On an unseasonably cool evening in late May, a woman hanging by a hook embedded in the flesh on her back is elevated several feet in the air, onstage at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. She is holding a marionette control in each hand, and below her, the strings are tied to two other people through minor incisions on their arms. The three of them move to the beat, and the "marionettes" dance with each other. Around them, a crowd goes wild.
On a smaller stage nearby, a woman holds a paddle while a man, wearing nothing but a thong, stands still, arms raised high and hands holding a wooden frame, waiting for the paddle to make contact with his skin.
On the patio outside, attendees swarm tables where vendors have set up their wares. A woman examines a red leather whip carefully. At the next table, a seller shows a woman how to use a shock therapy kit, a machine that delivers electric shocks to different areas of the body.
Tonight's fashion statements include head-to-toe rubber suits, impossibly high platform shoes or combat boots, and heavy, dark makeup around the eyes. Some people are simply naked from the waist up, colorful tutus around their waists.
This is the Fetish Prom. Thousands are at the Marquee to see live industrial music acts, watch professionals tie or whip each other (a DIY stage toward the back of the venue offers attendees a chance to get in on the act themselves), visit dozens of vendors selling whips, chains, vibrators, massagers, and slave collars, and view live performances of hook suspension — a body modification that involves elevating someone using hooks that perforate skin.
People hanging by hooks and spanking each other in semi-public is nothing new, even in Phoenix. The Fetish Prom is sponsored by Horns & Halos, a production company that has sponsored most of the big fetish events in town for the past 10 years. If you didn't know that Phoenix has a large, active fetish scene, you might be even more surprised to learn that it has factions.
Events put on by Devious Minds (a different fetish company that also throws parties) have a strict no-photography policy and a dress code. During Devious Minds events, including the annual Epic Elegance, the fetish is full-on — the focus is the play area where the audience can participate in whippings and spankings, and music takes a back seat.
In contrast, Horns & Halos encourages people to express themselves through fashion but does not prohibit anyone from entering, regardless of outfit. The company has its own photo department to capture the best moments of the events and often invites members of the media to photograph shows. Horns & Halos' events feature many fetish live acts and have areas where the public is allowed to participate, but a lot of the performances are put on by DJs or live bands.
Finally, a new type of fetish event has arisen.
Enter Suzy Homewrecker, a thin yet curvy woman in her early 30s standing in the lobby of the Marquee wearing a prom outfit of bright red hair, a headband with long black horns on it, high-heeled black boots, a very short black skirt, and a ring shaped like a coffin on her left hand. By her side is her fiancé and business partner Kevin Von Krol in a well-coordinated red shirt, a black vest, and red contact lenses.
Homewrecker knows everyone here. She throws her own fetish events on a regular basis. But hers — called CUPCAKE! — look different. With an emphasis on fashion and music (some might say style over substance) and bargain basement entrance fees ($6, as opposed to the $20 fetish ball ticket), Suzy Homewrecker is poised to make the Phoenix fetish scene downright trendy.
"I am drawn to the aesthetic, the fashion, the music, the attitude, and the confidence. I'm drawn to people being open-minded, trying new things, and not being afraid to show off or dress up," she says.
She doesn't seem to be particularly drawn to the hardcore aspects of the fetish scene — not on a personal level, anyway. She's seen it all, Homewrecker says, so she's immune, adding that she hasn't been particularly inclined to perform public suspensions or other fetish acts herself.
"If you're asking if I'm into spanking, cuffing, and choking . . . well, only my fiancé knows," she says.
According to the Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, a 1992 reference book penned by world-renowned sexologist Brenda Love, the term fetish is described as "an object that replaces another human as the primary love object." A fetish, the book explains, can be inanimate and often involves objects that evoke a feeling of nurturance.
Fetish culture, which long has been linked to sexual deviancy, has its own fashion, art, and music to thank for its explosion into the mainstream. However, long before Rihanna sang about whips and chains, the fetish scenes in cities around the country and the world were considered underground.
Across the nation, people gathered to organize parties in which they could explore the aesthetic and the erotic practices of the fetish world. Phoenix is no exception. In the mid-1990s, people from the Valley had the first chance to attend a fetish ball in which they could see and be seen and enjoy watching live fetish acts.
Thanks to smaller events like Homewrecker's CUPCAKE!, the local fetish scene is expanding. A combination of gothic fashion, electro music, and erotic practices such as bondage and discipline, the fetish scene in Phoenix is relatively large. Events are organized almost every weekend and attendees are plentiful. Larger events such as the ones put on by Horns & Halos attract between 1,000 and 1,200 attendees.
Homewrecker says the local fetish scene has become mainstream because of the awareness that pop culture has brought with it. Superstars such as Lady Gaga often have a fetish or goth look, she says, and with reality shows about tattoos and piercings, people seem to be much more accepting of the fetish community than in years past.
The people behind the events have been around since the mid-1990s and are, for the most part, older men who lack Homewrecker's flashy style. Homewrecker started organizing events in 2011. That year, she and Von Krol, an artist and DJ, created CUPCAKE! Nights, a monthly fetish-theme dance party that is, in Homewrecker's own words, light, fun, and welcoming. Homewrecker puts a face — a beautiful one at that — on the local fetish scene.
Homewrecker — a supervisor at a molecular lab, a DJ under the name Defense.Mekanizm, an alternative fashion designer, and a former Derby Dame (the nickname, a take on the 1960s toy line Suzy Homemaker, was born during her roller-derby days) — is poised to make it big. She spends virtually all her free time planning and promoting events in the Valley.
In a quasi-fractured community that historically has suffered from internal squabbling between lead event organizers, CUPCAKE! is a place everyone — for those who just want to dress up, for those whose ears perk up to electro and industrial, for those who have never been to a fetish event but want to find out what it's all about, and for those who are into BDSM (bondage and discipline/dominance and submission/sadism and masochism) and want to have a nice night out on the town.
Although Homewrecker's event is mostly known for a laid-back atmosphere that focuses heavily on music and fashion ("The fetish at CUPCAKE! is almost implied," she says), CUPCAKE! has featured burlesque shows, a dominatrix spanking people on stage, scantily clad go-go dancers, and even a hook suspension performance. However, attendees can't engage in BDSM practices themselves and no nudity is allowed.
A decade after the creation of Horns & Halos, Homewrecker is trying to bring something new to the scene that can help incorporate newcomers and unite veterans and newbies alike in a community.
"At CUPCAKE! we have a little bit of everything," she says. "It's a really diverse group that comes out and everybody dresses up. It's just mostly about having a lot of fun!"
Suzy Homewrecker's studio is located on the third floor of the Icehouse, an arts and performance space in downtown Phoenix. The walls, painted red and pink, are hung with posters of models wearing outfits she's made, mannequin heads with different wigs, and other decorations. Dozens of sewing machines fill the space and at least one of them gets regular use, judging by the racks of clothes Homewrecker has made.
In a corner stand two torso mannequins with sashes. One of them reads "Unholy bitch" and the other, "Suzy Homewrecker."
She says she prefers not to disclose her real name, her age, or the city where she grew up.
"I don't personally want to put stuff like that because that does not define me. I feel like those are questions I get asked by a bank," she says. "These all seem like boring details. To me, more importantly, where you're from is where you have been . . . [and] the journey you put yourself on."
(In 2012, she told New Times she was 30.)
Born in New England, Homewrecker grew up in a small town near Arizona City with her three siblings, her mother, and her stepfather. She attended Christian schools until high school. Growing up in the middle of the desert was a challenge, she says.
"We had toys, of course," she says. "But we really needed to use our imagination to keep us busy."
Her family, members of the Pentecostal church, could not have been more conservative, Homewrecker recalls.
"They were strict," she says. "We weren't allowed to go outside and play. Nobody was allowed to come into our house. They were lame."
When Homewrecker was 15, she moved out of her family home and in with a friend. She says the move was an easy one, because she knew there was a big world outside.
"Raised by TV, I was inspired by The Legend of Billie Jean and Punky Brewster to create a new life for myself," she says.
Two years later, she found herself in Austin, and it was there that Homewrecker was exposed to the rave, club, and punk scenes.
"Every day was a weekend in Austin," she says.
Growing up, Homewrecker, who says she always has been interested in fashion, had to resort to thrift shops to find interesting clothes. She remembers buying men's pants and children's T-shirts to complement her skater look. Later, she began making clothes, and now she's the woman behind Hell on Heels Couture, an alternative fashion clothing brand.
"Growing up in a small town, I always had to get creative with outfits, so I just started making my own clothes," she says.
Soon after her move to Texas, she started selling her clothes at raves. Strippers started buying her rave wear and wearing it to clubs, so she began making booty shorts and furry halter tops.
During her time in Austin, Homewrecker found it easy to fluctuate from punk events to other electro and industrial shows and soon found herself at bars that organized fetish events. It was the late '90s when she was introduced to Austin's fetish scene through a goth club. She immediately was drawn to the clothing and the style.
"It was definitely more sought-after than it is now," she says. "Now it's really mainstream."
In 2003, she moved back to the Valley to attend Phoenix College, where she studied histology to fulfill a lifelong dream of working in the medical industry.
After Homewrecker moved back to Arizona and started a roller derby league, Arizona Derby Dames, she was introduced to the local fetish scene and Horns & Halos asked the league members to perform at its events. Homewrecker and the other roller derby players would pillow-wrestle on skates and head up a kissing booth.
Shortly after, she started going to Fight Club Sadisco*, an industrial club night in Phoenix. Put on by DJ Squalor, the monthly events inspired by Chuck Palahniuk's novel stopped in 2010 when Squalor was diagnosed with cancer. (Later this summer, one final Fight Club Sadisco* will take place at the Monarch Theater in downtown Phoenix.)
It reminded her of the underground events she would attend in Austin.
Homewrecker says she wanted to create an event that mixed the aesthetics of goth fashion and industrial music and searched for two years for a venue. Finally, she talked to the owner of the Rogue Bar in south Scottsdale.
The owner let her put together the very first CUPCAKE! Night in November 2011. Two months later, the event became monthly.
CUPCAKE! has happened every second Friday since then. Now, Homewrecker and Krol plan to move it to the last Friday in the month. Sin-o-rama, a new event every second Friday, will take place in Club Palazzo in Phoenix.
"It was definitely crazy at first," she says. "I work a full-time job, so as soon as I get home from work, I am constantly on the phone, on Facebook and e-mail talking to performers and DJS."
CUPCAKE! Nights' promotion is done almost exclusively online, and the themes, which change every month, are decided by Homewrecker and Von Krol in advance. The music is a mix of electro and industrial and the fashion is mostly goth.
The money from the cupcakes sold during the events is donated to the Arizona Animal Welfare League and other causes such as fighting breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer.
During February's CUPCAKE! (aptly themed "Love Sucks"), Rogue Bar is flooded with decorations that at first glance seem usual for Valentine's weekend but up close show a different side. The black stage, where the turntables are set up, is surrounded by old tube TVs showing nothing but static, and behind them, a screen alternates between reading "I hate you" and "I love you."
To the side, a photo area offers attendees a chance to strike their best poses holding cartoon hearts with messages such as "Hail Satan," "Let's Fu**," "666," and "Oh my Goth." As the clock strikes midnight, Homewrecker takes the stage and starts the show for the night, an outfit contest for the couples in the audience.
The scene is another reminder that fetish acts are not often explicit at CUPCAKE!
Shannon Voigt, a regular during CUPCAKE!, is wearing synthetic dreads, heavy makeup around her eyes, and fake blood oozing from her mouth. She says every time she comes, she spends time dressing up to fit with the theme.
"The music brings me here," she says. "To new people, I would say 'Don't judge and give it a try. Some of the nicest people you'll ever meet come to these events.'"
Lee Harrington, an author based in Alaska and expert on all things kinky, has been part of the adventurous sexuality population for 17 years. He's traveled the globe to talk about sexuality and spirituality and has published six books, including Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond.
In psychiatry, he says, the word fetish is often known as a paraphilia, an object — a thing or concept — that must be present for sexual satisfaction to happen. For example, a man who is into high heels will not have an erection unless his partner is wearing them. That's known as debilitating paraphilia.
"When people in the public community refer to themselves as being part of the fetish community, they are not talking about debilitating paraphilia," he says. "These are individuals who are exploring having fun with fashion, connecting with a variety of sexual activities that are outside the lights-off, missionary-style sex, and they are people who are either having fun or diving into their emotional journey about finding connections and finding their own personal truths."
During fetish events, Harrington says, one third of the people are following their emotional or sexual journey, and about two thirds of the people are having fun with the fashion, dressing up in head-to-toe latex (for example) and taking on a character.
Hooks for suspensions, like the ones used in performances during Fetish Prom, are sturdy pieces of metal designed to hold the necessary weight, inserted below the skin, many layers deep so they don't rip out, and lifting people into the air for a variety of purposes, such as spirituality, exhibitionism, or simply getting an endorphin rush.
Discipline (in the BDSM scene) can be psychological or physical, and the bulk of people exploring kink are just having fun on the weekends, Harrington says. Dominance is exerting will upon another individual who has consented to have will exerted upon them. Submission is the flip side. It's for somebody who wants to hand that power over.
In classical academia, the word sadism means receiving pleasure from the suffering of others, and the classical definition of masochism is receiving pleasure from suffering.
"When people in BDSM are talking about those [academic terms], that population is really tiny," he says. "The bulk of people who say they're sadist are people who want to consensually do or give intense sensation."
The first fetish ball the Valley ever saw happened in 1996 when Steve Haworth, a world-renowned body-modification artist based in Phoenix, and a friend hosted the event that only had around 100 people in attendance.
By that time, Haworth had already been attending fetish balls in Los Angeles and San Francisco and had invented an art form called 3-D body modification — in which an implant is placed under the skin for aesthetic purposes. Haworth is mostly known for the Metal Mohawk, a series of metal spikes that jut from the scalp.
Haworth, whose father was an engineer, grew up around the medical industry. In the 1980s he produced equipment for plastic surgery that included medical instrumentation and implants.
A decade later, he had moved into body piercing, and in 1994 he created the 3-D implants.
A few months after the first fetish ball in Arizona, Haworth and his business partner organized a second one. This one was somewhat more successful and attracted 300 people. However, after differences between the duo, Haworth abandoned the idea of fetish balls in Arizona. He was back by 2005.
Haworth and a friend, James Bound, came up with the idea of Horns & Halos Productions, a company that promotes and organizes fetish events, after a suspension party where they were talking about a recent fetish ball in California where Haworth had performed. As soon as Bound asked if he wanted to organize a fetish event, Haworth says, he was on board.
Now in its 10th year, Horns & Halos is still going strong, Haworth says.
"I think the scene has grown significantly," he says. "I helped birth it here in Arizona and I'm proud of the people who come out, and I'm proud of the effort that people put into their outfits."
The outfits, Haworth says, don't always need to be rubber or latex suits that could set someone back more than $1000 but rather stem from attendees' originality and personal style.
"The fetish community in itself is very creative and very bright," he says. "I look forward to the fetish community in Arizona making an attempt to go to other events around the country and then maybe they could get an idea of how good they have it here."
Haworth is referring to the fact that fetish events in Arizona are much cheaper than others around the country. In big cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, admission to a fetish ball is at least $75. For the annual Fetish Revolution in Phoenix, regular admission was only $20.
"James and I agreed to do it because we wanted to throw the kind of events that we wanted to go to, and we weren't that interested in money," he says. "The fetish community in Arizona doesn't really have a concept of what it costs to go to a fetish ball."
As the face behind CUPCAKE! Nights, Homewrecker is an integral part of today's flourishing fetish scene, Haworth says.
"Suzy is inventive, creative, bright and colorful," he says. "She is a rock star."
The fetish community in Arizona has grown significantly since Horns & Halos was created. Today, events are being held almost every weekend. Haworth says he is proud of that.
One of the referees during Homewrecker's roller derby days is New York native Mitch Palmer. Palmer, the founder of Devious Minds, a different fetish event company, got involved in the fetish scene when he was 17.
Palmer, who calls the fetish scene in Phoenix fractured, used to be a partner of Horns n Halos.
"They wanted to do concerts and I wanted to do fetish events," he says. "I pulled out of Horns & Halos to go do my own thing and that's how I started Devious Minds."
Haworth recalls the split very differently. After seeing the way Palmer treated some of those in his personal circle, Haworth says, he chose to remove him from Horns n Halos and to distance himself from Palmer completely.
"His idea of what fetish is and my idea of what fetish is are two completely different things," he says. "You can be kinky with consent and you can have somebody who is submissive, and still treat them as a human being. Treating people like less than human, whether they like it or not, for me, is not what fetish is."
Homewrecker says that although she does not agree that the Phoenix fetish scene is fractured, something good came out of the dissolution of the partnership. "It's opened up more options for events that are vastly different," she says.
By day, Suzy Homewrecker works in a molecular lab in Scottsdale on immunohistochemistry, profiling tumor types of people who have stage III and stage IV cancer and have already been through chemotherapy that hasn't worked for them. She looks at the tumor types to identify the drug therapy that would be beneficial to patients.
On weekdays, Homewrecker wakes up at 2 a.m. and goes to work at 3. She gets home at noon, gets out of her scrubs, and from that moment, event planning takes all her time as she responds to e-mails, calls, and Facebook messages.
On a Thursday in March, not long after her shift has ended, Homewrecker sits outside a café in Tempe in her black scrubs and talks about work. She is wearing a black wig over her bright red hair and a black long-sleeved shirt.
"I wear it," she says, "so people at work don't feel uncomfortable with my tattoos." The tattoos, which cover her arms and end in the face of a wolf above her chest, are not visible with the shirt. The Arizona heat can be grueling in the summer months, she admits.
Even without her tattoos and with her wig (as to not draw attention to the different colors she dyes her hair), Homewrecker still stands out. For example, she is wearing a ring in the shape of a coffin. It is her engagement ring.
Homewrecker's fiancé, Kevin Von Krol, met her in January 2008 while he was living in .anti space, an art gallery in downtown Phoenix, during a First Friday when a friend let Von Krol know a woman was checking out his work.
"He comes up to me and says, 'Someone's looking at your demon baby,'" he says. "There was just something about her. Right away I wanted to be around her all the time."
The woman was Homewrecker and the demon baby, one of Von Krol's art pieces, still sits proudly in their home. It's a doll painted red with white tears coming out of its eyes and what used to be horns protruding from its head. Below it are three tube TVs with red hearts painted on them, the same ones on stage during CUPCAKE!'s Valentine's day celebration.
As their wedding approaches, Von Krol says he couldn't be any happier.
"I don't see the end of (our relationship)" he says. "We're always going to be together. We'll grow old together. I have no doubt."
Von Krol, a sculptor and musician, has been doing art for 15 years.
He and Homewrecker DJ not only during CUPCAKE! nights, but during the bimonthly Fallout.Shelter and their upcoming Sin-o-rama at Club Palazzo.
Homewrecker and Von Krol's house sits in the Roosevelt Row District in downtown Phoenix, surrounded by a white picket fence. From the outside, the gray one-story home does not stand out from all the others in the block. The inside, however, is another story.
The living room walls, painted aqua, are covered with art and decorative old cameras. Anatomy books and medical equipment occupy a corner of the room. Two Ouija boards rest on coffee tables.
A sign leading to a studio and crafts room reads "Insane Asylum." Inside the studio are dozens of Hello Kitty figurines and to the side, a long, black wedding dress is hanging from a door.
The second open space, which would normally be used as a dining hall, serves as a music studio. The walls here are a deep red. A glass case holds dozens of old baby dolls, and a black coffin containing turntables and other DJ equipment serves as the room's central feature.
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The black dress is the one Homewrecker will wear in October for her wedding. Short in the front and long in the back, it's her own personal design.
Her blood relatives, she explains, are not invited to the wedding because her friends are her real family.
Homewrecker, who has never done suspension, says she is toying with the idea of doing it for the first time during the wedding, which will likely be held in Austin.
"Who knows? We'll see what happens. Kevin hasn't done it either," she says. "Both of us would like to do it. You never know."