The progress shark at Australian Museum
Photograph: Vincent Rommelaere

An ode to Progress Shark and other iconic memories from Sydney WorldPride

We’re wrapping up Pride Month with the most major slays of Sydney’s biggest, gayest event (and an explainer about its unlikely icon)

Alannah Le Cross

While the top half of the world celebrates LGBTQIA+ Pride Month in June, down here in Sydney the alphabet brigade and our allies celebrate Pride in February/March when the Australian sun is shooting balmy rays fit for bouncing off of tanned and sparkly bottoms. With the ‘official’ Pride Month coming to a close this Sydney winter (and Oxford Street's gay clubs encouraging punters to party the month away) we’re getting nostalgic about Sydney WorldPride. 

Earlier this year the famous Sydney Mardi Gras was supersized, with the historic Sydney WorldPride festival, when 300 events took place throughout the Harbour City for 17 days – the biggest event in town since the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It was also the first ever WorldPride held in the southern hemisphere. Phew, we’re still finding eco glitter in unknown crevices. 

And the accidental mascot for all this fabulousness? Progress Shark. Icon of icons. Queen of queens. A majestic beast with an underlying warmth to their beady black eyes. Only capable of swimming forwards, charging towards progress and unity for all. 

When the City of Sydney unveiled plans for the hundreds of rainbow installations planned to paint the town for WorldPride, it was the Australian Museum’s contribution to the colourful deluge that immediately captured attention. A 10-metre-long model of a great white shark was dressed up in a progress pride flag ‘cossie’ (complete with a tassel trim running down his tummy) on the corner of College and William Streets. From the moment the Photoshop mock-up dropped, it was love at first sight. Almost instant viral fame was buoyed by a wave of memes more alluring to the queer community than a dodgy submersible ride to the depths of the ocean is to a handful of billionaires. Once Progress Shark was officially dolled up, our hearts would go on, and on. 

There’s something about the ridiculousness of an enormous shark sporting a rainbow outfit (with a touch of Aussie dark humour) that made all the dolls say “slay” right out the gate, and propelled Progress Shark to ironic (but kinda unironic?) LGBTQIA+ icon status faster than the queer community adopted The Babadook as a gay icon after a viral categorical error on Netflix. 

While Progress Shark has departed his post outside the museum (along with the award-winning homegrown Sharks exhibition, which is swimming on to tour the USA), her iconic Instagram account (@progress.shark) is alive and well (note: the account lists he/she/they pronouns, so I’m alternating between them out of respect). Steered by a mystery admin (rumours abound!) touting “Parody & Progression Always <3”, the beloved account is an endless source of hilarious jokes and commentary catered to Sydney’s gay and/or queer scene/s (the doomed Ticketek loading page for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour was one of the latest targets), as well as news and info about local LGBTQIA+ events. The Progress Shark Insta even started selling coveted merch (that raises funds for ACON), and ran a giveaway for Cadence Bell’s dazzlingly creative “coming of gender” memoir The All Of It: A Bogan Rhapsody (big recommendation, FYI). 

To commemorate Progress Shark’s iconic reign over WorldPride, as well as the exuberant memories made during Sydney’s supersized Gay Christmas of 2023, we’ve compiled a list of the most iconic moments of Sydney WorldPride. Did your most iconic memory make the list? 

The 9 most iconic memories of Sydney WorldPride:

When Progress Shark appeared above the Domain in giant drone show form 

Progress Shark was already an iconic icon by the time the Sydney WorldPride Opening Concert rolled around on February 24. So much so, that when the formation of the drone show on the night morphed into a giant Progress Shark floating in the sky above the Domain, the 20,000 strong crowd absolutely lost it. 

That surprise performance from the Minogue sisters

It was iconic enough to have Australia’s own pop queen of the world, our Kylie Minogue, headlining WorldPride’s televised Opening Concert at the Domain (along with Jessica Mauboy and Charli XCX). The diva was showing us all how it's done with her stadium-worthy performance, but then she went and did a whole reveal. No, not just an outfit reveal – a sister reveal! That’s right, when Danni Minogue appeared on stage next to her sis in matching sparkly dance costumes, the biggest Gay Christmas ever had truly begun. Simply put, it was totally Padam before ‘Padam Padam’ had even first Padamed. 

The Auslan interpreter who stole the show signing for Kim Petras

If there was an award for the person who gave the absolute most at WorldPride, it should definitely go to Auslan interpreter Marc Ethan for his commitment to smutty signing during Kim Petras’s headlining performance at the Closing Concert. Footage has gone viral of Ethan enthusiastically hip-thrusting to the German pop star’s raunchier hits like ‘They Wanna Fuck’, and going all in mimicking oral sex for ‘Throat Goat’. We bow to thee! Petras herself was battling through a nasty flu she picked up on her flight to Australia, and persisted on slaying while adorably apologising and promising she’d come back Down Under in better form (we’re waiting, Kim). Her most iconic serve since collabing with Sam Smith on ‘Unholy’, TBH. 

The establishment of Sydney’s first LGBTQIA+ history museum

Sydney WorldPride was the impetus for Qtopia Sydney, a dedicated space to celebrate and commemorate LGBTQIA+ community achievements in the face of often brutal resistance. At the time we chatted to two of its founders, proud ‘78er Robyn Kennedy and sporting hero and actor Ian Roberts. A capsule collection for the museum was established at the Bandstand in Green Park (a historic location for Sydney’s gay community) which is still on display now. The super exciting news, however, is that it was officially announced at the WorldPride Opening Concert that Qtopia won its bid to take over the former Darlinghurst police station at its permanent home. Transforming a site where the original Mardi Gras protestors were detained into something sacred and celebratory? Iconic. In the meantime, Qtopia is hosting intimate gigs for the Live at the Bandstand series that are well worth checking out. 

When Sharon Strzelecki made a surprise appearance at a huge lesbian party 

The lesbians, bisexual ladies and non-binary dykes were running wild all over Sydney Town Hall for Ultra Violet, the biggest event for LGBT+ women and allies that the city has probably ever seen. (This video captures the vibe.) Canadian electroclash musician (and ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ singer) Peaches was the headliner of sapphic dreams, rocking out and crowd-surfing accompanied by ridiculous costumes, interpretive back-up dancers, and an aerialist shooting a lazer out of her crotch. But the peak of her performance was definitely a surprise appearance from Sharon Strzlecki – a.k.a. beloved Australian actress Magda Szubanski – dressed in full netball kit with an orange bowl cut as her famously accident-prone and thespian-inclined character from Kath & Kim. Peaches even joined Sharon in putting on an ultra-nasally Australian accent! Truly the pairing that we never knew we wanted, but that we definitely needed.

The salon that offered free haircuts to trans and gender diverse youth and got a HUGE response

Paloma Salon at the Paddington end of Oxford Street decided to take their allyship further than hanging some rainbow banners during WorldPride, teaming up with Transcend Australia to offer complimentary haircuts to trans, gender diverse, non-binary young people aged between 12-25. The salon initially offered 10 haircuts a week, but the response was so enthusiastic that they ended up gifting almost 50 identity-affirming haircuts in a three week period. So wholesome! 

Speaking to Time Out’s Alice Ellis, salon founder Paloma Garcia said: “Of course, there's an aesthetic part [to getting your hair done], but the whole belief system behind Paloma is that we're assisting our guests to believe in themselves through rituals of self care…making sure the hair is incredible. How you make people feel in life is everything. And for someone who's transitioning gender, that's even more important.”

When Albo marched in the Mardi Gras Parade

Marrickville’s own Anthony Albanese made history as the first sitting prime minister of Australia to march down Oxford Street (along with more than 12,000 participants) in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade in all its 45 years. It wasn’t his first time marching in the parade as an MP either – now that’s iconic ally behaviour. We just hope Albo will keep up that momentum in allyship, with Labor appearing to “backtrack” on LGBTQIA+ protections in the latest draft changes to the party’s 2023 National Platform.

When a Pride March of 50,000 people shut down the Sydney Harbour Bridge

It was the talk of the town when, on the final day of Sydney WorldPride (Sunday, March 5), the Sydney Harbour Bridge was closed off to traffic for several hours to make way for a massive Pride March. Shutting down the Coathanger? Iconic. The colourful display of LGBTQIA+ solidarity attracted some 50,000 friends, families and community groups from around the world. At an opening ceremony (attended by Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong), organisers asked walkers to consider those in countries where LGBTQIA+ communities are persecuted. We shared this wholesome video from the march and, honestly, rewatching it has got me tearing up. Iconic. 

Most importantly, Chris Zhou survived Sydney WorldPride

Canadian tourist Chris Zhou’s TikTok account (@storiesofcz) was launched into the viral stratosphere when he started posting bleary-eyed rants about Mardi Gras/WorldPride shenanigans – namely, how he had no warning about how hard Australians can party. After the first weekend, Zhou’s stamina and liver were so shattered, he was not sure if he could make it all the way through.

“You know back at home when you have a party, it would start at maybe like 11pm and ends at like 5am and that’s considered a pretty wild night?” he said. “But here? No, no, no. You have a pre-party at someone’s place. And then you have a day party that starts at two or 3pm and then it ends at 10pm… Then you’ve got a night party after that, that starts from 10pm to like 5am. And then there’s an after-party at someone’s place that ends at like 9am. And then what? Brunch! When the fuck do these people sleep?” 

Thousands of followers became invested in Zhou’s journey to survive Sydney WorldPride’s brutal party regimen. And to great fanfare, he came out the other side – topping it all off with wild kick-ons at Sunday morning day-club Morning Glory

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