girls makes it plain to all interested parties that, as a moderated site, "Freedom of Speech does not apply to posting on SuicideGirls. We are a private club and may remove you as a member of our club for any number of idiotic statements, including but not limited to: sexist statements, racist statements, conspiracy theories, hurtful remarks, threats of violence, demands upon the staff or members, delibrate lieing [sic], attacks upon the staff, [or] just good old fashioned idiocy."

These rules apply to both model and member posts, as SG user MalloryKnoxx found out last September. In a long post that encompassed her feelings on internal censorship and archiving, she explained precisely why she was fed up with the site. One paragraph in her original post reads:

"I was not happy with what I was hearing from former models about how they were treated. I tried to remain objective, knowing that many companies have disgruntled employees and are not necessarily bad companies. I also tried to remain objective when I heard from numerous members who were, as I understand it, removed from the site for expressing dissent on SG."

Her post ended with the sentence, "I will not be silenced when I feel the need to voice an opinion about a company." It is all that remains of the post on the site now. Reached on the phone in Los Angeles, Mallory said "the original post lasted seven minutes."

Among the community of former Suicide Girls, this process has spawned a new verb: zotted. This process includes not only the alteration or deletion of unfriendly posts, but also the total removal of the offender from the online community.

For members, this process simply means that their membership will lapse; for models it means the destruction of their online journals, a total freeze on the content of their profiles and the removal of all comments and postings that they might have contributed to any part of the site. It also means the revocation of the models' ostensibly free and lifetime membership. Claret queries, "How can you say that it is a free lifetime membership if it is able to be revoked?"

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the preservation of all of the models' photos in the "Archive of Past Suicide Girls." In this image repository, 165 models are presented for punters. This section of the site has no interactivity and the girls are simply eye candy. So much for the site's much vaunted recontextualization of pornography.

"It's dehumanizing," says Dia regarding archiving. "I would not model for a site that wouldn't give me a voice. Instead I modeled for a site that took it away."


Dia calls the deletion of models' comments and archiving of their photos 'dehumanizing.'

The Long Arm of the Law

    Dear LiveJournal user sicilycat,
    It has come to our attention that
    your account exists for the sole purpose
    of invading the privacy and harassing
    another. As this is a severe violation
    of LiveJournal's Terms of Service, your
    account has been terminated. This action
    is permanent and non-negotiable; your
    account will not be reinstated. Please
    note that future such violations may
    result in the termination of all of your
    Live Journal accounts.

SG Services' obsession with positive public relations doesn't end at the boundaries of their its domain. Several disgruntled pinups, including Kelly "Shera" Kleinert and Jennifer "Sicily" Caravella, have had their hosted blogs and comments on other Internet communities completely deleted.

"I have had two Live Journal accounts jacked," Sicily says. "Everything that I have written has been yanked down. I've asked the website why and they sent me an email that basically said that I have been accused of bullying."

Reading the rescued archives of these postings, it's clear that they contained more than a healthy dose of bitterness and indignation, not to mention episodes of hearsay and potential libel. Livejournal and MySpace seem to be well within their rights to pull these profiles, but their actions raise the question: Who let them know about the objectionable content?

Although she was banned from posting any comments in the MySpace online community, interestingly enough, Sicily has not been threatened with legal action. She's been lucky, as Suicide Girls has not been reticent about sending registered letters from its solicitors. Katie, Dusty, Apnea and Kelly have all felt the sharp end of SG's lawyer's pen.

Yet, according to the language contained in its Model Release forms, Suicide Girls has been well within its rights to pursue legal action. Posing for another Internet entity is a violation of the company's right to the model's image "throughout the universe including, without limitation, in connection with the advertising, exploitation and publicizing of the website."

The Dawn

What all these accusations boil down to is a disconnect between the stated ethos of the site and the realities of making a living in a highly competitive media environment. But on a larger level, these issues are illustrative of the inevitable clash between capitalism and DIY punk culture.

Word of these and other issues became more widespread inside of the SG community. According to stats released by the website, in July one girl left, and August saw 11 leave. In September, the phenomenon peaked and 25 girls left the site. In October, 11 more called it quits. To balance this out, 135 new girls have been added.

But what the stats do not show is that the models who have left, including Sicily, Dia and Apnea, were some of the most popular and vocal personalities in the community. They joined the site in its infancy and it was their hard work, frequent postings and constant support that helped lead to the formation of the site's loyal membership base. The girls that are replacing these veterans are getting lost in the crowd. With 846 models, it's hard to stand out.

According to many of the departed girls, this is part of the general homogenization of the site, a process that alternative subcultures are unfortunately used to.

"I feel like it is an exploitative culture in general," says Claret about the realities of American life. "Popular culture always does this. They've taken everything that's unique and turned it into some kind of shiny packaged product."

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From the November 16-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

For more information about Santa Cruz, visit santacruz.com.




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