It’s close to midday on one of the busiest streets in Sydney’s centre and Juan Mann is getting nervous. Known to millions as the ”free hugs guy”, he is worried about the lunchtime rush.
And with good reason. Every Thursday for the past three years he has stood in Pitt Street Mall holding a sign reading ”Free hugs” and gladly putting his arms around anyone who takes him up on the offer.
But ever since a video of Mann appeared on the YouTube website last September, he has become something of a celebrity in his home town.
”The majority of people who approach me now comment on how they’ve hugged me before the YouTube video, but they’ve returned to congratulate me on the international success and acceptance,” he said.
It’s a far cry from when he returned in Sydney in early 2004 after living in Europe, lonely and unhappy at his parents’ divorce, and decided to take up his unusual campaign to hug complete strangers.
”I was alone. My family was elsewhere; my friends had all moved on. It was just me. It was just me, and I had to do something,” said the famous hugger, who goes by the name Juan Mann (One Man) but keeps his true identity secret.
”And I sat around for months doing nothing. Noticing, just watching the world. I didn’t have a lot of contact with people. I was just on my own. And I thought I would try to step out of that and try and do something different.”
Initially, he didn’t hold high hopes for his hugging campaign. He thought he would last an hour at most. He had a friend stand by to keep an eye on him and left his wallet at home in case someone tried to steal it. ”I genuinely expected the worst,” he said.
But after 15 minutes, a woman approached and told him how her dog had died that morning, which was also the first anniversary of her only daughter’s death, and she really needed a hug. ”And that first woman, it was more than just a hug; it meant something to her,” he said.
The impact of the ”Free Hugs” campaign has now gone well beyond that woman.
The video, which was put together by the lead singer of Sydney band Sick Puppies, Shimon Moore, who became friends with Mann after they met in the mall, has been named by YouTube as the most inspirational clip on the site.
At last count, the video had been viewed almost 14-million times, and from Taipei to Paris to Peru to Tokyo admiring followers have set up their own ”free hug” practices.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Mann. Here is a man who was told in high school he didn’t have much aptitude for humanitarian work and who doesn’t consider himself to be a social person, now acting as an ”emotional sponge” for Australia’s largest city.
”Every week a number of people will tell me their story, how they have suffered and how they get by, the mistakes they’ve made and the lessons they’ve learned,” he said. ”I’m very fortunate in what I do in that I learn from everyone else’s mistakes as well as my own. I am very fortunate in that I have a lot of other people’s perspectives.”
Mann said his ”junk-food emotion” fulfils a need people have for someone to listen to their problems without the stigma of calling a help line or seeking out a professional counsellor. ”There’s just no anonymous place where people can go and dump their guilt, their suffering and their anguish,” he said.
Sydney clearly loves its hugger. When local authorities threatened to stop Mann’s campaign for public safety reasons, about 10 000 people signed a petition to keep it alive.
Mann said his original intention was to take his campaign personally to each country and territory in the world. But the internet beat him to it. ”The internet has changed the way it happens. Now it happens online. I spend four hours a day answering emails.”
And every Thursday, he puts on his soft, purple velvet jacket and takes up his place in Pitt Street Mall, hugging shoppers, tourists and workers, particularly urging those he feels miss out on human contact, such as old people and businessmen, to come over and ”lay it on me”.
”The businessmen walk by because they are preoccupied with the suit. I will point at every single last one of them” and invite them for a hug, he said.
Standing at six-foot-four, Mann is hard to miss. Many people walking past mention they have heard of Mann and ask him to pose for a photo with them. One teenage girl comes up to hand him a letter in which she says he is an inspiration to her.
”Around Sydney, I go anywhere and someone will spot me. I shaved my head because of it,” said Mann, who had sported long curly locks.
Mann estimates he has now hugged about 500 000 people over the three years since he devised his ”absurd approach” to give the city a human touch. ”If I could sing, or dance I would have been out there busking. Or trying to be a comedian,” he admits.
Despite being known to millions, Juan Mann still clings to his anonymity. ”It’s not about me. What I do and who I am are different,” he said. ”I’m 25, I can go and get a normal job and lead a normal life now.”
Recent experiences, including threats and comments from some Christians that with his curly dark hair and beard he resembles Jesus Christ, have only further convinced him of the need to protect his identity. ”I’ve had death threats. A guy pulled a gun on me in New York. He said, ‘I should kill you now and save your message. You will live forever.”’
But Mann, who is writing a book about his experiences, said he will keep hugging people ”until nobody wants me, until I look like a dirty old man”.
”I’ve got to do it. It would be selfish of me to stop and selfish of me to walk away.”
And despite the fame, he remains committed to his task. To a woman hurrying past carrying her lunch, he calls: ”Would you like a hug with that sandwich?” — Sapa-AFP