The difference between naked shots and porn is spreading your legs," Molly Crabapple tells me. We're sitting in Clem's, a Williamsburg honky-tonk, along with two Press editors and a friend of Molly's who's a former freak-show girl. "Molls and newsmen-very noir," Molly says, and takes a sip of her ice water.
Molly is 22 and striking, olive-skinned with an aquiline nose and breasts with the curve and heft that everyone wants either to have or to hold. She's articulate and educated, if a bit too knowing. She's there to talk with me about SuicideGirls.com, the softcore sex site that's gone mainstream by purporting to offer naked young alt-girls in a female-friendly online community.
Until recently Molly was a Suicide Girl, having posed nude for the site twice, once alone and once in tandem with another girl. She was paid the usual rate of $300 for each shoot and didn't spread her legs on either occasion. She's well-spoken, but her complaint is much the same as those of most every other girl I've spoken with: "SuicideGirls is the Wal-Mart of alt-porn." She's said the same at her page on the site, but you won't find the comment there; it's been purged, along with just about every other critical comment any Suicide Girl has made has made about SuicideGirls.
The bloom, it seems, is off the rose.
SuicideGirls' carefully cultivated claim of being female-run has been attacked as a marketing ploy, and one of its male owners attacked as a woman-hater. About 30 of the site's best-known and most-popular models have left or been booted from the site in the last month, and their online journals purged. The idea that the site was as much about the girls' minds as about their bodies-always transparently false, but for some reason accepted at face value by the girls, by a press all too eager to promote purportedly female-empowering porn and by a large female viewership willing to play along-has been exposed as a fraud.
Those women who have moved on to other sites have been threatened with lawsuits (as have sites running their photos) that appear to claim that for the generally $300 a shoot they were paid that all images of them-not just those taken for SG-are property of the site forever and throughout the universe.
Those former SGs that have nonetheless continued to publicly attack the site say they have been threatened with spurious but costly and time-consuming lawsuits, and with having the pictures they took for the site sold to hardcore sex sites.
The new, enlightened sex is looking awfully similar to the old exploitative porn, which is a shame, but no surprise.
In the 2004 SuicideGirls coffee-table book, a collection of sexy photos and sample profiles, Missy Suicide claims to have created Suicide Girls in 2001. She wanted, she says, to take pictures of her pierced and tattooed friends, women who supposedly challenged the normative idea of beauty. This despite being pale, thin, white, altered and modified in the least imaginative possible ways and generally given over to the sort of vague nostalgia for pin-up photography and glamour-as-such that so many disaffected young women feel.
"I decided I would create a website for the images, and give each of the girls I photographed a space to write, rant, scream, explain, whatever," she wrote. "I would give them a voice on the Web site, and let them create the site with me, set the tone and share their unique attitudes with the world."
The innermost thoughts and taut bodies of naked hipstresses, steeped in the rhetoric of womanly self-empowerment and in the service of the DIY ethos-the perfect marketing plan.
The real beauty of it was that it worked two ways. The audience was made to feel that far from mere gapers after smut, they were participants in the democratization of sex. The models were made to feel that they were taking control of their sexuality, posing nude without compromising their integrity or fattening the bankroll of a leering, amoral pornographer.
When SuicideGirls.com went live in 2001, about 35 girls took their clothes off for a supposedly woman-owned venture in hot naked hipsterism and online diary-keeping. The site was immediately acclaimed by the stodgy press, garnering praise from the Times of London, Spin, Rolling Stone and-yes-New York Press under previous editors. MTV tellingly and inanely claimed that "SG isn't just a lifestyle brand-it's a lifestyle." (Which is, I suppose, the difference between porn and naked shots.) These days, there are almost 800 Suicide Girls, and thousands of subscribers generating about a million hits on an average day. SG has proven so lucrative that the company, now called SG Services, Inc., has expanded into clothes, underwear, tchotchkes, a burlesque tour (and a predictably banal DVD of the tour), a coffee-table book and a radio show.
"I was really attracted to the idea of a site created and run by women," says Jennifer "Sicily" Caravella, until her recent departure one of the most popular Suicide Girls. "What really lured me in and made me want to stay was that the community really added a light-hearted dimension (very different from most porn sites) where I could screw off on the boards with my juvenile humor and make friends. I got really into the journals and ended up meeting a lot of people."
This mythology of sexy, pierced women creating a frolicksome community was what drove the site's popularity. As it turns out, though, neither Missy Suicide nor any other woman is the force behind the nudity. That would be one Sean Suhl, one of the four owners of SuicideGirls, and the one the departing girls all say is the power behind the throne, while Missy is mostly merely the public face. Sean's possessed with a unique attitude of his own.
Whores, sluts and junkies are some of the names Caravella says Suhl has used to empower his models when not allegedly declaiming that "You guys are a bunch of vapid idiots," "An ass-sex video wouldn't have paid you as much," or "Why don't you just shut the fuck up, lady. No one asked you!"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such antics have led to the loss of various exotically named models. "Doesn't anyone wonder why nearly all the models who are leaving the site have had personal/direct contact with Sean? Nearly every girl who has left knows Sean. This is not just chance," says Caravella.
Sicily, Shera, Stormy, Voltaire, Apnea, and, er, Katie, all prominently featured on the Web site, the book and/or the 2004 burlesque tour, are all popular-and all gone.
The Suicide Girl brand was built largely on the images these girls provided-and it was the loss of these models that has brought the company's seedy business practices front and center.
"The ones who left were the icons of Suicide Girls. That subscribers care that these girls left is proof that they regard the girls as humans, not meat puppets," said a former model who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And these new 18-year-olds are not top tier-the whole point is making sure that now there is no top tier, that the site is less about the personalities of strong, charismatic women who can hurt SG by leaving and is more about interchangeable tits."
A skeptic might point out that regardless of the marketing gimmick, SuicideGirls was never about anything else. As a thought experiment, imagine two alternative sites, one without blogs, and one without naked pictures. Which one would rake in the $9 per month subscription fees? Put your money on the one with the meat puppets.
The point is made best on the SuicideGirls DVD, a documentary on the group's 2004 burlesque tour that intercuts a bit of self-empowerment rhetoric with plenty of bumping and grinding. It's a moderately upscale Girls Gone Wild, with the coercive images of men pressuring drunken girls to take off their tops replaced with ridiculous shots of the girls coming together, giggling and hugging after their stripper routines.
"Sean basically told me to 'fuck off' when I requested that we sign contracts ensuring his word on the royalties," says Caravella. "Sean promised all the girls a 5-cent royalty on the DVD after a 200 grand re-coup. He later took back his word with one of the girls because she couldn't do the next tour (though she had done a TON of free promotion for SG). Another girl was told there was no re-coup. Another girl was told one thing from Missy and another from Sean. His whole deal was to use this 5-cent re-coup promise to justify having the DVD girls do free-promotional stuff. He said that it was in our best interest to promote the DVD because it would pay off for us in the future. Hence, the feeling of exploitation. Sean is full of big promises and little follow-through."
The departure of a few (or even several dozen) models from the site amid claims of ill treatment, broken promises, shady money dealings and the rest is interesting but unsurprising. It's the sex industry, after all.
What makes the whole saga truly bizarre is the treatment excommunicated Suicide Girls have received. "Every SG member and model who has attempted to question or speak about this has been archived or zotted off the site," continues Caravella.
The girls also say they have been hounded elsewhere on the Web. "I have had two LiveJournal accounts deleted, two MySpace blogs erased," Caravella tells me. "I have been banned from commenting and posting in all groups and forums on MySpace. I had my last journal deleted off of SuicideGirls. Why all of this effort to shut me up?"
Kelly "Shera" Kleinert, another popular former Suicide Girl, also had her MySpace account deleted last month. "When they deleted me, every comment, every message was deleted."
According to both women, Suhl is an acquaintance of Tom Anderson, the founder of MySpace.
"I am sure that Sean was having a bad day and read one of my posts and called Tom," says Kleinert. "That is the only thing I can think of." Anderson declined to respond to numerous requests for comment.
Suhl denies having censored anyone. "Our newswire publishes stories I disagree with each day." He doesn't offer an alternate explanation, though, to accompany his denial.
In an email, nominal founder Missy Suicide countered that all girls have left voluntarily or because their membership ended. She later changed stories and told me that "Models receive a membership while they are active on the site." Finally, she decided on a third explanation: "Because these women are no longer contributing members or [do not] represent the community we decided to remove their journals from the site. While we value their past contributions to the community, we are saddened by their recent accusations that we feel are unfounded."
Their pictures, though, remain up. Only the words have been removed.
The complaint at the center of the breakdown happened in spring of 2004, during preparations for the burlesque tour. Five girls were staying at Suhl's apartment, which doubled until recently as SG headquarters, at his request. The accommodations were not all he claimed they would be.
"When I arrived at Sean's," one model wrote in an email, "I was introduced to the dingy, bug-infested, stained walls and carpet, horribly cold and depressing 'basement'. Yes, it was finished and meant to be an apartment...a very, very awful and dreary apartment. The toilet was broken. [One girl] spent most of her time with us in the basement?. You couldn't find her with us, the next best place to look was in the upstairs guest bedroom closet. Yes CLOSET. It's the only place she felt safe enough to talk on the phone or most likely cry.... She wasn't the only girl crying either."
Suhl denies this, going so far as to provide the street address of the former SG HQ and invite me to tour and photograph the basement apartment.
"It was the 1,800 sq ft bottom floor apartment (with its own 2,000 sq ft private sun deck, four private entrances to the street, wall of sliding glass doors, kitchen, bathroom, view of downtown LA and a rose garden of a multimillion-dollar house in Los Feliz)," he told me in an email. "Yes I often locked the door to the second floor apartment (where I lived with my girlfriend)."
"Sean yelled at me every day of the tour and pre-tour," says Kleinert. "He called me a slut, stupid, replaceable and talentless."
"I left SG because I think it is one big lie. I quit SG because I loathe Sean and everything he stands for. I quit SG because we were not aware when we signed certain contracts that the DVD was going to be available at such places as Best Buy, fye, Tower and Virgin, and that Showtime was airing it twice a week every week for two years," she went on. "He made it sound like there would be limited distribution so we agreed to a ridiculously low amount of payment [of] $1,000."
One model who left the site of her own volition to pursue a career as a writer told me that "Sean always seemed to have short man's complex. Like one of those geeks in high school who suddenly gets pussy and he's not overjoyed-he's thinking, 'I'm going to get back at them now.'"
It's hard to take seriously girls who took off their clothes for money, and were then shocked-shocked!-that the man giving them money to get naked didn't respect them. And it says nothing good that SuicideGirls has gotten nothing but glowing press up until now, as though the presence of a few blog entries and answers to cutesy, Nerve-style questionnaires (body mods, favorite bands, I lost my virginity?) meant that the tit-staring and related cock- and clit-stroking were somehow liberating, feminist, punk rock and so on.
That the whole thing did get good press, though, despite being an obvious and blatant sexual Potemkin village, says a lot about the natural and proper desire of porn consumers to see healthy, normal people having fun fucking one another, or at least getting naked, which is a good first step. Happily, several sites offer up what SuicideGirls purports to, without invoking a lifestyle or involving the consumer's cash in the sort of scumfuckery of which Suhl has been accused.
One site several of the SuicideGirls have migrated to is GodsGirls.com, which is showcasing the same sort of "punk" naked women. The difference is that the new competitor has no pretensions of forging a community, woman-friendly or otherwise. It's a certain sort of hot girl, shown naked and fuckable, if not in fact fucking. If this is your sort of thing you should also check out BurningAngel.com, a woman-owned site that offers up the softcore tease but also shows some of the freer-spirited girls doing what everyone wants to see them doing, which is in its own way liberating-certainly more so than SuicideGirls' rather prudish half-assery.
I asked Missy to put me in touch with other Suicide Girls, who'd presumably still be loyal to her and the site. She refused.
[On Tuesday, just as New York Press was going to print, she and her lawyer contacted editor Harry Siegel and, after asking to read the story before it ran, offered to put either of us in touch with some happier Suicide Girls than those with whom I'd spoken.]
Missy, after all, is the woman who claimed in the introduction to SuicideGirls' coffee table book of nudie pix that her dream was to capture the beauty of "the post-punk girls who haunted Pioneer Square, Ice Cube on their iPods, decked out in Minor Threat hoodies and miniskirts with a skateboard in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other and a backpack full of Kerouac and Hemmingway slung over one absent-mindedly exposed shoulder."
Or at least it's her name signed to the marketing director?style rigamarole.
It's a lifestyle, indeed.