Part 3: 2008 - TODAY
The shock of cancelling the festival in 2007 made both organisers and participants realise the vulnerability of an event that was operating purely on the hard work and passion of a small number of volunteers.
Natalie Moynihan was on the ChillOut committee in 2007 and the years that followed. The decision not to go ahead with ChillOut 2007 had a huge impact, and as she remembers:
A lot of people realised that it really does come down to half a dozen people or less to put on this massive festival, and there isn't a team of 50 people, there isn't an endless supply of volunteers, there isn't an endless supply of money, so if we don't have that support within our local community then we cannot put on this event ... If they don't get that support, and if we don't have volunteers, and committee members like myself who keep supporting this event, then it cannot happen.
In preparation for the 2008 event, the committee recognised that it needed to start planning for the long-term sustainability of ChillOut. Secretary at the time, Jim Culbertson, was successful in getting a grant of $75,000 from Regional Development Victoria and Hepburn Shire Council for ChillOut 2008. For the first time, the committee cautiously introduced a few paid positions in an attempt to help alleviate some of the burden on the volunteer committee members and, hopefully, reduce burn out. A paid events coordinator was one of the first of these positions and it signalled a period of transition for the festival as it continued to become more professionalised and streamlined over the next several years.
Several new events were introduced after the ChillOut 2007 hiatus. In fact 2008 marks the beginning of some of the most well-known ChillOut events, including the Worthy Cause Slowest Lunch and the Bush Dance. The organising committee decided to introduce the Slowest Lunch for the 2009 festival as a specifically designed fundraiser. The inaugural lunch raised an impressive $27,000 for the worthy cause recipients, the Alannah & Madeline Foundation. The Slowest Lunch has developed and changed over the years with new venues, donated goods and guests. It is now called the Lavish Lunch and continues to be the most significant fundraising event of the festival, with over $250,000 being donated to some 20 local organisations over the years.
The Bush Dance also first appeared on the ChillOut program in 2008 and has remained one of the most popular features of the festival. It started out at the 1926 heritage building The Palais in Hepburn, where the sprung wooden dance floor was put through its paces as a packed crowd of men and women belted around learning bush dance steps. The festival and the wider Daylesford-Hepburn area were dealt a crushing blow, however, when at the end of 2010 The Palais was forced to close its doors. Despite reopening several months later under new ownership, the venue survived less than two more years before once again closing its doors to the public. The ChillOut Bush Dance moved to the Daylesford Town Hall in 2011 and has remained there since.
The theme of ChillOut 2008 was ‘Queer as Country Folk’ and ChillOut organisers invited a special guest, horse wrangler Adam Sutton. Adam was a gay cowboy who inspired actor Heath Ledger’s character in the film, Brokeback Mountain. With an attendance of over 25,000 people and a direct economic benefit of more than $8 million to the Hepburn Shire, ChillOut 2008 proved that it was back, stronger and better than ever.
People, as well as events and functions, are now features of the festival. Dolly Diamond, for example, has become a ChillOut institution. Dolly, a vivacious drag queen, celebrated her tenth year as Carnival Day host in 2014. Dolly started hosting the Carnival Day in 2004 and quickly became an attraction herself. Paul Kidd, like many ChillOut organisers, has great admiration for Dolly Diamond.
She’s a force of nature that woman, she is so important to ChillOut, and she has held together that stage so many times ... Knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and the kind of sense of organised chaos and sometimes very disorganised chaos, to have Dolly as the kind of face of ChillOut has been really important.
At her tenth anniversary, Dolly told the Star Observer, she looks forward to many more years with ChillOut. ‘I built it up to be brilliant and I wasn’t let down’, she recalled. That same year was also tinged with sadness as the ChillOut community mourned the passing of one of its long-term volunteers, Roz Moynihan. Roz had been a dedicated volunteer for ten years. The major fundraiser was renamed the Roz Moynihan Worthy Cause in her memory and in honour of her tireless dedication and commitment to the ChillOut festival.
It was not just the volume of work and the burden on volunteers that threatened the viability of the ChillOut festival. The weather was another key issue, as the outdoor nature of the festival meant that each year ChillOut was at the mercy of the elements. Early March in Daylesford could mean stinking hot summer days or wet and windy winter ones. In 2009 the festival was almost cancelled for the second time because of nearby bushfires. Renee Ludekens remembers rain was a concern for the festival organisers because too much rain would mean a drop in attendance and at worst, a washout. But it wasn’t always a case for concern, as Renee recalls one wet weekend in March where the rain turned out to be a highlight:
One year it poured with rain ... and the tug-of-war was on between the lesbians and the boys, and there were all these people in the mud trying to pull this rope over the line. It ended up as this enormous mud fight, people were covered from head to toe in mud, it was fantastic.
Despite the challenges that the festival faces, it has continued each year, uninterrupted since 2008. Each year the festival’s foundations grow stronger and its meaning to the community is reaffirmed. Accolades and recognition have come in various forms. In 2015 the festival was voted the winner of ‘The only GAYTM in the Village’ competition with ANZ. The GAYTM – an ANZ ATM with a unique rainbow design – was installed in the town temporarily in time for the festival and all fees raised during the two weeks it operated were donated to the fund for the redevelopment of the Victoria Park.
Growing up with ChillOut, former committee member Natalie Moynihan has watched its growth and evolution excitedly:
I knew that ChillOut was being recognised when we had people coming from South Africa, from Canada, from America, from London, to come over because they'd heard about this regional gay and lesbian festival that was happening in a little spa country town in Victoria. It was pretty awesome when people would say, we've been to some in San Francisco, we've been to some in Canada, we've been to some in London, we've been to different Prides everywhere, but we love this one. It just gave you that feeling I guess of pride that you were doing the right thing and that your little country festival was becoming something that was recognised not only nationally but internationally.
Merryn Tinkler became ChillOut Festival Director in 2016. While the festival had employed people in various roles over the past few years, these were funding-dependent and never ongoing positions. Merryn became the first paid festival director, providing the opportunity for the festival to develop some strategic direction and forward planning.
My role involves working really closely with the ChillOut committee, which is a volunteer committee, and basically I bring my skills as an event manager and as someone who can source funding. I work to kind of bring in some strategic direction to the festival, about where do we want the festival to be in five years' time, ten years' time, and on the ground just logistics and event management stuff. So I liaise with all the entertainers, map the site out for the Carnival, liaise with all of the logistics for the Carnival, do road closure applications, do event permits, liquor licensing, bring it all together.
Over the last few years, ChillOut Festival has started looking to expand beyond the Labour Day weekend, providing opportunities for the LGBTI rural community to connect, relax, celebrate and enjoy together. The festival organisers and director have worked hard to secure ongoing funding to ensure the future viability and sustainability of the festival. The committee is looking at increasing the number of events throughout the year. ‘More events throughout the year is what is more sustainable for us as a volunteer committee’, Merryn told the local paper in early 2018.
Advocacy is something that has been a core part of ChillOut Festival from the very beginning. While the early days were about visibility and awareness, with Australian society moving closer towards equality for LGBTI people, the festival organisers have used their positions to support issues like marriage equality, and were in fact successful in getting the Hepburn Shire Council to support marriage equality well before the national postal vote was even considered. In 2012 a motion was called and passed for in-principal support of marriage equality legislation in Australia by the Hepburn Shire Council. In 2017, the Victorian State Government announced a grant of $150,000 for ChillOut over the next three years. Local Labor member for Macedon, Mary-Anne Thomas said at the announcement:
Our community is enriched by the ChillOut festival, not only through the diversity that it promotes, but it also attracts thousands of visitors to our region, helping keep our bars, restaurants and hotels busy.
Talking about her hopes and visions for ChillOut into the future, Merryn Tinkler acknowledges that while there has been a lot achieved in the last 40 years in regards to recognition and equality for the LGBTI community, there is still a long way to go.
The advocacy [of ChillOut] is going to be continuous. The support that the community need, particularly young people or elders who are isolated, there's a social responsibility in an organisation like ChillOut and we – I think – could be heading down the direction of actually doing more in that space as well as the celebrations.
While the festival has grown and changed a lot since that first Sunday event in 1997, it has continued to hold true to its founding ideals of being a place where anyone is welcome, can relax with friends and family, be entertained and just, chill out.
 Interview with Natalie Moynihan, 18 December 2017.
 Interview with Paul Kidd, 18 December 2017.
 Benjamin Reily, ‘ChillOut marks 10 years of Dolly Diamond’, Star Observer, 11 March 2014.
 Interview with Renee Ludekens, 18 December 2017.
 Interview with Natalie Moynihan, 18 December 2017.
 Interview with Merryn Tinkler, 16 January 2018.
 Rochelle Kirkham, ‘Chillout Daylesford set to celebrate love over five days in March’, The Courier, 8 January 2018.
 Media Release, ‘ChillOut festival to light up Daylesford’, 2 March 2017 http://www.mary-annethomas.com.au/media-releases/chillout-festival-to-light-up-daylesford/
 Interview with Merryn Tinkler, 16 January 2018.