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Suicide Is Painless: How Two Mainstream Dot-Com Burnouts Turned An Art Project Into An Empire

Suicide Is Painless: How Two Mainstream Dot-Com Burnouts Turned An Art Project Into An Empire

The sky was the limit: In the late '90s, the mainstream Web space's "bleeding" edge was crowded with sassily monikered domains like DEN, Slywire, Scour, and Thirsty. It was the future, man - a convergence of technology and hip, spearheaded by the 20-something slacker generation rising up from coffee house management gigs to grab their fortunes on the information superhighway.

Of course, money was no object: Venture capital fell from the sky like rain in Seattle and 22-year-old college dropouts who knew code were becoming multi-millionaires on paper. Salaries were high and stock options were cool. Offices were decked out like Gen-X romper rooms, replete with gaming areas and kitchens stocked with endless supplies of high-energy fuel like Red Bull and Power Bars. Companies became cults, rock 'n' roll pyramid schemes in which loyal minions could count on cashing out with a pot of gold at the end of the IPO rainbow. Life was good.

Then, in an instant, that same sky came crashing down when all the hype leaked from the bag. Much of the edgiest mainstream Web was 99.9 percent vision with little viable product. Those scores of well-compensated biz-dev foot soldiers pounded cyberspace, but at the end of the day, they were holding cases of snake oil. Bottom line: There was essentially no business to develop.

Like a brushfire on a Malibu hillside, the mainstream Web burned hot and fast, leaving scorched virtual earth as far as the eye could see. The VC money dried up and all the boy geniuses with Porsche payments to make once again became baristas to make ends meet. And as dot-com became dot-bomb, the adult Web space cleaned up; overlords like Cybererotica and Hustler correctly surmised that the Internet is first and foremost a post-modern peep show, an anonymous sanctuary in which we could get our ya-yas out with minimum hassle and maximum privacy.

Sean and Missy Suicide were at the center of the Web hurricane in Los Angeles, tech revolutionaries with resumes filled with startups that went belly-up. Downsizing and disappointment had taken its toll, and by 2000 they abandoned Los Angeles for Portland. Missy, in particular, was prepared to wash her hands of the Web. She took photography classes and started shooting artsy pinup nudes of her friends. The girls were her mirror: pierced, tatted, dyed, and following a path of life not prescribed in the George Dubya Great American Dream Handbook.

"There weren't any girls that looked like the girls that I knew - the pierced, tattooed Portland girls - anywhere in mainstream media," says Missy, 26. "The girls that I knew were wonderful and amazing and brilliant people, and deserved the accolades that the supermodels got. And so I started [Suicide Girls] as an art project, an experiment to see how people would respond."

Missy shot the pics in the style of Bunny Yeager's classic pinups of Bettie Page. "They looked directly into the camera, those pinup models," she says. "They had the power in the photos. And I always thought that was infinitely more sexy than the passive, airbrushed blond images where the girls are looking off into the distance. So I wanted to capture the same spirit of the pinup models with the girls that I knew."

With a mess of images on their hands, Sean and Missy returned to the Web, albeit on a decidedly smaller scale, in late 2001, launching Suicide Girls. "We both worked in the Web space for so long that we knew what we liked and didn't like - Websites that we'd worked on and had failed," she says. "We just took from our own experiences. I didn't want to spend 2 million dollars and I didn't want to have a whole biz-dev team."

The modest site featured both photo sets and online journals of each Suicide Girl. Within four months of its launch the site was featured on Nightline during a segment on the adult Internet business. They also began developing a fan base far beyond the Portland alternative scene. "We got a letter from a Rally car racer in Spain, who'd decked his car out with our logo on the side and had made homemade T-shirts," Missy recalls. "He was like, 'You're my sponsor, I love the site, I love it, I love it,' and we were like, 'Okay, maybe he was just some fan in Spain.' Then we saw him on ESPN in a Rally car race with our logo on it and we thought, 'Oh wow, this is a little bigger than we thought.'"

The cult of Suicide Girls grew quickly for many reasons, not the least of which is affordability. Membership ranges from $4 to $9 per month. New content is added daily and, with an archive spanning three years, there are now nearly 300 Suicide Girls from which to choose. (Missy says she gets up to 200 new model applications weekly). In addition to the Girls' diaries, each member can keep a journal, add a profile, and communicate with the girls via chat and message areas. The site also hosts photo and Webcam space for its members for maximum interactivity. Most recently, the site's added a newswire and editorial content, including interviews with the likes of actress Parker Posey and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

"Our members are really avid Web users," says Missy, as she rattles off the wide umbrella of content on the site. "There's politics, there's music, there's advice, there's culture. There's a section where all the Suicide Girls respond to members on love advice and fashion and music.

"It's become a great community for people who are outside of the norm to congregate. People who are in the middle of America that maybe aren't living in the most metropolitan cities, and can't relate to the people around them as well as people living in the larger cities.

"We've always had message boards on the site so members could talk and let us know what they're thinking about and what they want, and we've always paid a lot of attention to what the members want."

She won't reveal subscriber numbers, but claims the site receives 500,000 unique visitors a week. A good number of them may be members of emo and alt rock bands, who appreciate the site's unconventional aesthetic of beauty. "[The Suicide Girls Website] makes me think of hip alternative chicks you'd see at a Cure concert when you're 15," says Kennedy, the bassist and singer of his self-named band. "And they're half-naked, which is nice. The site feels very music-driven. But it doesn't feel Motley Crue/Cheetah's style. It has a hipper vibe going."

Suicide Girls and the rock world are intertwining increasingly. Their avowed fans include the White Stripes, the Shins, Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl ("He has a huge logo on his drumkit," says Missy) - who featured Suicide Girls models in the debut video from his new metal supergroup Probot - and Courtney Love. "Courtney Love became a member of the site and began posting on the message board and e-mailing us and at first we thought, 'This can't be really Courtney Love,' and it was," Missy says. "And she took the girls on MTV with her and that's when we knew the rock community was really paying attention."

And, like touring indie rock bands, Suicide Girls now presents a traveling burlesque show that's barnstorming across the U.S., with local bands performing in support in every town. Kennedy was the lucky band to open for the Girls in Los Angeles. "I couldn't have imagined a better group to perform with," he says. "When they poured Hershey's syrup on themselves and started wrestling, it was almost as awesome as us."

With a move from Portland to Los Angeles in early 2003, the opportunities to grow the Suicide Girls brand have come fast and furious. "We always dreamed big, but worked on what we could at the time," Missy says. "We had big ideas when we first started - we could do this and that but we always had a dose of skepticism - well, that's not going to happen; I need to focus on this." But they have moved forward on a few things. In addition to the burlesque tour, a Suicide Girls book featuring Missy's photographs will be published by Feral Press in June.

A print publication - SG the Magazine - is also in production. "It's a lifestyle magazine that features the girls in pictorial spreads, but it's going to be both male-and female-friendly," Missy explains. "We want to create a product that will be of interest to our members and that our members can be proud of."

Once upon a time, Erik McFarland (not his real name) was the editor-in-chief of AVN Online. He parlayed that glamorous position into an equally glamorous position at VH1, where he currently works as a writer and producer. His oeuvre for the network includes 2003's epic documentary Centerfold Babylon.

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Erik McFarland

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