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Stu Doherty's Amazing Mardi Gras Stories

Updated: Feb 11

✦ Celebrating LGBT History Month

Where fashion meets drag in high performance arts

Say Mardi Gras and a riot of colours, music, parties and parades come to mind.

Mardi Gras, Courtney Act and Stu Doherty, featured on Brilliant-Online
Courtney Act and Stu Doherty: Stu designs their costumes for the 2014 Mardi Gras Parade Entry, the Love Train

Mardi Gras in Australia, also known as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is a LGBTQI+ not-for-profit member-based organisation that produces the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade and Festival and several other events and supportive initiatives throughout the year.

Every year, Mardi Gras brings together LGBTQIA+ communities from all around the country where we gather in a colourful explosion of self-expression, celebration and protest. The glittering Parade and Festival are a demonstration of the amazing power of passion, creativity and community.

Brilliant-Online speaks to Stu Doherty from Wauchope Creative Hub about his Mardi Gras experiences and he has quite a number of very colourful stories to share.

What is Mardi Gras like in Australia?

We have the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras here, which is a festival attended by hundreds of thousands of people from around Australia and the world. It is held in March each year.

As you can imagine, it is a huge event! In fact, Mardi Gras pumps more than 30 million dollars into the state economy each year. So I'd say we do take Mardi Gras rather seriously here - we want to have some serious fun and get the celebrations going!

Mardi Gras today includes a variety of events such as the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade and Party, Bondi Beach Drag Races, Harbour Party, Academic discussion panel Queer Thinking, Mardi Gras Film Festival, Art exhibitions as well as a huge Fair Day.

It feels like you simply do not have enough time to experience all of the events!

How did Mardi Gras come about?

We need to jump into a DeLorean and travel back to 24th June 1978 and set the time machine to exactly 10 pm.

There was a night-time celebration following a morning protest march and commemoration of the Stonewall riots in the US organised by the Gay Solidarity Group. More than 500 people gathered on Oxford Street in Sydney in a planned street "festival" calling for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing, an end to police harassment and the repeal of all anti-homosexual laws.

Many voices were heard that day, and thanks to that, things have changed and in our present day we can celebrate together as one huge community without fear or prejudice.

How involved have you been in Mardi Gras and which were your most memorable?

Oh I've got some really great stories to share from my time then! I’ve been involved in Mardi Gras since the early 1990s in various creative roles. I played two major roles, one as their Costume Designer and the other as their Mardi Gras Party Director.

As a costume designer, did you design outfits for anyone famous?

I started out designing costumes for the big shows at the huge after parties. These were shows that had crowds of like 10,000 people watching my costumes. That was a huge thrill! I can't explain how that feels like for a creative artist to have this kind of exposure.

In 2014, I was art directing and designing a huge parade entry called The Love Train. It was a spectacular walking parade entry starring Courtney Act. She's the winner of celebrity Big Brother UK.

Courtney had just finished filming RuPaul's drag race USA and she came back to Sydney for the event. 

I remember walking the parade route with Courtney carrying loads of safety pins, band aids, water and I had my trusty sewing kit as well. You never know what could go wrong on that 4km walk from Whitlam Square to the Showground! It pays to be prepared, especially when you have a costume of that size!

I wish you could have seen the costume. It was mammoth. About 3 metres high and 3 metres wide and about 20 metres long. It was emblazoned with the words LOVE and EQUALITY. I think we really made quite an impact there!

Tell us about your experiences as a Mardi Gras Party Director

I was the Mardi Gras Party Director for 2 years running in 2011 and 2012. That was a whole new level and as party director I produced and directed huge production shows with international stars such as RuPaul and Alexis Jordan, along with hundreds of local dancers and drag queens. 

The sheer scale of it, and just being with so many amazing artists who all brought so much energy to the events… it was an amazing (and highly exhausting!) experience. One that I'll never forget.

2011 Royal Hall of Industries (RHI) Mardi Gras party

I was directing the 2011 Royal Hall of Industries (RHI) Mardi Gras party starring Dallas Dellaforce which traditionally starred a local drag performer accompanied by drag queens and community volunteer dancers. This show was a mash up of tracks from Madonna and Lady Gaga.

That year, Dallas Dellaforce and her production team from the 2011 Mardi Gras Show were recognised for their big Diva Moment, so that was very special.

Which were your most memorable Mardi Gras?

I was asked to produce and direct the midnight show in the main hall of Mardi Gras 2012. This was a show that would have an audience of at least 10,000 people, and the biggest wow factor was RuPaul - the international star and creator of RuPaul’s Drag Race

You can imagine how one would react on getting news like that. I was just speechless.

It wasn't just because of the scale of the event, or because RuPaul was someone famous. Thing is, I’m a huge fan of RuPaul and it was just mind blowing to be asked to produce the show of the year.

RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 4 (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Opportunities like that don't drop from the sky. So it was really a chance of a lifetime and when you get something like that, it totally drives your creative juices to the max. You feel pumped up and want to create the best show ever.

I worked with the best choreographer I knew in Sydney. Minnie Cooper and I had a dozen or so back up dancers and drag queens. There was certainly a lot of creative brainstorming and sharing of ideas, and when you're working with artists of that calibre it really invigorates you. I designed and made all the costumes and that was many hours of intense work. I loved every minute of it.

At the final rehearsal on the afternoon of the event, we had a crisis. RuPaul pulled a huge diva fit and refused to perform. Oh…my…god…Literally. OMG OMG OMG just went flying through my head.

But we didn't have the luxury of time to sit there and be dumbstruck or star-stuck!

It turned out to be a real test for everyone, and I'm not going to spill the whole story. Suffice to say that RuPaul finally did perform to a packed hall in a fabulous gold sequin catsuit. And the rest is history. Google it if you want to read the gossip, it was a huge scandal back then, but all that aside, personally for me and my team, I was proud to have navigated that crisis. I couldn't afford to lose it. I had my team looking to me to keep the ship running.

Perth Now reported "There's one every year."

As they say, the show must go on. And the challenge is to stay calm, get creative with possible solutions, focus on damage control and remain steady to doing the right thing.

Oh and I'm still a fan of RuPaul! After all, it does little good to hold grudges, but perhaps I'd say I'm just a notch down the scale of being a huge fan!

Even as I'm telling you these stories from the past it almost feels like my skin can still feel the electrical buzz of the energy of the events. I can hear the pounding of the music and the crowds, you feel the heat and spirit of all the colours and there was just so much going on, and all the festive spirit and such a huge community coming together to celebrate.

What else do you have to say about Mardi Gras?

I'd say that Mardi Gras has evolved and continues to change. It started from a political protest for equal rights through its golden age of the 1990s with all the mega parties and now it is actually struggling to find relevance in the 2020s.

Young LGBTQAI+ youths don’t have the same struggles we did 30 or more years ago. So all the huge parades and parties aren't such a draw card for them.

Both Brilliant-Online and Stu agree that our society has moved on to a place where there is more acceptance and in some places easier for youths to come out and express themselves with less fear of prejudice and discrimination. Of course every situation is different but we'd say in most situations the struggle for acceptance and equality is a lot easier today than it was last century. The recent marriage equality plebiscite is making it easier for today’s and tomorrow’s youth to live their most authentic lives.

I think Mardi Gras has become more of a tourist attraction now and that's great for Sydney’s economy. 

For me, I am thankful I had my crazy, wild, fun and creative days and some cool photos to remind me of the fun times! I’m happy now at Wauchope Creative Hub living my creative life in a much more relaxed way. Mardi Gras has evolved as an event over the years, and so have I! We may not have crazy loud music and mammoth costumes at Wauchope Creative Hub, but we do have an artistic community that are coming together to share and exchange skills and inspiration. This is something that has driven me all my life and I am so proud to have this beautiful space now to continue evolving in my artistic life together with so many other amazing artists!

For Brilliant-Online, inclusivity means total acceptance of others in the way they experience life as we all take different paths to the same destination.


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