The Mullet Makes a Comeback and Divides Australia - WSJ

SYDNEY—As the world grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, one Australian lawmaker faced a different hairy situation: how would he respond to a local news report that an 18-year-old wasn’t let into a pub because of his mullet hairstyle?

“I’d just encourage people with mullets to rise up and rebel against these extreme rules pubs are imposing,” said Mark McGowan, the premier of Western Australia state, when asked by reporters about the incident last month. “Some of my best friends have mullets, and if you’ve got a mullet, it shouldn’t preclude you from going out and having a beer.”

The mullet—short on the front and sides, and long in the back—was a 1980s hair phenomenon that many who lived through that era would prefer to forget.

Some say it was already making a comeback before the pandemic in Australia, where it’s debatable how much it really went out of style. But coronavirus lockdowns have accelerated the mullet’s resurgence, as Aussies who no longer needed to clean up for work or school had time to grow out their locks.

That has renewed a national discussion over whether mullets are hip, cool, and amusingly ironic, or if it’s better that they be shorn from the history books.

“I was a teenager in the ’80s, I have very bad memories of the mullet,” said Lucy Race, who lives in Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city, and ultimately gave up her resistance to her 15-year-old son’s desire to get a mullet during the lockdown. “It reminds me of the boys that you didn’t really want to talk to.”

The issue escalated last month, when a letter was posted online from a private high school that reminded parents it was against school regulations for students to show up with a mullet, which it described as an extreme hairstyle. One commenter decried the letter as “un-Australian.” The school put out a statement saying its uniform policy was meant to develop a sense of unity and belonging.

Jay Blitsas, a 23-year-old hairstylist in Melbourne, used to have his hair shaved once a week. But when his salon closed for about a month because of coronavirus, Mr. Blitsas decided he would grow a mullet because he was sitting at home without much else to do. His mullet is dyed blue.

“My dad definitely isn’t a fan,” said Mr. Blitsas, who plans to get hair extensions to make his mullet longer at the back. “Although I did say to him the other day that he is my inspiration. He had the biggest mullet and the longest mullet I had ever seen.”

The hairstyle has gained more attention in the U.S., particularly after the popularity of the Netflix Inc. documentary series “Tiger King,” which featured the mulleted former zookeeper Joe Exotic. Singer Blake Shelton, who appears on the television show “The Voice,” said on his verified Twitter account in March that he would grow a mullet because everything he had scheduled was canceled.

In Australia, mullets have often been panned as “bogan,” a slang term with similar connotations to “redneck” in the U.S. To others, the hairstyle is a homage to Australian culture. The term may even have originated there. The publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary say the name for the hairstyle was popularized by the Beastie Boys, the U.S. band that in 1994 released a song called “Mullet Head.” The academics looked into a claim that the term appeared earlier in a 1992 issue of an Australian car magazine, but couldn’t verify it.

A mullet shows that “somebody’s got a sense of humor and doesn’t take themselves too seriously,” said Craig Smith, a mullet-wearer and salon owner in Brisbane, Australia, who won an award for being the top Australian hairdresser last year. “That sort of resonates as being quite Australian, doesn’t it? We’re quite happy to poke fun at ourselves.”

Australian-rules footballer Warwick Capper famously wore a mullet in the 1980s. Other athletes, such as cricketers Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie, sported them in the 1990s or 2000s. By the 2010s, it was a favorite hairstyle among “tradies,” a general term for manual laborers that includes construction workers, who found that length in the back protected their necks in the hot Australian sun.

In 2018, the inaugural Mulletfest was held in a small town about a two-hour drive from Sydney, and is now an annual event. Judges award best mullet in various categories, which included everyday, extreme, and grubby at this year’s event, held before lockdowns hit.

Despite that history, mullet enthusiasts have at times been denied entry into bars and clubs because there is a belief they could be badly behaved, said Bradley Woods, the chief executive of the Western Australia branch of the Australian Hotels Association. It is legal for venues to enforce a dress code as long as it doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender or religion, Mr. Woods said.

He said his organization believes venues should continue to set their own dress codes, as long as they comply with the law. But Mr. Woods, who is bald, said pubs might want to consider being more tolerant because not everyone has been able to get a haircut due to lockdowns.

“I’m extremely jealous because I wish I could grow my hair,” Mr. Woods said.

The mullet momentum may be difficult to stop. Melbourne-based Moon Dog Brewery offered to give a year’s worth of free beer to whoever grew the best mullet during lockdown earlier this year. The brewery was inspired in part by its Magnificent Mullet beers, a line of fruity sour ales named after mulleted celebrities. Beers have included Melon DeGeneres, Billy Ray Citrus and Cherry Seinfeld.

After a few weeks, the brewery received 200 entries, plus photos from more than 300 people who didn’t qualify because they had mullets before the lockdown began, said Brook Hornung, the brewery’s brand marketing manager.

The winner was Ryan Stewart, a 27-year-old IT worker in Sydney, who then went on to participate in a fundraiser, Mullets for the Kids, which raised money for a children’s hospital. Mr. Stewart said he had long hair before the lockdown, but it wasn’t cut into a mullet.

“With the long hair, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything without hair in my face,” Mr. Stewart said. With the mullet, he can avoid those problems, and still keep his hair long in the back.

“It’s not really acceptable to have a mullet most of the time. But we went into lockdown, so things changed,” he said.

Write to Mike Cherney at mike.cherney@wsj.com

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