Being IML - November 2003

Photo of John in San Francisco, September 2003
Photo credit:

I've been travelling full time as IML since mid-July and so far I've managed to visit twelve cities, seven of them in America as well as Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, Manchester and Reykjavik. In the next few weeks I'm off to Palm Springs, Zurich and Rome, so Dave and I are making the most of the few days a month that we see each other.

The biggest challenge for me has been discovering the extent of the leather contest system in America. In the United Kingdom we only have one leather title that I know about: the "Mr Hoist " contest, which is an IML qualifier. I had no idea that there were any other contest circuits until I started travelling. Now I've heard of International Ms Leather, International Deaf Leather, Ms World, Mr Ebony Leather, the American Brotherhood circuit (American Leatherman, Leatherwoman, Leatherboy and Leathergirl), International LeatherSIR/ boy, International LeatherMaster/ slave, bootblacks and Leather Daddies ... and that's without starting on the Imperial Court system!

My manifesto for the year has been to support leather communities that IML would not normally visit, voluntary groups and health campaigns, and BDSM/ leather history education. It was never my plan to support the leather contest system, which seems to be doing quite well for itself. However, the majority of events to which I'm invited involve a contest so I've had a chance to form some opinions about them.

I appreciate that I've done very well out of the contest system, so anything I say now could be seen as "biting the hand that feeds me". However, I'm in a unique position of suddenly attending a lot of contests and yet being a complete outsider to the system. With that in mind, here are some of my observations:

Sometimes it seems as if the expectations of the contestants and the promoters don't match up. A contestant may enter expecting the winner to be sponsored to go on to a regional, national or international heat, but the promoter may be holding the contest just to raise bar takings for the night. On the other hand, the promoter might be expecting the winner to do lots of publicity/ community work or compete at another event, but the winning contestant only entered for the title and prize and has no interest beyond that one night. Expectations need to be managed so that contestants and promoters aren't left bitter over the experience of working together.

Leather contests are held in a variety of locations, from bars and clubs to ballrooms and theatres, and follow a wide range of formats. Some have a panel of judges, some are decided solely by audience vote, and some scoring systems mix the two. Contests range in length from half an hour to five hours. Some have fantasy rounds, some allow contestants to give speeches (timed and untimed), and some have interviews during the daytime. Some place emphasis on traditional leather attire (full black leather with optional Muir cap), while others encourage general fetish wear (camouflage trousers, coloured leather or neoprene) or regional dress (lederhosen, kilts or cowboy hats).

Now, I appreciate that in order to be successful the format of the contest needs to be tailored to the audience. Audiences who've been drinking for a few hours in a bar will have a much shorter attention span than people who've paid for tickets and are sitting down in a theatre. However, the format of the contest will also have a big influence on the type of winner chosen. This can lead to clashes if the winner is then unsuitable to complete any further duties, for example: travelling to other events, uniting the local community, or doing well at a national or international contest.

Promoters may face difficult choices when deciding on the format. Should they opt for pleasing the crowd and making the best of that one night, or creating a contest that chooses the best possible winner for the duties they have in mind?

Photo of John in San Francisco, September 2003
Photo credit:

A number of contests ask each contestant to provide a basket of items to be auctioned to raise money - eg for the winner's travel fund. Sometimes these baskets are very successful and raise thousands of dollars. At other events the baskets appear to fetch far less than the value of their contents. It's also possible to get the impression that some items are doing the circuit along with me, as they appear in auction baskets over and over again! And should we put any rules on the content of the baskets? For instance, if we ask title holders to be knowledgeable about safer sex and the HIV epidemic, does it matter if they then include barebacking porn videos as part of their collection?

Most contest organisers are willing to book eight judges, a tally master or two, an MC, a judges' boy, a DJ or sound engineer, an entertainment act and maybe a contestant or three - but very few contests appear to arrange a sign language interpreter. Why is an interpreter less important than the DJ, entertainment or judges' boy? It's not just the deaf community that loses out by not having an interpreter - the hearing community loses out on all the things that deaf leatherfolk have to teach us.

Here are two suggestions for improving this particular situation, although there are other access issues of course:

Above all, if you book an interpreter please make sure that this is publicised by using the "hands" logo that indicates interpreters will be provided. Next to this logo please add the text "Need to contact registration in advance to request an interpreter." This way, Deaf folks will know that the event will be accessible and they will want to attend your event.

Occassionally I'm left wondering what's the point of holding all these contests? I didn't see IML as an end in itself, I saw it as a springboard for doing other things for the leather community. My own opinion is that a title is not worth anything unless you do some good while you have it. But some contests don't appear to have any emphasis on community involvement, health projects, fundraising or education. Sometimes the event seems to be laid on just to prove that the local community is alive, or out of nostalgia for the title name, or to prove that that a group can put on a better contest than a club nearby. If all we're doing is sashing people so that they can go on to other contests, to win a fund so that they can travel around encouraging other people to enter more contests then it's just a giant pyramid selling scheme. There's so much good that could be done by and for our community, but not if we're all too busy with contests for their own sake.

I've written this article to encourage debate, rather than suggest that I'm right and anyone else is wrong. We all have our own ideas about the contest system. There are some people who think IML should be a bodybuilding contest with no political or community aspirations, and others who think that the physique round should be removed and the winner decided solely on an interview and speech. My own position is that a leather title holder should be a person who is an acceptable representative for the majority, whilst offering the most to the community and being true to themselves.

If you think I'm not living up to that aim then please email me and let me know. I only have a year to get this right and five months have gone already!

Yours in leather,

John Pendal
International Mr Leather 2003

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