Vice pulls 'breathtakingly tasteless' fashion shoot glorifying the suicides of famous female authors from Sylvia Plath to Virginia Woolf

Commentators and mental health charities slammed the 'sick' photoshoot

Vice magazine pulled a "suicide photoshoot" from its website today after it was bombarded with criticism for publishing a fashion feature depicting models posing as female writers, including Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, on the brink of killing themselves.

The "Last Words" spread also showed a bird’s eye view of a model impersonating Beat poet Elise Cowen, who died after jumping out of a window in the building where her parents lived, lying prostrate on the pavement. Each photo was captioned with the name of the author, the dates of her birth and death, cause of death – and the fashion credits for what each model was wearing.

Other featured authors included historian Iris Chang, novelists Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Sanmao, a Taiwanese author who hanged herself with a pair of stockings. Vice included a fashion credit for the tights. Poet and writer Dorothy Parker, who actually died of a heart attack, aged 73, also featured. A model recreates an attempt by Parker to kill herself by slitting her wrists when she was in her early 20s.

The online article still appears in this month’s fiction issue in the million-selling news and culture magazine, based in the US. But after near universal disgust the company took the feature, credited to photographer Annabel Mehran and stylist Annette Lamothe-Ramos, offline late yesterday afternoon and issued an apology.

Writing on feminist website Jezebel, which was also criticised for reproducing all the Vice pictures, former fashion model Jenna Sauers, said: “It’s almost breathtakingly tasteless. Suicide is not a fashion statement.”

She added: “Making light of suicide and underlying mental health problems is sick, sick stuff. And while time doesn’t necessarily lessen the grief of suicide, it’s perhaps especially distressing that some of the people Vice depicts died very recently – Chang in just 2004 – leaving still-living loved ones behind.

“These weren’t fictional characters; these were real women, who lived and struggled and died, and to treat their lowest moments as fodder for a silly fashion spread is shameful and sad.”

Writer Michele Filgate responded on Salon.com to the spread: “Art can and at times should be provocative — there’s no doubt about that. Yet this isn’t art. This is an editorial decision to get more page views.”

Readers’ comments underneath the article on Vice’s website were equally scathing and some responses included calls for heads to roll at the magazine.

Valerie Woodruff said: “Glorifying suicides of famous writers to sell your crappy line of clothes is a new low. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom, who spoke in a Commons debate last year about suffering mental health problems herself, said she was “totally disgusted” by the feature.

The South Northamptonshire MP added: “I can well imagine the outrage from parents as well as from those trying to support friends and family with mental health problems. The magazine editor should be ashamed - it's neither fashion nor art.”

Alastair Campbell, who broadcast a personal story on his mental illness in a BBC documentary, added: “Attention seeking takes many forms, but this is a particularly unpleasant and irresponsible way to get people to take notice.”

A spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind said: “It is astonishing that Vice magazine has acted so insensitively and irresponsibly. There are over 6,000 suicides a year in the UK and thousands more people will attempt suicide or seriously contemplate taking their own life. This fashion shoot styled around suicide is not only in incredibly poor taste it also risks glamorising and romanticising suicide.  

“The media has a duty of care to present suicide in a responsible way, research shows that media coverage of suicide, particularly graphic imagery illustrating the method used, can lead to copycat deaths.”

Earlier, there had been a few supportive voices for the suicide shoot. Kat Bee wrote on Jezebel: “Fashion photography and fantasy have had a symbiotic relationship for quite some time. Given the ‘dead artist lady’ still holds a lot of cultural weight — especially among the hip, fashionable young girl demographic, which VICE is so obviously targeting with this feature — it should be clear to the smart women of Jezebel that this will get shared, clicked, viewed and *gasp* LOVED by a lot of people on the internet.”

A statement from Vice said: “The fashion spreads in VICE magazine are always unconventional and approached with an art editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one. Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading.

“’Last Words’ was created in this tradition and focused on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands. We will no longer display ‘Last Words’ on our website and apologise to anyone who was hurt or offended.”

www.samaritans.org; 08457 90 90 90 (UK) 1850 69 90 90 (Ireland)

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