In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
When Suicide Girls launched in 2001, it changed the face of pornography. No longer was the web solely full of busty blondes. Suicide Girls championed the alterna-girl with tattoos, disheveled hair, and tons of black eyeliner. They didn’t have to be super skinny, super tan, or super busty—they just had to be themselves and be willing to be photographed nude.
Almost 13 years later, there are nearly 2,600 actual Suicide Girls, all of whom have contributed to the more than 5 million nudie pics on the site. More than 6 million people like SG on Facebook, and more than a million follow the site on Instagram. There’s no word on how many people actually pay the $12 a month or $48 a year to get unlimited access to the site, but according to stats provided by SG, about 5 million unique visitors—51 percent of whom are women—click on the site every month.
A.V. Club commenter Mrs. Langdon Alder has been Suicide Girl Morgan Suicide (spoiler alert: That’s not her real last name.) since 2002. She reached out to The A.V. Club to tell her story, and since we’re as interested in boobs and pay structures as anyone, we decided to take her up on the sexy, sexy offer.
The A.V. Club: How did you become a Suicide Girl?
Morgan Suicide: I joined the site around April of 2002, so it was pretty soon after it started. I think it started in September of 2001.
If I remember right, I discovered it because there was a thread about the site on the old Bust magazine forums that don’t exist anymore. Someone posted a picture of SG Marie, and I was fascinated by her. So I went, looked, and decided to join. My boyfriend at the time was like, “You should totally see if they want a tattooed model.” You have to understand, it is really hard to become a Suicide Girl now from what I understand. You have to have an amazing photo set that you spend money to do, and it’s just a rigorous process at this point. But for me, I just emailed Missy, who was the person you contacted at the time, asked if she was interested, sent along a photo that my boyfriend took on his crappy digital camera, and was a Suicide Girl. It took me a week. My first couple of photo sets were taken on that same crappy digital camera.
I think any girl who is a model now would say, “That’s completely unfair; it took me a year,” but it was a quick process. It’s hard to tell, but I was something like the 70th SG.
AVC: What was it about Suicide Girls that appealed to you?
MS: At the time, I was into very third-wave feminism and thought it would be an empowering thing to do. And it was. I’m not bashing my 19-year-old self here, but I was drawn to the idea of doing something liberating. It’s also an ego boost for sure.
I think it continues to interest me, because of the people. It’s become a really cool community over the years. I’ve met a lot of amazing people and had a lot of amazing opportunities. For example, the owner of the site, Sean, at one point, introduced me to Richard Fick, who is an Australian guy who owns a bunch of websites where they do similar kind of stuff. He does I Shot Myself and Beautiful Agony, and a site that’s most like SG called Abby Winters. I started doing photos for I Shot Myself and, after doing that for about a year, I went out to Australia, because they paid me to model for them. That was all through SG.
I haven’t done a SG photo set in a while, and I’m not sure if I ever will again, but I’d never leave the community behind.
AVC: Are you allowed to ask to have your photos taken down?
MS: They do that in rare occasions. Usually, a girl isn’t interested in being on the site anymore and they archive her, which means she is moved to a different section. They can remove her profile information, or something like that, so they can just leave a skeleton, but it’s very rare that they take a photo down.
The last time I can remember that happening was when a girl did a bunch of sets on a semi-Nazi-themed set. It had pedophilia suggestions, and people protested so much. She threw enough of a hissy that there’s no record of her anymore on the site.
They don’t usually take down pictures. Any time you sign a lawful agreement with almost any even kind of small-time photographer, you will find boilerplate text about how they will own your photos forever. And they can do whatever they want with them.
AVC: You’re obviously totally fine with having your pictures out there, but could there be women who think, “I didn’t have a family 10 years ago, and now this is embarrassing”?
MS: I think there are a lot of girls who start, especially when they’re younger, and don’t realize, for example, that those photos could end up other places.
AVC: Right click, and you’ve got a screenshot.
MS: There have definitely been a lot of instances where I’ve seen someone be like, “This ended up on another site, how did this happen?” And I’m like, “Well, that’s kind of what you signed up for.” One good thing is that I think a lot of girls who try and model now are part of the community first, so they have more awareness about it and they’ll talk about it plenty.
A lot of sites also have Flash now, so it’s harder to save pictures.
AVC: What does it mean to you to be a Suicide Girl?
MS: Some of it reminds me of what I think about being on any website I’ve been on for a long time. It’s being around people that are like-minded. It’s a lot of people who are alternative. There are a lot of people who are arty and very snarky people, and being a part of that, I guess that’s what being an SG is to me. I’m a part of that group of people that all get along based on our shared love of nerdy things and boobs and tattoos.
AVC: That’s how you originally came together, but you stayed together for other reasons.
MS: Exactly. And, you know, I’ll be honest here: I haven’t done a photo set in a while, and I’m not particularly active anymore. With the redesign I find it hard to navigate, but I would never leave, because I get a free subscription to see naked ladies.
AVC: Speaking of that: Do you guys get paid for the photo shoots?
MS: It’s changed a lot over the years. I believe when I got my first photo set, I was paid something like $50 and a T-shirt, which I still have. It was a really cute baseball tee. It’s torn to shit, but I keep it in my closet, because I never want to let it go.
But it’s changed. They went from that to $100 to $200, and I believe they pay $1,000 now, but don’t quote me on that. It’s something around $1,000, though. It’s a lot.
AVC: But you have to lay out all the money for your own shoot?
MS: Yeah, unless you’re in one of the areas where they have an official photographer. Back when I was doing it, there were two official photographers, and they were all in Portland, [Oregon] where it started. So, unless you could get out there, you had to take your own photos. Even then you had to spend some money for your clothing and that kind of thing. If you couldn’t use someone official, you had to hire a photographer, unless you knew someone who is really good and who would work for free. There’s a lot more to it; you have to have an interesting location. Even if it’s a bedroom set, it has to be amazingly well shot, and you probably have to dress really well. There are girls who hire people to do their makeup and hair all the time.
AVC: If you’re going to be on the Internet forever, you want to look your best.
MS: Exactly. I ended up pretty lucky. When I started off, they didn’t mind that I had a boyfriend taking pictures. Later on I was friends with one of their official photographers, so we would shoot sets together because we were buddies. Up until the last photo set I took, I didn’t have to buy anything except for maybe an outfit.
AVC: Do they give you direction? Do they say, “No dudes,” or anything like that?
MS: They had a frequently-asked-question thing about that when I started, but I know it’s expanded quite a bit. The obvious requirement is that they require full nudity, and that you should have a certain percentage of your set have full nudity. You can’t just have the last 10 pictures out of a 60-picture photo set show you naked, that kind of thing. There are some themes they won’t allow, like I said before.
They don’t encourage anything particularly hardcore like penetration or toys. For a while, they’d send out trend reports like, “This is what we’ve seen a lot of, this is what we’d like to see less of, we’ve seen too many sets on a very pretty bed, there are too many couch sets,” that kind of thing. But mostly they tend to let people get pretty creative, so it works out pretty well.
I’m trying to think of the most unique one I’ve seen. There was an underwater one at one point, which was really cool. They did a Fight Club one with a dozen different girls. There’s been a lot of really unique stuff.
AVC: You were writing blog entries for them, too. Were you getting paid for that?
MS: Oh no. Most of the stuff was, “If you’re interested and have some free time, go ahead and submit stuff.” I was playing those games anyway, so I thought it was really fun to do.
Also, for a while, I updated their newswire. They don’t do that anymore, but they’d have community people go in and look through all the submitted posts and make sure they were proofread and schedule when they’d go up and that sort of thing. That was more volunteer stuff.
Pretty much, at this point, you have to be near their headquarters to be paid to work for them, unless you’re a photographer.
AVC: If people are paying to subscribe, then you should be sharing in that wealth. You should be getting paid.
MS: I’ve been on the site for so long, and seeing my name show up on their newswire is really cool. These things also take like half an hour to write.
But no matter what you’re doing, if you’re working, it’s best to get paid for it. It seems like, with the redesign, they’re focusing on featured blogs and featured photos, and those featured blog girls are already getting paid for the featured blog or featured photos.
AVC: Did you ever get recognized? Did you go on the Suicide Girls tour?
MS: I’ve been to tons of SG parties that people would hold in their homes and stuff like that. I went to the Reading Tattoo Con one year and sat at a booth. I wasn’t part of their burlesque tour as a dancer, but one year I was their tip girl, which was fun. I got to get into the show for free and hang around the girls a little bit backstage, which was cool. I’ve done two Wizard World Chicago stage things, which was fun because you get to meet girls you’ve talked to for quite a while and hang out with them all day. I’ve never been recognized on the street, but I’ve had plenty of, “Oh, Morgan is here!” when I would go to a SG party.
AVC: That’s your actual name, right? Some people use aliases.
MS: Yeah. When I sent my initial email to Missy and she responded, I asked to be Merricat just because one of my favorite books has always been We Have Always Lived In The Castle. She was like, “I like the name Morgan so much. Can you just keep that?” It made it easier to remember at parties. I probably wouldn’t have understood if people called me Merricat in the street.
AVC: You said you met one of your boyfriends on the site. Can you describe how that happened, and how you decided he wasn’t a total creep?
MS: I’ll be very frank. I was a huge flirt on that site for a couple of years. I can think of a couple of member names of people I had long flirtations with and probably would have hooked up with if I had been in their general vicinity. I did go to Suicide Girls prom with a member one year, and that was really cool. I’m still friends with him on Facebook, and we talk pretty often.
The guy I dated, Angus, shouldn’t have been on the site when I started talking to him, because he was under 18, but he got an illegal membership somehow. We were talking for ages back and forth, and then we started talking on AIM outside of the website and met a couple times and ended up dating. I guess, at that point, I’d met so many people on the site that my filter of, “Oh my God, this is not just the Internet, this is a porn site, and the person might be a horrible perv and kidnap me and lock me in a trunk” instinct was gone at that point. I’ve met so many people from the Internet since then that I should probably work on resolving that.
AVC: Do you ever get creepy comments?
MS: Oh, so many. I did a two-girl set with my friend Kiara—she’s Cairo on the site—at one point, and somebody sent both of us a five-page slash fic about us being vampires. I suppose that makes it sound really odd, and there was actual blood in the set, but still it was very detailed.
I think the worst I ever got was a couple of years back when a member said that she had compromising pictures of an ex and me. It was theoretically possible, and she said she was going to publish them online. It’s a very creepy thing to do but, to be honest, I was like, “There’s already pictures of me having sex on this website you’re emailing me on, so I’m not sure how much of a threat this is.”
One of my distinctions on the site, which people loved me for back then, was that it was pretty obvious that my two-girl sets were actually somebody just photographing sex, but we’d just stopped when it got too graphic, as opposed to just posing near each other—I don’t understand that as an appealing thing.
AVC: When you got creepy stuff like that, could you report it to SG?
MS: Yeah, definitely. And, again, this is another thing where I’m not sure how it works now, but they’ve always been great about moderating, especially when it comes to people being creepy to Suicide Girls or even just being jerks.
My first two-girl set with SG Roxy, they put up in two parts. In the comments for the first part—and this was when you could moderate the threads for photo sets, and I’m sure they are hundreds of pages long in seconds, but they’d be like 14 pages at the most back then—one of the first comments was, “The redhead is hot, but the brunette is boring.” And Olivia, who was one of the moderators at the time said, “Well, now you don’t have to look at her anymore,” and completely removed the account. And that was just for him being slightly rude.
AVC: You said in an email that you’d heard the screening process is much harder now, and that potential Suicide Girls have to send in more intense photo sets and so on. Do you know why that is?
MS: I think it’s because they have so many girls wanting to be Suicide Girls. When I started, if I had told people I was a Suicide Girl, most people wouldn’t have known what that meant, but I think now anyone in the alternative community knows exactly what that means. People think of it as celebrity status.
I think SG has so many pics to work through that they just want to get the best. One thing I imagine has helped them in the last couple of years is that they put up a section just for member review. That means if you’re okay with putting up your entire photo set for people to see without knowing if it will actually get on or if you’ll actually get paid for it, then you can put it up and there’s a chance it’ll get bought.
AVC: That seems ridiculous.
MS: I put up just one, and it was a two-girl set, and we both knew it wasn’t great enough to get bought, but we thought it would be fun for people to see. But I don’t think I would have ever done a photo set thinking, “Maybe I’ll put this up, and maybe I’ll get paid for it.” I need money! I don’t want to put things up for free!
One good thing about member review is that after a while, you can delete it. They don’t keep those up forever. So at least it’s not permanently there. But if I wasn’t an official SG already, I wouldn’t have wanted to start my career that way.
AVC: You’ve got to trust that you’re hot enough to make it.
MS: And there are definitely plenty of girls that are gorgeous, but if you don’t get the right photographer or do an interesting enough set, it’ll wallow there forever because there’s so much content. I can’t even keep up with it. I check it almost every day, and there’s so much stuff that it’s almost overwhelming.
AVC: Do you think there will ever be a day when you’d say you’re not a Suicide Girl anymore? Will you still identify with SG when you’re 80?
MS: No. It’s something that if it comes up, it comes up, but I never mention it. It’s a part of my identity because I’ve had so many great experiences because of it, and I’ve met so many people. But if I wrote a list of things I was, “Suicide Girl” probably wouldn’t be mentioned.
I guess at this point I’ve been inactive for so long that SG is something I just check to look at the naked pictures.
AVC: And you have a free membership, so why not?