Mardi Gras: parade at SCG to proceed – but party may yet be cancelled, says Kruger

Despite turbulent times, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras CEO Albert Kruger, pictured, remains upbeat about the role of Mardi Gras in 2022. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

“Mardi Gras saves lives. That’s why the show must go on,” Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras CEO Albert Kruger tells the Sentinel, in a wide ranging interview ahead of this year’s Mardi Gras Festival. By editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

This is, by far, the most challenging role of Albert Kruger’s career. But also, easily the most rewarding. 

Every time he discusses what Mardi Gras means to him, his blue eyes twinkle with the glint of a man who adores his job with a rare authentic passion. 

“Mardi Gras saves lives,” he says. “It really does. It’s the central ethos of the organisation. We receive countless messages from people in rural or regional Australia saying they were feeling alone, isolated, considering suicide and then putting on the TV and watching this amazing program, realising: ‘There’s a whole community out there like me.’”

The Mardi Gras CEO took the reigns at one of the most fraught times in the event’s history. And that’s saying something, given it has twice gone bankrupt.

He came on board two weeks before the March 2020 parade.

“I remember the night before, I was on the phone to NSW Health for hours, deciding if we were going to go ahead with the parade because of this thing called Covid,” he says.

Obviously that year, the parade and party both went ahead. But other problems awaited.

“Immediately after, we had the party queue dramas. So that wasn’t a great experience,” he says.

Mardi Gras CEO Albert Kruger has guided the organisation through some of the most challenging times in its history. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Party halves in size

The party queue drama of 2020 relates to partygoers having paid upwards of $225 to see the likes of Sam Smith, Dua Lipa and Kesha perform at the 5,500 capacity Hordern Pavilion, only for many to be left disappointed that they couldn’t get in because the venue was jam packed. Some demanded refunds.

“We’ve learnt not to put all four major acts in one venue,” Kruger says. The party capacity has dramatically decreased from 15,000, when the RHI and The Dome were available, to 8,000. That further downscaling is designed to further aid traffic flow at this, one of the world’s biggest gay pride parties. 

“We didn’t actually oversell the event – that was the biggest misconception,” Kruger says. “It’s just that people, once they got into the Hordern, knew that four acts were performing – and didn’t leave.

“The other thing we’re doing for 2022 is programming all the way to 6am, spacing performances out more,” he says.

Community pushback is something anyone in the Mardi Gras CEO chair will have to get used to. With a broad range of stakeholders: the ’78ers, First Nations floats, members, the board, radical offshoots like Pride in Protest, and every letter of the rainbow LGBTQI+ alphabet, any person who has ever done this job will know that all have varying and sometimes competing needs and views on the direction of Mardi Gras.

With that in mind, the organisation, under Kruger, is reviewing its constitution, has undergone a brand refresh and is professionalising its systems, processes and policies. 

Community pushback, nonetheless, persists. 

“There was a lot of pushback this year from the community saying, ‘Why didn’t you just go back to Oxford Street? We’ve all been vaccinated now.’”

This relates to the parade happening again at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), something billed as a one-off last year.

That, of course, was before the ubiquity of Omicron.

The SCG offers many pandemic era benefits: it can scale back if needed; social distancing is far more viable, as is vaccination checking at the entrance.

It has other, universal, boons. More ‘78ers than ever before attended last year because they could have a seat throughout the parade. Others commented that viewing was easier for short statured people. And access to the bar, food and toilets was far easier than in Mardi Gras’ traditional Oxford Street home. This year, there are plans to improve disabled access. 

It’s highly unlikely the SCG parade will be cancelled; it’s a tried and tested Covid safe model.

But, with signing and dancing currently banned in NSW, the party may yet be scrapped. 

“It’s a real reality, yeah,” Kruger says with a slight sigh. “It’s a turbulent time.” It’s the only time his upbeat and optimistic energy somewhat depletes during our chat. 

The event has already “smashed” all its sales targets and enjoyed major wins, like switching from SBS TV to the nation’s prime broadcaster, the ABC.

“To be honest, the Mardi Gras staff are tired; really tired,” he says. “Everyone thinks we’re this massive organisation, but out of season, there are only six of us. In season, there are 25 staff. We’re a really small organisation that punches way above our weight. But we keep getting thrown these curveballs.”

Staff have, he says, recently been putting in 14 or 15 hour days. “We don’t ask or expect them to do it. They’re driven by pure passion, because they love this event. Mardi Gras invokes passion like few things I’ve seen in my life.”

When these feelings of frustration take hold, coming after 24 months of trying to put on a huge event when the events industry has fallen to its knees, Kruger comes back to another, overriding feeling.

“I come back to this memory I have of being a visitor from South Africa, and seeing people on the dance floor of the Mardi Gras Party crying. Actually crying. And you’ll be like: ‘Are you okay?’ And I now know what those tears are. They’re tears of joy and [being overwhelmed] at this sense of community, of loving, of celebration, of belonging and of mateship. People have made friendships at Mardi Gras that’ve lasted 20, 30 years. We create that space, and that feels even more important in these times of isolation, especially for our community … That’s what drives us when times get this turbulent.”

The good news is, this year sees a return of two signature events that couldn’t proceed in 2021: Fair Day and the Kaftana Pool Party

In spite of Covid, the 2022 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival is forging ahead with a multitude of events under the theme ‘United We Shine’. Video: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras/YouTube.

Apartheid, bullying, marriage and escape

Albert Kruger grew up in Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capital cities. His first language is Afrikaans.

He felt excluded by the “very straight, macho, boys don’t cry culture” of his Afrikaans high school and was badly bullied for his perceived difference. 

“Luckily I was in a co-ed school so there were girls around me in whose friendships I could seek refuge,” he says. “But that didn’t stop the bullying, which happened because I was a bit more effeminate than the other boys. I hated school.”

He came out as gay young – aged 15 – and got together with his first boyfriend aged 16. 

That boyfriend would become his husband for 17 years – South Africa was one of the world’s first countries (and to date, Africa’s only country) to legalise same sex marriages in 2006.

Despite this, challenges ensued. 

Due to South Africa’s unequal age of consent laws at the time, the first years of the couple’s relationship were technically illegal. 

“So we had to fly very low under the radar,” Kruger says. They married when Kruger was 27.

At 18, Kruger was ready to escape. “I felt it was small, suffocating and that there was no real community for us,” he says.

The teenager packed up and headed to London on a working holiday visa. He literally turned 18 in the air as the plane transported him to buzzier climes.

“It was pretty wild; I hadn’t even had my year 12 exam results and it was my first overseas trip,” he says.

A career in corporate events followed, including Kruger setting up his own events business aged 21, when he returned to South Africa. It grew to 60 employees. At one point, he became a brand ambassador for Mercedes, getting a free Benz every three months. He later ran trade shows and exhibitions around Australia.

It was on a trip as a visitor to Sydney from South Africa 12 years ago that he first experienced the magic of Mardi Gras.

“I was so emotionally moved by it,” he remembers. “I was like, my God, look at this community; everyone’s so involved. It was unlike any other pride event in the world I’d ever seen, not least because it runs at night!”

But the dream CEO role was almost snatched away from him.

“The managing director of the events company I was working for called me into his office one day and said: ‘Look,, Albert: LinkedIn is suggesting I apply for the Mardi Gras CEO position!’” he says.

“I thought: ‘Man! I want that job!’ So I ran back to my desk and applied really quickly! I don’t think my MD really wanted the role; he was 66 and gearing up for retirement; not in the mood for dealing with a lot of community members.”

Growing up in the land of apartheid, how has this shaped his attitudes towards equality?

“It’s pushed me in areas like women’s rights and better outcomes for our First Nations people. I’m very focused on getting them actual seats at the table, not just window dressing; that’s why I set up the Mardi Gras First Nations Advisory Committee,” he says.

Originally from South Africa, Kruger is now at home in Sydney – and at the helm of Mardi Gras – 12 years after first experiencing the Mardi Gras magic as a visitor. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

It takes a village 

As we talk, the staff at the mostly empty cafe start stacking chairs, ready to shut up before the brightest rays of the sun have even burnt through.

The seemingly premature closure brings to mind our rapidly diminishing Sydney gay village, with venues like ARQ and the Green Park recently closed.

“In some ways, it’s perhaps a good news story, because young LGBTQI people feel safer in mixed venues,” he says. “For venues to stay open, it requires the community to come out and support them, or they’ll have no option but to close,” he says. “It’s why Mardi Gras is committed to keep telling the stories of our history, and of our evolving community; we’re launching a podcast in partnership with Joy FM to do just that.”

The next milestone is the Mardi Gras AGM on 28 January, when queer rights offshoot group Pride in Protest will again move to bar the police and the Liberal Party from Mardi Gras; a motion that has repeatedly been voted down and is likely to be again. 

“I do understand, with the Black Lives Matter movement, that our First Nations community don’t always feel safe. There are relationships between sections of our community and the police that aren’t as healthy as we’d like. Mardi Gras works hard to maintain an excellent relationship with the police, not least because it includes many of our community as staff members. And there are parts of our community who love having them in the parade,” he says.

Pride in Protest is organising a protest march on parade day – Saturday, 5 March – to campaign against the government’s latest Religious Freedom Bill, among other issues.

WorldPride 2023 is also gearing up; it’s run by a separate committee, over and above the existing Mardi Gras 2023 program which Kruger’s team will still steward.

Keeping the organisation financially sustainable in the long-term is also top of Kruger’s priority list.

“The responsibility of this role – to honour the expectations of ‘78ers who started it, and serve the ever more diverse community coming up – is not lost on me,” he says. 

“It’s the community’s baby.”

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.

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