There’s no one quite like The Blessed Madonna. Born Marea Stamper in rural Kentucky, where her gender-nonconforming appearance made her a target for high school bullies, she has built her career as a DJ-producer from the underground up. Starting out as an illegal rave promoter, she earned her stripes in the music biz in Chicago, landing a residency and a curator role at the city’s legendary Smartbar club. These days, she’s a defiantly queer force who’s entered the mainstream, having executively produced the star-studded remix album of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and collaborated with Fred Again… for the bittersweet house banger Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing).
Stamper’s recent single We Still Believe is an anthemic collaboration with Chicago house legend Jamie Principle. Scheduling conflicts meant Principle was unable to appear in the video, but fortunately Stamper was able to enlist another clubbing icon: Michael Peacock. For nearly two decades, the 64-year-old’s distinctive dayglo clothing and equally distinctive dance moves – “funky vogueing”, in his words – have lit up London clubs and European raves. The Blessed Madonna calls Peacock her “cinematic muse”, and the hallucinatory We Still Believe video – directed by LOOSE – could almost be an excerpt from an off-the-wall horror film.
“The idea was to replicate what an unexpected morning acid trip looks like,” Stamper explains. “It’s that feeling when 7am is a little more intense than you planned on.” To that end, she and Peacock descended on Wanstead Flats in the early hours of a freezing winter morning and set up a giant sound system. “The good, solid, law-abiding people of East London were quite surprised to see us throttling a speaker at that time,” she recalls.
I’ve met with the pair at Stamper’s East London studio to discuss clubbing, queer spaces and the hot-button issue of filming on the dance floor – something Peacock has a vested interest in. Last December, footage of him living his best life at London superclub Fabric was posted on Twitter without his permission. The sneering accompanying caption seemed to poke fun at his age and unselfconscious queerness. It was a shocking moment, but the clubbing community rallied behind Peacock so vehemently that he is now even more of a guestlist mainstay. “The Warehouse Project in Manchester has offered me backstage lifetime access,” he says proudly. The person who filmed him has been banned from Fabric permanently.
The Fabric incident wasn’t the first time that Peacock has been a cultural lightning rod. In 2012, having been charged for selling hardcore gay porn that the police claimed had the potential to “deprave or corrupt”, he pleaded not guilty and won his case. In the process, he struck a major blow for sexual freedom in the UK by exposing the Obscene Publications Act 1959 as woefully outmoded. The jury decided, quite rightly, that anyone buying a fisting video from Peacock knew exactly what they wanted to see.
So, as he and Stamper trade memories, absolutely nothing is off the table.
How long have you two been friends?
The Blessed Madonna: Before I met Michael, I saw him. It was in 2015 and I was playing the ill-fated last edition of a festival in Croatia that they hadn’t sold properly. I was DJing, like, the set of the damned on the final night and it was just… crickets. But way off in the distance, on this dance floor by a little cove, I saw this extremely colourful person going crazy. After that, I started seeing him everywhere and we became friends. With Michael, it’s like seeing a Volkswagen. You see him once and you start seeing him everywhere.
Michael Peacock: And you’ve seen me completely naked.
TBM: Several times.
Michael: One time was at a clothing-optional festival in Amsterdam, though I was the only person there who seemed to go the whole way. I had a phase in my Horse Meat Disco days where I was naked quite a lot.
TBM: You were quite naked that time in Amsterdam.
Michael: Yeah, you were playing the main stage and I climbed over the metal barriers at the front to get closer. That was crazy. When I look back now, I’m so completely over that [naked] phase. I often say that less is more, but sometimes less is just too much information!
Michael, you started clubbing in your mid-forties. What made you want to enter the dance world at that point in your life?
Michael: Well, for 25 years I couldn’t be myself because I was married [to a woman]. For many years I worked for British Railways in the technical office at the Bounds Green depot [in North London]. I used to wear the craziest ties to work, that was my one little bit of rebellion, though towards the end I did get some tattoos and start shaving [my body hair]. But what really lit the blue touch paper – I can distinctly remember this – was saying [to my wife], “Do you fancy going to Junction nightclub in Cambridge?” And she replied, “Oh Michael, don’t be so ridiculous. Act your age!“
And that flipped a switch in you?
Michael: Yes. In about 2004, I started going to Fiction in King’s Cross, which is still one of the best clubs I’ve ever been to. You often read stuff in the media like “if you’re over 25, forget it”, but that’s like a red rag to a bull with me. I just love being around young people. And what heartened me was about five years back, I was going into Fabric and saw this European couple in the queue who must have been in their seventies, maybe eighties. And the DJ was like, “This is what we’re about, we’re inclusive.” But invariably, when I go to some clubs, I realise I must be 40 years older than anyone else. It’s really weird actually, but I get more interaction [from fellow clubbers] at Fabric and the Prince of Wales in Brixton than I get in queer spaces. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.
Do you think more clubs should implement a Berghain-style no filming policy?
TBM: I think a nice middle-ground is to have some official club photography that people opt into – so when you come in, you’re given fair warning about it. And then if you see something online afterwards [that you don’t like], you can ask to have it taken down. But I will say that for me as a DJ, beyond any kind of security issues, the camera thing is getting to be a little much. You know, you go to some shows and the whole front row is people just standing with their phones out.
Michael: The thing is, once they’ve taken that footage, you have no fucking control over it. Before the incident in Fabric, I didn’t give a shit. But a few times since then, I have said no to being filmed on the dance floor, because you just don’t know how they’re going to use it.
Filming people in queer clubs is a particular safety risk, because those people may not be out.
TBM: I think having queer spaces that are not on the record is super-important for people who are figuring out who they’re going to be. Like, not everybody gets to come out to their families the second they realise who they are.
Michael: I’m a prime example.
Michael, you’re also known for your 2012 court case, which quite literally changed the law. Does that feel like another lifetime ago?
Michael: Yeah, that was quite a landmark case. Even now I get people coming up to me to say well done for that. I think I’m a few references down from Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the Wikipedia page for the Obscene Publications Act. And there’s this picture of me holding my fist up outside the court [after the verdict].
TBM: Oh, that’s such a great picture!
Michael: Someone said that for two days, Southwark Crown Court was the only unlicensed sex cinema in the UK. Because for two days, they showed edited highlights from the six titles [cited in the case]. It was BDSM, watersports and a lot of fisting. On the second day they showed so much fisting that even I was getting bored. At one point, the judge asked me, “How deep do you go?” So I stood up and showed him [with my fist] and the whole court erupted. Then the judge was like, “OK, that’s enough.”
Finally, how healthy – or not – do you think the London club scene is right now?
TBM: In general, everybody’s struggling. Clubs use a lot of electricity and nobody is immune from the cost-of-living crisis. We’ve also seen the rise of “oh, I bought a flat next to a club, but now I want to complain about the noise”. And of course, I wouldn’t describe our current government as club-friendly – to put it mildly. But in spite of that – and I say this as an outsider, though it’s my home now – I think this little island has quite a spirit about it. The UK has been quite steadfast over the years in times of great difficulty for live music, so I have absolute faith in the kids. They’ll figure it out. And if the law won’t allow it to happen, they’ll break the law.