VICE Magazine called it "Comi-Con meets burlesque nerd orgy," while Esquire minced no words in describing it as "beautiful young women with tattoos." Each was describing the same scene, one of shimmying Stormtroopers and scantily clad tattooed women dancing and playing dress-up with pop culture references.
The show is Blackheart Burlesque, a touring performance by the Suicide Girls which makes a stop in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday, November 18, with a performance at The Pressroom. It's geeky and sexy and guaranteed, as far as the Suicide Girls are concerned, to be unlike any striptease show you've seen.
"We really wanted to put a modern twist on the classic burlesque, take the same sort of sexy spirit that classic burlesque had and update it, in the same way that we have done with photos: Taking an updated look at classic pin-up-style photography," says Suicide Girls co-founder Selena Mooney, better known as Missy Suicide.
These days the Suicide Girls seem fairly tame. In a society where hardcore pornography can be accessed on websites and iPhones within seconds and Playboy has elected to stop publishing nudes (which Missy calls "a shame."), the company's brand of soft-core, female-form celebration seems incredibly tasteful in comparison. And it is, says Missy, because the goal was always to instill body positivity in the population rather than garnering eyeballs.
"It's hard to quantify our cultural impact versus how it would have happened [anyway] as a result of the Internet," she says, and with the "expanding sense of beauty" one can find there.
"We've been around for the past 14 years, and our message, our ethos, has always been that confidence is the sexiest attribute a person can have," she says. "Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and expressing yourself and individuality is something that is to be celebrated. I feel like culture has definitely expanded its sense of beauty and sense of [acceptance]."
Since its beginning in 2001 the company has grown exponentially. Back then it was known for just being a site that published "provocative" nude photos — before Tumblr and Instagram and the rise of self-publishing sexy selfies. Now the organization has more than 3,500 Suicide Girls (who are vetted and published after auditions) and 15 million followers growing across a variety of social media accounts, including the since-updated blog-and-photo website platform that started it all. That expansion took the Suicide Girls to the stage as well, in clubs and concert venues during early 2000s, when the group started experimenting with burlesque performances.
Those shows, which Missy describes as "more punk rock and more loose," opened for Guns N' Roses and played to international audiences in Europe and Australia but became an exhaustive undertaking, one the company decided to put on hold for nearly a decade.
During their hiatus, the burlesque world stepped up its game, with individual cities creating their own subcultures with weekly or monthly sexy showcases and even large-scale spectacle performers like Lady Gaga tapping into the culture. As a result, the Suicide Girls tend to have local burlesque acts open for them — like a death-metal-geared troupe from Portland, Oregon.
“People have seen a lot,” Missy says. “It’s much harder to show them something that really feels new and original. Our clever Quentin Tarantino burlesque numbers and leather AC/DC stripteases weren’t going to be enough to wow people.
"We needed to take the same spirit of pop culture modern burlesque that we pioneered over a decade ago and really up the production value, up the sexiness, up the performances by a factor of 10," she says.
Enter Blackheart Burlesque: a high-energy set based on traditional burlesque — and the shows Suicide Girls first created — but for pop-culture-savvy 2015 crowds. Choreographed by Manwe Sauls-Addison, who has worked with both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, Blackheart Burlesque has been a touring production since the fall of 2013. There is breast-baring dancing and crowdsurfing. There are chair dances and elaborate costumes and plenty of topical comedy performed by pretty "alternative-looking" women with, yes, a lot of tattoos. It's an elaborate, sexy production that has audiences, and media outlets, cheering.
Two years ago, Sunny Suicide was just another one of those audience members, enjoying the numbers that paid tongue-in-cheek, nerdy homage to Fifth Element, Star Wars, and Kill Bill — to name a few. During the audience participation part, Sunny was brought onstage by Katherine Suicide, the burlesque's host for the evening.
"I got really naked onstage, it was really funny," Sunny says. Shortly after that experience, she auditioned for the Suicide Girls and now travels with the group as a performer and host. "I love that because I like to give that back to other people. I tell that story every night on stage and I always bring girls up who want to do what we do and tell them to apply, tell them to audition."
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Sunny, who has a background in musical theater, was given the opportunity to create new characters and routines for the show, which is why you might see a dirty Little Mermaid or nerdy Harry Potter spot on Wednesday. It's an exhilarating, exhausting experience, Sunny says, but she loves every minute of it, in part because of the camaraderie of the girls, but also because of the inspiration she gets from performing for live audiences night after night.
"What resonates the most I think from the show actually is you can really see the connection between the girls. It’s really supportive. I think that's a thing in the burlesque community in general — especially for Suicide Girls, because everyone knows we're celebrating diversity," Sunny says. "The audience gets to witness that in person, and that comes across onstage, absolutely.
"I get people that come up to me every night saying, 'Thank you for having a real body on stage.' I have women who e-mail me and say, 'I didn't have confidence before. I didn't appreciate my body and I'm seeing you shake it up there'," she continues. "You know, I have a real body! I have a Dominican booty, I have cellulite. I'm not photoshopped. I'm just putting it out there, and that's what people love. They didn't cast a bunch of girls with the same sized bra and the same sized butt and the same height. We're all different sizes, and that is a tone throughout the show."
Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, November 18, at The Pressroom, 441 West Madison Street. Tickets range from $25 to $330, with VIP options including a meet-and-greet and bottle service. This is an 18-and-over event. Visit www.thepressroomaz.com or call 602-396-7136 for details.