Mission Impossible: Mike & Claire Manumission


Their infamous club night, Manumission, will forever be remembered as the most riotous Ibiza bash of them all. And while Mike & Claire may now be older and tamer, their new film project hardly shuns controversy.

“THOSE kittens are trying to get the chicks. Naughty kittens!”

Claire seizes Molly the cat – one of nine resident felines – who has her eyes set on the fluffy hatchlings as they scurry across the garden. “That’s what all the kerfuffle is over there.”

Mike has just finished feeding the pigs. Inside the centuries-old finca, freshly-baked bread cools on the bench. This is about as quaint as country living gets. “It’s a lovely place to live and for the kids it’s perfect,” Claire says.

But it’s what’s propped up against the house, emblazoned with ‘Manumission’ along its side, that defies the conventional portrait of the pretty rural idyll. For here live the ringmasters of Ibiza’s most riotous party, and the giant orange hotdog, in all of its phallic glory, is one of many remnants from Manumission’s heyday, the erotic disco that consistently pushed boundaries with its legendary live sex shows and outlandish costumes that make Lady Gaga look modest.

Mike and Claire ‘Manumission’ ran their weekly Ibiza club night at Privilege – with Mike’s brother Andy and partner Dawn – for 14 years from 1994 (they first met when a 19-year-old Claire was handing out Manumission flyers in San Antonio), pulling in up to 10,000 punters a night. Flamboyant and theatrical, the show gave nods to vaudeville, silent cinema and burlesque, long before the latter went mainstream. Their titillating troupe of nipple-tassled dancers, dwarves, trapeze artists and fire-eaters cavorted in a no-holds-barred cosmic circus for the island’s libertine masses. It was Ibiza’s own Studio 54 and an impossible act to follow; no other party (before or since) has reached its heady level of smut and debauchery (though many have tried).

Even more scandalous was the Manumission Motel which the pair converted in 1998 (in seven days and seven nights) from a rickety roadside brothel into a raucous rock’n’roll pleasure pit with its padded waterbeds, sunken baths, soundproof doors and Pink Pussy strip bar; frequented by the likes of Howard Marks, Irvine Welsh, Primal Scream and Jade Jagger.

“You couldn’t book a room,” says Claire. “There were no clocks, no telephones. The rooms were reserved for Manumission DJs, our six New York strippers, sex performer Otter and guest acts. Room number 10, with its two double beds, was ours. We moved in on Manumission opening night and moved out when the police shut us down six months later. Irvine Welsh was right when he said something that strong could not last.”

By the Noughties the Manumission brand had become notorious for its sexually-charged, surreal spectacle – and Mike and Claire’s insatiable appetites for excess.

“Manumission used to go on for 36 hours for us,” says Mike. “It was a very wild time we went through.”

“We were lucky to have got out of it when we did. The motel could not exist today. It is amazing it existed at all. It was our art, and we lived it.”

Today, fully relaxed and firmly rooted in the countryside, Claire (37, an intriguingly coy English rose with an impish glint) and Mike (42, exuberant, genteel; with his trademark bald head and beard) are eloquent, soft-spoken, surprisingly straight-laced and not in the least bit extrovert. Partying and provocation aren’t the first things that come to mind.

“We did everything that we could do within Manumission,” Mike says. “It went from quite raw beginnings to being, like, full on. I don’t think most people would even realise there were deeper concepts going on within.”

Those concepts explored social commentary expressed in various art forms, from literature and photography to film. But in 2007, just as their production was reaching new creative heights, the Privilege party suddenly came to an end.

“It was actually really devastating,” Claire says. “It was a shock because we were having a record year that year and we put everything into it and then we were going to stop anyway. But then what happened with the club owner was, he locked the doors of the club and there were like 4,000 people inside and 4,000 people outside.”

“He locked the doors and chained them closed,” Mike adds. “Because he wanted more money from us. It’s a very dangerous thing to do, and that was damaging to us that season because the good island crowd outside couldn’t get in and they didn’t understand.”

They swiftly relocated to nearby Amnesia, but the damage had been done. The following season they called it a day. “It was just a bit bloody depressing to be honest. Because we were doing amazing stuff that year, it was the best we’d ever done. Everything was great. The set was amazing, the shows were fantastic, the artwork, it was all great.”

“But you know in the end,” adds Claire. “If that hadn’t have happened we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now. That’s one chapter of our lives.”

As one momentous door closed another opened. Since the final curtain fell on Manumission, the duo have been kindling a new creative beacon: the launch of their new film company, Cinemission, with a highly ambitious film project that is not without its own controversies. Mike (an avid second hand book shopper) first found inspiration for the “epic dark comedy” in a New York book shop some nine years ago. Since then, together, they have extensively researched the (true) story, painstakingly penned the script and will jointly direct the movie.

“We both bring different things to the pot,” says Claire. “But we do everything together, and we’ve done that for years. That’s how we did it with Manumission. They say when you’re writing a script you’ve got to leave your ego at the door. You can’t write it when you’ve got too big an ego, so I think years ago we couldn’t have done it. And all the experience we’ve had from doing Manumission, without that we wouldn’t have been able to write the story. We wouldn’t have had enough life experience.”

As would be expected from the creative forces behind Manumission, theirs is a twisted carnival world set in 1930s Coney Island; New York’s one-time grandiose urban playground. Highly stylised and hedonistic, the script echoes the brashness of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and the dreamlike sequences of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. It is a demented, frenzied freakshow with Daliesque surrealism, vagina-antics, sex, seedy sauciness and (naturally) a burlesque club: La Chatte Agile.

“We thought if we could tell the story from the burlesque club, which is kind of a world that we know, then we’d be able to do that really well,” says Mike. “We want to make this the best club you’ve ever been to. Or you’ve never been to. It should be the best club in the world, set back then in the ‘30s.”

“It’s going to be great fun building the sets,” adds Claire. “And the art directors we’re working with are the ones we did the visual script with, and the photoshoot as well, so we’re really excited about doing that.”

With intricate complexities, dramatic imagery and the right measure of razzle dazzle, Losing My Religion (or Abandonando Mi Religion, the film’s working title) is a bombastic visual feast. In their tireless quest for success, Mike and Claire’s sights have been set well beyond Ibiza’s leisurely bubble; there’s no underestimating the pair’s passion and boundless ambition. British actor Stephen Graham is already on board, as are a veteran production team, incuding producer Danny McGrath, who’s worked closely with directors Ridley Scott and Guy Ritchie, and screenwriter Dan Cadan, who’s polished the final script.

They’ve recorded the title track with singer Skin from Skunk Anansie, and they’re hoping to enlist the talents of big-shot actors Gene Wilder and Michael Keaton. Not forgetting the old Manumission crew, many of whom will be joining forces for the club scenes and a subsequent 2013 tour, which will include Pacha venues worldwide, culminating with an Ibiza homecoming.

“Yes, like Johnny Golden,” says Claire. “Johnny’s coming, and some of the girls and circus performers. Roberto the Cuban, he’s absolutely amazing. So yeah, we will have some of the original team.”

“We’ve been really lucky,” says Mike.“When we started writing the script, there’s a lovely guy here called Ronnie Taylor who’s an amazing cinematographer – he won the Oscar for Gandhi. He’s been very kindly reading our script and advising us from the beginning, and gave us really constructive advice.

“For me I think Coney Island is like one of those lost jewels of the world. Like nobody knows what will happen to Ibiza in the future, what it will evolve to be. But it’s gone through different waves, even just in recent times with the beatniks, the hippies, the whole ‘80s acid house thing and then through to the ‘90s. And now it’s sort of super VIP, massive yachts, expensive, and it’s a different wave. And Coney Island went through similar waves. It was the world’s
playground for years and now it’s nothing. Not that I think that would happen to Ibiza.”

There are obvious parallels between both isles, but while the film is clearly focussed on Coney Island, there has been undeniable inspiration from Ibiza.

“We couldn’t have written the script without our experience in Ibiza. Ibiza’s been pretty much central in all of the people that are involved so far in the film.”

“That’s one of the things about here,” says Claire. “It’s got such a diverse mixture of people. And we’ve always watched people, for years and years, so for our characters it’s great.”

“So we can draw on all of these people, and we have. They’re mixes of people we know.”

“Especially the naughty characters, the villains.”

Mike and Claire clearly have a lot to extract from. Their life is like a rich tapestry of experiences, played out intensely, publicly and frankly, from the hedonism of Manumission’s party days to their more recent foray into film. And while some islanders may have been bemused by their apparent moral disregard, there’s no denying they certainly made a mark.

“I do sometimes blush when I think about what we used to get up to!” says Claire. “We were young, wild and free and without such extreme life experience we would not be where we are today.”

Following Manumission, Mike’s brother Andy shifted his focus to Ibiza Rocks, which has become a phenomenal success. Mike and Claire co-founded the event with him and Dawn in 2005, before the two couples parted ways professionally.

“We don’t even speak to each other,” says Mike. “I’m sure we will in the future, once things are mended. But we wouldn’t work together again. No.”

Still, happy in their rural haven, it’s here they reside with their three children (Daisy, seven, Tallulah, nine, and Stanley, 11) and more than 50 animals. Inside, the farmhouse is like a shrine to the 1920s and ‘30s. Chaplin, Hitchcock, Kubrick and Kazan are cited as artistic influences. But despite their obvious love of cinema, they’re not as stimulated by the small screen.

“We don’t have television here so we just live in the country with our kids and the animals,” says Mike. “And what’s great about Ibiza is that, for many people all the way through history, it’s a really creative place. We’re not distracted by anything else in the rest of the world so we’ve really been free to imagine. We’ve got three Coney Island films. This is only the first one, it’s a trilogy. Then we should be properly established in cinema. And we’ve got other stories, lots of projects. We’ve got an amazing TV series. But it’s one step at a time. This one first.”

First published in Pacha Magazine, Ibiza, October 2011.
© Abbey Stirling