Kynsna is set to receive its annual dose of homo shock therapy as the gays descend on the town for the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras. Now in its seventh year, the event is an off-season boon for tourism in the gorgeous Garden Route area. Mambaonline spoke to the event’s founder and organiser, Juan, who perfers to only go by his first name.
How did you get involved in the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras?
I started the Pink Loerie in 2000 with a few ideas in mind: firstly to bring people to Knysna in a quiet time of the year; secondly, to celebrate gay culture and all its diversity; thirdly, to promote tolerance and understanding towards the gay community and, finally, to raise money for charity. Also to give the “girls” an opportunity to dress up and get a bit of fresh air in the country!
Any other more personal reasons?
Growing up in a very conservative Afrikaans family with parents not understanding the gay thing, I realised the need to celebrate our identity; to take it to the people out there for them to see and experience the “normality” – for lack of a better word – of it all. At present we have a great constitution but we have to secure a platform now and build on it for the future to ensure a voice if ever needed again. That is the serious part of it. The other side is that we all need a bit of fun and laughter. I like to create and what better to create than the first ever Mardi Gras of its kind on the African Continent.
How long have you lived in Knysna?
I’ve lived in Knysna for about 10 years, all in all. Recently I made Calitzdorp, in the Karoo, my home. It’s the Port Wine capitol of South Africa.
What is your background and what do you when not working on the Pink Loerie?
I started off – after my two years in brown in the army – studying everything about fashion and beauty. I coached tennis in between, travelled the world extensively, got involved in International marketing and trade, fashion design, commercial and domestic interior design and the last few years hospitality and event management. Now I’m concentrating on events and functions. I also paint and my other passion is photography.
What will be different this year compared to previous Pink Loeries?
Each and every year we grow – from very humble beginnings to where we are now. Recently I had a conversation with a great friend of mine, a very wealthy, well-known businessman, and I asked him what I should change about the Loerie and he said: “Nothing – it is the only time of the year when you can go away to a beautiful place like Knysna, where you can just be yourself, no pretences, no nothing and meet fabulous interesting people. Where you can sit at a bar talking to a mechanic from Boksburg in a terrible dress and listen to his story and enjoy every minute. Why change it?” Other than that, this year will be a little more fabulous than last year!
What events are most exciting for you this year?
The Mr. Mardi Gras SA competition which will be part of the SoCo party at the newly renovated Zanzibar [nightclub], the Miss Mardi Gras DRAG – we are looking for the best drag queen in South Africa – and Miss Mardi Gras SA. And then, of course, the PINK Party; the mother of all parties. Only 1000 people can get into the venue at any given moment – so get there early boys!
Is it hard to keep the event fresh every year?
Not really. Every year we do the same thing with a bit of a twist. The great thing about the Loerie is that all we need to do is ensure great parties and events and we leave the rest to our guests – who mostly return year after year.
So the Pink Loerie is just a big party?
It is just a big party – a celebration. We support all efforts around gay rights and the people fighting the battles on our behalf – the Prides in Cape Town and Jozi – but here at the Loerie we celebrate the lifestyle, the people, the culture and the rights we already have.
What are your biggest challenges in setting up the event?
Deciding what to wear on the day! But seriously, we are a very small team working closely together to make it happen. My biggest problem is with the local businesses; the restaurants make more money over the Loerie Festival than over peak season, clubs make more money over the Loerie, all businesses benefit. But they have the approach of “why should we advertise in the program if we will be busy anyway.” This irritates me tremendously. We are now asking guests to only frequent the businesses that support the Pink Loerie. At the end of every Mardi Gras we give all the money that is left to charity. The following year we start fresh in terms of finding money to start the process all over again. We have the support of basically the entire town, but to get them to contribute financially is a bit tricky.
There were complaints in previous years that a number of scheduled events just didn’t happen. How will you avoid this happening this year?
Things happen – mainly with new events, so we try and stay away from those. It is difficult to control events not organised by yourself or the committee. We put events on the program as given to us by other businesses; we can only work harder to try to make sure all these happen and, hopefully, not too much will go wrong this year. The events organised by myself and the Pink Loerie WILL take place – and fabulously so!
Do you struggle to find sponsorship from national brands? If so, why do you think that is?
I quite understand the problem big business has with getting into the gay market; it has to be a gradual process so as not to upset their existing market and not to alienate future markets. That does not mean that they should drag their feet and find every excuse in the book not to open up the sponsorship opportunities to gay festivals and events. But already we see change and support coming from all over and it is encouraging. Finding sponsors is getting easier.
How much support do you get from local businesses and residents?
When I started the Pink Loerie they probably wanted to crucify me or stone me to death on the Square! But now, seven years later, they love it; they get involved, they support us and join in the fun. Most businesses are very supportive – especially the one’s not threatened by one specific church group. That group has threatened businesses with boycotts if they support the festival. Overall – the sensible businesses support us totally. I think their biggest problem is getting rid of the sequins, glitter and feathers from their establishments!
What about official support? Do the town and tourism authorities support the event?
We cannot have it any better. Knysna Tourism and, in particular the late CEO Craig Nancarrow, support us financially and with everything they can. So does the Town Council.
Do you ever face homophobia in organising the event?
There is still the well known attorney that takes his children out of town during the Loerie. And that one specific church is always very vocal and judgemental – but besides that, nothing!
Are you marketing the event internationally? Do you think it’s sufficiently large enough to appeal to overseas travellers?
We are listed on about 1000 international websites and we do a little marketing internationally and yes, we do get a few visitors from overseas – from as far afield as the Ukra