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.