Seventeen years ago, a little website called Suicide Girls kicked off, and the world was never the same. That sounds melodramatic, but it's pretty true. The internet's place in society was still relatively new, and the idea of body-positive alternative models from around the globe felt fresh and exciting. Suicide Girls is still going strong, with the site still in full swing, hundreds of thousands of SG hopefuls across all borders, and the touring production of Blackheart Burlesque, a sexy show featuring SG models. The production comes to the Jean Cocteau Cinema this Tuesday. It's all about that body positivity and community, and SFR reached out to Suicide Girls co-founder Missy Suicide to see what is up.

Here we are, nearly 20 years later—when you started Suicide Girls in 2001, did you think it would become such a full-on phenomenon?

No. It was kind of a desperate 'If you build it, they will come!' sort of thing. The world was a very different place 17 years ago. The internet was not a place where you shared your thoughts and feelings and pictures of your breakfast. It was a place where you didn't share anything because it was your permanent record and anybody could find anything on you it was full of perverts and murderers. The concept of sharing yourself online was a very new one. But the idea was that our bodies are not shameful, that we should love ourselves just as we are. And that includes our bodies—we should be proud of them. That's still a pretty radical concept, although it's gaining more and more acceptance. Hopefully in the next 20 years it will be a commonplace mentality.

Was there some moment where you were like, 'Holy shit! This is taking off!'?

I feel like the community part of [the site] took off pretty quickly. I feel like it's been a long slow simmer of acceptance.

Is there some sense of validation that these traditionally alt or nerdy themes are have become more accepted?

Definitely. I feel like it would be quite—I don't know what the proper word is … boastful or self-centered to think it was entirely my doing, but I feel like if I helped play some small part in that, it's incredibly validating.

And that body positivity was at the heart of  the mission?

I mean, I feel like the mission was that confidence is a sexiest attribute a person can have and that everybody is beautiful. I feel like our bodies are not shameful. Although even that took a few years to develop as a part of the mission of the site. It took a lot of deprogramming to accept that part or to be able to say it out loud. It's powerful conditioning that our society's done.

We hear more and more about how these things are getting better. Are they getting better?

Having been through this a few times, I feel like it's two steps forward, one step back. We just need to be prepared for the possibility of a small back step, but just keep pushing forward.

How did the decision come about to add a live performance component?

Fairly early on. In 2003 we put on our first burlesque tour, and it was a little bit more punk rock and chaotic, and in the same vein as the images on the website. The goal was updating the classic pinup image and putting a modern twist on it, and the burlesque show was our version of updating and taking the sexy spirit of that medium. In the same way, we wanted to give the girls a space on the site to express themselves with their words and not just their images. It evolved into the live show and wanting to perform. It was a lot of work and was intense. Then in 2007 we were like, 'Well, we could put out a book. Let's take a year off from the burlesque,' then it was 'Do you wanna put out a movie?' and we put out a movie. Then in 2012 we put out a book called Hard Girls Soft Light, and we sent two girls on a tour of comic book shops—by the time they reached Santa Cruz, [California], there were 750 people outside the comic shop. Clearly people wanted a live experience from us, and we knew we could do better than two girls hanging in a comic shop. So we reinvented the burlesque tour and it's been going ever since. It's Suicide Girls who book the shows, all the staff from the stage managers, the merch girl—it's all Suicide Girls that do all of it.

How do you cast the show?

We hold auditions. It's a very choreographed show, so the performers have to be able to keep up with the choreography and all that. Our street teams around the country, the local Suicide Girls, they go out on flyering missions. They promote the shows in their local towns. We hold auditions before each tour. Any Suicide Girls can audition. We've had auditions in London and in South America—wherever we go.

Is it weird or cool or scary to have been a part of all this?

All of the above! Weird, cool, scary—it's a little bit insane. I'm just a normal person just going about my day, but I come across cool people and people who I've admired for decades and they give me compliments. I just went to Australia to meet up with the girls down there, and one's a hopeful, and she had me FaceTime with her parents because she had shown them a [Suicide Girls] video and explained that that's why she was how she was, and they finally got it. It's humbling and awesome.

I've seen with things like this where people may start to feel some sense of ownership or like you owe them or something. Has this ever happened to you?

There have definitely been times in the past where … I've wanted some separation, but I feel like for 17 years we've found a decent, good balance with community. People understand. They take stock in community. If you're part of a community, it's OK to feel ownership of it in some ways. People are generally pretty cool. I feel very lucky.

Suicide Girls: Blackheart Burlesque

8:30 pm Tuesday Sept. 11. $25-$80. Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., 466-5528.