Burlesque Goes Goth-Punk

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      The mainstream didn't take long to discover SuicideGirls.com, which in four years has gone from a Portland-based part-time Web project to a fledgling Internet empire.

      "When I started the site, I really didn't think it would be that big of a deal," says SG founder Missy Suicide, on the line from her newly adopted home of Los Angeles. "The first television interview, which was the third interview I'd ever done, was with Ted Koppel and Nightline. That was just three or four months after we'd been going, which made me realize that someone was paying attention."

      SuicideGirls.com began in 2001 as a small apartment endeavour. Missy was determined to prove that goth-punk girls with tattoos and piercings could be just as sexy as silicone-enhanced, bleach-bottle blonds. It was that alternative-oriented vision of what makes a perfect pinup model that led to the call from Nightline.

      "The piece they did was on the changing face of adult entertainment," says the soft-spoken 26-year-old. "That was kind of weird, because adult entertainment isn't exactly what we're about."

      Originally, she says, www.suicidegirls.com/ was a tribute to the scenesters of Portland. "Everyone in the city is very creative; starting the site was my homage to that creativity."

      Missy began shooting soft-core--style pictures of friends in the Rose City's fertile underground and posting them along with bio information that was more Maximum Rocknroll than Maxim. Initially, there were a dozen SuicideGirls. Nudity was optional, DIY punk-rock attitude was not. Today, SuicideGirls.com has mushroomed to include more than 350 models, attracting half a million visitors every week. Spinoffs include a line of clothing, a new coffee-table book called SuicideGirls (Feral House, $27.95), and, most high-profile, a burlesque tour, currently headed to Vancouver for a night at Mesa Luna on Wednesday (July 14).

      Like the Web site that inspired it, the live extravaganza offers something more imaginative than bored bimbos pole-dancing to ZZ Top's "Legs". The hourlong show starts with a nod to traditional burlesque, parodies pop-culture landmarks from The Graduate to South Park, and finds dancers gearing down to the sounds of Marilyn Manson, Bjíƒ ¶rk, and Peaches. Forgetting, for a second, the flying chocolate sauce, the showstopper is a two-woman tribute to Mr. Blonde's infamous cop-torturing scene from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

      "We call it skits and skin," says Pearl, one of the troupe's seven participating SuicideGirls, on the line from a Chicago tour stop. "What we're trying to do is take the spirit of our SuicideGirls photo shoots and bring it to life. We create the costumes, we create the concept, and we pick the stuff we dance to."

      Proving that men like to watch, those in the front row tend to be 75 percent male, although the show itself attracts a more or less even number of guys and girls.

      "Those who are most into it are of course right at the front of the stage, probably because they know that they're going to end up covered in chocolate sauce," says Pearl, whose SG bio reveals that she dislikes clothes, has seven piercings and three tattoos, and adores Heathers, Salvador Dali, Radiohead, and Burning Man.

      The 26-year-old Los Angeles native first read about SuicideGirls in an alternative weekly, thought about posing for a couple of weeks, and then sent in an application. That she was chosen by Missy meant beating long odds: the site receives 200 inquiries a week, with only three of those making the cut. Those who pass the screening process become part of a genuine phenomenon. When you combine pictorials with articles by writers like professional loudmouth Neal Pollack and interviews with artists ranging from School of Rock director Richard Linklater to the Flaming Lips, SuicideGirls has grown into something like an on-line, 21st-century version of Playboy.

      "The whole theme of the site is really respecting individuality and the idea of expressing yourself," says Missy, who signs copies of SuicideGirls at the Virgin Megastore from 5 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday (July 14). "The girls control their own photo shoots and how they are presented."

      What makes her proudest about SuicideGirls.com is that it presents a kind of beauty not normally seen in magazines or on television. Thanks to all the exposure she's received, her take on what's hot and sexy has now infiltrated the mainstream.

      "That's very empowering. I get e-mails from girls all the time saying that they've seen some girl on the site and totally related to her, maybe because she looked similar or shared a similar taste in music. Until then, they'd never really thought of themselves of being beautiful or special or interesting-looking. I think it's cool that SuicideGirls has helped changed the way they see themselves".