A GoPride Interview

Michael Rolik

Sydney Mardi Gras chief Michael Rolik takes us down under

Fri. May 3, 2013  by Matt Inawat

I couldn't believe the scale of love and acceptance... it was really electric... that kind of security and knowing there was that level of acceptance helped me with my own confidence
Michael Rolik
As Chicago and the IGLTA (International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association) welcomes attendees around the world, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras chief executive Michael Rolik chats about the festive celebration, plans for next year's event card and how the Sydney LGBTQ community inspired him.

Click here for photos of Sydney Mardi Gras 2013

You can find Michael at the Sydney Mardi Gras booth during the GLBT Travel Expo on Friday evening, May 3 at the Center on Halsted.

MI: (Matt Inawat) Michael, congratulations to you and everyone who made Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras a grand success this year. "Generations of Love" was a the perfect theme to celebrate the event's 35th year. Personally, what was the most exciting part of planning out the festivities?

MR: (Michael Rolik) Thank you!

The most exciting part of planning the 2013 Sydney Mardi Gras was the opportunity to commemorate that 35 years spanned a generation.

Creatively this enabled us to engage our communities who embraced the opportunity to both honour our past and where we have been, take pride in how far we have come and to imagine our future.

Generations of Love acknowledged the legacy of the original marchers in 1978 and there was a great moment in the Parade where 83 year Ron Austin who conceived the idea of a Mardi Gras and Julie McCrossin both original "78'ers" who were arrested by the Police back then, passed on a huge rainbow flag to the next generation - a group of youth representative of the LGBTQI communities.

Over the three weeks of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival, we held over 60 events, many produced by the talent in our community in addition to our own events. Some of the highlights were:

Women Say Something, an evening with Megan Mullally (Karen from Will & Grace), Little Black Dress Run (charity run to raise money for children living with HIV), Thank you for being a friend (a puppet form Avenue Q style show of the Golden Girls) and a "Beautiful Thing" theatre production.

And of course our world famous pool parties, the Harbour Party and the Mardigrasland Mardi Gras Party.

MI: People from all over the world assemble in Sydney which creates an amazing atmosphere of diversity. What are some of the most memorable stories you've heard from visitors at the festivities?

MR: Over 60,000 people participate in Mardi Gras each year and 23,000 of them come from around the world and the rest of the Asia Pacific region. For many, its a bit of a rite of passage in a gay persons life - a must do experience. Sure its a long way but its worth it as a once in a lifetime or once in a long time experience. As you can imagine with so many visitors each year there are thousands of stories from meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones. A common theme and story is the story of fun and friendliness - and how beautiful everyone finds Sydney.

We had the pleasure of hosting 2,000 visitors from the second ever Atlantis Cruise to Sydney. We solved a problem of getting the guests from the ship to their viewing area at the Mardi Gras Parade by suggesting they walk up the Parade route (its the only road not blocked up with traffic as we shut the whole city down). They had a ball 'flying the flag' and being cheered on by hundreds of thousands of spectators. They were very much treated as gay royalty (laughs) and they had such a buzz and thrill from it.

MI: What inspired you to take on the responsibility of working with Sydney Mardi Gras?

MR: I came out back in 1994 in my early twenties. A group of friends suggested we go watch the Parade. I had no idea what to expect and when I arrived I was just totally blown away by it all. It was massive, the whole city had come out on a warm clear sunny night and there was this magical, loud, disco thumping heartbeat of the most colorful floats with sexy guys and girls int he most stunning costumes dancing up the street and being cheered on by what seemed like the whole city. I couldn't believe the scale of love and acceptance and sense of fun, it was really electric. I guess for me that kind of security and knowing there was that level of acceptance helped me with my own confidence.

A year later, I responded to an advertisement in the gay press calling for volunteers for the Parade. I went along to a briefing, joined up and became a part of this great event from inside the barricades. Each year I volunteered again and moved up the ranks. The parade employs of 1,500 volunteers and its a huge exercise in mass people movement and stage management. This experience complemented by corporate career in management and organisational development and I developed skills in production and event management. I later served on the Board of Mardi Gras as Parade Director and Treasurer. My corporate career took me to Qatar and London and when I returned, the CEO role became available, I applied and secured the role.

I guess what inspires me now is that the event changes peoples lives, as it did mine and as a gay male in his mid 40's I feel a sense of ensuring that custodianship of this responsibility continues and expands - not just to G's & L's but to everyone in the LGBQTI communities and our friends that share our values.

MI: It sounded like the perfect calling! What's your vision of the future?

MR: My vision has several levels to it. Firstly, the essence of what Mardi Gras achieves is to celebrate the power and the beauty of diversity - LGBTQI diversity and the many other forms of diversity that define us as individuals beyond our sexual identity - be it ethic, gender, religious and other diversity. Our vision is to inspire the world to love each other by celebrating the power and beauty of that diversity.

So what I want to do is to raise the bar of that celebration, to extend it and open it up and to do so by lifting the artistic and creative standard, provide more opportunities for LGBTQI people - from within Australia and visitors to our shores - to express themselves artistically, politically and socially through what we do; be it the Parade, our parties and our arts Festival and be a bolder, bigger and more visible example to the rest of Australia and the world that we can love whoever we choose to and continue to be a global beacon of diversity, acceptance and LGBTQI rights - and to do it fabulously!!

MI: What's at the top of your list for the 2014 festivities?

MR: Continue with our program of increasing our investment in creative and artistic resources in all of events especially in the Parade and by producing and programming in areas where we really want to develop our audiences - such as lesbian and trans audiences.

We grew these audiences significantly in the last two years and will continue to do so. We also want to take the Mardi Gras Party to a much higher level creatively and production, and to extend an integrate more cultural institutions to be part of our programming - Sydney Opera House, Sydney Theatre. There are some really cool new event sites and entertainment precincts opening over the next few years and we will be lloking to hold our events in these new iconic locations.

MI: Do you get a chance to take a break now that the event is over? When do you get started planning for 2014?

MR: No, it never stops. We operate on a 14 month planning cycle, so we are well into 2014 planning and thinking about 2015. Put simply, to have world class talent and production, quality talent is booked out that far out and we conceive and have that dialogue years out.

MI: What insider tips would you give a first time attendee from the US coming down to experience their first Mardi Gras?

MR: Mardi Gras is in February each year. Its the perfect time to escape the harsh, long and dark winter for sunshine, fine summer food and wine and lots of parties and good times.

If you are single, get your besties together; or if you're a couple, come for at least two weeks. We have so much on offer over the Festival and we do this across some many iconic Sydney locations - the Harbour, Bondi Beach and so many Sydney landmarks.

Be a part of it. Register for the Parade or join one of the local groups. There is nothing like being in the show!! it is so much fun and is the best experience!

MI: Any great tips for experiencing Sydney while there? What are the must-sees and must-experiences?

MR: Oh there are so many! Catch the amazing world class drag shows at The Midnight Shift, join the hottest friendly locals for a Sunday afternoon ritual of later afternoon drinks at The Beresford Hotel. Jump in a cab to Newtown and dine in any of the scores of authentic Thai restaurants and enjoy a few colds beers at the classic Newtown Hotel a great spot both girls and boys. Definitely do the Bridgeclimb and of course do our amazing events - the Harbour Party, the Sunset Cruise, Mardi Gras Party and the infamous Laneway recovery.

MI: You're in Chicago this week representing Sydney Mardi Gras at the IGLTA conference. What do you think of our city so far?

MR: I love it! It's big, beautiful and classy. It has some of the most magnificent public art I've seen in a city and there is a real deserved sense of pride. Everyone is just so friendly and happy, it's been a great experience and I really love it.

MI: And you also have a fresh and exciting plan to include a fun USA contingent next year!

MR: Yes, I'd love to hear from anyone who would be interested in forming a Gay USA marching group to come to Mardi Gras.

So girls and boys, get your friends together and get in contact with me, we'd love to hear from you and can offer advice and do our best to make it happen!

MI: Sounds like a great plan! As someone just getting back from a holiday in Sydney this past summer - and missing it already - I can vouch for the wonderfully picturesque, vibrant and friendly city!

Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat, Michael. See you in Sydney!

Sydney Mardi Gras can be found online at http://www.mardigras.org.au.

If you are interested in joining the Gay USA marching group at the festival, click here to contact Mardi Gras 2014 or to follow their social networks.

Click here for photos of Sydney Mardi Gras 2013

Interviewed by Matt Inawat. Ron Matthew Inawat is president of the GoPride Network and contributes to ChicagoPride.com, PrideLA.com and other sites within the GoPride Network.