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March 19th, 2003 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

The Calculated Assault of Suicidegirls. com

     
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Selena Hoover was walking into a calendar store at Lloyd Center in December the first time it happened. Two young men were pointing and talking about her. A sylphlike 19-year-old with almond-shaped eyes and a café au lait complexion, Hoover is used to turning heads, but this was different. The young men weren't flirting with her--they'd recognized her. She looked down at the logo on her gray-and-pink tank top and realized why they were staring.

They had seen Hoover before. All of her.

Hoover is a model on suicidegirls.com, the Portland-based website devoted to punk, goth and emo girls in various states of undress. The tank top she wore bore the Suicide Girls logo. She is known on the site as Nala. And on the Internet, there's a lotta Nala.

Hoover laughed off the encounter: "I was like, OK, you've seen my tits and ass up on the screen," she says with nonchalance. Yet the experience showed Hoover, who works as a hostess at Cucina! Cucina!, how big Suicide Girls has become.

SG status has been a boon for Hoover. In addition to getting noticed around town, she's received an offer from a photographer to shoot a modeling portfolio for free, landed a gig dancing at Wieden & Kennedy's holiday party, and got the chance to learn how to spit fire, something she'd always wanted to do.

"It definitely opens doors for me," Hoover says. "That's primarily why I did it: to see where it would get me."

Other SGs have gone on the pop-punk Warped tour, met the Strokes, received VIP treatment at the Standard Hotel in L.A., starred in local music videos and appeared on MTV with Courtney Love. They have received clothing, CDs and concert tickets from those hoping they'll mention them or their products in their online journals.

Just as some of its models have become minor celebrities, the site itself has become a fixture of popular culture. Its stylized pink-and-gray graphics and logo can be found on decals plastered--like a hipster seal of approval--at bars and record stores throughout the world.

Xavier Esteve, a rally-car driver from Barcelona, was so enamored with the site he painted the logo on the hood of his car, bringing SG television time when his races are broadcast on ESPN.

As far away as Brooklyn and London, members have painted the sides of buildings with the name and logo. They have also dubbed the URL onto rental tapes of cult films from Blockbuster, so that the Web address flashed on the screen before the movie, like subliminal advertising.

With an image more evocative of an indie record label than an adult entertainment company, Suicide Girls has become the code word for a new, sex-positive brand of cool.

And within a certain stratum of 18- to 25-year-old women, being a SG commands considerable bragging rights. Suicide Girls doesn't do model searches or solicit participants--there's no need. In just 18 months it has become the club every hipster chick worth her ripped fishnets wants to join.

By extension, 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. "They think there's a big office downtown with a logo all lit up," laughs the site's webmaster and co-founder, who is known to members as Spooky. "They want to make a pilgrimage."

The rise of Suicide Girls is a study in buzz. As a collection of nude and semi-nude photos, it's unremarkable, a lightweight in a bottomless industry. Guests can see much of the site for free, but to view the entire archive of 12,755 pictures they have to pony up $4 a month. Yet Suicide Girls distinguishes itself from the typical softcore porn site with its ever-expanding discussion threads, web logs (blogs), calendars, groups and even member-organized get-togethers. This lighthearted mix of punk-rock sensibility and softcore pornography has produced a potent new product.

In September 2002, Courtney Love became a member and an unsolicited champion of the site, mentioning it on the Howard Stern show and later bringing some L.A. suicide girls with her when she hosted "24 Hours of Love" on MTV. (Love has since left rambling, stream-of-consciousness posts on the site, including shoutouts to various Portland-area 'hoods.)

Dave Attell, Comedy Central's traveling stand-up comedian, briefly met local suicide girls when his show, Insomniac, passed through Portland. (The episode aired last December.) The site also received an entry in the ironic-or-not indie manual The Hipster Handbook.

Suicide Girls anticipated the simultaneous mainstreaming of punk rock and pornography, and in doing so won glowing coverage in the pages of Spin, Revolver, The New Yorker, Playboy and Gear, as well as a spot on Nightline with Ted Koppel.

Spin said SG's business model "combines a sort of '60s-based grassroots ethic with the painful lessons of dot-com insanity."

The company is poised to expand. Its founders are negotiating a contract with a Los Angeles management company that would give it a cash infusion. The alliance would expand the business's potential for licensing, for example, and may include relocation to Los Angeles. A book and DVD of Suicide Girls are in the works.

All of this prompts the inevitable accusations that the once-legitimate "indie" site is selling out--a claim Spooky gleefully dismisses: "We sold out long ago."

More than 500 people showed up for Suicide Girls' one-year anniversary party at Dante's last October. The club was so packed people were turned away. None of them realized the man denying them entrance was one of the site's founders.

He refuses to give his last name, but a search of corporation records reveals Spooky is the handle for Sean Suhl, a 27-year-old Hampshire College dropout who moved in early 2001 to Portland from Los Angeles, where he had worked designing websites for entertainment companies like HBO.

Suhl is listed as the company's president, but he founded Suicide Girls with his partner and onetime girlfriend, who goes by the name of Missy. A winsome 24-year-old with a freckled baby face, a pierced septum and violet hair, Missy graduated from C.E. Mason high school in Beaverton before enrolling in Marlboro College, where she studied media and sociology.

The pair have profiles on the website, including lengthy journals. Missy's includes a head shot, but the only photograph of Suhl shows him at a distance, from the back. In person, Suhl is a stocky 5-foot-7, with short brown hair, a goatee and bushy eyebrows. He compares his job to that of a movie producer, and as such stays behind the scenes of Suicide Girls--a disembodied voice, Charlie to their Angels.

While Missy is more comfortable with the minor-celebrity status the site has given her, Suhl rarely meets SG members, even though they hold frequent local get-togethers. In fact, he is a workaholic practiced at avoidance--the type who has employees measure his torso so he can order T-shirts from the Gap online, rather than walk the two blocks to an actual brick-and-mortar Gap store. He has been estranged from his family for several years, graduated from a formal boarding school, and holds a green card because, by fluke, he happens to have been born in Canada. He is a neoconservative who supports the war against Iraq.

In person, Suhl is friendly and casual. He often gives interviews while padding around barefoot on the hardwood floors of his apartment on Northwest 23rd Avenue, where he and Missy hold monthly dinners with models, as well as photo shoots. With its Pottery Barn-style decor, the place looks like it could be a set for The Real World, and Suhl, in torn jeans, chain-smoking American Spirits and now and then grabbing handfuls from a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, could be one of the show's listless cast members.

Suhl and Missy like to say their motive for the site was seeing hot punk-rock chicks naked. Not long after moving from Portland, "We were sitting at Coffee People [on Northwest 23rd] saying, 'What should we do?'" Missy remembers.

The Internet is full of cool music zines and blogs, but none of them were making money. "You have to find a way to monetize it," Suhl says. Of all the membership-based websites on the Internet, the most profitable, they figured, were pornographic.

Tits, tats and ass pay for Suicide Girl's bandwidth.

Despite their informality, Missy and Suhl are media savvy. They won't disclose membership or profits--no matter how many times they're asked. All Suhl will say is that Suicide Girls receives hits from roughly 300,000 different computers per week.

No one knows how many of those visitors are paying members, and Suhl, who drives a 1999 Mercedes SLK, will not release this information.

"Sean has a real keen understanding of what works on the Internet," says Peter Luttrell, president of 3jane, the company that runs SG's servers, and a longtime associate of Suhl's.

"I think what makes SG really successful is that it is targeted to a niche that isn't being readily served," Luttrell continues. "I don't think it's exclusive or elite, but if you were to search for a sex-positive, indie group of people online, Suicide Girls is really the only place to go."

Like most SG newbies, Selena Hoover couldn't stop checking the adoring comments written by members when her picture first appeared on the site. "For three days, I didn't move," she says of her SG debut. "I was addicted."

This fixation helps to explain the appeal of becoming an SG. The site receives 200 applications per week from wannabe models from all over the world, and it accepts only one or two of these--a ratio that makes Suicide Girls more selective than Harvard, Princeton or Yale.

The admissions officers are Veronica and Chloe, both early suicide girls who later went to work for the company. On a recent afternoon they slumped at giant computers in a messy room of the apartment, looking more like students than engineers of a cultural empire. Veronica was barefoot and dressed in sweats--she often works in a bathrobe--and Chloe snacked on bulk nuts from a plastic bag while sporting a ripped black T-shirt that says, "I love champagne, caviar, and ca."

Veronica, who is 22 and, like Chloe, doesn't want to give her real name for fear of overzealous fans, culls the bulk of the applications quickly, eliminating applicants who look too professional or too mainstream or whose musical tastes are questionable. She also tires of predictable backdrops: the car, the bathroom. "If I can reject them right away, I will."

Applicants are willing to do almost anything to get on the site--some even mistakenly believe they must pay. One might imagine that models at a punk-rock porn site have no need for approval, but it isn't necessarily true. Would-be SGs can be overwhelmingly needy, Veronica says, calling her several times a day for reassurance. She rolled her eyes at this: "Some girls say, "Am I pretty?'"

The online application form includes a question about why you want to be a suicide girl. Many write in saying they want to be the first "fat chick" on the site, a tired challenge which Veronica says wrongly presupposes that all the girls are thin. Size doesn't matter so much as a punk-rock je ne sais quoi. What that entails is constantly debated in the SG office.

Models choose the pictures that will appear on the site, which, like virtually all content in the Internet porn world, are digitally airbrushed. They also receive entry into a private models-only discussion board.

One applicant, a tan, bikini-clad Floridian, gets nixed by Chloe, but Veronica feels she should send in a set of pictures. An elegant French applicant in a black-and-white photo gets the nod from both. "We love the French girls," Chloe says, noting that they never tire of the applicants. "This is the best part."

Both Veronica and Chloe agree the fan with the Hanson tattoo was so not SG material. They prefer tattooed girls with wild hair, while Suhl lobbies for bookish, bespectacled emo girls. Everyone would like to see more women of color apply.

Veronica chooses girls who seem enthusiastic about participating in the site--updating her journal, joining groups, and so forth. New suicide girls get their journal and are encouraged to begin writing in it even before their pictures go up on the site.

If a member fails to update her journal or participate in the site, her photos may eventually be pulled, though Suhl concedes he makes exceptions. A dark-haired, big-breasted beauty who goes by Mary, for example, has never kept a journal, but she's a member favorite, so she remains, her iconic likeness even gracing an SG sticker.

Suhl says 55 percent of the paying members are women. He likes to assert that pictures yield only 15 to 20 percent of its overall traffic.

There is no way to prove this, but a look at the message board--where only paying members (and models) can post--shows young women are among the site's most active and ardent visitors.

Raishawn Kairuz, 20, is one of them, though at first SG had no appeal for her. "I was completely uninterested because I'm not into porn and I thought it was kinda silly," she says. Out of boredom and curiosity she checked it out, and she was surprised she had much in common with members who were posting on the message boards.

"The first thing that interested me was the music section, and everybody was talking about bands and shows," she says. "That's when it started to look like fun."

Late last year Kairuz became a paying member so she could have access to the private chat groups started by other members and view the pictures they'd taken at parties. Now she spends hours online each day, organizes her social life around SG events, and counts other SG members as her best friends. The Pasco, Wash., native regularly travels from Portland to Seattle to visit friends she has made from the site. She even showed it to her grandmother.

"She's slightly worried that I'm going to come out of the closet," Kairuz says with a laugh.

Kairuz says her interest in Suicide Girls baffles other friends, who don't understand why a straight woman would want to look at pictures of naked women. While Kairuz enjoys the photos, she says she spends more time interacting with other members.

Inspired by the active social calendar of San Francisco's SG members, Kairuz organized her own local get-together at Rocco's Pizza near Powell's Books in downtown Portland. Now the group meets regularly for parties, karaoke and dancing.

She says the website's greatest appeal is that it gives members the chance to rub shoulders with its celebrities.

"I think one of the main things is the amount of access we're allowed to the girls. People actually get to know them to the point where they don't want to look at their pictures because they're such good friends," Kairuz says. The same goes for access to the site's otherwise elusive founders: "Especially on the Internet, you don't have the owners mingling with the commoners."

Members always want more of models, and models often want to indulge in their celebrity. But reality is always barging in on fantasy. The results aren't pretty. Kairuz concedes there are flame wars, hurt rivalries, manipulation and shameless social climbing among members.

And despite Suhl's suggestion that SG-hood is a meritocracy, some members have felt the sting of having their model applications rejected over and over again, Kairuz adds.

Like life, Suicide Girls isn't fair. "They even do a freshman hazing," Kairuz says, referring to the ridicule new members get when they start an ignorant thread. A few have quit their membership in frustration, taken their sex toys and gone home. Others were expelled for talking trash or talking too dirty.

"It reminds me of high school," she says.

In a way, Suicide Girls' members have simply recreated the world that spurned them, right down to its pecking order, taboos and rituals. Members are even planning a prom in May in San Francisco; SG members from all over the country plan to attend. Kairuz insists the event is free of irony: "It's a chance to get all dressed up and ride in a limo."

Taking back the prom night without mocking it may not seem very punk rock--unless your definition of punk owes more to Hot Topic than Johnny Rotten. Never mind the porn, the prom or any other fantasy. The alienation is real--and that, at least, doesn't change.

"Everybody on the site would be considered kinda strange in society," Kairuz says, unconvincingly. "This is their chance to feel cool."


The term "emo" derives from "emotional hardcore," a term coined in the early to mid- '80s by bands in the Washington, D.C., punk scene in reaction to an increasingly macho and aggressive genre.




Reach is usually defined as the proportion of all Internet users who visit a given site. A database called www.Alexa.com charts reach per million users.




Suicide Girls' average reach over the past three months is 48, meaning if you took a random sample of one million Internet users, 48 visited www.SuicideGirls.com during this period, either as guest visitors or paying members. Oregonlive.com's three- month average is 30.5.




Launched a few days after the World Trade Center bombing, the site was burdened with a name that called to mind the tragedy. As it happens, the name "suicide girls" has no particular meaning.




Suicide Girls prints roughly 10,000 stickers a month, giving them away or selling them for 10 cents each.




Models on the site receive $100 to $300 per picture set--up from an initial $50-- and a free lifetime membership to the site.
 
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