In the infamous carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” the singer brags about all the bossy gifts their “true love” gave them for the holidays. But since since six geese-a-laying and a bunch of turtle doves seem unsanitary — not to mention a violation of city ordinances — we decided to gift you with 12 of something better: A handful of sex workers you should absolutely know about. Whether they’re becoming literary superstars, breaking the “stunt cock” mold or literally embodying gay Jesus himself, they’re the real gifts we need this Christmas. And no, not one of them is a turtle dove.
Imagine, for a moment, that we still lived in a world where the majority of corporate jobs were performed in offices. Now imagine you could glance upon the cast of people working there. You’d see tattoos, blue hair, maybe even a nose ring. But just 20 years ago, this wasn’t the case. An alternative look, with visible tattoos, unnaturally colored hair and facial piercings was designated as “counter-cultural,” and incompatible with the expectations of the mainstream world. What was considered “sexy” at the time presented a particularly strict microcosm of this greater rule.
This was the era that the Suicide Girls, an internet-based community of pin-up models who defy conventional beauty standards, was born into. “When we first started, there were two types of beautiful women: stick-thin, heroin chic supermodels like Kate Moss and buxom, silicone-enhanced blondes like Pamela Anderson,” says Missy Suicide, who founded the Suicide Girls in 2001. Now 42, Missy herself dons an arm of tattoos, a septum piercing and lilac streaks in her hair. “That’s what was beautiful, and you had to fit within those labels of beauty.”
But Missy and her friends in Portland, Oregon, never looked like that. They didn’t quite belong to any strict subculture, either — they weren’t necessarily punks, they weren’t goths. They did, by their own volition, though, look different than Kate Moss and Pamela Anderson. Under a singular umbrella, it’s probably easiest to say they all had tattoos, but, in one way or another, they’d all chosen to represent themselves in a way that subverted the norms of beauty, whether that be shaving off their eyebrows or choosing not to shave their armpits. There were social risks that came with it, too — as Missy told VICE in 2017, willingly modifying one’s body in a permanent way was seen as far more rebellious in the early 2000s than it is today.
“People definitely frowned upon tattoos,” she explained. “No women had tattoos. It was sailors and army men, and that was about it. There was a bit of a classist element. A lot of the flack we got back then was, ‘How could you do that to your beautiful body? Why would you mark that permanently? Why would you draw on yourself? You were so pretty, and you are ruining yourself.’” Of course, Missy and her friends vehemently disagreed.
In 2001, Missy stumbled across some photos of Bettie Page. Struck by her beauty, and the fact that Page’s pictures had been taken by a woman, Missy had the idea to photograph her friends, guided by the standards of sexiness that the women decided for themselves. Soon thereafter, the Suicide Girls website emerged, its name inspired by a phrase used in the Chuck Palahniuk novel Survivor to describe women who commit “social suicide” by deciding not to fit in.
It had only been publishing for a few weeks when 9/11 happened, making it the unexpected, de facto erotic sponsor of the pop-punk movement that blossomed under President George W. Bush afterwards. By 2003, models on the site were certifiable micro-celebrities. As an article in Willamette Week stated that year, “[Suicide Girls] 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. 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.”
Pre-dating Myspace, the Suicide Girls website developed into one of the earliest places online where someone could blog about punk music and politics while also marketing themselves as an internet hottie. And once Myspace — and later Instagram — emerged, the Suicide Girls site became a venue where you could find nude photos of your favorite women from these platforms, too. For me, a Hot Topic-shopping teen in the early 2010s, to be a Suicide Girl was the aspirational equivalent of shooting for Playboy, with far more cultural clout in the hardcore punk circles I orbited. As former porn star Sasha Grey told Rolling Stone in 2009, “As far as I’m concerned, Suicide-Girl types with black hair and tattoos are the new blondes with bolt-on tits.”
But as Grey’s quote suggests, somewhere along the way, having an alternative look became the norm. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this became the case, though it’s likely somewhere around the time that Green Day’s explicitly anti-authoritarian, anti-Bush album American Idiot won a Grammy and was nominated for Album of the Year in 2005. It’s easier for mainstream culture to gobble up symbols of subversion as part of its own narrative, whether that be tattoos or punk music, rather than allow their message of dissidence to persist.
This is something Missy is very aware of. In fact, she’s always bristled at the term “alternative.” “It’s like, alternative to what?” she asks. It’s a question that’s only become more apparent in recent years: What exactly does it mean to be “alternative” when a police officer or CEO might have a full sleeve? Yet despite the mainstreaming of “alt” culture, the brand’s core philosophy hasn’t shifted much. To this day, it still allows women to dictate their own eroticism for themselves, and to build a community around it.
The business model hasn’t changed much either. Since the beginning, Suicide Girls has offered a membership model, where people pay for monthly or annual access to its content. This includes nude and non-nude photo sets of the models, as well as access to forums, interest-based groups and, most recently, live streams.
In addition to the members, there are the models themselves, of which there are currently 4,110. To officially become a Suicide Girl, a process referred to by members as “going pink,” a prospective model can apply online and later coordinate a professional photo shoot with a Suicide Girls photographer, or submit a set of photos themselves. If Suicide Girls decides to publish the set to their front page as their “Set of the Day,” the model is officially considered a Suicide Girl and receives $500 for the photos.
According to Missy, they receive about 1,000 applications from models per month, which has been more or less steady throughout the site’s history (except for a peak of 30,000 per year in the mid-2010s). For the models, it’s obviously much more about the prestige than the cash. “I became an Suicide Girl in 2019, after following them for years,” model Alice Sin tells me. “I loved what they stood for — that being different should be celebrated. I saw the friendships the girls created in the community, too, and I wanted to bond with like-minded people in the same industry as me. I’ve always loved shooting sets for Suicide Girls and each one holds a special memory to me or a milestone in my modeling journey.”
What further separates Suicide Girls from other adult sites is that every photo set is linked to a profile of the model featured. For many, the profile functions much like a blog, where they can share anything from their thoughts on a recent movie to poetry to updates on their careers. In other words, they — and they alone — decide precisely what they present of themselves.
The models have a range of looks and styles — there are models of all races, models in cosplay, models who don’t wear makeup, models who first became Suicide Girls in 2003. There’s some variation in age and body type, but most are young and thin. Many of them have tattoos; most have “alt” haircuts or colors. “Set of the Day” shoots are ultra-polished, taken on an expensive camera and featuring a model lounging around on a bed or couch that looks like it’s been staged by a realtor for an open house. It’s fun, sure, but in 2021, it doesn’t exactly feel “countercultural.” Some models have even called this out, expressing nostalgia for the brand’s grittier origins.
“Suicide Girls has helped normalize and beautify alternative styles that were otherwise frowned upon or considered taboo,” says Suicide Girl Rez Noritis. “However, I have noticed as of late that they haven’t really been showing true alternative models like they used to. Tattoos aren’t a requirement on Suicide Girls, but nowadays, a lot of girls that are official barely have tattoos and piercings. I honestly miss it. I miss when sets used to be moody and punky and rough around the edges. I wish Suicide Girls would go back to their roots.”
But Sin, whose arms are nearly entirely blacked-out in ink, doesn’t necessarily agree. To her, it’s not just tattoos or crazy haircuts that make someone stand out; it’s their cultural background and interests, too. That’s why she believes the site still holds significant rebellious clout — because it “embraces people from all different stigmatized backgrounds, not just alt looks.”
Ever the modern company, Suicide Girls also now has an OnlyFans presence. Missy is quick to explain, though, “We just see it as another tool. It’s a place for the girls to really market themselves, but the members [on OnlyFans] don’t get to know each other or have the bonding experience. So we offer an alternative to that.”
Missy believes it’s this bonding experience that’s been core to the site’s longevity, not just between models and fans but between the models themselves. “It just opens you up to a whole new world,” she says. “We’ve had girls that have started businesses together, girls that have gotten married, girls that have met their best friends on the site. It’s been impactful in so many different people’s lives.”
Not that the site has been without controversy. Seven years ago, appropriation artist Richard Prince pulled photos from the Suicide Girls Instagram and sold what were essentially exact replicas for $90,000. Neither the Suicide Girls company nor the models featured were asked for his permission or offered any money. In an effort to undercut Prince, Missy began selling prints of the Instagram posts for $90. But with the mainstream press the story generated, some former Suicide Girls spoke out against the company. Namely, they took issue with the fact that their photos could earn Suicide Girls money in perpetuity without them ever seeing a dime. Models also stated that they’d lost creative control over their photos once they’d entered Suicide Girls’ hands.
The site, however, has always been able to weather such storms — including COVID. Prior to the pandemic, Suicide Girls had been running a tour called Blackheart Burlesque, described by VICE as “Comicon meets burlesque nerd orgy.” In the show, which was performed in cities nationwide, dancers performed routines in Stormtrooper helmets and nipple pasties as well as paid tribute to Marvel franchises and Sailor Moon. The tour was supposed to hit Canada when the pandemic happened. It’s been on hold ever since.
Missy is reluctant to make any guesses as to what could happen with the show or Suicide Girls in the future. They’re currently working on enhancing their mobile experience, and regularly host digital get-togethers for models and hopefuls worldwide. To that end, these days, a significant number of their applicants and members, says Missy, are coming from Russia and South America. Chile is particularly popular, for some reason. On one hand, it’s another sign that the Suicide Girls have conquered the globe — and been, in some ways, subsumed by it. But on the other, even if there’s nothing “alt” about being “alt” anymore, there remains a subversive quality to being willing to put yourself out there in the way that Suicide Girls requires — that is, totally naked.
“I feel like society itself has opened up so much and is becoming so much more accepting, but it feels like you still do commit social suicide by posting your nudes on the internet, by choosing to portray yourself and choosing to put yourself out there,” says Missy. “It’s an act of rebellion and self-declaration.”
And for that reason, who’s to say that global domination and going mainstream is such a bad thing? The Suicide Girls gospel may no longer be novel, but that doesn’t make it unimportant — or unworthy of evangelizing. Missy certainly isn’t ready to turn away new converts. “Who knows what the next 20 years is going to be?” she says. “Maybe everyone will be Suicide Girl.”