Mami Slut is one of the only dance parties in Mexico City with a mission of "desculonialization," the liberation of culos with Latin beats. Since it was started a year and a half ago by DJ Travieza (Jovan Israel) and La Mendoza, the monthly celebration at Bahia Bar has become a premier gathering point for queer folks looking for a safe space to grind to reggaeton, cumbia, dembow, and basically anything other than the house music and Madonna songs that dominate the city's gay parties.
Like many of the revelers who come to the celebration, La Mendoza and DJ Travieza are artists who push boundaries with their creativity. La Mendoza identifies as a "travestí," a word reclaimed by activists that embodies an anti-colonial spirit and rejects Western gender constructs. When La Mendoza's not turning up at Mami Slut, she's designing clothes and teaching people how to vogue. DJ Travieza, on the other hand, is well known for his genderqueer drawings. When he DJs, it's almost always in drag. The two often coordinate their outfits, from candy-colored wigs in Sailor Moon–style buns, ripped fishnets, and wild décolletage to imprudent heels worn with carefully, hyperbolically lacquered pouts.
Their emphasis on style has spread to the attendees and helped turn Mami Slut's dance floor into a runway. Kitty ears, studded dog collars, and several dance partners at once are all popular accessories. Drag queens and twinks come out in full force to pay the 50 peso ($2.61) cover. Still, a large percentage of Mami's attendees are straight girls, who feel free to body roll without the persistent male douchebaggery they face at other local reggaeton parties. Travieza and La Mendoza are not the kind of people who would discourage this—their resident DJs Mataputos and Rosa Pistola project a distinct girls-first atmosphere.
Some might say that gender equality on the dance floor won't change the world. But I know that having a positive, communal space like Mami Slut can change someone's life, because it changed mine. At Mami Slut, I'm a better, more brazen, and somehow more gracious version of myself.
I remember one recent night when my friends lifted me onstage for the party's monthly twerk contest, which had a prize of 250 pesos (approximately $13.30 USD). I was wearing a long blue wig and an ominously short dress. Right when I hit the stage, I assumed the perreo position. The competition eventually came down to a final round between my ample hips and a boy whose rock hard six pack fought for attention with his piston-like go-go moves. I'm not going to lie, the kid was athletic. But don't believe what they tell you about potheads having weak lungs: My cheering section went hard.
In the end, Travieza had a difficult time judging the crowd's winner from the screams of the audience. It didn't seem fair that the Mami Slut crowd was going to have to decide between me and the go-go guy, two visions of perreo perfection. So I leaned over to my dance foe, put my mouth next to his ear, and asked, "What if we tied?" Go-go babe's eyes lit up, and he grabbed the microphone. "We're going to share the prize!" he shouted. The crowd squealed triumphantly. We were the conquerors of the night, our hang-ups, and reggaeton gender essentialists. Thanks for sharing the love Mami Slut, air kisses, and perreo duro para ti, siempre.
Scroll down for more photos of Mami Slut by Erin Lee Holland.
Like many Americans, I spent my St. Patrick's Day celebrating my Irish heritage by getting embarrassingly drunk in public. Unlike the rest of you, I abstained from the usual Irish pub bar crawl circuit and instead spent the holiday exclusively at the alcohol-serving 24-hour Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas.
Why choose this location for my holiday revelry? Two reasons: One, I've wanted an excuse to go there since it opened last fall. News and social media posts about the location made it seem like some sort of nightclub and, as a Taco Bell diehard who occasionally enjoys a bit of nightlife, this could very well be my pilgrimage to Mecca. Two, why the hell not?
In my Uber Pool over to the two-story flagship in the middle of the Vegas strip, both the driver and other passengers remarked on how excited they were for me after I shared my plans for the evening. None had been before but had all heard the legends on social media, and were all kelly green with envy that I'd be spending my St. Patty's there.
Once at the location, I quickly assessed that this "Taco Bell club" I'd been hearing about for months was definitely not a club. It felt much like a regular Taco Bell, but with a DJ. Still, a fun, thumping EDM mix was blaring from the speakers and the crowd seemed pretty spirited for so early in the evening so I pushed aside all the preconceived notions I had about the place, got in line to order, and started my night.
My first drink was a Mountain Dew Baja Blast Freeze with tequila in it. It's supremely validating to see a concoction you've been whipping up at home for years make it to the big time with corporate's blessing. Because I planned on having a few of these over the course of the night, I splashed out extra to get it in an obnoxiously large plastic cyclone souvenir thing for the sake of refillability.
I explored the premises and mentally mapped out what was to be my domain for the remainder of the night. It didn't take long. The first floor was an outdoor patio area and an open-floor ordering and waiting space with some merch racks. The second floor had a seating area, the DJ, and restroom.
I spoke with the DJ and learned his name was Tony Sinatra and he'd been DJing for 18 years before winding up at Taco Bell. He seemed pretty happy with the freedom he was given, noting that as long as he kept profanity out of the music, he pretty much had carte blanche to do what he wanted.
"You play to the crowd and time of night," said Sinatra. "I find some fun remixes so it's not too Top 40. And trap usually gets everyone going."
I finished my Freeze in worryingly short time and made my way back downstairs for a refill and some food. The cashier informed me that my assumption about refills was incorrect and I'd have to purchase another dumb plastic tube cup if I wanted another large Freeze. Fucking the environment, I threw away my souvenir cup and ordered a lemonade and blue raspberry Freeze with tequila.
Cheesy Bacon Jalapeño Dippers were also ordered so I wouldn't be drinking all night on an empty stomach. The dippers were part of the location's exclusive "shareables" menu section. As I was alone, I did not share mine, but had I been with company I still wouldn't have shared because I am a gluttonous American and portions are a made up construct anyway.
Now with a little liquid courage in me, I began chatting up guests to see why they, like I, were spending their St. Patty's in a fast food chain.
"We take an annual trip to Vegas each St. Patty's," said a representative from a bachelorette party visiting from Sacramento. "This place has been all over social media. We had to check it out."
"We're not spending it here. We're just eating, bro," said Antoine, a friendly guy visiting from San Diego who was dancing around the patio.
I flagged down the store's manager, Darren, to see if he'd answer a few questions for me about the place.Darren told me that the place gets pretty wild in the wee hours after the clubs shut down. He also told me about their plan to start offering $600 wedding packages. Couples would exchange vows in front of the light-up bells on the second floor. I never got an answer as to whether or not the company would be getting their hot sauce packet mascot certified as a justice of the peace for these events.
Now a few hours into the night and during a lull where everyone was presumably out at their actual plans for the night, I was scrounging for things to hold my attention. I frantically paced the building. I noticed a table with a reclaimed wood surface that said "In a previous life, I held up the floors of a legendary department store that was built in 1888 in San Antonio, Texas." The legend must not be that great, however, because when I asked Darren for more info about the department store, all he seemed to know was that it was based in San Antonio and built in 1888. This was the most interesting thing I could find in the restaurant.
I was beginning to think that, in spite of the social media hype, maybe a Taco Bell that's also a club might not actually be all that fun a place to spend an entire night.
I ordered another Freeze. I planned to only order from the same cashier for the rest of the night and try to build some sort of rapport as the night was starting to get a bit lonely. Vegas isn't exactly a town meant for solo missions. I told her dealer's choice and she gave me a margarita and cherry Freeze. It tasted better than it sounds.
I ordered a green beer and a taco just as a rambunctious crew entered. I enjoyed those while watching the boys rain singles down on the crowd from the second floor. They ran out of ones and switched to throwing napkins off the mezzanine, which Darren seemed none-too-pleased with. Everyone (except me and Darren) seemed to be having a good time with their friends.
Near midnight, my boredom and loneliness were at their zeniths and my phone battery was dwindling. The luck baked into the Irish part of my DNA really came through, however, as I was greeted with an "UBER GUY!" from across the floor. The people from my ride over had decided to come try the Cantina out for themselves and check in on me.
Fully drunk by this point, I was beyond elated to see the couple, Holly and Michael, who might as well have been my best friends in the world at that moment. We shot the shit while they waited for their order and I did my best to not come off like a crazy person, despite their being fully aware that I'd just spent all night in a Taco Bell.
I left a little bit later once being drunk and with company was no longer fun, hopping in the Uber back to my hotel right as my phone died. Would I return to the Taco Bell club that isn't actually a club? Sure, someday. But probably with some people and for like, five less hours.
Enfemme is an organization in Barcelona that offers a safe space for cross-dressers, transvestites, and trans women. It's unique in that it's mostly focused on cross-dressers, although anyone is welcome to stop by for help or advice, which stretches from make-up classes and "walking in heels" workshops, to psychological support offered in conjunction with Transit—a Catalan public health service for trans people—and counseling sessions for married couples.
Writers and photographers David Simón Martret and Blanca Galindo started stopping by Enfemme in the summer of 2016 to document the people and their relationships within the organization. They went to the weekly Thursday meetings and to events held outside the safety of the organization's headquarters—like lunches on the beach, the annual Christmas dinner, and the tenth anniversary party.
There they met cross-dressing people from across the gender-identity spectrum and spoke to some of them about wearing women's clothing for the first time and how their lives have been ever since they started.
"The first time I felt the need to uncover Rebecca was when I was at a friend's house—I tried on one of her dresses and felt butterflies in my stomach. I would love to be her all the time, but I only get to be her on weekends. It's impossible for me to be her at work or when I'm with family. Rebecca makes me happy, like I'm in a cloud. Only four of my closest friends know her and they accept me as I am.
"I try to live in this duality the best way I can. I have been coming to Emfemme since the summer of 2016 to find stability and respect from all the girls here. My temperament is sweeter when I see myself as a girl—I feel I can open myself up more to other people. I feel I can be myself."
"I lived with this secret for years but when I was 37 I couldn't hide it from my partner and the mother of my children any longer. I'm still living a dual life, which isn't fun, but you learn to live it. A lot of people around me know that Monica is the real me and I care less and less what people think. I don't get to be her all the time but I never lose sight of who I actually am, regardless of what I'm wearing.
"My social circle is very small outside of Enfemme. My family knows, understands, and accepts it, and I have a couple of good old friends who are completely on board. One friend especially doesn't care at all what I'm wearing—she always talks to me woman to woman.
"It's important for me to meet people in the same position to go through life with. When I first came here, I needed help, and the people at Enfemme gave it to me. Now my own experience can help other people. I would like society to be truly tolerant and non-binary so that people who feel like I do—or who simply divert from the norm—don't have to suffer to be who they are."
Malena (left) with friend Arlette
"Cross-dressing keeps me sane. My female part is always with me, even when I dress like a man. I started cross-dressing in 2006, in the privacy of my own home, while having a martini. At first just from the waist down—stockings, garter belt, heels, panties. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt very sexy. The make-up came later.
"I remember how, when I was cross-dressing at home, I would sometimes come out on the balcony late at night and feel so free because I could feel the air on my skin. When someone told me about Enfemme I called the organization and immediately knew we were speaking the same language.
"Living a dual life fits me perfectly. I love that there's a woman inside me who emerges occasionally. Being her and bringing her out with these clothes makes me feel free and euphoric. When I walk in heels I'm transported into this fantasy world where everything is possible and no one criticizes you for your choices.
"I don't want to decide—I am very clear about my sexuality. I'm a cross-dresser. I'm not interested in hormone therapy, surgery, or getting breasts. I just happen to find pleasure in changing from time to time. Outside of Enfemme people around me rarely understand that I just like being sexy and feminine. I hope someday everybody can live the way they want without hurting each other. I hope we'll stop labeling people as much as we're doing now."
"I would never change the way I am. I like living in this orderly chaos. When I was a child I was completely comfortable with the identity assigned to my gender. It wasn't until I was older that I first started getting in touch with my female side. At first I only did it when it was socially acceptable, like at costume parties. When I was about 24 I realized I needed to embrace the ambiguity of my gender.
"I'm a boy most of the time—at my workplace, with family, with some friends. I'm not uncomfortable; there are even moments when Paula does not exist in me. But when I have time to think, Paula appears in different forms. Paula gives me knowledge about myself and I have experiences that wouldn't have occurred otherwise. Through Paula I've seen more vulnerable sides of people, which has led me to having more sincere friendships. There are people who have only seen me as a girl, others who have seen both sides, and others who only know my male part. It's really staggering how differently people respond to you just because of your clothing; it's weird how a certain dress code is assigned to a certain gender.
"Within my family, only my brother knows. I can talk normally about it with him but it would be too painful to see the look of disappointment in my mother's or my friends' eyes if they knew. It's a very tough personal struggle for me. Gender roles are a social construct that assigns behavioral roles and rules to people. But what does it mean to be male or female? Institutions like Enfemme are so important; we need more of them in Spain—there are still too many people hiding just because they don't have the tools to express themselves freely."
Growing up in southwest London in the 1980s, my alcohol and drug use was not abnormal. I must have started drinking at 14, because it was at that age I got a criminal record for causing a road accident after too many lagers. At secondary school, we sniffed Tippex from our sweater sleeves, smoked Embassy and Rothmans at lunch, and had the odd aerosol whiff at the local rec. At college, it was stoned chess marathons, LSD, and mushrooms among the trees and some heavy drinking at punk gigs.
Is this weird behavior for today's teenagers? Is "Generation Z," the 12- to 22-year-olds of 2017, getting more or less high than kids in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s? Is Britain headed for another generation of intoxicated debauchery, or one of puritanical sanctuary?
Go solely off what the media tells you, and it's hard to know what to think. There's been a steady drip of articles stating that teenagers are over alcohol—that being a teen today is the same as joining a sanctimonious monk-cult, obsessed with organic food and extreme yoga. Yet, turn the page, and teenage ecstasy deaths are spiraling, laughing gas and Spice are all over the schoolyard, and British girls are the drunkest people in the world.
On the surface, all the conditions are there for a rise in drug use. Illegal drugs are more widely available, online and on the street, than ever before. They are more socially acceptable, and the punishments for using them are less severe. But it's just not happening. All the evidence shows that smoking, drinking, and drug use have taken a long-term nosedive. In the mid 1980s, 55 percent of 11- to 15-year-olds had smoked a cigarette, and 62 percent had drunk alcohol. Today, 18 percent have smoked a cigarette, and 38 percent have drunk alcohol. The proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who have ever used an illegal drug has halved since 2001, from 29 percent to 15 percent.
It's a similar story among those in their late teens and early 20s. In the history books of the future, 1998 will likely be known as the peak point of illegal drug use among young people in Britain. Back then, when everyone was rich and listening to Britpop, 31.8 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds had taken an illegal drug. Yet, by 2016, mainly down to a gradual drop in cannabis use, that figure had fallen to 18 percent. Despite experiencing a revival since 2012, current cocaine and MDMA use is down from peaks in 2008 and 2001, respectively. And as with the general population, drugs such as amphetamines, hallucinogens, and poppers are all now minority sports among teenagers.
So what's going on here? Why are young people, historically key consumers in the drug trade, foregoing drugs and alcohol?
In search of an answer, I spoke to Chloe Combi. A writer and former secondary school teacher, she interviewed 2,000 teenagers for her 2015 book Generation Z. She spoke to them about sex, relationships, family, school, crime, and health, and how these issues intertwined with drugs. Combi gained a unique insight into what makes the Snapchat generation tick.
First up, she wants to dispel the myth of all young people being sober and boring. "I don't think suddenly we've gone from teenagers being massive party animals to everyone sitting around at home drinking chamomile tea. Drink and drugs are still a prevalent part of teenage life," she says. "For example, there are a lot of upper class kids really into cocaine now. Private schools have a big problem with it. Equally, smoking weed is still appealing to a wide group of kids. It's affordable, accessible, it's integral to a lot of gaming and estate culture."
Even so, Combi's interviews give some pointers as to why drink and drugs are increasingly being rejected. Two decades of hardcore anti-drugs, anti-smoking, and anti-alcohol education has done its job, she says. "The biggest influence on kids are other kids," she says. "It's not uncool to say, 'I don't take drugs or drink.' It's perfectly acceptable now."
She noticed a contrast to her own school days in the 1990s. "If you were a 15-year-old lad in the 90s, you worshipped Liam Gallagher. Now, you worship Ed Sheeran. I remember the big coke thing with Britpop when I was at school, and I don't think there's that Loaded-style glamour attached to drugs anymore."
In Combi's book, many of the references to drugs are not about the kids' own drug taking, but the often problematic drinking and drug use of their parents. It's acted as a warning to the younger generation: Many have been scared off by the role models in their own homes.
"It was something that came up time and time again. From north to south, hundreds of the kids said they were worried about their parents drinking habits," she says. "Loads of them said their parents drank far too much, from problem drinking through to being full-on alcoholics."
Photo by Jake Lewis
Smartphones have also played their part. On top of an already shrinking number of places where teenagers can meet up and have fun, smartphones have increased what she terms "isolated socializing," which leads to less drinking and drug taking. But one of the most crucial impacts on levels of drink and drug use, says Combi, is that social media has created a whole new level of vanity. "We live in a society that is becoming more vain and image conscious. It's like, don't take drugs, eat kale. Teenagers are thinking that if they don't drink and take drugs, if they sit at home drinking green smoothies and meditating, they'll be beautiful and have really shiny hair." And shiny hair looks great on Instagram.
Most influential, according to Combi, is a social paranoia that has been ramped up by smartphones. Generation Z's social circles are not just a group of friends, but a potential swarm of teenage paparazzi, with even fewer morals than the professionals.
"With everything kids do being filmed, they are very aware that being caught wasted on camera isn't a good look. So it's put people off. There is a culture of drink and drug shaming in the media, and this social embarrassment has filtered down to kids. If they get wasted at a party, the likelihood is that it will end up on Instagram or Snapchat. Kids have always been cruel, and most kids who see someone passed out on the floor having wet themselves are going to take a picture."
Teenagers I spoke to backed this up. Emma, a 16-year-old from Surrey, told me that her friends are way more wary than boys of how getting wasted can backfire on your public image. "Being out of control, throwing up, and becoming disheveled are all things that girls tend to try very hard to avoid in order to seem attractive."
Many of the teenagers I spoke to said they were too preoccupied to get high, not just with social media, but with the task of making headway in an increasingly competitive landscape. It was something Combi repeatedly found in her interviews. "There is no luxury of time—everything is pressurised; it's focused on results and what are you going to do with your life," she told me. "The days of stumbling into jobs that are cool are long gone. It's completely changed the face of university. Once upon a time, if you wanted to go to university for three years and piss it up the wall, so what. But now, if you're going to leave with a bunch of debt, you're gong to use those three years carefully."
Even in the last decade, there has been a perceptible change. Since coming to London eight years ago, Hannah, 26, has noticed a difference. "Compared to when I was 18, it's much more normal to go out and not drink, or to have six months off drinking. It's almost as socially acceptable to say you're not drinking as drinking. With drugs, young people are more aware of their mental health, so instead of wanting to get obliterated, sometimes there's more awareness there and self-consciousness."
So is this downturn a blip for an island nation with a reputation as a breeding ground for partiers? Or are drink and drugs likely to go the same way as cigarettes, which experts predict will be virtually obsolete among teenagers within the next 20 years?
"As people become more educated and health conscious, this sort of trend will continue," says Combi. "Having said that, I don't think the world is becoming a happier place by any stretch of the imagination. People need forms of escapism for what's going on around them. But drink and drugs are also about pleasure, and whatever happens, people will always want to party."
Emma says that, for her, the best way of escaping the pressures of "this world that is waiting for us, the world that supposedly at our feet" is by studying, not by getting drunk and high like previous generations.
"In areas like mine, parents are becoming more and more invested in their children's lives," she suggests. "But we've grown up watching their lives, seeing the exhaustion and discontent they breed as well as the living-for-the-weekend mentality—so we've been forced to look for something else. Excess drinking and drugs do not have a place in the lives that teenagers are living anymore; there's just too much to do."
Maybe it was because I'd just hit 15, or perhaps it was a direct result of the show, but when Skins came out in 2007, the house parties I'd been going to changed. Where they had previously involved drinking a bottle of Jacob's Creek stolen from your mom and hopefully getting fingered behind a sofa, they suddenly escalated to the point where people were doing coke and having actual full sex, very badly, surrounded by K-holing kids from schools other than my own.
We might not have been as hot as Tony Stonem or Cassie Ainsworth, and rural England wasn't as cool as Bristol—where, according to Skins, 17-year-olds can tick three ounces of "spliff" off legitimate drug traffickers—but everyone there was cut from the same cloth, or at least aspiring to be.
The E4 show, which premiered a decade ago today, made Britain's teenage parties look sexy, sweaty, and confident in a way TV had never really attempted before, let alone succeeded in doing. And radically, while asterisking the potential dangers and aftereffects of drugs, the show made using substances look like a lot of fun. While it wasn't without its cringy moments, it also wasn't Hollyoaks, where characters got "addicted" to weed and smashed up gravestones; it was as close as any show had come to representing how teenagers really use drugs.
Naturally, out of that first season came the phenomenon of "Skins parties"—house parties that aspired to be every bit as nasty as those on the show and in its ads: an American Apparel look-book made flesh, with just as much nudity, lots more vodka, and a fist full of pills.
For some, the term "Skins party" was pure irony; a knowing nod to the fact you'd bought some MDMA for a house party and that there would probably be some dickhead there waving glow sticks about. But for many, it became part of the common lexicon. The infamous party thrown at Rachael Bell's house, in which 200 people turned up and caused like $30,000 worth of damage, was advertised online as having a Skins theme. So, of course, the tabloids picked up on this and jumped on the idea of cause and effect: that British teenagers had suddenly ramped up their partying because they'd been directly inspired by the casual sex and drug use they saw on Skins.
Of course, this is slightly ridiculous: Teenagers have been having sex and doing drugs for decades. But you could argue that the show exposed a generation of underage small-towners to the kind of party culture they might not have encountered until university. Either way, the term is now immortalized on Urban Dictionary as "a huge party in someone's house where nearly everything is broke, lots of people are having sex and almost everyone is either drunk or drugged up," and that "self consciously aspires to be infamous, preferably on the evening news."
This was the era in which social media was really starting to come into its own, and it was via Myspace that all those kids heard about Rachel Bell's party, flocking to her home in a town near Sunderland from as far afield as London and Liverpool. Seven police vehicles, including a dog van, turned up to find "yobs" having sex in every room and curtains ripped down from windows. As Bell's mother, Elaine, put it dramatically to the Daily Mail: "The house has been raped. Every carpet's burned where they've stomped out cigarettes. They've urinated in wardrobes, pulled my clothes out and stubbed cigarettes on them. The beds have burns, food has been smeared everywhere, and messages scrawled all over the walls."
After being arrested and released on police bail while a criminal damage inquiry was underway, Bell's defense was that her Myspace account had been hacked and that someone else had posted the open invitation.
Another infamous "Skins party" started out as a quiet "get-together" advertised by four female students from Bournemouth, and ended up being attended by more than 300 guests, who vandalized the house and took part in "alfresco urination," according to the Telegraph. The party got so out-of-hand that one quick-thinking entrepreneur set up a stall selling alcohol in the middle of the road. It was broken up by 20 police officers and an air-support helicopter. Which is nothing, really, compared to the "Roman-style orgy" at a house in Sussex the week before, which ended with teens drugging the family dog.
It wasn't long before the trend made it overseas. By 2009, French students were going to "Skins parties" described as the "craziest thing in French nightlife, where girls are loose and drugs roam free." Except, by this point, they had become more legitimate club nights than parties that destroyed people's homes—a phrase promoters tacked onto posters and Facebook event pages to imply their parties would be decent. A "Dance Until You Drop" for the Myspace generation.
They were rowdy versions of new rave fancy dress nights in Oceana or Coalition, full of European frat boys and girls wearing neon glasses and hot pants. "Authorities are keeping tabs on them, sponsors are showing up, top DJs are part of the line-up and there is tighter security," one 19-year-old French student told a publication at the time. "I'd say there was too much security; at the last one I went to they were kicking out people who rolled joints."
Crucially, though, minors weren't allowed into these nights, defeating the beauty of what happened on TV, in a show that explored what teens too young to go to clubs or bars do to escape.
Looking back at Skins on the tenth anniversary of its first episode, it's hard to say what long-term effects it had on partying. Since 2007, going out in the UK has become both more expensive and just more difficult to do, thanks to the closure of half the country's nightclubs, so young people are undoubtedly staying in and more and more, and bringing the party to them. That said, to me, it's not since the mephedrone craze of 2009 and 2010 that UK house parties really felt like the debauched nights in that Skins featured in its season one ads.
What's certain, though, is that there's been no British teen drama that's caught the attention of the average suburban 15-year-old in the same way since. It wasn't the best written show, and it wasn't, by many people's standards, an exceptionally brilliant program altogether, but the only thing that's come close to achieving what it did in the past decade is The Inbetweeners and its bumbling troupe of middle-class virgins. Four guys who represented a very different type of teenage experience.
Skins, on the other hand, taught a very specific type of Bombay Bicycle Club–loving, NME-reading British teenager how to party, and for that, I doubt it will be forgotten anytime soon.
"I remember one party where I must have had sex with about 30 people," says Denholm, a beautiful young gay man reminiscing about his chemsex days. "There was this box of toys... I'm not even that into sex toys, but off my face on m-cat I found myself gradually increasing and increasing the size. Then I woke up the next day, took another look, and was like, 'How the fuck did I get that in there?' I probably wouldn't have done that without the mephedrone."
Dear old mephedrone. M-cat, drone, bubble, "meow meow"—the formerly legal high that nobody bar tabloid journalists actually called "meow meow." The white powder that smells faintly of cat piss, defined the UK's party scene from 2008 to 2010 and caused a media hysteria that kickstarted the process of the government banning all psychoactive substances..
In 2010, the drug was the fourth most popular among British clubbers; it's now used almost exclusively on the gay chemsex circuit, thanks to its chemical aphrodisiac qualities and the fact it keeps you awake and alert. So where did it come from and how did it fall so out of favor?
The active agent in mephedrone is a form of cathinone, a substance that occurs naturally in khat, the mildly stimulative root chewed all over the Horn of Africa. The exponentially stronger "substituted cathinone" molecule in mephedrone was re-synthesized in 2003 by the legendary Israeli underground chemist Dr. Zee, but the explosion in drone's popularity in the late 2000s was down to a different source altogether: the war on drugs itself.
In June 2008, Cambodian authorities seized and destroyed 33 tons of Safrole, a key precursor chemical in MDMA. This quantity was enough to produce around 245 million ecstasy pills, so its seizure had huge reverberations throughout the international drugs market. In 2009, the purity of ecstasy sold in the UK plummeted from roughly 60 percent to 22 percent. In 2010, almost all the ecstasy seized in the UK contained no MDMA at all. At the same time, the quality of cocaine was running at historical lows.
This pretty much set the scene for mephedrone—a drug described by most users as feeling like a mixture of MDMA and coke, and which people could order cheaply and easily off the internet because it was completely legal, sold as "plant food" on sites with names like legalchems.co.uk, or plantfoodbuzz.com. No surprises, then, that people went nuts for it.
"The summer of 2009 was pretty insane," says Andre, a former mephedrone enthusiast. "That stuff was everywhere. It made your body feel crazy and tingly, and gave you these really intense rushes of energy. And obviously made you horny as fuck."
During the period Andre describes, it seemed like every club, house party, and festival in Britain was awash with the stuff. Maybe because it was legal people were less shy about chopping up lines in public—but throughout that year, where previously one would have seen clubbers shuffling around with great difficulty after taking too much ketamine, you now had super energized, loved-up drone-heads bouncing around in their own personal rush zone.
This presented an opportunity for amateur dealers. I spoke to Josh, who put himself through two years of college by selling m-cat out of his apartment in south London. "Me and my mate used to buy it online in bulk from Nanjing, China, for about $5 a gram, then just go from house party to house party and sell it for around $20 a gram after hours, when people had run out and wanted a bit more," he says. "People just loved it. It started out as just other students in London, but soon it was guys coming in from the suburbs or Kent for a night out. It paid my rent for a year, and I went on a bunch of holidays, always paying cash."
The explosion of this new legal high had various knock-on effects, most noticeably the unprecedented drop in deaths from cocaine use. Neil Woods, who worked as an undercover drugs cop for 14 years, tracked the phenomenon closely. "As a police drugs expert I followed the stats and the intel. The only year since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that cocaine deaths have actually fallen is the year that mephedrone was at its most popular, 2009," he says. "Cathinone is far less toxic than street cocaine, and mephedrone was generally weighing in at 99.8 percent pure, whereas the average 20 percent pure cocaine had as many as 11 different adulterants."
Mephedrone wasn't just popular in the UK—it took off in various countries around the world—but it was here that the inevitable backlash began. The Sun led with a story about a 19-year-old who had supposedly ripped off his own scrotum while on drone. It turned out this was a joke someone had posted on the message board of a website called mephedrone.com. Then came a huge outcry over the deaths of two teenagers, reportedly from mephedrone—who turned out to have actually been taking the heroin substitute methadone. Mephedrone and methadone are at opposite ends of the chemical spectrum, but what's basic journalistic accuracy when reporting young people's deaths?
Soon, the tabloid press had rechristened the drug "meow meow" and turned a party fad into a manufactured crisis.
(Photo: Flickr user Quinn Anya)
All this isn't to say that mephedrone is harmless; of course it isn't. The drug was banned before proper laboratory experimentation could be done, but there are obvious repercussions to your health—notably how terrible you look and feel after doing it for any period of time. Even Josh the dealer wrestled with how he saw some people reacting to his product. "Most people were OK and could do it in moderation—like anything else," he says. "But there was the occasional case where someone would be coming around every day. They'd lose shitloads of weight—they ended up a mess. Some people had to drop out of uni or repeat a year because of it. That was the dark side."
By April of 2010, looking to appear "tough on drugs" before the general election, the Labour government banned mephedrone. Several members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs resigned at this obvious knee jerk reaction to tabloid reporting. But, in fairness, the ban sort of worked—people did largely stop snorting m-cat. And then they just started snorting cocaine again instead, so the cocaine deaths that had decreased in 2009 started to climb back up, and have been around the same level ever since.
The ban was also great news for dealers. Josh recalls: "It was only when it became illegal that things got really good. We were reading The Sun and all the chat online. We knew it was going to become illegal, so we stocked up. After that we bumped it to £20 [$25] a gram and started cutting it with baking soda. We didn't even have to go around the parties any more, people started coming to us. I guess we made around £30,000 [$37,000]."
Josh is clear that he was only ever running a small operation for students. But as Neil Woods notes, the effect on the criminal underworld was serious. "While mephedrone was legal, I recall police intelligence of disgruntled cocaine dealers calling in debts due to a loss of business. With the ban, it was organized crime groups that took the benefit—a huge new market was simply gifted to them on a plate."
The other effect of the mephedrone ban was a massive intensification of the cat-and-mouse game that underground scientists had been playing with the authorities for years, making minute tweaks to chemical compounds before law enforcement had a chance to ban them. This led to the explosion of new research chemicals (or "bath salts," as the American press dubbed them), highly unpredictable chemicals marketed as legal analogues of conventional drugs: "Gocaine," for instance, or "China White."
It was the rise in popularity of these drugs that prompted the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, a Home Office bill banning any substance which "by stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system [...] affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state," meaning the list of banned substances is potentially open-ended. The move was described by former Chief Government Drugs Advisor David Nutt as "arguably the worst piece of legislation in living memory."
Once again, control of all these newly banned substances was handed to organized criminals on a platter. Henry Fisher from the drug policy think tank VolteFace is clear: "The demand for legal highs has been displaced to the illegal market… into the hands of street dealers." Neil Woods is even more scathing: "The hunt for new substances only happened because of the mephedrone ban, offering huge incentives to organized crime. The Psychoactive Substances Act was inevitable, but ridiculous—ban imaginary drugs, as if banning tangible ones had ever made a difference."
So where does that leave mephedrone now? Well, it's still about—a study by The Lancet released in April of last year found that use of the drug is rising again in London, among recreational drugs users; intravenous drug users combining it with heroin; and men who have sex with men.
It's that last group in which the drug's use is most visible, in the chemsex scene, where drone and GHB have emerged as the two most favored types of party fuel. I ask Denholm why mephedrone in particular is so popular for chemsex. "There's a kind of relentlessness to mephedrone—a detached relentlessness," he says. "Where MDMA makes you lovely and friendly, drone makes you excited, but also detached from the world. Maybe it seems like a remedy to what lots of gay men feel—a kind of unlovability, being brought up with constant background homophobia. It's a way of escaping everything and just feeling sexy and elated."
Another chemsex partier, Danny, puts it more bluntly: "Mephedrone? All I know is it just makes you want to fuck everything. Hope that's helpful."
And in that one phrase, maybe he has summed up not only the appeal and history of mephedrone, but also the response of lawmakers to the entire issue of "legal highs"—fucking everything up while trying to be helpful.
If you’re hosting a Halloween party, you’re probably going to have a few pumpkins around, for carving or decoration. Turn a couple into tabletop coolers that keep drinks chilled and fit your spooky decor.