‘It’s not a hairstyle, it’s a lifestyle’: scenes from Australia’s first mullet festival

One contestant and his crowning glory at Mulletfest 2018 in Kurri Kurri, 150km north of Sydney. Photograph: Peter Parks/Getty Images/AFP

“Last call for rangas! Rangas, last call!”

Word goes round the front bar of the Chelmsford hotel, an old-style beer barn on the corner of Kurri Kurri’s main street, and there’s a flurry of activity. The third round of the inaugural mullet festival is about to begin, and contestants and spectators are ready to get serious.

A mining town of 6,000 half an hour west of Newcastle in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley, Kurri Kurri has been searching for the magic formula other regional towns have hit on to draw in tourists and reinvigorate its economy. Since 1993 Parkes has had the Elvis festival; Trundle, a minuscule town an hour west, struck gold in 2012 with the Abba festival. Deniliquin in the state’s south-west has reaped the benefits of the Deni Ute Muster since 1999.

The Chelmsford hotel’s owner and local hairdresser, Laura Johnson, hit on the idea of a festival celebrating Australia’s most loved and loathed hairstyle – long at the back, short at the top and sides – while brainstorming with a friend and co-organiser, Sarah Bedford. “Aussies love an icon,” she says. “We have so many mullets in town, and in my family. My father-in-law had one for 60 years.”

Josiah Farthing, 14, from Newcastle, an entrant in the junior mullet category
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 Josiah Farthing, 14, from Newcastle, an entrant in the junior mullet category. Photograph: Isabella Moore for the Guardian
The glowing press Mulletfest generated when it was announced raised expectations for a bumper event. But the real test was always going to come on the day. At Kariong, an hour down the Pacific Highway, John Farnham – Australia’s King Mullet himself – is headlining the Red Hot Summer festival, with Daryl Braithwaite in support. Being double-booked against that kind of star power is a big ask. Would internet and media hype translate into mullets on the ground?

As it turns out, yes. Kurri Kurri called, and they answered. In the Chelmsford hotel’s beer garden, a concrete and corrugated iron annex with a Bundaberg Rum polar bear feature wall and no air conditioning, mullets of every stripe have come. Blond surfie mullets; greasy biker mullets; filthy dreadlocked mullets. Achingly sculpted, or boldly free-flowing. Vigorously shampooed or proudly unwashed. Punk and bogan and hipster.

When the contest gets under way at 10.30 in the morning, the pub is already heaving with punters and competitors. In the 35C heat, broiling in the beer garden’s confines, the mullets on display wilt like bedraggled peacocks. Those less interested in formal competition can measure their mullets by buying T-shirts and singlets bearing the official Mullet-Meter: a measuring system running down the back of the shirt ranging from the relatively sedate “neck warmer” through to “Joe Dirt”, “ape drape”, “shagable” and the ultimate length, “lifetime legend”.

Kevin ‘Pappy’ Johnson, 62, an entrant into the everyday mullet category
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 Kevin ‘Pappy’ Johnson, 62, an entrant into the everyday mullet category. Photograph: Isabella Moore for the Guardian

First up is the junior mullet category. Contestants: 22. A scrum of mullet-bearing kids trip down an impromptu catwalk formed by the crowd and line up onstage, their hair resplendent. They’re prompted to dance by Karuah cover band the Stunned Mullets – on retainer for the day – striking up Keep Your Hands to Yourself by the Georgia Satellites. They bop eagerly, revelling in the attention – all except a lanky teenager with a lustrous brunette spread who stands stock still, silently mortified as only teenage boys can be.

The winner, 12-year-old Alex Keavy, wins on a combination of mullet strength and showmanship. He alone thought to use his mullet to its full potential in the dance-off, moshing theatrically to spread it down his front. He began cultivating the style 18 months ago, because “Dad always used to cut my hair, and it was always terrible”. Alex is gracious in victory, pledging to use some of his $50 prize money to buy his girlfriend a pie. “It’s not a hairstyle, it’s a lifestyle,” he declares. “Thanks to the judges, and to the hotel.”

Alex Keavy, 12, from Mona Vale, was crowned the overall winner of the junior mullet
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 Alex Keavy, 12, from Mona Vale, was crowned the overall winner of the junior mullet. Photograph: Isabella Moore for the Guardian

The trio of judges sit to one side of the stage, quietly deliberating among themselves. Two of them are openly baffled by the situation they’ve found themselves in. Meryl Swanson, the local Labor MP, has never even had a mullet, although she admits to sporting some big hair in the 80s. “It’s certainly been an eye opener”, she says of the festival. “I’m looking for pride, people embracing the mullet, finding self-worth in it.”

Brett Mullins, a former fullback for the Canberra Raiders and the NSW Blues who owns a gym in town, is similarly bemused at where life has taken him. “They unearthed a photo of me with a mullet from when I was 18, so that was it,” he says. “I have no idea what I’m looking at.”

They largely take their cues from Dan Brown, a Newcastle barista known as the Mullet Lord for obvious reasons. He lists an exhaustive set of criteria he’s checking: “Level of maintenance, split ends, length of time, density, lusciousness,” he rattles off, looking out into the crowd. “Feels good. Like I’m with my tribe.”

Tragically, there is only one entrant in the “ladies’ mullet” category, and she is 11 months old. But the dedication shown by contestants in other rounds makes up the shortfall. Cougar, a 20-year-old sporting a long red number, drove 14 hours from his native Frankston to take part. He drove his ute, licence plate MU113T. “Can’t drive anywhere. Cops see ya, ‘Whoop!’” he complains.

Zac Ralph, 28, from Cardiff, a runner-up in the grubby mullet category
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 Zac Ralph, 28, from Cardiff, a runner-up in the grubby mullet category. Photograph: Isabella Moore for the Guardian

Laurie Manuele, who travelled from Gippsland and quickly endears himself to the crowd with his pro-mullet speeches, is anointed Mulletfest’s unofficial mascot after it is pointed out he bears a striking resemblance to the festival’s logo. “The mullet will live forever,” he proclaims. “And Kurri Kurri is the home of the mullet!”

But it is someone closer to home who takes the grand prize. Shane “Shagger” Hanrahan of Denman, who has been growing his mullet since 1986, is awarded best mullet by crowd ovation, and delivers a Churchillian address after sculling Jim Beam from his trophy.

“I dunno what to say, I’m fuckin’ pissed,” he tells the crowd. “Rock on! Fuck you! Fuck youse all!”

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