LAURA Johnson is in a rush and forgotten her keys.
We're meeting at 9am at the Chelmsford Hotel at Kurri Kurri, spiritual home of Johnson's brainchild Mulletfest, to discuss how she plans to take her globally-acknowledged event around Australia amid COVID restrictions.
"Let's sit on the front step, just like a couple of hoboes," she says bursting into a laugh.
The first thing that's obvious is Johnson's down to earth. Shorts, singlet and sandals, mullet of course, language that can drift to the colourful side, and a laugh just waiting to break out. Sitting on the front step of the pub before opening time is not an issue.
But don't be fooled. She's sharp.
You'd think COVID restrictions would make holding an event that packs out the old pub - and which is getting bigger every year - an impossibility under social distancing. But think again.
Johnson has not only nutted out how to do it while maintaining a decent crowd size - "it has to be financially viable" - but plans to make it bigger than ever.
This year, things going well, Mulletfest will feature in every state and result in two Mulletfests in Kurri. Yep, two.
"When I'd heard the Tamworth Country Music Festival was called off, I thought 'Gee, we're going to have to do something different'," she explains.
And so she started planning.
In her mind it was imperative that Mulletfest go ahead because people were hurting.
COVID meant jobs had been lost, businesses closed or on life support, people were locked down and, in many cases, separated from their loved ones. They needed some fun, some laughter. Mulletfest.
"When Mulletfest started, I had two goals," Johnson says. "One was to bring business to Kurri, and also make people happy. That was it.
"So in some ways this was the same thing. Back then, the aluminium smelter had recently closed and a lot of people had lost their jobs, and having the local pub, you can feel that. You're part of it."
Fast forward to today: different year, different situation, but everything else rings true.
"I know on a personal note it was my hardest year. My mental health wasn't good.
"The pub closed down just a couple of months after the last Mulletfest, so personally, financially, socially, on every level, I felt challenged."
It would be impossible to overstate how much emphasis she puts on the fun side of Mulletfest.
"Above all else, that's what people love about it. That's why it has gone global."
Consider this: in three years it has grown bigger each year, with a record 258 entrants last year including entries - both on video and in many cases there at the Chelmsford in person - from Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the US and Canada.
Johnson had a documentary team from Croatia stay at the pub for a week to do a piece on Mulletfest for their series on festivals of the world.
"Their previous festival was the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, I shit you not," she says, clearly chuffed.
Johnson's had an Irish television crew do a piece on her. She's had a Mulletfest cutting sent to her from a Prague newspaper in the Czech Republic. She's done so many television interviews she's now slick.
Not bad for a woman who also somehow helps run a trucking haulage business with her husband JJ, including doing some of the driving herself.
"We have seven prime movers, 20 trailers of all sizes and styles, drivers travelling all over the place," she says.
Johnson is also raising four children, does some hair-cutting from her home, and teaches stretching at iGym in Kurri.
To help ease the load, she sold the pub, which has been in her family since she was 9, to friends - "but Mulletfest will stay there, that's its home."
So, what's the 2021 plan to not just keep it alive, but thrive?
"Well, when the pub was shut I did some driving with JJ and we were going up through Queensland into the Northern Territory," she answers. "We could travel interstate because our load was deemed essential.
"We'd visit outback pubs along the way and I'd talk to the publicans - they all had a different story, but the result was the same: how the pandemic had affected their town and their business.
"I thought wouldn't it be wonderful if we could bring Mulletfest to these sort of places to just raise their spirits."
So Johnson has invited pubs from all over the country to apply for a Mulletfest event.
"Ideally I'll select one pub from each state. They can hold their own Mulletfest with hopefully people travelling from around the state to get there.
"I'll go up there to help with the planning - there's quite a lot of logistical stuff involved - and they can have their state Mullet champions.
"It will mean a lot of driving, but that's what we do anyway. Then, hopefully by early November, we can have a national final at the Chelly, putting up our own NSW champions. So, in effect, it will be two events in Kurri."
Entries have already started flowing in, like a good mullet should - the furthest from Karratha in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The beauty of Mulletfest since its inaugural event in 2018 as been its inclusiveness.
There's a raft of different categories for anyone wanting to keep things short at the front and long at the back.
Including juniors 0-3, 4-7, 8-13, 14-18 years and then adult categories of ranga (red heads), vintage (over 50's), rookie (growing for two years or less), grubby, extreme and everyday.
The rookie award will be named in honour of Matt Forster, a dear friend of the Johnson family who died in 2019.
Given the mullet was gained popularity with footballers and young blokes since COVID, it could be the most competitive year yet.
I'm educated, a mum, I'm successful, have a good family. I just happen to like a mullet. So what?- Laura Johnson
So has the mullet been de-boganised once and for all?
"Oh yeah. Thousands of kids around the state have a mullet," she says. "I think it's a sign of confidence, because they know they're going to be razzed at school.
"That's why it's important Mulletfest sets an example. If anyone swears on our Facebook page, we block them. We set an example. We don't have trouble at Mulletfest - just like-minded people there to have fun.
"Look at me. I'm educated, a mum, I'm successful, have a good family. I just happen to like a mullet. So what?"
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