Billie Rae has, by her own estimate, enough red velvet to cover Tempelhofer Feld sitting in her fourth-floor work studio at the Wilde Renate nightclub.
“It looks like trash but it’s all useful,” she says of the stuff surrounding her – stray pieces of costumes, a mattress-sized devil’s face propped against the wall, seven fishnetted mannequin legs wearing red heels, and multiple plush couches made of (you guessed it) red velvet. “We’re like pirates, just using everything that we have. We try not to buy too much. We try to reuse everything.”
If you want to come totally butt naked with a feather out your arse, I really don’t mind.
Billie Rae has been in a perpetual state of throwing a party for more than a decade now. Her resumé of events, produced under the name Lunacy Berlin, are unique in a city full of nightlife options. They’re exquisitely aesthetic and stylised, the performances highly choreographed and the ethos expertly thought out. Berlin has many clubs with big reputations but only a few standalone parties with stellar ones, and Billie Rae’s longest-running event, House of Lunacy, is one of them. Consistently sold out, with guests sometimes travelling from around the world to attend, the parties are at once a playground of sexual exploration and a welcoming familial space, and they have an ironclad golden rule: dress to theme. Those who make a lacklustre attempt are turned away at the door, and for those whose costume gets them in, there’s an acute sense of pride in being deemed dedicated enough to be part of the decoration.
“We wanted a place that was genuinely sex positive, in the sense that pretty much anyone can come, as long as they follow the house rules and come with love and respect – and provided you dress up. It’s a tool to get people in the mood to be in the space,” she says. “Dress codes for us have always just been a really good way of getting everybody on the same level. We don’t mind if you come in something cheap – it’s really fine if it’s cost you 20 quid, and you’ve made it out of tea towels or something. Some people in the beginning thought you had to come naked or in fetishwear or bondage. Yeah you can, but if you don’t feel comfy, if you don’t want to have anything showing, it’s totally cool. But also if you want to come totally butt naked with a feather out your arse, I really don’t mind. As long as you’ve made an effort, that’s really the main thing for us.”
And Berliners do. In the past year, motifs have included ‘Heavenly Creatures’, ‘Apocalypse Ballroom’, ‘Beasts & Creatures’, and ‘Circus’. “We had one where a guy was dressed as a giant sloth. He was like seven feet tall, and he just spent the whole party in slow motion,” Billie Rae recalls. “Another time, I had to get a light down from the ceiling, and the party had already started. And I was like, I’ll just ask these people to help me. But they were dressed as mimes. And they refused to speak. They just mimed everything at me. So I had to ask them to help me get a light down – in mime. I was like, ‘oh, your commitment to your character is absolutely amazing’.”
If the parties feel like a lucid dream, they’re supposed to. “One of my biggest obsessions is cinematography. So with a lot of our sets and concepts, we kind of create this idea that somebody will come into this space and they’ll feel like they’re in a movie,” Billie Rae explains. She’s at once creative director and crew member, attending to every detail for each party’s delirious fourteen-hour run, building the sets (“I can definitely find my way around a power tool”) and managing everything from music to lighting to the Pinterest boards on the Lunacy website, where guests can find costume inspiration ahead of each party. “I’m a slut for Pinterest. I like to give people the vision, because sometimes it’s really hard when you’re just like, oh hey, come as a celestial being.” Billie Rae can always tell which portion of the kaleidoscopic image boards people have drawn from when creating their outfit, and their curation has become a favourite part of the process for her. “I go into a meditative state. It’s like shopping without having to buy anything.”
Her knack for throwing a good party dates back to her childhood in the UK, where her mother was an artist and festival producer. “I grew up around theatrical people – literally stage actors. I was around really interesting, quirky people, and living with a single mum, she made sure I felt I could achieve anything. Even though I was a little girl – you know, a little weirdo – no one was ever like, you can’t do that. I was really lucky,” she says. “Whenever I had an idea, it was like, yes.”
I ended up running away from the circus, basically, and moved to Berlin.”
She studied illustration at university and graduated into a recession; her first job was at a strip club. When her boss asked what she wanted to do with her life, she told him she wanted to be a burlesque dancer. “I’ve always felt very comfy around naked people. It’s where I thrive, really.”
At 22, she moved to Brighton and started producing her first burlesque shows – though the scene was drastically different from what it is today, she says. “When I used to tell people that I was a burlesque dancer, they would be like, what is that, I have no idea.” Burlesque has since become accessible in a way it wasn’t when Billie Rae started out – when she was glueing together her own feather fans and hunting down the right rhinestones herself. “Back in the day, if you tried to buy pasties or something like nipple tassels on eBay, you would just get pies, because of the pasties in Cornwall,” she recalls. “Now if you want to get sparkly pasties you can get them same-day delivery.”
Billie Rae began performing across the world – the Torture Garden in London, tours in Milan and Australia – and eventually, she was offered a job as the creative director for a circus in Dubai, then in Shanghai. “We did this nighttime circus – really sexy, weird stuff, but it was really corporate, reserved audience members. And I wasn’t really inspired by it. I ended up running away from the circus, basically, and moved to Berlin.”
She arrived in Germany with an idea – a concept written out, old-school, on a piece of paper. “I just wanted to do something way more creative and way more cool, and just sexier and a bit theatrical and a bit cinematic. So I wrote this thing down, and it was called the House of Red Doors.” The name came from a book she’d seen about Parisian brothels marked with red doors, “places where promiscuous things would happen”. In 2016, House of Red Doors launched at Renate, under a production partnership called Bad Bruises.
“There was a little bit of people being like no, it won’t really work. Because it wasn’t a heavy fetish event. It was kinky, but it wasn’t our main aesthetic. I wanted people to dress up. I wanted it to be like a festival vibe – theatrical, but still really sex positive. I could see people thinking, I don’t know, Berlin’s kind of got its own identity,” she says. “And then after the first one we did, it was quite apparent that people wanted it and needed it.”
I’ve always felt very comfy around naked people. It’s where I thrive, really.
Just after the onset of the pandemic, Bad Bruises dissolved, and Billie Rae began running her shows as Lunacy Berlin. Her family of regular performers – many of whom date back to her circus days – lovingly refer to their world as “the Luniverse”, an umbrella term for the cosmos of events that include House of Lunacy, The Peepshow (their hole-in-a-curtain answer to Covid restrictions), the interactive art extravaganza Overmorrow and immersive dining experience Weisse Maus. The latter is another particularly bold offering: a “theatrical but sexy” dinner cabaret based on Weimar Berlin, where guests are treated to debauched and decadent performances between courses.
The Luniverse also has rules – ones Billie Rae takes very seriously. Their website has its own subsection on these rules: Consent is not negotiable. No aggression. No racism, homophobia, anti trans or hate speech. Terfs and swerfs unwelcome. Lunacy’s Awareness Team, a group of ‘party veterans’ in bright green jackets, monitor the events, available to step in if an attendee is uncomfortable or intervene in the event of overconsumption.
“When I came in with the rules, I put them very much on the website, and some people suggested that it was quite daunting. And I was like, well, for you. But for women, femme bodies, queer bodies, we like to see these rules,” Billie Rae explains. “If I see anything, I’m very happy to just be like, absolutely fucking not, sorry, you’re out.”
Her performers, too, never fail to step in, she says. “If they see someone in a pickle, whether it’s overconsumption, or a situation that maybe they’re just not happy with, or even just sad, our performers are people that will come straight away and ask if you’re alright, get you a tissue or a glass of water.” Many of them are iconic names in their own right – Bishop Black, Julietta La Doll, Martini Cherry Furter – and have been working with Billie Rae for years. “As soon as they fit, they kind of stay,” she says. “We’ve become very intuitive of each other’s bodies and emotions. We know who’s really good at walkabout, who’s really good at character.” A role in the Luniverse has permanent gravitational pull, even offstage. “We hang out a lot as well, privately,” Billie Rae adds. “We’re not just here on one night, we also go to each other’s events and help each other when somebody’s not doing well.”
Fifi Fantome, co-creator of circus cabaret group The Velvet Creepers and part of Billie Rae’s collective for six years, calls the Lunacy team a blessing. “I know they will be there for me if shit hits the fan. My weird little Berlin family of misfits and artists.” Billie Rae, she says, has fostered an environment of freedom of expression. “She has this innate ability to see someone’s essence of who they are and bring it to the forefront of their performance… She brings people into this whole world where they can lose themselves, and live another side of reality.”
“Billie Rae is actually the reason I started performing,” burlesque performer Inga Salome, who joined the crew in 2019, admits. “I was booked by her for a big corporate gig to roller skate, which I did recreationally back then,” she said. “Billie Rae really saw my potential despite my own insecurities and helped me immensely to grow into the performer I am today. As a director she sees and appreciates what her performers bring to the table and really makes them shine. When Billie Rae envisioned the role of the Oyster Girl for me at Weisse Maus, she did not limit me, but trusted me to make it my own and guided me through the process of creating the performance. Somehow, she can pinpoint exactly what does and does not work.”
Perhaps a hallmark of someone with a niche genius is the sense that they’d be doing it whether the result was popular or not. Almost two decades into her career, Billie Rae’s work has a beloved home at Renate, and she’s still doing much of the creative work herself – though now, she often has her husband and partner, Ben, by her side. “We make the shows together. We cut music, we do the light cues. My husband builds a lot of the sets. We’ve done quite a lot of this together.”
Before a show, the couple and their team spend three days at the club installing sets and props. Though, Billie Rae admits, there are spacial limits. “Sometimes we have these great ideas, but then we realise that there’s no way of hanging something. We have to respect Renate’s decor – we can’t knock walls down, and we can’t lay a full carpet,” she explains. “We used to have a confession booth, which was so much fun. Over the years, it just got trashed. I remember coming in, and it was gone. To be fair, it was right at the end of its life, but people had so many good memories of what they did in the confession booth.” Billie Rae says they ended up making another for their ‘Sin’ party last year, complete with crucifix and red light, though it’s since been removed. (“Repent,” she adds dramatically.)
If the Luniverse is a hedonistic, vibrant galaxy, Billie Rae’s earthly reality is more grounded. On the night of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the February Weisse Maus was in full swing, and Billie Rae was backstage, “dumbfounded.” The next day, she and Ben, along with several Lunacy performers including Fantome, drove to the border. They were there a few weeks, building shelters, setting up aid tents, procuring insulin and heart medication. “When you’re there, having just been at this decadent 1920s dinner, and then the day after you’re at a refugee camp in Poland – it’s quite sobering,” Billie Rae says. “The really fascinating thing is, when we got down to the refugee camp, we found this guy who was absolutely exhausted. We assumed he must be an aid worker. And he was like, no man, I run a film company. And we just realised, oh my god, the people that are here helping are event people – because we know how to get shit done.” The Lunacy team’s effort remains ongoing; they now help run an NGO dubbed Berlin To Borders.
If the parties feel like a lucid dream, they’re supposed to.
There are challenges on the home front, too: Berlin’s nightlife is in flux, with venues shuttering en masse. “It’s become quite capitalist in a certain way. It’s almost like Berlin’s sort of caught on to the fact that it can make money through this nightlife scene – which it always could, but it was always more underground,” Billie Rae says, lamenting skyrocketing rents and other fees. “That obviously reflects in ticket prices. And sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard to put an event on with such a high ticket bracket, because it wasn’t what I set out to do. But now it’s kind of what we have to do to survive. And I think every other club is going through the same.”
Still, Billie Rae holds a lot of love for Berlin, a community she finds pleasantly insular. “Berlin is a great place to come and get kinky and weird. But I guess you could say sex positivity has become more mainstream. Which I think is brilliant, because I don’t want to gatekeep people having sex.” Billie Rae laughs. “Have more sex.”
At the April House of Lunacy, themed ‘Surrealist Masquerade’, people roam around with facial adornments made from a myriad of objects: bulbous balloons, lightbulbs, playing cards, mushrooms, golden plastic hands, eyeballs of all shapes and sizes, fake breasts. A woman in a mask of mediaeval chainmail tells me she requested the next day off work well in advance. One man has his head in a birdcage. Someone has dressed as ‘surrealist sperm’. Billie Rae herself is wearing all black, down to her beret. (“During the actual event I tend to wear something comfy, because I’ll be running around and doing things. I tend to wear cowboy boots and a crazy costume,” she says). On party nights, which she never misses, she gets an adrenaline that eases into joy a few hours (and one tequila shot) in. “We’ll do an opening show, and you’ll have 400 people just screaming. Or Martini will stage dive. And the room is literally just about to explode. Even though I can be so stressed, that will happen, and I’m like, ‘yeah, this is worth it’,” she recounts.
“The pride I have when I walk through – honestly, and it sounds really, really silly, but I actually get quite tearful sometimes. I’ll see somebody’s sewed a whole costume together, and you can see they’re so proud when they’re wearing it. Or people that are maybe not used to being naked, and then you’ll see them totally nude or wearing something that maybe they’ve never thought of wearing before,” she says. “Sometimes as I walk through, I’ll think, is that a performer? And then I realise, oh wow, it’s a guest.”
Though she’s known internationally, Billie Rae has yet to wrap her head around her role in Berlin’s cultural scene. “A few times I’ve been to a bar or something, and somebody’s said, ‘House of Lunacy changed my life’. I find it hard to grasp the importance this event has had for some people – I’m very happy that it has, but sometimes I can’t believe it’s ours.” She smiles. “It’s hard work, but it’s not like work. I don’t wake up and go, oh god, I’ve got to go make a giant eyeball today. It’s more like, I’m really excited, I’m gonna go make a giant eyeball today.”