But in 2001, when founders Selena Mooney ("Missy Suicide") and Sean Suhl began the alt-pinup website from a small apartment in Northwest Portland, Suicide Girls seemed to many like the staging ground for some sort of revolution in female empowerment. And so by 2005, the sense of betrayal was thick when the site was revealed to be not just a social club for pretty girls with tats but also an often mercenary-seeming business: The site sued former models and other alt-porn sites based on trademarks and non-compete clauses.
Suicide Girls, which this week brings its high-gloss burlesque show back to the city that birthed it, is currently a multimedia enterprise based in Los Angeles with glossy picture books, DVDs and licensing contracts. The touring show was choreographed by a New Yorker named Manwe and includes Simpsons-themed opera and bikini-clad girls in monkey masks. But we return to more innocent times, in the voices of people involved.
Suhl and Missy came up with the idea in 2001, at Coffee People on Northwest 23rd Avenue:
"In 2001, girls with tattoos were not celebrated quite like they are today. I don't think it could have started anyplace else. I feel like Portland has this unique culture, the most strip clubs, the most bookstores. Going to a strip club in Portland is different from anyplace else in the country. You can meet guys and girls, and it's not a weird thing."
"I can't imagine another city in North America where Suicide Girls could have started. If Suicide Girls came from New York, it would have been too cool. If it came from San Francisco, it would have been too extreme. Los Angeles would be too cynically studied."
—Wil Wheaton, actor and former SG geek-culture columnist (2005-08)
"Suicide Girls has made Portland the epicenter of cool to its fans. Members often ask if they can visit SGHQ, as it is referred to on the site, not realizing the company is run from a spacious apartment—the top floor of a Victorian building in Northwest Portland."
The initial models were friends of Missy's, but the site expanded through word of mouth (and through a 2003 WW cover story):
"Once the site launched, we'd have meet-ups where we'd meet girls at Coffee People on 23rd, people who'd heard about it. Coffee People and Anna Bannanas."
"I'm born and raised in Portland. When I was 18 or 19, I started hearing more about [Suicide Girls]. I probably at some point heard about it in WW. I was really excited about the photography aspect of it: sexy but not just about sex."
—Lyxzen, model coordinator/SG model since 2005
"It was the Willamette Week cover story that got me to hook up with them. I'd only been living in Portland for two weeks. I got on the site, and the application form was broken. I looked them up in the phone book. They were doing interviews. I called and she said I'm interviewing in 15 minutes. It was at Coffee People."
—Nixon, SG model since 2002
"When I saw what Suicide Girls was doing, I loved the atmosphere; it was pre-selfie. It was that vibe of people controlling their own looks. I thought that was pretty unique."
—Zia McCabe, Dandy Warhols keyboardist; modeled pregnant in 2005
The site includes a social-networking component, in which models interact with fans:
"I think when SG started, it was one of the first social-media sites. That gets overlooked a lot. That's what we spent our time on—on the boards, on the messages. That aspect died out a bit after Myspace, and that's changed the flavor. The girls coming up now are a new generation. There are no more Gen-X girls."
"There's an unnecessary taboo about a site like Suicide Girls. There's nothing weird or prurient about this. I strongly disagree with the idea that it's a porn site."
"When I got pregnant, I really wanted to do it. I heard that nobody was allowed to do it pregnant. I wanted to be the pregnant Suicide Girl, and define beauty that way. I only looked on there a couple of times. One of the Suicide Girls told me comments were running wild. People canceled subscriptions and were totally offended. Others were protective of the idea of pregnant still being sexy. There was a big debate."
"It's a new group of girls all the time. Being nude on the Internet, it's not something that most people aspire to do for their entire life. There are definitely girls who've said, 'I no longer want to be on the site because of my job,' or personal reasons. But legally we own the photo sets, so we can't remove those. Anything else I'll help them remove—blogs, entries."
In 2003, the site sent a group of models on a burlesque tour. That version of the tour kept going for four straight years:
"On and off, I was on tour for four years. I was working with a burlesque troupe in Portland—Cherry Tarts. I got on a Greyhound bus, went all the way to L.A. for the tryouts, then got on a bus and went on tour. It was totally improvised. We sewed all our own costumes, we were in a van."
"Portland has a wonderful history of burlesque and live shows. Our first anniversary was at Dante's. We took that spirit of classic burlesque and put our own twist on it."
"It wasn't a shiny, polished show. We threw things at the audience, sometimes they threw things back. It was sexy, but in a punk-rock way. Over the years, we threw a lot of food, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, a lot of booze, beer, vodka, a lot of glitter. We got barred from taking glitter. Apparently it gets into speakers. I had no idea. We had to switch to larger glitter."
The models were also involved in music-video shoots, and were put on tours with Guns N' Roses and Courtney Love:
"The [music-video shoot] that stands out to me the most was for the Dwarves. Suicide Girls had worked with them before. I wasn't covered in blood, but a bunch of the other girls were."
"Axl Rose, he was introduced to us. He wasn't overwhelmingly friendly. He was kind of in his own place. Sebastian Bach was amazing. He's like a small child trapped in a 40-year old body with too much money. I got in a loogey-hocking contest with him once. The bus driver made us stop—it was getting on the windows."
In 2004, Suicide Girls moved to Los Angeles and partnered with Epitaph Records, book companies and, briefly, Playboy:
"It's so funny that people still bring up [Playboy]. They featured some of our content. Once a week for a month, they put up a photo set, and that was the extent of the involvement. It was so nothing. And it's over a decade ago. Everyone's still focused on it."
"I feel, like, super-involved. I've dedicated my life to being here and running everything every day. I've always loved Portland, and I love to be from there, and I'm bummed they're not more embracing of me. Portland hasn't always been as nice to me as it could have been, but I still love it. It's still home. I visit a couple times a year."
SEE IT: Suicide Girls' Blackheart Burlesque is at Roseland Theatre, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038, on Wednesday, Dec. 3. 8:15 pm. $25-$100. 18+.