My First Time: Massaoke

It’s the epic, closing bars of Bohemian Rhapsody and the silver catsuit-clad guitarist is playing the final notes with his teeth. Packed to the rafters, the venue sways as the audience members, arm in arm, sing their hearts out in unison. The atmosphere nears euphoria, but that’s not Brian May up there, and this is certainly not Live Aid. We’re at Camden’s Electric Ballroom on a dreary December evening, witnessing a cover act that’s managed to draw the same level of crowd as the chart-topping acts that play this venue every other day of the week. Welcome to Massaoke

The concept was launched eight years ago when five musicians – who go by Bat, Rebel Rye, Mac Savage, McClean and El Neilio – formed a singalong covers act under the name Massaoke. “We’d all been in separate indie bands that had flirted with some kind of success,” says drummer Bat. “We did the first one of these in a pub in Russell Square the day that William and Kate got married. We gave out lyric sheets and just got people together to have a singsong.”

Karaoke increasingly takes up space in leather-boothed rooms in Soho or raucous upstairs rooms in east end pubs, while interest in cover bands also seems to be growing in London. Ten-piece brass band Old Dirty Brasstards regularly treats Londoners to renditions of classic Arctic Monkeys or Oasis albums, while the hugely popular Re:Imagine series brings orchestral versions of seminal albums to the Jazz Café and XOYO: think Dr Dre’s 2001, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. Inspired by Swedish singalong TV show Allsang, Massaoke sits somewhere between the two.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that music fans are turning to smaller versions of big-name shows when standing tickets at the O2 Arena often cost upwards of £60; the Massaoke boys tear it up for a smidgeon of the entry fee, and you’ll still get to hear all your favourite songs. You also get to join in: each song is accompanied by lyrics projected on big screens around the room, karaoke-style.

Tonight, it’s a Christmas-themed show, and it’s sometimes hard to see the stage through all the bobbing Santa hats and reindeer antlers. The energetic band blasts through a medley of Christmas favourites – by Slade, Wham! and Wizzard – before bringing out a guest female soloist to belt out a Mariah Carey tribute. We stomp our way through The Proclaimers and growl out The Pogues, before Bat swaps his drum kit for a handheld snare and plays to a downbeat cover of Little Drummer Boy. Not one person in the room isn’t singing, whether they’re in couples, groups of friends or raucous work outings. It’s rare to see a club venue like Electric Ballroom filled with such an age-diverse range of people, and the unlikely coming together of so many different groups makes the room glow with Christmas spirit.

Massaoke might be a fairly new concept, but congregating to sing together is a natural form of human expression. “Throughout history people have always passed along and borrowed songs,” Bat says. “With Motown they all swapped songs and before that you had songs called standards that everyone knew. This is a returning to something that’s always happened. Getting together in social spaces and having a sing-song is entrenched in every country in the world.”

And despite its name, Massaoke is also popular with people who aren’t into singing karaoke. “Karaoke can be negative because people can find the spotlight difficult,” says Bat. “There’s no spotlight here and people who feel like they can’t sing get the opportunity to do it. There’s no one hogging the mic and it’s about all being together. And when people all sing along it sounds really good.”

The musicians behind Massaoke have just announced that they’ll be holding a singalong residency at Electric Ballroom from March 2020. They’ve also started holding matinees, bringing the phenomenon to an even wider range of ages, and regularly tour in Australia, the US and Europe. It’s plain to see that a mass singalong is, just as Bat says, common to all creeds.

But what does the band do if someone’s too cool to sing along? “We always break them by the end of the night,” Bat laughs. “There’s always a fella who’s been brought along by his partner and he’s stood there crossed arms. But by the end he’s usually the one that’s got his shirt off and waving it around his head from someone’s shoulders.”

Thankfully, no one’s too cool for the festive edition. We leave feeling like we’ve been at the world’s most raucous festive work do. The world seems a little rosier and a bit less disconnected. And that’s a feeling that shouldn’t just be for Christmas.


My First Time: Extinction Training

In the Arctic, shrinking ice sheets are leaving polar bears starving, with nowhere to hunt. 7,000 miles south, Tokyo reels from its worst typhoon in 60 years. Extinction Rebellion protesters are staging a “die in” outside the New York Stock Exchange while on London’s Westminster Bridge, they’re locking arms in defiance of an approaching police line.

Two miles up the road at Gymbox, Farringdon, I’m hyperventilating through an asphyxiation mask that’s strapped to my face.

“It is the year 2050,” the gym trainer shouts, pacing down the row of panting participants, each of us looking like extras in a nuclear fallout dystopia. “Climate change has happened. Do not breathe too fast through your mask – you’ll choke.”

Gymbox is a London-based fitness company that cites “making sweating enjoyable” as its primary goal – and the flagship Farringdon branch goes all out to achieve that. A DJ spins Daft Punk from a booth by the treadmills, while low lighting and industrial design lend the boxing ring a gritty, steampunk vibe. It’s like a nightclub, if all misbehaviour was swapped for weight lifting and cross-training. No wonder London’s trendiest gym has been behind many of the capital’s quirkiest fitness ideas – from a CBD-enhanced stretch class called Cannabliss to Brexfit, in which participants attack a Boris Johnson-printed punchbag. It’s part of a city-wide yearning to ditch the dumbbells in favour of less-boring exercise: think parkour, pole dancing and circus training.

Gymbox’s latest brainchild, Extinction Training, is even more out there. Having launched in Farringdon this month, the hour-long HIIT class aims to emulate the worst-case-scenario of global warming: “scorching heat, restricted air, extreme conditions and lack of water”, according to the description online.

“The idea is that, if we carry on the way we are, this is what the world could be like in 2050,” says the company’s creative director, Rory McEntee. “We increase the temperature of the room to up to 34 degrees. You wear an asphyxiation mask to imagine a world where the air is so poor that you struggle to breathe. We want to raise awareness – all the exercises are based on science, like real rising temperature statistics.”

So far, so dramatic. I head into the class, my imagination whirring with apocalyptic images of barbed wire and contaminated water – as well as an internal debate about using the most pressing matter of our time, climate change, as a marketing tool. Is this a gimmick, or a genuine attempt to raise awareness of the consequences of inaction? We’re already plagued with eco-anxiety: 70% of the UK population wants dramatic governmental action, but we’re set to miss both our 2025 and 2030 targets for cutting emissions. Perhaps taking it out on some gym equipment could be helpful.

In groups of four, we undergo a series of 60-second exercises, from lunges to dumbbell curls, squats to ball slams. Some keep their asphyxiation masks on at all times, while the rest of us slip them on during the minute-long recovery after each set. It’s a well-devised workout, but I haven’t noticed the elevated heat, or thought much about melting icecaps, since the instructor’s brief introduction.

The second half of the class is more unusual. We crawl under a camouflage net into room two, where we each pick up a plastic water container, half-filled with liquid, and run across a squidgy mat as fast as we can (this part aims to draw attention to water shortages and create the sensation of running through water). We spend a minute each on a rowing machine and a spin bicycle, and push a metal frame in the path of an industrial-strength fan, which is meant to replicate the weather extremes of a hurricane. We’re each given a 125ml sachet of “emergency drinking water”, which everybody spills as they tear open the tricky packaging.

I leave with my heart-rate soaring and thigh muscles burning, but I’m not sure I’m any the wiser about climate change, which makes me question the class’s awareness-raising power.

“Our goal is to educate and inspire our members in our own Gymbox way, while giving them a really good workout,” says McEntee. “The feedback I’ve had from members is that it’s fun, and a bit of a wakeup call. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”

When I hear that proceeds from Extinction Training go to Greenpeace, and the water sachets are recyclable, I agree. “We couldn’t put on this class without living and breathing the values behind it,” says McEntee. “It’s inspired the team to make sure we’re doing our bit, and we’ve changed to reusable bags and coffee cups as a result. These may be small things in the business, but we’re not perfect. We’re just asking, how can we inspire our members to make a little bit of a difference?”

The Gymbox social media hashtag is #AnythingGoes. When I first heard about Extinction Training, I cynically agreed. But stepping back out into the cool autumn night, I gaze at the trees and the London streetlights and realise that climate change is on my mind after all – but I’m so packed full of post-exercise endorphins that my eco-anxiety has been replaced by energy. This class isn’t a lecture or a protest, and it’s not meant to be. But if it slips climate change into our general consciousness just a tiny bit more – however vaguely – it’s surely done some good.


Elitist or Empowering? Inside the Women-Only Private Members’ Clubs

A room of one’s own

One street back from the hubbub of Oxford Street is a Georgian townhouse with a Virginia Woolf quote in its window. Step over the threshold and the geometric patterned, pastel-furnished interior is an Instagrammer’s dream come true. Experimental canvases by female artists adorn muted-blue walls, marble fireplaces meet matte-wooden floorboards and a hot-desking space is filled almost entirely by women. Tapping on laptops or gathered in brainstorm circles, they are nearly all in their 30s, impeccably dressed and blow-dried and manicured to perfection from the in-house salon.

Welcome to The AllBright: a private members’ club created for and by women.

Elitism to empowerment

While The AllBright may feel startlingly modern, women’s private members clubs actually date back to the 19th century. The University Women’s Club, which still exists today, was opened in 1886 by some of the first women holding university degrees, in defiance of exclusive gentlemen’s club culture, which was (and still is) big business among London’s aristocratic and political elite.

Decisions with country-wide ramifications have long been made over Old Fashioneds between the wood-panelled walls of White’s and The Garrick Club, despite a wave of female-welcoming members’ clubs, such as The Groucho, opening from the 1980s onwards. Fast forward a decade or two and corduroys and cigars are replaced by slick interior design and MacBooks, at hip social clubs like Soho House and the Hospital Club. 

Their female-centric offshoots serve a different need, having sprung up in the midst of an unprecedented conversation about gendered injustice in the workplace. The AllBright was conceived by its founders, Debbie Wosskow (founder of LoveHomeSwap) and Anna Jones (former CEO of Hearst), in the wake of #MeToo and the Presidents Club Scandal, which saw female hostesses sexually harassed at a men-only gala event. Their mission was two-fold: to create a space for fed-up women that mean business and turn boys’ club culture on its head. 

Having opened on International Women’s Day in 2018, The AllBright already has a valuation of £100 million. As well as providing a positive working environment for women in business and the arts, they regularly host events at their Fitzrovia and Mayfair branches – typically with empowerment or educational themes.

Their success has coincided and intersected with the rise of cowork spaces spearheaded by WeWork, a 400,000 member-strong group that came to London in 2014. But while the free craft beer perks and millennial-friendly décor made WeWork’s fortune, it didn’t serve to disrupt the male-dominated culture of entrepreneurship in the capital – a culture observed by Lu Li, who in 2015 founded female-focused cowork and networking space Blooming Founders, in Shoreditch.

“I moved to London in 2012 and went to a ton of startup events, but they were full of guys,” Li remembers. “I’m from the corporate world and can deal with male-dominated environments, but is that really it?” She began her own meetup group for women entrepreneurs, which reached 1,000 members in less than a year. Li now runs events that are open to all but focus on facilitating business connections between female founders and investors. They take place surrounded by peace lilies and pastel-painted walls, in the serene, Nespresso-fuelled workspace at Blooming Founders.

“We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life”

It’s safe to say there’s a market for this.

The odds are stacked against female entrepreneurs: 70% of them are solo founders, yet for every £1 of venture capital invested in the UK, only 1p goes to female founders. Research consistently points to unconscious gender bias on investor panels holding businesswomen back and the importance of female mentors in shifting the balance.

Enter Sister Snog, a women-only members’ club that, rather than having a bricks-and-mortar base, holds regular lunches and breakfast meetings to facilitate business connections between members. 

“Women and men network in a different way,” claims co-founder Annie Brooks. “In the past, it was old boys’ clubs and networking with a warm glass of chardonnay and a canapé. But get the right kind of women together in a room and they create relationships, uplift each other and work well together.”

Talking to the members, dressed to the nines at Sister Snog’s classy monthly meetup at ME hotel on the Strand, it’s clear they agree – and are directly benefitting from it. “There’s less ego involved among women,” says property developer Claire Norwood. “Everyone within Sister Snog provided the services I needed to launch my business – head shots, website, marketing.”

One members’ club caters to millennial women that are equally interested in swapping stories of backpacking in South America as in building a career. “We’re not a physical club – we hold fashion events, trips abroad, meditation,” explains 28-year-old founder Jae Ruax, who worked on the committee for the Hospital Club before launching Fiena in 2016. “We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life.”

According to Ruax, this does lead to business endeavours, but as a consequence of the club’s social element. “Men have always had these networks, they go play golf and leave with new clients,” she says. “Women have to fight for projects and clients. So we’re turning that on its head.” Fiena offers members discounts at partner venues for a few months at a time, such as Fulham beach bar Neverland and cowork space Uncommon. It’s a modern, less-committal approach to membership.

No boys allowed?

With success comes criticism.

Female-focused clubs have come under fire for excluding men, despite the fact that The AllBright welcomes male guests, Blooming Founders is mixed gender and The Wing (a booming US club due to hit London this summer) is open to all (following a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a man last year). “This isn’t an anti-men move,” Wosskow told the Independent in 2017. “Sometimes women need to be separate to turbocharge their progress.”

It’s been argued, too, that there’s a certain elitism at work. Certainly the fees involved can be eye-watering. Sister Snog’s annual membership starts at £999, Fiena and The AllBright at £750. University Women’s Club fees start at £262, but applicants require a university degree or ‘similar’ and recommendations from two existing members to be considered. Sister Snog and Fiena are selective.

“We have a stringent application process and turn down about 40% of applicants,” says Ruax. As with Sister Snog, being accepted comes down to possessing values deemed in line with the club – but without vigorous criteria, it’s difficult to prove that bias doesn’t tinge the applications process.

Even if membership fees are the only barrier, it has been said that the women in greatest need of business help are financially excluded by default. “There should be something out there for everyone,” agrees Brooks. “And there are lots of free networking events. But to some people, club membership is expensive, while for others, it’s cost effective.”

Plus, within the greater landscape of coworking spaces in London, these clubs are relatively cheap – hot-desking at WeWork costs upwards of £200 per month, whereas desk space at Blooming Founders starts at £30. For Li, the power of women’s members’ clubs comes down to their business sense in addressing a clear gap in the market.

“The AllBright and The Wing aren’t helping all women, but neither am I,” she points out. “You have to pick the customer you are serving and create the best product for them. But we’re so nascent in this process [of addressing inequality]. There are so many things to come.”


My first time: learning to strut

I’m staring at my own face in the mirror, and wondering if I’ve ever truly done it before. Taking in the curve of my eyebrows, the shape of my jaw; noticing my dimples and the pinprick scar on my nose. I’m struggling to remember the last time I contemplated my reflection without seeing it through a prism of self-judgement.

“I am beautiful,” Madam Storm cries, and I repeat it after her. “I am enough. I am a woman. I am here.”

I’d signed up to the STRUT masterclass expecting to learn how to walk in heels like a boss, but things just got real. Female confidence coach Madam Storm uses six-inch stilettos as a tool to get women not just strutting their stuff, but owning their space – physically and psychologically. In Vauxhall’s BASE dance studios, 30 of us – from our early 20s to middle age, and from all walks of life – are sizing up our fishnet stocking-clad, stilettoed selves in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. We’re starting to realise that really, really looking at yourself (in any context that doesn’t involve make-up brushes and spanx) is not an easy thing to do. But then again, neither is sultrily sauntering towards a group of strangers, running your fingers through your hair and over your waist in a manner you’d possibly not even attempt in your own bedroom.

STRUT is one of a growing number of London-based empowerment classes of this kind. Pineapple Dance Studios have their own popular strut class (Strutology) while, on a similar tack, Ruby Rare runs sex-positive workshops for grown-ups. Tantra Dating and partnered yoga are also gaining popularity. London’s getting sexier, and exploring the idea that owning your sensuality means more than giving your sex life a boost.

Not many people would be able to get me to publicly perform a sexy catwalk. But within the first five minutes of STRUT, it’s clear that Madam Storm has a special gift for creating a safe, empowering environment that glows with sisterhood. We stand in a circle and introduce ourselves, clapping reassuringly at each other’s backstories. One woman has just begun chemotherapy. Another is going through a bad break up. Others are there to celebrate a birthday. All are just as keen to support each other as Madam Storm is.

“In this class, we don’t say ‘yes’,” our teacher begins, dressed in a black leotard, over-the-knee velvet boots and a jaunty trilby. “We say ‘YAAASSSS, HONEY’.”

Over the next three hours, we learn six different ‘struts’ – styles of walking in heels that get progressively racier. Madam Storm eases us in with the ‘power strut’. “Every day when you walk out of the house, you’re on stage,” she tells us. “So put your phone away and own it. Core engaged, shoulders back, tits UP.”

We do just that, before learning variations: walking with our hands firmly planted on our waists, or swaying our hips for a sassier effect. It all comes with positive affirmations, led by Madam Storm, to a Beyoncé backing track. “I am powerful!” I shout as I stride towards my reflection, all hips, heels and hair flicks. “I am perfect.” I’m well aware of how hard I’d cringe saying these things in any other context – and increasingly aware of how that might be a problem.

We take a prosecco break halfway through, before things are taken up a notch. We repeat positive affirmations to our mirror reflections before trying out more seductive struts, which involve slowly running our hands over our necks, hips and thighs as we walk.

“The first thing you need to do to turn someone else on, is to turn yourself on,” says Madam Storm. “Don’t be afraid to touch yourself.” “I’m not!” shouts out one of the strutters, to much hilarity. Together, we explore our more sensual sides to soulful RnB, each woman’s strut met with enthusiastic whoops of applause.

But there’s one final challenge before we can kick off our stilettos (and we’re all starting to feel the burn). Madam Storm grabs a megaphone and, in pairs, we power strut outside to the Albert Embankment. A trio of drunk, older men leer at us from the next-door Wetherspoons, but there’s power in numbers and not one of us bats an eyelid. “What other people think of me is NONE OF MY BUSINESS!” we scream, in unison. Madam Storm holds the megaphone to my lips and I call out, “I am powerful,” into the grey, drizzly breeze. I’m finally starting to believe it. And I’m not the only one.

“Today has been really empowering,” says one strutter as we arrive back at the studio. “This is my third time going through breast cancer and looking at yourself in the mirror is really difficult. It’s not something you do when you have a cancer diagnosis.”

It’s a sentiment shared by others in the room. “I’ve had a lot of surgery and through that process I felt like I’d become disengaged with my femininity,” says another participant. “This is getting me back in touch with who I am.”

It takes courage to walk tall, especially in the face of life’s most earth-shattering curveballs. My afternoon at STRUT has left me in awe of the strength shown by these women. In their honour, I keep my heels on, and power strut to the Tube to begin my Saturday night. Shoulders back, core engaged, tits up. What other people think of me is none of my business.

Follow Madam Storm on Eventbrite here to be the first to know when more tickets go on sale.  


Meet the female DJs equalising the gender balance

At the front of the room, a long table supports a set of Pioneer DJ decks. Behind them are six women, joined by a string of headphone cables. Five listen intently as DJ Malissa, at the centre, demonstrates the basics of EQing – the art of balancing frequencies to smoothly mix tracks. A looped house beat echoes around the cavernous warehouse, bouncing off the polished concrete floors and whitewashed brick walls. It’s dark, save for colourful spotlights around the decks, and it feels like at any moment, the doors could open and the floor could flood with clubbers.

It’s the second session of a four-night, women-only DJ course taught at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, by the founders of Sisu, techno DJs Melissa Kains and Lauren Reid – or Malissa and Lauryn Harper, as they go by on stage. Melissa founded the female DJ collective two years ago, following a women-led mixing course that she organised at the Southbank Centre in January 2017, where she met Lauren.

 “At the end we were like, we don’t want this to end,” says Lauren. “We thought, what if we made this a collective and did our own events? We could really punch through the scene and create a platform for women.” With Melissa at the helm, the group of women from the Southbank course did just that.

It coincided with a growing conversation at the time about gender imbalance in the music industry. Red Bull Studios launched a series of #NormalNotNovelty workshops for women engineers, DJs and producers in early 2017. Female-led DJ collectives began to spring up across London; non-binary record label Femme Culture launched in 2016 and female-led radio station Foundation FM was set up last November.

Drum and bass DJ and producer Mantra kickstarted 2018 with a New Year’s Resolution to book more female and black artists at Rupture – the night she runs with her husband Double O – noting that at 2017’s three biggest drum and bass festivals in the UK, 416 male DJs performed compared to just six female artists.

“Mantra opened the doors to what was bubbling under the surface,” says Sweetpea, a drum and bass DJ who participates in female-led workshops held by EQ50. “Female collectives create a safe space to learn tips and tricks about the industry, and do production showcases where you can bring in your tunes and get feedback. I probably wouldn’t go to a production showcase otherwise, because I’d be nervous asking questions. But when you’re around women it’s more chill.”

For Melissa, the need for Sisu came from her own difficulties in finding an environment to learn and practice in. “I’d been trying to develop as a DJ since the age of 17 and still wasn’t very confident,” she says. “I was around a lot of guys, essentially, and I only got to DJ at after parties doing a couple of songs. People were like, ‘you can’t DJ, get off’. But I was just learning. There was no space where someone would say, this is what you do. When you’re demeaned in that way, it knocks your confidence massively.”

Lauren had always loved electronic music, but before she saw the Southbank course advertised, she’d never considered DJing. “I’d been raving since I was 17 and I’d always watched male DJs – but never put two and two together. You have to see someone like you do it,” she says. “The first day of the course I was terrified, even to show people my music or to say that I wanted to DJ. I felt this deep, cringey feeling.”

That feeling, according to the Sisu tutors, stems from a general sense that DJ spaces are built by men, for men – sometimes literally. “I’m five foot two,” laughs Lauren. “DJ booths come up to my shoulders. These little things can make you feel flustered and skew your performance.”

Chatting to the girls on the course, it’s clear that this kind of imposter syndrome can put them off from getting involved in the scene – showing how invaluable initiatives like these are. “When it’s a female space, it just feels like you’re hanging out,” one participant tells me. “It’s easy to feel like your questions are a bit stupid when there are guys there too.” Any nerves or self-deprecation brought to the class are met with down-to-earth understanding, and there’s not a trace of ego in the room.

Sisu has taught around 50 women so far in DJing 101 – from sourcing and selecting tracks, to the technicalities of using software to mix, and marketing and promotion – in London, Bristol, Berlin and, next week, in Newcastle. Also running nights, radio shows and mix series, they’re part of a rising visibility of female DJs, and women DJs of colour, on the London club scene. Helena Hauff and Honey Dijon are both about to headline London superclubs, while Peggy Gou recently sold out Fabric and The Black Madonna and Josey Rebelle are regular fixtures on house and techno line-ups. It points to a growing global shift. Pitchfork reported that in 2018, female representation on international festival line-ups rose to 19% from 14% in 2017.

“People are starting to understand why more female talent is needed, and they’re starting to be held accountable, which is sometimes what it takes,” says Lauren. “But there’s so much more work that needs to be done. People with power and privilege need to open the door for those whose voices are unheard.”

How could we speed up the process? “A rise in female producers would be amazing,” says Melissa. “Programmers, engineers – more equalisation across the board.” Important as their visibility is, it’s not enough to see women purely on stage. It’s clear that equal representation must take place behind the scenes to ensure diversity is on the agenda at every level, ultimately creating a clubbing scene that works for everybody.

“Eventually, it would be nice if we didn’t have to have these conversations anymore,” Lauren smiles. “But if we’re one little piece of the puzzle, and what we’ve put into the world has resonated with a few people or has helped them, then that’s the point.”