Orlando French transplant Mikael Audebert has made quite a distinct mark on the Central Florida LGBT community, especially in the last four years. He has held the position of Executive Director of Come Out With Pride (COWP) the last three years, as the event ballooned from 80,000 to 120,000 attendees, making it a premiere national and international celebration. He is also now the President of Metropolitan Business Association (MBA), a group that helps build LGBT work equality and business. Finally, he also runs Converge, the official LGBT conventions and visitors’ bureau for Orlando.
“America is the land where you can turn a failure into a dream,” Audebert said.
It’s that tenacity that has lead Watermark to choose Mikael Audebert as Orlando’s most Remarkable Person of 2013, and we were surprised to learn that it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Audebert. In fact, he has considered permanently moving back to his hometown in provincial France several times.
“It’s not always been easy here, and I’ve had lots of failures early on,” Audebert said.
Those failures include an economic downturn in 2008 that shuttered his travel business, forcing him to give up his home. Even in 2011 his first year leading COWP a torrential storm with extraordinary winds forced a decision to postpone the event. Audebert had to rally the LGBT community and the city of Orlando, asking them to help him reschedule everything the parade, the entertainment, the fireworks for less than a month later.
We talked with Audebert about his journey and how he came to be such a prominent figure in Orlando’s LGBT hierarchy.
WATERMARK: How did you settle in Orlando?
MIKAEL AUDEBERT: I’d actually come back and forth to America three times before, so there was no guarantee that I was going to stay here. These days, I have a permanent green card, but now I am applying for citizenship. So I’ve made up my mind. [Smiling.]
I am from Aix-en-Provence in France. I came from there to Richmond, Va., for the first time in 1992 when I was 17, as a foreign exchange student. It was really a culture shock, and I wanted immediately to go back to France. So I went home for my final year of school.
But once I was back in France, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the U.S. I worked in restaurants to make money to come back. And when I turned 18, I moved to the suburbs of Washington D.C. But my big goal was California. A month later, I went out west, blew through all my savings in less than a month, and realized I was totally unprepared. I had to call my parents to bring me back to France. It was a complete failure.
I went back to Aix-en-Provence, worked very hard for six months, and then left France yet again. I came to understand there was no chance for someone like me, a young person with ambition, to get ahead and make a mark. That’s why I came back to America.
I worked around Alexandria, W.V., until 1996, and then I got a job managing restaurants in San Diego. One day, a Republican politician came into one of the restaurants, and he was organizing the Chad [Africa] Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C. He actually hired me to be the first executive director of the Chad Chamber of Commerce, running the office and translating. It didn’t work very well, because I was trying to create something where I had no previous experience whatsoever.
So, then I worked in a D.C. hotel for a while. And while there, I was the first person in a hotel room after a mom had shot her own child and herself. That was so upsetting. I didn’t think I was upset at first the violence in America was something I’d heard of but never experienced firsthand. I went home to France for three years. And then I finally came back to American permanently in 2001.
Twelve years: I’m here for good now. I’m losing my accent. I’m forgetting French words!
Can you tell us a little about your home life now?
Oh, let’s just say I’m happily single but always open to options. Moving on! [Laughs]
Tell us a little about your work in the local LGBT community COWP, MBA, Gay Games, Converge.
Well, in 2008, my business went downhill, along with almost everyone else’s. For the first time, I didn’t know what to do, so I enjoyed a year of not doing anything. And then I joined MBA in 2008 and got more involved in 2009. The biggest story here is, really, “Look at you; you were in the mud, and now you’ve found something you really enjoy.”
Not everyone is made for business, and I’ve probably made some serious mistakes. My business didn’t just collapse because of the recession; my business collapsed because it wasn’t strong enough. All of my decisions weren’t top-notch and amazing, but all of those decisions got me to where I am today.
I got involved in COWP in 2009. In 2010, I became entertainment director. When Dr. Davis Baker-Hargrove decided he wanted to split COWP from MBA, we made the first executive director position. That was 2011, the year of the great monsoon.
If you had to map COWP since you took over, how would you describe the growth?
Besides adding 20,000 people each year? We’re now up to 120,000 people, according to the Orlando Police Department.
Well, we knew right from the beginning that, based on the economic impact this event had on the city and what it could have it needed to be really organized. I would say that’s probably one thing I pushed my team to do.
It needed to go global; that’s another thing my team has really worked on.
Also, one of the first things I did, which was controversial at the time was to start having conversations about the message our Pride Parade was sending. I know it sounds sad, but when we’re lobbying to get bills passed for equality, we have to market to the larger community. For many locals allies and such Orlando Pride was previously seen as an uncomfortable event to attend. So we had to ask how we could show our pride but still make it so kids could watch it and say, “I don’t have to be afraid of being gay.” And parents could say,”This is an event I can bring my kids to.”
It’s not about hiding who we are; it’s really about marketing it the right way. We really worked these last few years to show off the diversity: the churches, the soccer fans, the foodies and everyone, not just select groups.
What are some the upcoming challenges facing COWP?
Well, I’m giving you a scoop. Next year is going to be my last year with COWP. I’m going out on our 10th anniversary. We’ve become a destination for people from around the world. We’ve grown each year, and I think I’m to the point where
I want to enjoy it instead of organize it.
I want to focus on Converge, because I believe that’s where the future of changing the community is. It’s about to boom, and it needs a full-time executive director. I also want to focus on my role as President of MBA.
Through Converge, you applied for Orlando to be the host for the Gay Games, but we didn’t make the selection of final three. What’d you learn with the Gay Games application?
I learned that we had a great bid, and I’m not just saying that because we put it together. If you have the right group and we did you can get anything done. Orlando was ready to support an initiative like this, and it didn’t take two years to put it together like some people previously believed.
But there were politics involved; there were other things happening. Obviously there was a rotation issue. Orlando was bidding on the Gay Games following the one being held in Cleveland, so twice in the U.S. would have been difficult. And then the very day that we were submitting our bid, we found that Miami was getting the Out Games in 2017. So it wasn’t necessarily bad politics, but they didn’t look at the merits of our bid over the perception of having games three times in a row in the U.S.
I learned that it wasn’t hard to put the actual bid together. We just hadn’t really done enough in the past. Our engagement as a community and a city hasn’t been as strong as it needs to be.
That’s why I’m focusing on Converge in the future, because I believe that’s the way to do more. We’re already planning a family festival July 1-7. My big goal, though, is to make Converge the first LGBT organization to apply for public funding through the tourist tax.
I want to focus on making Orlando even more LGBT friendly, and not just around Gay Days, but year-round.