Before the advent of Instagram and Kat Von D lipstick lines, an online community in 2001 began inviting alternative women to share their stories and photos. Some doubters quickly denounced the idea: “No one is going to want to put their thoughts and feelings online.”

But 14 years later, SuicideGirls has celebrated sexy and smart women from all seven continents. Their equally popular pop-culture-inspired Blackheart Burlesque show is coming to Madison, bringing with them a mix of silly and sexy to the Majestic Oct. 8. 

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The Portland, Oregon-based community was born before the Internet age and when the world — and its conception of beauty — was much more compartmentalized, founder Missy Suicide said.

Women were forced to choose between two restrictive and blonde types of beautiful: stick-thin Kate Moss or silicone-enhanced, buxom Pamela Anderson, Suicide said. This toxic environment propagated by the media and culture did not reflect what she saw around the Northwest.

“Looking around in Portland, the girls that I knew I thought were some of the most beautiful girls in the world, and I thought that they should be celebrated for being such,” Suicide said. “They had so much to share with their personality.”

Upon SuicideGirl’s launch, several area women began submitting their stories and photos. Suicide wasn’t necessarily surprised by local interest; in a town with the most strip clubs and bookstores per capita, the brand appealed to a wide variety of Portland folk, she said.

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But the once-small project suddenly began reaching across states and oceans. Aspiring “suicide girls” from New York, London and Italy began requesting access to the project. Suicide was overwhelmed with the response; she sent out instructions on how to take their own photographs, resulting in hundreds upon hundreds of submissions.

More than a decade later, the site currently boasts 2,805 “suicide girls,” and a massive social media fan base; more than 6 million Facebook fans attest how the project tapped into an eagerness to connect, before Mark Zuckerberg had even graduated high school.

“[SuicideGirls is] about bringing those people together and finding a place for them to share and get to know each other,” Suicide said. “It’s really an amazing thing because if you feel like an outsider and alone your whole life, and you realize there are people who share your own experience, it makes the world so much smaller and makes you feel not so alone.”

One of the keys to its success is an unapologetic approach to female empowerment. The site’s use of pin-up imagery — often associated with the male gaze — was rebranded by Suicide and others to take control of one’s own body.

She was particularly inspired by female 1940s photographer Bunny Yeager and her photos of famous model Betty Page; Suicide wanted women to be shot with the same sort of respect and without the pressure to put on “airs for a man,” she said.  

This mentality translates to Blackheart Burlesque, SuicideGirls’ ultimate demonstration of female empowerment. Beginning several years after the site’s initial launch, the show was punk rock and free form at first, Suicide said. During their initial tour, the girls opened for everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Courtney Love.

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After a long hiatus, Suicide has brought back the popular performance. Blackheart Burlesque, however, had stepped up its game since the first tour; they needed something different, and of course, salaciously “suicide girl.” Suicide then approached the choreographer Manuel Sauls-Addison with the following:

“I want to do a ‘Planet of the Apes’ number with girls in silver bikinis and monkey masks, and one girl in a Barbarella-style silver swimsuit with the bowl-head space helmet, coming out to Disclosure’s ‘When A Fire Starts to Burn,’ and during the talking parts I want to have Simpson’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ opera,” Suicide said.

Sauls-Addison was originally — and, perhaps, understandably — skeptical, but after auditions produced 25 talented girls, the number was completed to Suicide’s remarkable approval. Now Blackheart Burlesque is back on the road, having brought franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter to the stage.

The show’s international acclaim — the 2014 shows in the U.S., Australia and Canada sold out — reflects a social media culture more accepting of the “suicide girl,” and increasingly, different types of women.

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“We have Kim Kardashian, who is like the third type of beauty, which is like revolutionary in mainstream media,” Suicide said. “It’s highly unattainable, for most of us, but it’s a huge step forward. I feel like the Internet has definitely helped to expand our definition of beauty, [and] expose us to so much more.”

But for the many women who still feel ostracized by mass media’s conceptions of beauty — and its seeming inability to pair with intelligence and personality — they need not look any further than themselves to become a “suicide girl.”

“A ‘suicide girl’ [is] confident, comfortable with her body [and] … really unapologetically herself,” Suicide said. “[She’s] not afraid to express herself through her image and her words.” 

Updated Oct. 5 at 1:21 p.m.