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Ilana Rose, S&M in 90s Australia
Photography Ilana Rose

Documenting Australia’s 90s underground S&M club scene

An underground sexual revolution was occurring in the 90s in Melbourne’s only sadomasochist night club, Hellfire, that paralleled its European counterparts

There’s no doubt that the banalities of living in a country of mainstream sexual repression are pushing young people in Australia to leave in search of something more. With the internet and the presence of clubs and nights such as Berghain in Berlin and Torture Garden in London, Australians are chasing that sexual liberty in the pursuit of being connected with those who share the same yearning for sexual freedom, and will party long hours in celebration of it. This is the exact reason why it shocked me to hear that Melbourne, Australia’s most underground city, once had its own little slice of liberal heaven – a recognition I owe to the voyeuristic tendencies of photojournalist Ilana Rose, whose photos of Melbourne’s only 90s S&M nightclub suggest that we could start by looking at our own recent past to discover how we might revolutionise sexual liberty in modern Australia.

“There were no restrictions placed on me whatsoever, but on that first night I asked everybody whether it was OK to photograph them and nine out of ten were absolutely fine” – Ilana Rose

The Hellfire club was and is Melbourne’s only ever S&M nightclub: a two-storey, sadomasochism-for-entertainment club night that started in 1992 and had its finger on the pulse on Melbourne’s 90s subculture every single Sunday night for ten years. Heralding the fashion of sexual subculture that has rippled through the last few decades into the likes of Raf Simons and Walter Van Beirendonck, the club saw leather-clad masters, mistresses and voyeurs pay $7 on the door to escape the banalities of the overdone ecstasy culture and underground rave scene of the decade into a night of on-stage whippings and underground industrial techno. The club’s founder, Richard Masters, didn’t stop at Melbourne, either, going on to open up counterparts in Sydney in Brisbane, whose photographic exploration also led Rose to shoot in Sydney’s BDSM brothel, the Kastle, which is still in operation.

Inspired by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton, Rose shares her nine-month photo journey documenting S&M club culture in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in 1993.

How did you first hear about the Hellfire club?

Ilana Rose: I had just come back from living overseas for two years, as a foreign correspondent in England. So I started looking through local media and street press for my next project when I found these big ads for a new nightclub that had just opened in Melbourne.

What was amazing to me were the visuals – really old-fashioned graphics showing people gagged and strapped to frames being whipped. I was so surprised. I thought, ‘What? S&M as entertainment? How could that be?’ The other thing that attracted me was that it had some of the best DJs of the time – Ollie Olsen and Andrew Till were big back then. Ollie Olsen was notorious for his work with Michael Hutchence and INXS.

I went down with a journalist, Andrew Masterson, who was reporting with me at the time. At that point we hadn’t contacted the organisers – we just went in as paying patrons. We got in and everyone was totally dressed – that’s the first thing we noticed. It was just the most amazing take on S&M fashion, so heaps of plastic, vinyl, lots of leather and studs and everyone strutting their stuff. The music was pumping and everything was great.

They had an A-frame rack on the wall and they had mistresses and masters – mainly masked, all decked out in leather and army paraphernalia and lots of whips. They then started inviting people from the crowd to go up on the A-frame, and the masters and mistresses would then tie them on and start whipping them. Not overly delicately from that point of view – it was pretty real. But that was as far as it went.

And what was that first night like?

Ilana Rose: I left at about 1am thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m not quite sure.’ I couldn’t quite discern whether it was populist or whether it was reality.

The next week we contacted the club telling them I was a photojournalist and asking if I could take some shots and they gave us permission. There were no restrictions placed on me whatsoever, but on that first night I asked everybody whether it was OK to photograph them and nine out of ten were absolutely fine.

This time, we stayed till three and it completely changed. After two-ish, when all the local nightclub punters had left, all of a sudden it changed. So I started noticing a lot more gay patrons, a lot more leather men; it was a lot more subtle, but still S&M-prevalent.

Was it hard to get in?

Ilana Rose: Yes. Like any nightclub, though. They would reject, you know, large groups of men, people who were really badly dressed.

“There was a piano player in the club called ‘Rubber Roger’; he played the piano away from the nightclub part and it was classical music. It was very dramatic and he was in a complete rubber suit with a gas mask” – Ilana Rose

So you didn’t have to be in S&M to get in?

Ilana Rose: Oh no. The really interesting thing I discovered through the project was that, of course, it attracts as many voyeurs as it does participants. Which is the category I place myself in as a photojournalist documenting, I have strong voyeuristic tendencies – (but that) doesn’t mean I’m interested in participating.

So on this second occasion, things got much much more real, and as well as the designated masters and mistresses from the nightclub, patrons started getting involved in the roles of master and mistress, and they were doing the whipping. And it became a lot harder – you could see it was a lot more painful.

I started photographing and then spent every Sunday night for the next nine months documenting photos at Hellfire, its Sydney/Brisbane based counterparts. I also took some shots at a BDSM brothel in Sydney called The Kastle.

By capturing these photos, you have inadvertently captured the fashion of subculture at the time.

Lots of leather, dog collars and studs – all the obvious things which really we have seen since punk, which is nothing new. It was just the way people were combining things, and the huge amounts of PVC, which hadn’t been around that long.

When the club opened up a counterpart in Sydney, you could really see the difference in state fashion come to life. Sydney is just so wild and flashy compared to Melbourne. It has always been like that – Sydney the flashy show-pony and Melbourne the cooler, underground alternative, so this really came to life in the fashion.

Another thing – it wasn’t just people that were into S&M; the club covered a large amount of things. For example, there was a piano player in the club called ‘Rubber Roger’. He played the piano away from the nightclub part and it was classical music. It was very dramatic and he was in a complete rubber suit with a gas mask. So I actually started learning about all these other fetishes – rubber was huge in the club, same with latex, wax, piercings (there was a guy with nails through his nose), whipping, knotting, tying, restraining.

What was the attitude towards sexuality at the time? Were people very open with their sexual expression or was this something that was revolutionary for Melbourne?

Ilana Rose: I think it was revolutionary. S&M was never something that had come over into mainstream. I can’t even think particularly of much iconography except Helmut Newton. It had crossed over into some levels of fashion, certainly. You saw people wearing PVC at that time – I had a lot of fashion designer friends and that was their leaning. As a fashion statement, definitely.

And S&M clubs have been running for centuries, all over the world. Once we started investigating, there was no shortage of real S&M clubs, but it just wasn’t in the mainstream or as a nightclub.

And was hellfire Melbourne’s first S&M club?

Ilana Rose: First S&M nightclub, not as a club. You’ve got to be really careful with that. S&M itself, historically, it’s centuries old.

I don’t think even gay nightclubs had a particularly S&M-themed night anywhere that I was aware of. That’s why the Hellfire drew such an incredibly mixed patronage, which was possibly part of why it felt so safe.

So do you attribute the safety of the club to its diversity?

Ilana Rose: Yeah. And I think there is something particular about the communication between the mistresses and masters, and the participants – there’s always a huge, necessary level of trust with S&M. People need to know to say stop when it’s too much, so you saw a really caring side to people inside these clubs. There was a lot of love, but not sexually. People were really kind to each other.

“I think subculture had a lot more depth than it has in the last 20 years. People really lived their subculture much more then” – Ilana Rose

None of the sort of general dangers with nightclubbing? Intoxicity, fights and so on?

Ilana Rose: No. There was none of the ‘yob’ element. It was really underground. Yeah, you may have read about it in street press but it really didn’t attract people unless you were interested in S&M and the underground scene.

A lot of people were just not interested in coming to the club because of the music. A lot of it was industrial, so it wouldn’t have appealed to the wider community. And in fact, thinking back now, the yob element still weren’t into nightclubbing then, they were into pubs. The band scene was huge in Melbourne so we had lots of problems of violence and alcohol in the pubs, rather than the clubs. Whereas at the Hellfire, people didn’t come to get blind (drunk) – it was for the great music, the fairly wild entertainment.

So why do you think nothing similar has surfaced since in Melbourne?

Ilana Rose: I think it was so original, that’s one of the reasons it took off in such a big way. I think subculture had a lot more depth than it has in the last 20 years. People really lived their subculture much more then. If you were part of a subculture, it wasn’t just about what you liked or did – it was about the music that you listened to, the clothes that you wore – it all tied in. People were a lot more passionate.

As has always been the case with youth, people are always looking to define themselves in original ways and finding ways of separating themselves from the general populace.

Do you think that maybe it’s got something to do with social media and the internet? I just feel my generation wouldn’t be as open to the idea of being photographed at a sex club.

Ilana Rose: I think that’s a commentary about photography. This is pre-Facebook, pre-social media. You’ve got to realise – we didn’t have that global connectivity. We didn’t have that way of everything being sent and seen.

So absolutely, I think it would have been quite difficult to do a documentation of these people that are pretty intensely private in the contemporary digital age. Everyone went under pseudonyms and as you can see from the photographs, quite a lot of them are masked.

At Berghain, they sticker cameras on phones and take cameras off patrons on entry. Do you think that could work in modern Melbourne?

Ilana Rose: Well, that would be the only way this would survive now. Safety lies in the idea that everything’s not going to be recorded. And, of course, trust – I was always very, very upfront. Before I started the work I built all the relationships.