By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
Lady Casa is perhaps the country's most famous raver, and something of a cult leader to her tens of thousands of fans. When the Miami native makes a pilgrimage to LA and hosts an event on Venice Beach the day after seeing DJ Armin van Buuren, it quickly turns into a mob scene.
Not far from the guy who walks on glass and an Italian tour group, hundreds of ravers wait for hours in a snaking line to get Lady Casa's autograph, hear her wisdom and, most importantly, hug her. The event is billed as her 26th birthday party, as well as a benefit for local animal shelters.
"I'm so nervous right now!" says an awkward twentysomething when he finally reaches the front. "You're awesome," she responds, writing a personalized note for him on a decal. She ends it, "Namaste, Lady Casa."
Lithe, pretty, with long, golden, Barbie-style hair, the woman born Michelle Casares wears a flower crown, scarf, leggings and sunglasses shaped like hearts, all of it a mishmash of bright colors.
At raves she might wear go-go boots, pasties, bracelets, a thong and a giant Native American headdress. Her signature logo, which she has applied to stickers and T-shirts, is a silhouette of this look. Some of her followers have it tattooed on them.
She does yoga. She protests Monsanto. She snuggles with ravers in "cuddle puddles." She preaches the ravers' gospel of PLUR — peace, love, unity, respect. She says things about herself in the third person that probably sound cool if you're high.
"Lady Casa is something bigger than me, an energy that can't be encompassed in one human body," she says now. "So if you're attracted to the symbol of Lady Casa, it's a reflection of you."
She resembles a hippie-chick-turned-go-go-dancer. In fact, until recently, she danced nearly naked atop platforms at South Beach megaclub Mansion. She's now looking for work dancing in her new home of Las Vegas, where she moved recently to be with her new boyfriend (who makes raver bracelets) and because she "felt a calling toward the West."
But she's long been an electronic dance music fan, having attended Miami's annual festival, Ultra, every year since she was twelve. Her mantra is "Reel 'em in with the boobs, keep 'em with the PLUR." She knows she can't be a dancer forever. She hopes to segue into a career as a full-time rave professional.
What might that entail? Well, in the long term she hopes to become a "meditative guide" or a "festival healer," but for now she sells raver gear such as $12 "PLUR Cheekies" — bootie shorts that display her silhouette (and much of the wearer's butt).
Today her handlers have dispensed boatloads of colorful beaded plastic bracelets known as kandi, and she has received enough back from fans to cover both arms from wrist to armpit. Kandi resembles starter jewelry for grade-schoolers, but it looks cool when you're rolling, and among ravers, it's art that represents a lifelong bond.
"How was Armin van Buuren?" the next girl in the line asks.
"Honestly, one of the best shows I've ever seen," Lady Casa responds. Their interaction ends like the others: a hug, a shadow kiss and a picture destined for Instagram, with the pair placing their two hands together to form a heart shape.
Lady Casa has 75,000 followers on that social-media platform, and largely owes her fame to it. Originally intending to be a physician's assistant, she quit her program at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and began dancing full-time in 2011. The next year, following a Miami show featuring megastar DJ Kaskade, she received a major boost when he posted to his Instagram a photo of her wearing body paint. "This girl just 1 up'd EVERYONE!!!" read the post, which received nearly 14,000 likes.
"That was really the catalyst to me being the iconic figure that I've become in the EDM community, and from that point on I took the role of raver more seriously," she says. She speaks like a well-educated Valley Girl, ending her sentences with upward inflections. "There were younger and older generations looking up to me."
Indeed, nowadays she can hardly dance at raves because she's so mobbed by her followers. Rather than idle chitchat, she imparts to them wisdom drawn from a mix of spiritual and self-help realms.
Her followers tend not to be the stereotypical thin, rich white girls you see at Coachella but rather multiracial and of all different body sizes. Though she grew up wealthy in Key Biscayne, Florida, her parents' divorce hurt her family's finances, and when her mother came out as gay, young Michelle was ostracized. "I pretty much lost all my friends," she says, which might explain why her message is one of inclusion.
While underground dance parties once drew a comparatively tight-knit, like-minded group, today's sprawling electronic dance music scene is centered around mega-raves hosted by giant corporations.
As the rave culture has entered the mainstream, its symbols and practices have been subjected to increasing scrutiny. Kandi has been banned at some events due to its drug associations, and white kids donning Native American garb has triggered an outcry. Most urgently, electronic music festivals have seen a rash of deaths in recent years, many drug-related.
It's added up to a public-relations nightmare for the rave community. Lady Casa hopes to turn things around with the help of her organization, the oxymoronically named PLUR Warriors. Part PR operation, part community-outreach program and part rave-gear emporium, it seeks to convince skeptics that ravers are a force for positive change, not a group of tweaked-out, underdressed hedonists.
Up next: The kandi crackdown.
In 1991 hundreds of people danced to house and techno at an illegal party in the Bronx. Called Back to Basics, it was held under the Bronx Whitestone Bridge. A DJ named Frankie Bones had just arrived at his makeshift booth, with turntables and mixers perched on an office desk, when a couple began yelling and pushing each other. They crashed into the desk, cutting the music.
Pointing at the couple, an incensed Bones addressed the crowd. "You better start showing some peace, love and unity," he yelled, "or I'll break your fucking faces."
Raver lore holds that thus was born the PLUR mantra. The "respect" part came later, apparently.
Afrika Bambaataa, the New York hip-hop pioneer, disagrees about the expression's beginnings. "That saying started with hip-hop," he says, specifically pointing to his 1984 song "Unity," with James Brown, which features the chant, "Peace, unity, love and having fun."
At Bones' party, however, the crowd coalesced around the idea.
"I just didn't want anything to happen after and ruin the night," says Bones, who now lives in Huntington Beach, California. "Yelling that threw everything back into the right vibe, and the party went on until 10 a.m."
House music arose from disco, with clubs providing safe havens for persecuted communities, including gays and African Americans, to let loose and express themselves, often with the help of hallucinogens and amphetamines.
The early 1990s saw the birth of the kandi kids, whose outfits featured such staples of childhood as bright costumes, plush toys and binkies. Their "kandi" was at one point actual, edible candy, including Blow Pops (which help quell the jittery teeth that are a side effect of popping ecstasy) and those 25-cent chokers from vending machines. Sometimes the candy was replaced with ecstasy pills, and drug dealers might wear kandi to alert ravers of their wares.
But the rave scene faded, in part thanks to police crackdowns on illegal warehouse parties, only to come back bigger than ever. Now electronic dance music — rebranded EDM — is a huge industry. Raves held in massive public venues have largely replaced clandestine, invite-only affairs.
And kandi these days means plastic beaded bracelets, face masks and necklaces. For many ravers the accessories have deep symbolic meaning, and bracelets are exchanged using an elaborate handshake in which they spell out "PLUR" with their hands.
But the drug association still lingers. Los Angeles–based promoter HARD, which was bought by Live Nation in 2012, has banned kandi at its electronic-music-heavy events since they began seven years ago.
"We're just trying to tell people that we're a concert and not a rave event," HARD founder Gary Richards told Riverfront Times' sister paper OC Weekly in 2011. "To me, raving just has the connotation of little kids with no clothes on, doing drugs. And that's just not what I want HARD to be."
Kandi was also recently barred from the electronic-focused Mad Decent Block Party tour after the drug-related August deaths of two Maryland festival attendees. (It is not known if they were wearing kandi.)
"We just had serious issues with kids hiding it," Mad Decent founder Diplo said in a statement, "and there was a definite relationship between safety and security and made it so we had to ban certain items."
This decision caused an uproar. "[Banning kandi] has nothing to do with making the event safer," Insomniac's influential rave promoter Pasquale Rotella told Vice. "Let people wear what they're gonna wear. It's crazy. Dance music events were the one place you could go and not be judged."
"Kandi isn't about drugs," Lady Casa says. "Even if you take away the kandi, drugs are still gonna get snuck in."
If Big Rave's crackdown on kandi makes promoters seem like clueless high school principals, the issue of Native American attire is much muddier.
Lady Casa is known for colorful headdresses with artificial feathers, which can reach all the way down to her ankles. Such appropriation has been a staple of big concerts for years, including at festivals such as Coachella, where you can rent a teepee.
But Native Americans and their allies are fighting back. Australia's Meredith Music Festival and Bass Coast, a British Columbia, Canada, electronic event, have both banned Native American–style headdresses.
"We're trying to be good neighbors," says Bass Coast's communications manager, Paul Brooks, referring to the aboriginal land surrounding the festival. "We wanted to take a stand on the issue."
The most recent Lightning in a Bottle festival was held in California's Central Coast region, on the traditional grounds of the Chumash tribe, and attendees were discouraged from wearing Native American garb, a decision seconded by the tribe itself.
"Chumash headdresses are worn for specific, cultural reasons," says Nakia Zavalla, cultural director of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. "Our feeling is that we don't like that, and we don't want our culture to be represented in that way. There are different ways of expressing an appreciation to Natives — you can get to know our traditions or come to our public gatherings."
Lady Casa responds that there's a difference between wearing Native American gear as "Halloween costumes" and doing it respectfully.
"We are honoring a Native prophecy that is helping us be better people, that is helping us send a vibe we believe is helping the planet," she says. "I know a lot of people wear headdresses to festivals with this in mind. Even just having this in mind, thoughts are frequencies, so for them to feel that warrior spirit and feel that love, that's a beautiful expression."
It ties into her belief in an Anishinabe tribe teaching called the Seven Fires Prophecy (sometimes known as the Eighth Fire prophecy), which urges people to turn away from the technology, materialism and greed that are depleting the Earth's resources, and instead live in harmony with the planet. She was hipped to the teaching during a music festival on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula for New Year's Eve 2012, where she attended workshops held in the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá.
She is sensitive to the headdress controversy, however, and says she has begun finessing her look to be more like a "mohawk," rather than a Native headdress. That's probably a good idea, since devotees of the Anishinabe teaching believe she's already walking a fine line by calling herself a "spiritual guide."
"She should promote [the prophecy], she should not teach it," says Pat Wilson, an Anishinabe scholar of the prophecy who lives in Michigan. Doing so without being properly trained, he adds, is a sign of disrespect.
Lady Casa's philosophy also seems to diverge from the Seven Fires Prophecy's rejection of materialism.
She and her business partner, German Muñoz, have attempted in the past year to expand the business side of PLUR Warriors. They even brought on "a new CFO," Muñoz said in May, though that guy didn't work out.
Lady Casa brushes off any questions of hypocrisy. "We still live in that system, we still need to eat, we still need to pay our bills."
Plurwarriors.com sells rave-appropriate pasties, tanks, T-shirts and underwear. There are even shirts for guys, one of which has Lady Casa's famous body-paint photo. Below, it reads: "She makes me want to PLUR."
But it's hard to translate Instagram fame into dollars, and sales haven't been particularly brisk. Lady Casa says she's not a good businesswoman, noting that a long line at her recent festival merch booth added up to more hugs than sales. "It's not in me to try to get people to buy stuff from me," she says.
Her long-term dream is to reinvent the Lady Casa character as a "festival healer." At events such as Electric Daisy Carnival, she pictures renting out a hotel room and assisting ravers with "chakra healing, essential oils or guided meditation."
"I know there's a market for that because I pay for it myself," she says. "I see my audience wanting to be involved with what I have to offer as a healer."
Up next: The rave death toll.
In March, the local PLUR Warriors chapter held a "kandi picnic" in Los Angeles.
It's a perfect day, offering stunning views of downtown. The event is ostensibly a clothing drive, but people are mostly here to shoot the shit and make kandi. While kids romp around, the ravers bead their asses off, over the quiet strains of Swedish house DJ John Dahlbäck.
Lady Casa's organization has nine chapters around the country, and she isn't in attendance today. But the Southern California incarnation of PLUR Warriors is a diverse group; one attendee is the head of Larry Ellison's security crew. Another is an active Marine Corps member, a muscled brunette named Brieanna Cawley, who says electronic dance music has helped her overcome the stress of military life.
"We're attracted to the PLUR Warriors because when you're around people with good energy, it drives you to do good things in your life," says her friend Julez Utsinger, herself a Marine Corps veteran, who was stationed in Japan during the tsunami. Her husband nods; he has a chin-strap beard and a kandi bracelet spelling out his name — Bryan.
The official talking points focus on community and acceptance. But the elephant in the room seems to be drugs; no one wants to talk about them much, except to decry the media for singularly painting ravers as drug burnouts.
"Drugs are everywhere," Madison Howard, the girlfriend of Lady Casa's business partner, Muñoz, explains at the Venice Beach event. "Why does the rave scene have to be highlighted for it when people are doing them at country shows, rock shows, everything? It's just people expressing themselves."
Regardless of genre, music has certainly been linked to drinking and drugs. This summer saw a rash of incidents at country concerts, including a July Keith Urban show outside of Boston, which was deemed a "mass casualty incident" because so many people were hospitalized for drinking.
But no musical genre has been more plagued by overdoses in recent years than EDM, and the death toll continues to rise with its increasing popularity. This year alone, at least one attendee died at Ultra, Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival and Hard Summer, all marquee events with electronic dance music components. (Toxicology reports indicating the cause of death are not available in all cases, but drugs are suspected.)
All told, nine deaths have been tied to various iterations of Electric Daisy Carnival, which left Los Angeles following the 2010 death of a fifteen-year-old girl who'd taken ecstasy there. That event is run by Insomniac, which also co-produces the Electric Forest Festival in Michigan. That event has experienced three deaths. Meanwhile, New York's Electric Zoo festival had two deaths in 2013, causing its final day to be canceled, and six people died of suspected methamphetamine overdoses at an EDM festival called Future Music Festival in Malaysia earlier this year.
Many organizations who put on these festivals have gone to great lengths to curb drug use on their grounds. At the most recent Electric Zoo, attendees were forced to watch an educational video on the dangers of molly, the ecstasy derivative often taken in powder form. And organizers often are blamed for tragedies that are out of their control; of the deaths tied to Electric Daisy Carnival, one last year was a woman who fell out of her hotel window, and one this year involved someone who was planning to attend but never actually set foot in the festival venue.
"Fan safety is our highest priority," Insomniac spokeswoman Jennifer Forkish says. "We go to great lengths to keep illegal substances out of our venues and educate fans about the dangers of drug use. Unfortunately, there is a limit to what we or anyone can do to protect people from the bad choices they sometimes make."
Indeed, many ravers either are unaware of ecstasy's risks or don't care. "I know there's a lot of ravers who will say it's not about the drugs," Lady Casa says, "but it's so much a part of what goes on at these festivals. You can't deny that a large majority of people are on drugs."
In her role as "PLUR Mama" (as many refer to her), she says she talks to ravers about being safe, and about specific contaminants that don't show up in drug-testing kits.
"I take my mom's approach. She didn't tell me not to do drugs but told me about the risks involved," she says, adding that last year she changed her name from "Molly Casa" to "Lady Casa" to play down the drug association. Personally, she no longer does drugs, she says, if only because meeting with hundreds of fans at raves is exhausting enough.
She laments that much of today's ecstasy, or MDMA, is adulterated. "MDMA was a revolutionary substance in the '80s and '90s that spiritualists say really opened the heart chakra, and taken at the right dose can really allow people to have spiritual awakenings," she says. "It wasn't MDMA [that caused the festival deaths]."
That's debatable. As L.A. Weekly's Dennis Romero reported last year, although MDMA-related deaths often are attributed to factors such as harmful adulterants in ecstasy and overheating, the drug can be toxic in and of itself. "MDMA is associated with causing death by a number of mechanisms, including hyperpyrexia, cardiac arrhythmia, water intoxication and liver failure," reads a summary of a Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology study from 2011.
It's hard to separate kids from their drugs, even if they're life-threatening. Still, if anyone could do it, it would be Lady Casa.
That's not something she's ready to do. "I have seen people use it moderately and responsibly," she says, "and it brings out a beautiful side of people."
That's not to say ravers need to be rolling balls to have fun.
The folks at the kandi picnic, for example, are quite sober, and everyone's getting on great. "I know a lot of people here from Instagram," says 24-year-old Bridgitte Odell, a smiling brunette with olive skin and big, fake eyelashes.
Odell goes on to show off her kandi, noting that her bracelets outline an entire raver family tree. Introducing someone to the scene makes you their "parent," giving you the opportunity to give them a "PLUR name." Odell christened her "daughter" Clover; Clover in turn gave her a bracelet reading "Best Rave Mom."
In fact, ravers seemingly have less in common with other music communities like punks or indie rockers than with Christian youth-group members — all light, positive energy and the ability to set aside disbelief. "I believe that we are all made of consciousness," Lady Casa has said. "Everything is consciousness."
As for the drugs, well, at least raving has killed fewer people than religion. It's hard not to conclude that Lady Casa, a philosophical queen for the Instagram age, is really just providing another generation of kids what they perennially need: love.
"Back in the day, Woodstock was such a phenomenon because so many thousands of people were gathering," she says. "And now, it's like, we do it every weekend."
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