Friday, June 16, 2000

Web Extra: IML 2000, The Dawn of the Leather Millennium

(Leather Life column published on Lavender Magazine website, Issue #132, June 16, 2000)

PHOTO: 1032.JPG IML Founder Chuck Renslow, left, congratulates IML 2000 Mike Taylor, right.

Some things about this year’s 22nd annual International Mr. Leather (IML) contest were the same: It was held in Chicago, as always, on Memorial Day weekend, as always (May 26-29). The host hotel was the Congress, as it has been since 1995 (but as it won’t be for the foreseeable future). The contest itself was held at the same venue as in recent years, the Congress Theater (no relation and no proximity to the Congress Hotel). As it has been from the beginning, IML 2000 was, as contest producer Chuck Renslow put it, “the high holy days of the leather community.”

But, in keeping with the start of the new millennium, some things were profoundly different this year. The heart of the leather flag seemed to be the ruling element of the weekend as feelings, passions and emotions (and hyperbole) ran high. At Sunday night’s contest, IML Chief Judge Thom Dombkowski noted the general discussion about whether the new millennium started on January 1, 2000 or whether it will start on January 1, 2001. He then declared that, as far as he was concerned, “The dawn of the new millennium starts here in this theater, tonight, with us.”

In many ways IML 2000 set records and rose to new levels. There were 62 contestants, the most ever. And this was truly an international contest, with competitors from seven countries. There were five European contestants, including Joe Harnett of Dublin, Ireland, the first Irish leatherman who has ever competed. Howard Hao, Mr. Leather Ottawa-Hull 2000, was born and raised in mainland China. Other firsts included a contestant who is legally blind (Mr. Boston Leather 2000 Bob “Puppy” Pedder, who captured second runner-up honors), and the first self-identified heterosexual man to ever compete at IML (Oklahoma Mr. Leather 2000 Terrell Brown, whose article about the weekend is available on the web at

The contestants met the judges (and the audience) for the first time on Friday evening at the Congress Hotel. They were introduced alphabetically by last name and drew numbers that determined their order of appearance during the contest. The judging panel and other dignitaries were also introduced. After that it was time to party, with Boston, Canada, Southern California and Texas hosting organized gatherings.

Early on Saturday morning the judges started the contestant interviews. This year it was a case of so many contestants, so little time—the judges reportedly had only eight minutes to talk to each contestant. But many if not most of the interviews were intense for both judges and contestant, and comments started to circulate around the lobby of the Congress Hotel about how many boxes of Kleenex the judges had gone through. People were starting to realize that this year’s IML was emotionally charged in a way that previous IML contests have not been. (At some point the general leather public may get a chance to see some of the drama that happened during the interviews—this year, for the first time ever, some of the interviews were videotaped for use in an upcoming documentary about the leather community.)

There was plenty to do at IML on Saturday even if you weren’t a judge or a contestant. There was a huge Leather Market with leather vendors from across the country and around the world. There was a Mental Health Professionals Discussion Group and a seminar on Leadership Skills for the Leather Community. There was a Leather in Recovery generic twelve-step meeting, one of seven held during the weekend. The Leather Archives and Museum was open, complete with shuttle-bus service from the Congress Hotel. Saturday afternoon there were organized gatherings of leatherwomen, boys and cigar smokers.

For the contestants, Saturday night’s Physique Prejudging was about showing as much skin, both leather and human, as they were comfortable with. But it was also about showing wit, cleverness and creativity by coming up with a snappy answer to the question asked them by co-emcees Frank Nowicki and Tom Stice. One of the most memorable responses was by Ron Grigsby, Santa Clara County (CA) Mr. Leather, who gave a soulful rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Also notable was contestant Howard Hao, who grew up in mainland China and for whom English is a second language. He joked about all the “leg” metaphors he had heard from people as he got ready for the contest: first his friends, following the old theater superstition, told him to “break a leg,” and when he thought they meant it literally they told him they were just “pulling his leg.” He got a lot of mileage out of this shtick with the audience; little did he know he would get much more mileage out of it the following evening.

PHOTOS: 2083.JPG and 2084.JPG The opening number at the International Mr. Leather Contest.

PHOTO: 2060.JPG All 62 IML contestants on stage at the Congress Theater.

There were over 1800 people at Sunday evening’s contest and show at the Congress Theater. After an opening number by some excellent leather-clad dancers and the introduction of all 62 contestants, the crowd was welcomed by IML Founder and Executive Producer Chuck Renslow. During his speech he presented a Leather Community call to arms, or rather to the polls, to make sure the elected officials who are chosen this year are sympathetic to our needs.

The weekend’s judges were introduced by IML Chief Judge Dombkowski after he confirmed the rumors about the intensity of the interviews: “It’s been another cathartic year on the judging panel . . . We really put [the contestants] through their paces this year. This was probably the first time we didn’t waste a lot of time on leather trivia or history questions. We spent approximately seventeen hours with 62 incredible men, looking into their minds, looking into their hearts, looking into their souls. They all belong here, and they are a credit to all of us.”

Next to speak was Joseph Bean, the executive director of The Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M). In his speech he thanked the community for its support, both in urging people around the world to contribute items to the LA&M (“We have gone from representing about nine countries when I spoke to you last year to more than 30 this year”) and in swiftly making the dream of a larger building for the LA&M a reality (“I announced the capital campaign to buy a building in January, 1998, imagining that it would take you guys ten years to buy us a building. Well, it took you less than a year and a half.”). Current plans call for the mortgage on the new building to be paid by August, 2004; over $3,700 was donated at the contest toward that goal.

Before announcing the twenty finalists, Marcus Hernandez noted that “One of the census items that our Chief Judge asks each contestant before we start the questioning is, ‘How big is your dick?’ I was taking notes, of course, and I want you to look up here—there is 85 feet of dangling meat [on this stage.]” (Tom Stice later asked: “Was that AOL feet? With 62 contestants and 85 feet they’re all over twelve inches.”) The twenty finalists were, as always, greeted with enthusiastic cheers.

While the finalists prepared for the speech and physique segments of the competition, the presentation of the International Mr. Bootblack awards was emceed by International Mr. Bootblack 1999 Robert Ehrlich; the awards themselves were presented by International Ms. Bootblack 1999 Leslie Anderson. David Hawks of Richmond, VA won both the Bootblack Brotherhood Award (selected by the bootblack contestants themselves) and the International Mr. Bootblack 2000 title.

This year’s IML speeches were notable in that they featured quotations from many prominent people, among them George Washington Carver, Hillary Clinton (“It takes a village . . .”), John F. Kennedy (“Ask not . . .”), and George Bernard Shaw. Topics included Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, leadership, education and mentoring. Several contestants related stories about their leather coming-out, and two contestants told stories about being survivors of domestic abuse.

And yet another contestant—this time it was Bob “Puppy” Pedder —was moved to song. Pedder, who is legally blind, talked about a recent meeting with singer Judy Collins and then sang “Amazing Grace,” which Collins recorded in 1971 and which ends with the words “was blind, but now I see.” The audience was overwhelmed.

During his “jock walk” (the physique portion of the competition), Howard Hao tantalized the audience with some tai chi-style moves—but he became so involved in the movements that one of his legs went off the edge of the stage and he nearly fell into the orchestra pit. Fortunately, he managed to regain his balance. Later, when it was time for his speech, he limped on stage with one leg completely stiff. After the audience roared with laughter, he started walking normally and joked again about how his friends had told him to “break a leg” this weekend. Then he got serious:

“I was told I would never make it to the finals of this event. That opinion was based on the fact that I just don’t fit the conventional image of a leatherman . . . I speak with a Chinese accent and was a Red Guard at age 12—trained to lay down my life for the defense of Communism, Joseph Stalin, Mao tse Tung. Yet, here I am. I’m here because I left China for North America, I came out and I was warmly welcomed into this family where I feel free and respected even though I’m different. When we leave here you may not remember me, you may not remember my name, but I hope you remember we are a community which is regarded as a symbol of individuality, diversity, and tolerance. And our community includes all the brothers and sisters regardless of the ethnic backgrounds from which we come.”

PHOTO: 1053.JPG Bruce Chopnik, IML 1999, giving his farewell speech.

With the conclusion of the speech and physique segments of the competition it was time to present IML 1999 Bruce Chopnik for his step-down speech. Chopnik described his title year using metaphors from “The Wizard of Oz”—being caught in the tornado and spinning from controversy to controversy (two of which were the relationship of the Coors Brewing Company to the gay community, and the soul-searching that led to his decision not to participate in the Millennium March on Washington). He told of losing a primary relationship and of being away from home for 43 weekends, but he also told in Oz-like fashion of the many wonderful places he’d been and people he’d met. He introduced the other two members of his “team,” his first runner-up Sean Reilly and his second runner-up Mike Hargiss, who had worked closely with him throughout his title year.

PHOTO: 1051.JPG Bonnie Pointer on stage at IML 2000.

PHOTOS: 1050.JPG and 1046.JPG Jump In! Bonnie Pointer got the IML audience up out of their seats and onto the stage for some dancin.’

International Mr. Leather traditionally features an entertainment segment while the tallymasters total up the scores and determine the winners. This year’s entertainment was improbably-blond disco diva Bonnie Pointer, who wowed the crowd as she sang her classic hits “Heaven Must Have Sent You” and “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” She then performed several songs made popular by her sisters’ group The Pointer Sisters: “Jump,” with everyone in the audience yelling “Jump!” and “Jump In!” on cue, and “I’m So Excited,” which brought many audience members (and a few contestants) to the stage to become part of the show.

For an encore Pointer performed her new version of “MacArthur Park,” which features revised lyrics that are less cryptic (no more “love’s hot fevered iron” or “Someone left the cake out in the rain”) and more explicit (she mentioned something about removing her bra and panties and never having gone this far before). It will, no doubt, be coming soon to a dance floor near you.

It must be noted that throughout Pointer’s performance the sign-language interpreters really got into the swing of things and displayed some awesome moves—we should all enjoy our jobs as much as they apparently were. But I pity the poor tallymasters, who had to do all that math in the midst of all that noise.

PHOTO: 1045.JPG IML 2000 First Runner-up Scott Bloom is congratulated by IML 1999 First Runner-up Sean Reilly. Both are from the Long Beach, CA area.

PHOTO: 1044.JPG Mike Taylor hears the news: he’s the new International Mr. Leather.

PHOTO: 1043.JPG Mike Taylor, new International Mr. Leather, hugs his Second Runner-up and “evil brother” Bob “Puppy” Pedder.

PHOTO: 1042.JPG IML 1999 Bruce Chopnik to IML 2000 Mike Taylor: “Come here, you’re gonna need this sash.”

PHOTO: 1037.JPG New International Mr. Leather 2000 Mike Taylor, center, is flanked by First Runner-up Scott Bloom, left, and Second Runner-Up Bob “Puppy” Pedder, right.

Finally, the twenty finalists were brought back to the stage and Chuck Renslow announced the winners. Second runner-up honors went to Bob “Puppy” Pedder, Mr. Boston Leather 2000. First runner-up honors went to Scott Bloom, sponsored by Pistons Bar in Long Beach, CA (remarkably, this is the third year in a row that Mr. Pistons Leather has taken first runner-up honors in IML). In the contest’s finale, an exuberant Mike Taylor, Mr. Heartland Leather 2000 from Columbus/Cincinnati, OH was sashed as the new International Mr. Leather 2000.

The contest was over, but the parties were just beginning. Sunday evening’s official IML Victory Celebration Party at Chicago’s House of Blues was scheduled to last until 4 AM. Monday evening’s Black and Blue Ball, the traditional closing event of the IML weekend, was split for the first time into separate “Black” and “Blue” Balls, held at separate locations. (The change was necessary because the event has become so popular that one location was no longer enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.)

The new IML, the runners-up, and many of the weekend’s judges met the press at the traditional Winners’ Press Conference on Monday. New IML Mike Taylor was asked, “Who’s the first person you called when you found out you won?” Taylor’s response: “I didn’t have to call anybody. They were all there.” Turning to second runner-up Pedder, he continued, “And Puppy was right there beside me. Puppy and I are from the same leather family.” Pedder chimed in: “And we’ve adopted Scott!” (referring to Scott Bloom, the first runner-up).

IML Chief Judge Dombkowski again waxed enthusiastic about this year’s contestants: “This was the most incredible group of men that we’ve ever dealt with. We were making jokes about the amount of Kleenex that we were using, but each and every interview was a catharsis. As I met each contestant coming off the stage, coming off the buses, in the lobby, they thanked me for what we did for them.” First runner-up Bloom agreed: “They managed to accomplish in one weekend what six months of therapy hadn’t been able to.”

New IML Taylor added, “These guys broke our hearts a million times backstage. I cannot impress that on you enough. We will be accumulating the sixty speeches, because every story’s gonna break your heart, and empower you, and focus you, and make the clan fight what’s going on.” Plans call for an IML yearbook containing each contestant’s speech and perhaps a journal item from each contestant. And an upcoming documentary will feature this year’s IML contest, including footage of some of the IML interviews.

Amy Marie Meek, another of the weekend’s judges, said she felt a renewed sense of pride in her community. “After being in the leather community and being around the title circuit for a long time, you become very jaded. And at times you lose heart, you lose interest in it . . . I’ve started to feel that way in the last few years . . . but because of these 62 [contestants] I, personally, have hope again. I’ve never seen a more impressive group of contestants.”

David Kloss, one of this year’s judges and the first IML, summed up the contest like this: “I’m kind of in shell shock right now. It was a very warming experience, and it’s important to point out the camaraderie among those 62 men. There was no backbiting—everyone reached out to help each other, no matter what you looked like, where you came from, or who won. They all supported each other. You could feel it, and we got reports back that it was true.

“We’re not really judging them, we’re trying to find out who they are. And that’s the hard part. When you look at each man up there, find his heart, find out where he’s coming from, mix that with what you feel would be the man who could go out there and speak for the leather community—it’s a very difficult and emotionally-draining job.

“The judging sessions were very emotional—with the stories that came from all of them, we went through five boxes of Kleenex. And every single man walked out of there, in our eyes, a winner.”

The dates for next year’s International Mr. Leather weekend are May 24-28, 2001. The host hotel will be Chicago’s famed Palmer House Hilton. For IML 2001 information and weekend package reservations call (800) 545-6753 or visit For hotel reservations call the Palmer House; mention IML for a special room rate.

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