Whoosh! Issue 50 - November 2000

By Ross Mallett
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
3583 words

Introduction (01-04)
Xena's Float (05-09)
Backstage (10-22)
Break a Leg! (23-35)
Conclusion (36-37)

Mardi Gras 2000: Xena Fandom in Gay and Mainstream Culture


[1] Sydney is Australia's oldest and largest city, a modern metropolis of over 3.5 million people. It is situated on undulating ground surrounding a scenic and beautiful natural harbor. Despite its enormous size, it retains many aspects of a small seaside town. Its worst feature is a chaotic 18th century street system, characterized by random, narrow, busy streets, and an excess of No Turn signs. I have been traveling there for years, and still find myself unable to figure out how to get from point A to point B. I recently found myself caught in a traffic jam once again, at 3AM on a Saturday when I chose one of Sydney's busiest streets to return to my hotel.

[2] The annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is now in its twenty-first year. From its humble beginnings as a gay rights parade in 1978 (after which most of the participants were arrested and subsequently had their names published in the Sydney Morning Herald), this month-long celebration is now the world's largest gay and lesbian arts festival. For the Sydney gay and lesbian community, it is the major event of the year, and it culminates in a spectacular carnival parade, followed by an all-night dance party [Note 01].

[3] The idea of a Xena float at Mardi Gras came naturally in view of the Warrior Princess's "dykon" status. In 1998, Mardi Gras arranged for the Marching Grrls, an all-lesbian marching team, to parade dressed as Xena. (Their theme that year was Xena, the year after it was the George Michael, and in 2000 it had something to do with Melissa Etheridge and turkey basters.) Not being arranged by Xena fandom per se, it was an homage to Xena as a lesbian icon, rather than a tribute to the show's subtext. Some 122 proud lesbians paraded dressed as Xena, along with a handful of water carriers dressed as Gabrielle.

[4] At the same time, an invitation was sent to Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor from the Mardi Gras committee. Unable to attend in 1998 due to filming commitments and problems with the electricity supply in Auckland, they duly attended the festivities in 1999, dressed in costumes from IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412) and HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211) [Note 02].

Winning the silver or gold gets new meaning at Mardi Gras

Renee O'Connor and Lucy Lawless at Mardi Gras 1999, with commentator Bob Downe.

Xena's Float

[5] Finally, the time had come for Xena fandom to attempt to enter a float in the Mardi Gras parade. Organizing a float is a tremendously time consuming, complex, and difficult task. A committee of eight was formed. "It's not really a committee, it's just the only eight people who were willing to do anything right from the start," one member explained. "Leah was elected president because she was the person who got most involved and got interest up in the first place". The committee was entirely Sydney-based, as it would have been nearly impossible for a Mardi Gras entry to be organized from anywhere but Sydney. A call for participation went out through the Down Under Xenites (DUX) mailing list. To coordinate the national effort, a bulletin board was established. Later this was superseded by a Mardi Gras 2000 mailing list.

[6] The committee estimated that the entire production could cost up to AUD $5000 (USD $2900) and asked would-be participants for a minimum of AUD $60 (USD $35). While some balked at the size of the fee, others contributed generously up front. As it turned out, money was not a significant issue, but there was disagreement about the extent to which contributing sixty bucks entitled someone to participate in the decision-making process. From a practical point of view, such participation could only be minimal. The committee, incorporating a range of ideas, mainly carried out the design of the float.

[7] In the final weeks, Xenites argued about the design of the float, about what kind of message the float was supposed to project, and about the nature, meaning, and even the wisdom of participation. Was the float celebrating subtext or maintext? Fandom or lesbianism? Should straight people really be allowed to participate? These were issues not subject to easy answers, for they went to the very heart of how one viewed the show.

[8] For those who felt that the float was too lesbian-oriented, there was not much that could be done, given that the context was a gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade. Those who felt that it was not lesbian enough presented a more difficult problem, and at first a greater prospect of accommodation. The recalcitrants represented a loss to the Xena float, although not necessarily to the Mardi Gras, as some went on to participate with other groups. Leah decided not to issue another public call for more marchers, but to rely on word of mouth to fill the vacancies.

[9] Throughout, the project benefited from the enthusiasm and support of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Committee, who provided advice, support and practical assistance in the form of its workshops and artists.


[10] I drove up to Sydney from Canberra on the Friday afternoon before the parade. On arrival, I met Leah for the first time; she immediately impressed me with her enthusiasm, drive, and organizational skills. I knew at once that I was in the presence of a born leader, and that she was without doubt the very sort of person that the daunting task of organizing a Mardi Gras float required.

[11] The two of us immediately left to collect props from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Workshops. This place is like a slice of Hollywood, a giant warehouse stuffed to the ceiling with bizarre props of all kinds, such as a pair of ruby slippers eight feet long. Many only made sense when I finally saw the assembled float. The general effect was a chaotic hodge-podge. The quality of work and imagination was extremely high. Fortunately, our float props, a couple of Grecian columns and an archway, were easily located except for one piece, a wooden heading, which was missing in action. I despaired at finding it amongst the rows and rows of stuff but Leah, dogged and persistent, somehow managed to locate it amongst the shelves.

[12] Leah had turned her whole house over to Mardi Gras props, the most prominent of which was a huge Xena breastplate for the front of the truck. A great deal of work was done on the Friday evening, which slowly degenerated into a kind of party, where I got to meet many of my fellow fans for the first time. The depth and breadth of their talents blew me away. I was simply amazed at the skill and craftsmanship that had gone into some of the props.

All right, who made the little papier-mache ambrosia shot glass?

Positioning the lights and speakers on the truck tray.
[13] The truck was a large eight-ton with a steel flatbed rented from Budget for the weekend, the largest that Leah could obtain. Props would be installed on the tray, stuck down with gaffer tape. I later discovered that the correct technique is to lay down plywood, so that the props can be screwed down. The loading of the truck itself was postponed until Saturday, as it had to sit out in the street, possibly subject to damage by wind and rain and the occasional stray vandal. This made Saturday an extremely busy day.

[14] For music, there were four huge speakers, and for lighting, eight lights. Leah had located an excellent, experienced, professional light and sound man called Dom. Dom was one of those great Aussie blokes: straight but tolerant. He was technically proficient and always supremely confident that "she'll be alright on the night". His main complaint was that the float had been designed without taking light and sound into account.

[15] A pair of rented petrol generators supplied power. The original idea was to have one of them power the lights and the other the sound system, although either should have been sufficient for both. Dom rigged them up accordingly, but problems were discovered with one generator, so it was put aside. The other could power everything, or so we thought.

[16] The truck had a skirt of cloth painted to look like blue brick and the cabin was surmounted by a chakram, and there was a sign "Temple of Xena-Warrior Dykon". Covering up the generator, a major design challenge for every float, was a fake fire spectacularly made from poster paint and mirror glass with a medallion of Xena and Gabrielle kissing hanging above. Two gray pillars decorated with golden female figures left over from an earlier Mardi Gras float flanked it. The recycling of props is a feature of many Mardi Gras floats. It was surmounted by chakrams of the new fifth season (yin-yang) style. In the center of the tray was a metal frame (apparently another veteran of many Mardi Gras parades) and a stand made from a milk crate. At the rear was an amazing huge breast dagger image in the image of a pair of female forms. Everyone pitched in to paint, nail, and tape the float together.

Love American Style's logo for the new millenium

The striking giant breast dagger is erected on the truck tray.
[17] In its imagery, the accent was heavily on both the media fandom and lesbian aspects of the show. This was not entirely comprehensible to the casual and straight audiences who had not seen the episode, and therefore would not have recognized the new chakram. True Xena fans, of course, always somehow connive to view tapes of the latest episodes from the United States!

[18] I was most surprised at how far some of the Xena fans had traveled. Xenites had come not just from every state, but some had also come from the United Kingdom, from Holland, and the United States just to attend Mardi Gras! They were just a part of the tens of thousands of foreign visitors to Sydney for the Mardi Gras each year.

[19] The amount of work that had gone into constructing the props and costumes was amazing. There would be a number of dancers on the float. At the front, there would be four pairs of Bacchae and Hestian Virgins dancing around a drag Warlord Queen Xena [from ARMAGEDDON NOW (H73/414)] and an Amazon Queen. At the back of the float, separated from the dancers by the giant breast dagger, would be our Xena and Gabrielle. Thus there were versions of Xena in both her good and evil aspects, along with the pairs of Bacchae and Hestian Virgins, dramatizing the show's recurring theme of the duality of light and dark in Xena's nature, besides providing the opportunity for some neat subtext.

Peas! Boar! Peas! Boar!

The dance of the virgins and Bacchae.
[20] Most spectacular of all, Amazons would dance behind the float, breathtakingly costumed in the splendid red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple of the rainbow flag. Many superb ideas went into the float, but this relatively simple one got my vote for the very best.

[21] With so many people on board, the float started to look curiously small. There was some disappointment from the choreographer when she realized just how much of the precious space the speakers would take up. Then too, we had some small problems with the dancers. The CD that the committee had specially prepared for the event was played by a small Discman, which was plugged into the much larger amplifier. The sounds included a bloodcurdling mix of war cries, including a neat invocation from Xena to "Kill them all!", and a medley of various themes from the series. Unfortunately, the dancers' movements upset the Discman and caused it to switch off! Dom remedied this by taping the Discman to a large sponge. He also removed the knobs from the amplifier, so that the dancers could not turn up the volume and blow the speakers.

[22] No detail seemed too small for Leah, whose organizational abilities were first class throughout. She carefully arranged for a pasta meal to be served to the dancers beforehand, correctly guessing that some would be too excited to eat. She also had a number of vehicles pre-parked at the show grounds before noon in order to cart everyone away after the parade.

Break a Leg, Everyone!

[23] The truck had to leave for the parade early. I accompanied our driver and our parade marshal in the truck, while Dom followed on his motorcycle. The truck had to negotiate the fairly narrow and congested streets of Newtown; fortunately our driver was skilled. At one point, we clipped some of the local vegetation, but there was no damage to the float. The main shopping district in Newtown was bedecked with rainbow flags. People on the street stared at the float, and some tooted their horns. One looked straight at me and asked if we were going to Mardi Gras. (Nah, mate, we always drive around looking like this.)

[24] A cute Mardi Gras official fluttered his eyelashes at me and asked how tall I was when standing. Fortunately, we had measured it (it is a guy thing, okay?), and I was able to reassure him that we were under the maximum height. They placed an identifying number on the truck and gave us participants' passes, then directed us to take up position in Bathurst Street, near Hyde Park. Here we would wait until curtain call, about 9PM.

[25] Rain was predicted and there was, in fact, a light drizzle around dusk, a couple of hours before the parade. This was a concern, as everything was stuck down with only duct tape. It was also quite windy. Come parade time, though, the weather was fine and the wind nonexistent. I cannot speak too highly of the miraculous properties of duct tape.

Time for a serious bout of stage fright

Final moment: the float in readiness in Elizabeth Street
[26] While we were waiting, most of the props were positioned and taped down, the main exception being the breast dagger, which was not erected for fear of damage by the wind. At this time, I had an opportunity to wander round and compare our effort with other floats. Next to the ones with television screens, fog machines, building lights, and gigantic Atlas-Copco generators that gave out enough watts to light up half a Sydney suburb, the Xena float looked humble in trappings but generous in spirit.

[27] Unfortunately, the lights were neither as plentiful nor as bright as we would have liked. Indeed, two lights had to be switched off because the power drain caused an overload. On paper, the generator had sufficient amps, but in actuality it could not quite handle the total load of both the lights and the sound. This was disappointing because I would have liked to have thrown some more light on the dancers.

[28] Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sydney- siders flowed around us, carrying their blue milk crates, a tradition dating back to the earliest parades. (Viewers stake out spaces and stand on milk crates.) Mardi Gras is a public event watched by up to 650,000 Sydney-siders each year. The next day, thousands of milk crates littered the route down Oxford Street. Mardi Gras officials and barricades kept the spectators away from us. Many stopped to take pictures of the Xena float when it was finally assembled, and the float attracted our fair share of interest.

From a distance, we look like a swarm of butterflies on the rampage

The Amazons assemble for a last-minute dress rehearsal.
[29] The dancers arrived in cabs in dribs and drabs instead of together as expected. They had remained to practice their routines in the park, and the bus that was supposed to pick them up had failed to show. But this was just a minor hitch. All hands turned to erect the last of the props, and to spruce up the float for its big moment.

[30] Finally, the truck moved to the final staging position near Hyde Park. The dancers were ready, and everyone was in position. And the lights and sound immediately went off!! This was a heart-stopping moment.

[31] I raced back to the truck with absolutely no idea what to do. I could only think of one thing that could have gone wrong. I pulled the plug, grabbed the two spare cans of fuel carried for the purpose, and frantically refilled the generator's tank. It had been running for over an hour, and we really had no idea how long it would last. I attempted without success to restart it several times. For a while, it looked like we were going to be quietest, darkest float in the whole parade, but I gave it one last try before the float had to move off, and it roared back to life. Never was that awful lawn mower engine sound so welcome. I plugged the lights and sound back in, and luckily, it kept going. When I finally jumped off the float, I was convinced that there really was a Goddess somewhere smiling on us.

[32] Appropriately, it was Xena's war cry that boomed out over the speakers. A volley of colorful fireworks followed.

Now THIS is the kind of entrance Xena should always get!

The float sets off down Oxford Street with fireworks exploding in the distance.
[33] Since I had a participant's pass, I was able to view the float from in front of the crowd, standing with the police, ambulance, Mardi Gras officials, media, and all the other hangers-on. I probably had the best view of the Xena float in Sydney. Believe me, the float looked great, the dancers on the float looked tops, and the Amazons marching behind were breathtaking. All doubts that I had about how well we would look evaporated. A number of people cried "Xena! Xena!" as the float passed, and it got plenty of applause.

[34] The parade goes for a fair distance down Oxford Street from Hyde Park to the Sydney show grounds, the site of the post-parade party. Crowds ten deep or more lined the road, which in true Sydney fashion varies greatly in width from majestically broad to dangerously narrow. It is a long way to dance, but the quality of the dancing was excellent and never faltered until the show grounds finally came in view.

OK, everybody prepare to trip the cameraman...

A rainbow of colorful Amazons parade down Oxford Street behind their float.
[35] The television commentators interviewed one of the Amazons, but the television coverage of the Xena float was scant. Fortunately, photographers were there to record the event for the benefit of the participants. Commentaries were provided both via television and live over public address systems. Towards the end of the march, there was an animated discussion at the Bobby Goldsmith stand about whether Buffy was tougher than Xena. Like, as if [Note 03].


[36] "We all had a fabulous time!" declared one of the committee. "One of the best parts about our float was that we were represented by such a wide range of people. There were gay women, gay men, straight women, straight men, and bisexuals all sharing their love for Xena and the Mardi Gras. We also had people from the USA, Netherlands, Greece, and all parts of Australia. Many who had never met until the day of the parade!" In doing so, they reaffirmed the true meaning of fandom and of Mardi Gras itself.

[37] Xena would have wanted it that way.


Note 01:
For a brief history of the Sydney gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, see: History of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
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Note 02:
For a full report on Lucy and Renee at the 1999 Mardi Gras, see: Lucy and Renee in Sydney in 1999
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Note 03:
The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation was named for the swimmer who won 11 gold medals at the first Gay Olympics in San Francisco in 1982. The Foundation's mission is to assist people directly disadvantaged by HIV and AIDS in New South Wales, to maintain a reasonable quality of life through the provision of financial assistance, financial counseling and supported housing. For more, see: The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation
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Ross Mallett, "Military Technology Of Xena: Warrior Princess, The" Whoosh! #29 (February 1999)


Ross Mallett Ross Mallett
Ross Mallett hails from Melbourne, Australia, but now lives in Canberra, where he works as a computer programmer. He has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne, a Master of Business Administration from Monash University, and a Master of Arts from the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra for a thesis on the technology, tactics, and organization of the Australian Army in World War One. He is a long time fan of Blake's 7 as well as Xena and has written a number of fan fiction stories for both fandoms.
Favorite episode: THE PRICE (44/220)
Favorite line: Autolycus, after being beaten up by Velasca: "Hey, I paid for an hour!" THE QUEST (37/213)
Favorite moment: Gabrielle dances with a couple of cute Bacchae in GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204)
First episode seen: WARRIOR PRINCESS (H09/109)
Least favorite episode: PROMETHEUS (08/108)

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