Kirill Bichutsky, AKA “Kirill Was Here”, AKA the “Slut Whisperer” is the infamous New York City nightlife photographer who gets paid to give champagne facials to barely clothed party girls. He is beloved by some and loathed by others, which is to be expected when you’re a man who pours alcoholic beverages on women for profit.
His website, he says, receives between four and six million visits per month. The site is loaded with photos of inebriated, topless women, celebrities such as Lil Jon and Drake and ridiculous pictures of club debauchery. There’s even a series of photos of a woman running around the club with a tequila bottle cork in her derriere. I’m not kidding.
A college dropout, Kirill is a photographer who’s in demand. He’s asked to shoot at clubs all over the globe as well as festivals like ULTRA and Sundance. His brand has inspired some rather risqué apparel, caught the eyes of DJs Tiesto and Steve Aoki and landed him his own docuseries with Showtime called "3AM.”
I’ve followed Kirill on social media for years, drawn in by his commentary on the club scene and influence on trendy nightlife. I’m obviously a fan of sorts, but I’m also, like many, I suspect, conflicted. On the one hand, what he does is degrading to women. On the other hand, if two consenting adults want get really weird in the club, who am I to judge them?
A few weeks ago I picked up the phone and asked Kirill to come to Los Angeles for an interview and video shoot so that I could confront my conflict face-to-face. He agreed.
I met both Kirill and the Slut Whisperer at Playboy’s Beverly Hills office. Both of his personas were endearing. Both were slightly inappropriate. Both were interesting as hell. For the record, Kirill is the corporate representative of the Slut Whisperer, who is a non-corporate club creature.
His nails were polished red and chipped. One of his eyes was bloodshot from a tragic encounter with a bottle of hot sauce, which he says he snorted at a club with some girlfriends. The 30-year-old Russian is a walking advertisement for revelry. In his easygoing, almost charming presence I quickly forgot that so many people can’t stand him. But then we got to talking about his travel plans, and I remembered.
He was due to leave Los Angeles the next morning to photograph a club in Vancouver. He had been scheduled to shoot the Argyle Bar in Halifax with adult film actress Christy Mack, but the club owner canceled Kirill’s appearance after some in the community protested the event.
“I guess this women’s rights group at a college was like, ‘Hell, no, this isn’t coming to our town,'” he said, adjusting his snapback. "They wrote all these articles in pretty big newspapers in Canada about me, and I just couldn’t stop laughing. One of the articles was like, 'Slut Whisperer Not Appearing in Halifax.’ I couldn’t believe a newspaper printed that in huge, big letters, and then in the small print somewhere below was a gun violence article. Am I really a bigger issue than gun violence?”
The cancelation was a big story in Canada. His social media accounts, often saturated with boobs, abortion jokes and feminist protests that he amusingly retweets, didn’t sit well with Halifax residents, including 20-year-old Kings College student Victoria Walton.
“People think that since I’m not OK with Kirill and what he does that I’m actually against girls going out. That’s not what it is,” Walton told me over Skype. “Girls still went out that night and had a good time without him pouring champagne on them. When it’s a woman walking down the street embracing something like the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign on her own, it’s different. When it’s Kirill pouring champagne on girls, even though it may be consensual, it’s harder to know where to draw a line because the girls are often drunk.”
Graphic images of shirtless young women, mouths agape, begging for champagne to be dumped all over them were shocking to some in Halifax. Walton received backlash on social media from Kirill’s fans after she tweeted her approval that he wouldn’t be coming to the Canadian city.
“His followers were getting after me, and specifically targeting my appearance and calling me ugly,” Walton said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not fun if you don’t go to his parties, and if you don’t want champagne poured on you.”
Halifax was definitely on Kirill’s mind the day we spoke.
“I wrote my open letter to the city, and it crushed,” he said, smiling. “I turned my brain on for a second and typed out a letter to them and people were like 'Oh, shit, this is intelligent.’”
When I approached Kirill in March I originally pitched him the idea of me shadowing him for a night out to see what it’s like to party with someone whose antics are so openly celebrated yet also hated.
“L.A. is boring,” he said over the phone.
I agreed, knowing nightlife here isn’t exactly up to par with NYC and Miami. But I’m a writer, and I wanted to experience what Kirill was really about. Since I couldn’t come to Kirill’s party of the absurd, I decided to bring the party and champagne to him. Kirill, with the aid of Elizabeth Ruiz, put on a champagne facial demo for me and our video crew at Playboy HQ in Beverly Hills. It was easily the weirdest Thursday I’ve had on this job.
Love it. Hate it. This is the video we shot.
I remember looking on in disbelief as the photographer climbed a ladder to pour champagne on Ruiz, giving me pretty much the same show I would have witnessed in a sweaty, packed nightclub. Watching this, I was still torn. Yet I found myself laughing while watching Ruiz giggle over how cold the champagne felt when it was splashing on her for the first time. Then I felt wrong for laughing. In this moment I experienced the clash between wondering if a woman’s right to individually choose to engage in provocative behavior harms women as a whole.
The thing you cannot deny about Kirill is that he is upfront and honest about all of it: the women, the molly, the glory and bullshit that comes with being 20-something and getting wasted in a club. And when you follow him on social media he’s in your face 24/7. His choices have led me, a young woman, to wonder what kind of feminist I am or if I am even a feminist at all.
The issues of consent and power are two reasons some feminists despise Kirill. Much of the backlash from his photos has come from women who often claim his work is degrading and portrays females as purely sexual objects.
Carson Griffith from the Observer titled his interview with the nightlife photog, “Kirill Was Here: Girls Gone Wild for the Velvet Rope Set.” Writer Shira Albagli much less subtly wrote that Kirill “profits off of perpetuating rape culture.”
When I brought up these stories and others like them Kirill calmly replied, “I really don’t care when people call me a misogynist.”
UCLA gender studies professor and author of Civilizing Images: Violence and the Visual Interpellation of Maori Women, Dr. Michelle Erai, was reluctant to speak with me at first because I work at Playboy. “My fear was of being perceived as endorsing a publication demeaning women,” she said. “But I also am open to conversation about these topics with anyone who is interested.“
As for Kirill, she said, “I think the discomfort from most feminists comes from the idea of consent because in the club scene there’s a lot of alcohol. That’s where informed consent comes in. You should know you’re participating. You know you can say no, and there should be no negative repercussions from not participating. Because of alcohol and other substances consent gets a little fuzzy. And between that and then the distance between the sense of exhilaration that some young woman feel getting champagne facials and how it might not actually be good for all women, it sets up is this idea that all women are open to having champagne poured on them.”
Erai offered another take on the Halifax issue, and it had to do with the government directly limiting public imagery.
"The Canadian government, similar to New Zealand, has a history of being quite comfortable with censorship,” said Erai, a native New Zealander. “The idea that some people are appointed to ensure the materials that will harm people are not imported into the country might come from some of that history.”
Reddit user belowthreshold echoed a similar sentiment: “I’m uncomfortable with the level of censorship that has been happening lately in Halifax, and I’m hoping we can move past the idea that anything that is disagreeable or uncomfortable to someone should be banned - but I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
What is it like to be one of the women who receive a champagne facial? Devon Miller had no idea who Kirill was when she went to a boat party featuring the photographer in 2014. She received a champagne facial and now looks back and laughs.
“I got pretty drunk, and someone was asking, ‘Who wants a champagne facial?’ And I was like 'I’ll do it!’ It was really fun, and I wouldn’t take it back,” Miller said.
The 23-year-old is aware of how some women view Kirill.
“I know a lot of people, mostly women, don’t like what he does just because it seems degrading,” she said. “But I think it’s everyone’s personal opinion. It’s about how you carry yourself, and I don’t really think what he does is humiliating.”
When I asked Kirill about how he chooses girls to photograph and how he gets consent, he chuckled.
"At this point I don’t ask,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time girls ask me. They recognize the brand, and everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame. You know what you’re getting yourself into. The brand is getting so big you can’t show up to a party I’m at without knowing I was going to be there.”
To his point, his work has often been splashed on billboards on the freeway to Las Vegas. It’s a bit hard to miss.
Sociologist and author of the upcoming book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals sees a connection between women wanting to be around Kirill and the taste for Internet fame.
“It’s this idea of looking to have some kind of carefree, exceptional or outlandish image captured,” Tibbals said. “Whether or not this guy is a nice guy, I mean some of the language he uses to describe himself, I’m kind of like 'whatever,’ but he’s still tapping into what is really going on in our culture right now. Regardless of whether or not I find him appealing personally, he’s actually drawing out a phenomenon.”
I wondered, though: Is Kirill simply documenting behavior that’s already occurring, or is he instigating it? If women are willingly exposing themselves to him in order to achieve notoriety on the Web, is that his fault?
“What these real feminists, or people that are against me are saying, is that these girls shouldn’t be acting this way and they are taking away their own rights, and they shouldn’t act the way they are, and they are blaming me for it,” Kirill said. “My whole thing is if a girl wants to do that, let her do it. Don’t take away her right to be a drunk mess in public.”
But it’s not always smiling faces and high-fives after Kirill posts his photos.
“I get maybe one to three requests a month to take photos down,” Kirill says. “And if you’re a dick to me about it, I’ll let it linger for a little bit and then I’ll remove it. Because it’s like you don’t need to come at me, you’re the one who did this. I’m just documenting the party.”
But is it Kirill’s job to figure out how intoxicated a woman is if she comes up to him and asks for a champagne facial she may later regret? Or is it the woman’s responsibility to stay sober enough to make the right decision for herself in the first place?
I was surprised to learn that not every woman who wants a champagne facial is drunk. I spoke with 23-year-old Nina Marie, who received a champagne facial from Kirill at Webster Hall in 2014. She says she was sober.
“He walked up to me and poured champagne all over me,” she said. “I had tweeted him multiple times about wanting a champagne facial.”
And the kicker? Nina went topless.
“I was wearing a halter dress, and my friend was actually helping me untie it because I went there with the intention of doing it,” she said. “That’s his whole idea with the champagne facial thing. He is trying to change the party scene and not have everyone sit on their phones and be boring. He wants to create a crazy atmosphere.”
In an essay titled “'Kirill Was Here’ Exposes the Hypocrisy of Feminism,” author “Kilmster” raised the consent topic in response to feminists.
“So, let’s get this straight, when women willingly expose their breasts in men’s magazines or at one of Kirill’s events, it is slut-shaming and victimization. But when feminists want to expose them in public, say at the beach, in front of children and families, perfectly fine,” he wrote.
This idea that women should be able to do what they want with their bodies, but only in certain situations, makes this issue confusing, at least for me. I write once or twice a week about something like Scout Willis walking around naked in NYC for the Free the Nipple Campaign or Miley Cyrus protesting Instagram’s nudity policy (again.) It seems as if, at least from the outside, feminism to some millennials shows up in the form of nudity – of owning one’s body and having the freedom to show it off.
Tibbals doesn’t see Kirill completely as exploitive.
“What we have here is a party photographer where a venue pays this guy to come and take pictures,” she says. “It’s the same way you would take pictures at a wedding. He’s making his money from a venue. He’s not making his money from selling his photographs or extorting people. I read a couple things that’s comparing him to Joe Francis and Hunter Moore, and they really drew those 'Girls Gone Wild’ stereotypes, and I thought those comparisons were really off mark.”
Is Kirill facilitating behavior that is already occurring in the clubs, or is he simply documenting it? He says a little bit of both.
“I’ll instigate, but trust me, there’s photos that I don’t put up from a lot of these parties where it’s like - your kids are doing way worse than what I am even showing you,” he said.
He argues he does have a line when it comes to whether or not he should post certain photos.
"I’m not out to ruin anyone’s lives,” he said.
What about art? Yes, art. Even though Erai doesn’t believe Kirill’s photos frame women in a positive light, she made a point about the conversation his photos were creating.
“I believe art is meant to ask us to question what we thought we believed,” she said. “The kind of work that Kirill is doing is great in the sense that it gets us to think about what’s going on, and that’s the role art can really take on.”
Even though he’s mostly known for capturing champagne facials of topless women, the New Yorker also has a pretty successful career in event photography. Aside from regularly touring the country with Red Bull and Hennessy, Kirill’s celebrity photography has blown up several times.
“A photo I took of Nas really changed the game,” he said about the photo he took of the rapper at SXSW back in 2012. “People were like, 'Whoa this kid can really take photos. I put the photo online and 24 hours later Def Jam emailed me and was like, 'Take that photo down. We’re buying it.’ They used that photo more to promote his new album on iTunes than the actual cover. It was everywhere.”
Here’s a question: Would I personally ever get a champagne facial from Kirill? After seeing one close up, probably not. Do his abortion and fat jokes on his social media bother me? Yes, they do. When another woman gets a champagne facial, does it affect me? I don’t really think so.
I do agree with Erai and other gender studies experts who say that sexualized behaviors like these have the potential to create harmful expectations for other women. But, as Kirill said, women are often coming to him. Even begging him to let them do his job of pouring the champagne on other women.
As Tibbals pointed out earlier, maybe we should focus instead on the phenomenon of social media notoriety and the lengths some women will go to obtain it. Because if you’re going to blame Kirill for a young woman’s attention-getting behavior, you might as well blame the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus, too.
Why is it Scout Willis can walk around New York topless, and it’s a sign of female empowerment, but if a woman desires to have alcohol dumped on her like Miller and Marie while they are in a state of euphoria or whatever you want to call that feeling when you’re drunk and high on life, then it’s not OK?
Is it simply because a male is present, and he is “cumming on her face” symbolically, as many have pointed out champagne facials to represent? Feminism, as Erai and Walton pointed out, is often measured in terms of which party is in power. To me it seems that there are a few vocal feminists, who, yes, have good intentions, but think they get to pick and choose what behavior is and isn’t socially acceptable.
Did I objectify women by having our video team shoot Kirill pouring champagne on Elizabeth Ruiz? Does this mean I hate women, and I’m harming feminism? I don’t think so. But then again, I am a woman working for Playboy. In most feminists’ eyes, I’ve already fucked up.
This article originally ran on May 12, 2015.