Friday, June 15, 2001

Web Extra: Stefan Mueller is International Mr. Leather 2001

(Leather Life column published on Lavender Magazine website, Issue #158, June 15, 2001)

The 2001 International Mr. Leather (IML) contest was held in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend (May 25-28). 2001 marks the 23rd year for the contest. Stefan Mueller, Bavarian Mr. Leather 2001, became International Mr. Leather 2001, winning over a field of 63 contestants from 7 countries. Darrell Moyers, Mr. DC Eagle 2001 was selected first runner-up; Mr. San Francisco Leather 2001 Houston Davenport took second runner-up honors.

Mueller is from Munich, Bavaria (Germany), and was sponsored by MLC Munchen and Spexter Erotic Store. He is 37 years old and is a Coordinating Manager at Nuernberg-based Sebald Druck und Verlag. Since 1989, Mueller has co-organized gay events, benefits, fundraisers and dress-code events through Bavaria, and he coached the Nuernberg gay volleyball team to win the gold at the 1996 Eurogames in Berlin.

First runner-up Moyers is from Washington DC, and was sponsored by DC Eagle, Inc. He is a Technical Trainer. Second runner-up Davenport, from San Francisco, CA, was sponsored by The Powerhouse Bar and Stompers Boots and is an Independent Certified Sign Language Interpreter.

This was the tightest contest in history of IML. There was a three-way tie for third place and two two-way ties, one for eleventh place and one for thirteenth place.

The International Mr. Leather contest truly was international this year. IML 2001 had 63 contestants (one more than last year’s contest). Fifty-one contestants came from the United States, four from Canada, three from Australia, two from Germany, and one each from Holland, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Twelve of the United States contestants came from one state: California. Michigan provided four contestants, and New York, Missouri and Ohio each provided three. Other states with multiple contestants were Washington, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Colorado with two contestants each. Minnesota was represented by Steven Due, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2001.

It is also worth noting that another recognizable demographic group, the deaf leather community, seemed to have a high profile at this year’s contest. Judge Philip C. Rubin holds the title of International Mr. Deaf Leather 1991. Contestant Miro Civin (Mr. Leather Holland 2001) was deaf, but during Saturday night’s physique-and-personality competition his deafness didn’t keep him from communicating to the audience what kind of porn film he would like to make—even for those of us who don’t know sign language, his signing spoke very eloquently. As mentioned previously, IML 2001 second-runner-up Davenport is an Independent Certified Sign Language Interpreter and signed many of his speeches throughout the weekend.

The Contest Preliminaries

The IML weekend’s opening event was the contestant introduction, at which all 63 contestants were introduced alphabetically and drew their numbers to determine the order in which they would be introduced for the rest of the weekend. The contestant introduction was held in the Palmer House’s Grand Ballroom—a large, majestic space that was used to good advantage. The setting was impressive, and I especially appreciated the fact that the audience was seated (as opposed to the last few years where the crowd had to stand).

The actual process of introducing the contestants and having them draw their numbers, though, didn’t go quite as smoothly as might have been desired. There seemed to be a higher level of nervousness among the contestants this year than in past years, and a wobbly microphone stand that kept threatening to tip over didn’t help matters. But the awkward moments faded into insignificance when all 63 contestants made their final appearance by lining up on a balcony stretching across the entire front wall of the ballroom. It made a magnificent panorama and a spectacular finale.

Saturday night’s “Pecs and Personality” was also held in the Palmer House’s Grand Ballroom. This was a chance for the contestants to show how good they looked wearing as little as possible. In addition, each contestant was asked a question based on their biographical data that was read while they were strutting their stuff. One of the more memorable responses to a question was from Mueller, who would go on to become the new International Mr. Leather the next evening. Since this was his first visit to the U.S., he was asked what he thought of the people here. He replied that he couldn’t tell us, he had to sing his answer. He then serenaded the crowd with “You Are So Beautiful To Me,” the song made popular by Joe Cocker.

(Tip for next year’s contestants: Last year Bob “Puppy” Peder sang “Amazing Grace” during his IML speech and finished second-runner-up. This year Mueller sang and became IML. And at his farewell “roast” this year, IML 2000 Mike Taylor ended the evening by singing “One For My Baby and One For The Road.” So all you contestants for next year, find a vocal coach and start those voice lessons now.)

The Contestant Interviews

While most IML attendees were able to spend their days shopping the Leather Market or sightseeing, the judges were busy interviewing all 63 contestants (one of whom, I am told, showed up for his interview in the nude). For the second year the judging went on via e-mail prior to the actual contest weekend, so by the time judges and contestants met face-to-face they were already familiar with one another, and the judges already knew many of the contestant’s stories.

Judges and contestants discussed issues contestants have faced and dealt with: childhood abuse; sexual abuse; domestic abuse; substance abuse; living with HIV and other illnesses; losing a partner to HIV; and parental issues ranging from reconciling with them to losing them. Many of those topics also came out in the contestants’ speeches during the contest Sunday night.

With all those intense topics to talk about, Chief Judge Thom Dombkowski told me after the contest was over that this year’s judging had been emotionally exhausting. Dombkowski used one word to describe the contestant interviews this year: “healing.”

This year’s judges were:

—Chief Judge Thom Dombkowski, former Program Director for the Chicago Department of Public Health

Mike Taylor, International Mr. Leather 2000

—Judge Emeritus Marcus Hernandez, award-winning leather columnist for San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter

Jack McGeorge, co-founder and current president of Black Rose, a pansexual BDSM group in Washington, DC

Bob Pesce, a member of the Board of Directors for GMSMA (Gay Male SM Activists) in New York City

Philip C. Rubin, International Mr. Deaf Leather 1991

Jim Raymond, treasurer of the Centaur Motorcycle Club of Washington, DC and American Leatherman 1997. (Widely known for his electrical play, his nickname is “Jim Ray-O-Vac.”)

Jill Carter, International Ms. Leather 1996

Laurie Lane, long-time Australian leather activist, currently secretary of Melbourne Leather Pride Association (dubbed the “Aussie Tornado” by the late Tony DeBlase).

The Contest and Show

Sunday night’s contest and show took place at the Congress Theater on Milwaukee Avenue. This year’s set was a factory-type interior with a continuously spinning ventilation fan front and center.

The show’s opening number was choreographed to a disco version of “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. During the opening IML 2000 Mike Taylor and his runners-up Scott Bloom and Bob “Puppy” Peder made an entrance and were greeted with a standing ovation from the audience.

Then, after a welcome speech by contest founder and Executive Producer Chuck Renslow, the 63 contestants were introduced by emcees Joe Gallagher (International Mr. Leather 1996) and Tom Stice (International slave 1995). The field of 63 contestants was then narrowed to 20 finalists, based on the scores from the contestant interviews and Saturday night’s “Pecs and Personality” show. These 20 finalists then competed in the final two judging events of the contest: Speech/Leather Image and Physique, also known as the “Jock Walk.”

Interspersed with these competition segments was the announcement of the winners of the International Mr. Bootblack 2001 contest. This portion of the evening was emceed by International Mr. Bootblack 2000 David Hawks, who started by giving a short but moving speech about bootblacks and their important place in the leather community. Then he introduced the seven International Mr. Bootblack 2001 contestants:

Paxsen, from Denver, sponsored by Centaur MC of Washington DC and CJ’s Leather

Boot, from Nashville, sponsored by Conductors Levi/Leather Club and The Chute Complex

Arthur Funni, from Cleveland, sponsored by Trident International, Laws Leather, The Tool Shed and Crossover Bar

Gregory Hjort, from Decatur IL, sponsored by the Flashback Lounge

Michael Lanzini, from Salt Lake City, sponsored by Club Blue

Spanky, from Springfield, Missouri, sponsored by the Ozark Mountain Men

Fido, from Chicago, sponsored by Eagle Leathers

Awards were presented by International Mr. Bootblack 1999 Bob Ehrlich and International Ms. Bootblack 2000 Michael Ann. The Brotherhood Award (chosen by the contestants themselves, this is the one contestant who most exemplifies the spirit of the competition) went to Boot. Second runner-up was Michael Lanzini, first runner-up was Arthur Funni, and the winner and new International Mr. Bootblack 2001 was Paxsen.

Outgoing IML 2000 Mike Taylor started his farewell speech by repeating, word for word and inflection for inflection, the speech he made at last year’s competition and continued by saying: “After the most amazing year of my life, I stand here again and all I can think to say is—I think I got it right the first time.”

Taylor also brought IML 2000 second runner-up Peder and IML 2000 first runner-up Bloom to the stage. Taylor and Peder knew each other before last year’s competition, and Taylor and Bloom discovered that love really did “bloom” during their title year. At Taylor’s “roast” the evening before, Bloom said to the crowd, “They told me IML would change my life . . . ” and it has—Taylor and Bloom are partnered now and Taylor will be moving from Ohio to California to join Bloom. He will also be joining many other men who have recently served as International Mr. Leather: 1992 (Lenny Broberg), 1994 (Jeff Tucker), 1996 (Joe Gallagher), 1997 (Kevin Cwayna), and 1998 (Tony Mills).

While the final judging scores were being tallied, entertainment was provided by the fabulous Thelma Houston, who sang many favorite Motown songs (and got the audience singing along) before winding up with “the song that gave me a career” (and won her a Grammy), “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” (For those who don’t know, singer and diva Whitney Houston is her niece.)

Finally, it was time to announce the judges’ decision. The crowd went wild and the theater erupted in a frenzy of camera strobe flashes as a jubilant Mueller bounded to the front of the stage and leapt onto the center of the winner’s podium, where he was flanked by Moyers and Davenport.

Other IML Weekend Activities

In addition to the contest events (and shopping at the Leather Market), there were plenty of other activities throughout the weekend. The Leather Archives and Museum had special hours and new exhibits. A Leather Leadership seminar dealt with recruiting, motivating and retaining the volunteers that are so essential to the functioning of the leather community. A Mental Health Professionals discussion group addressed “Issues Kinky Clinicians Encounter in working with Leatherfolk.” There were gatherings of boys, leatherwomen, and cigar smokers. TheChicago Hellfire Club, the longest-running S/M club in the United States, held a 30th-anniversary celebration party. The Metropolitan Community Church held Sunday worship. Throughout the weekend a total of seven “Leather in Recovery” generic 12-step meetings were held.

A special feature of the weekend was the DeBlase-Charles Art Sale to benefit the Leather Archives and Museum. Held at the Palmer House, the sale featured original art (some of which appeared in Drummer Magazine or other publications) from the collection of the late Tony DeBlase and his surviving partner, Dr. Andrew Charles. Purchasers could buy the art for themselves, or the art could be bought and then donated to the Archives.

With 152 vendors, this year’s Leather Market was huge and diverse and offered seemingly every leather/fetish toy and accessory one could ever want—even leather-scented soap. But when I tried shopping for a plain, classic motorcycle jacket I found very few. (It was explained to me that they’re heavy and bulky, so it doesn’t make sense to haul them in.)

This Year’s IML Host Hotel—Chicago’s Palmer House

The host hotel for this year’s IML weekend was Chicago’s world-famous Palmer House Hilton, the longest continuously operating hotel in North America. The hotel is big (1,640 rooms), lavish and rich in history. I was told it was quite an accomplishment for one group to be able to fill the Palmer House, but IML filled it and still needed to use secondary hotels.

For the last six years IML has been hosted by The Congress Hotel, a hotel that’s about as old but hasn’t been kept up as well. The slightly seedy, decadent atmosphere somehow seemed a perfect backdrop for the event. Service was slow, however, especially in the restaurant, and rooms started getting a bit expensive during the last few years. But, at least during IML, it was a fun place.

The Palmer House, by contrast, is a palace. Nothing seedy or decadent here—everything shines thanks to an ongoing restoration program (the Beaux Arts lobby ceiling was restored by a Florentine artisan who also worked on the Sistine Chapel).

The atmosphere of the Palmer House is grand yet insular, much like a Las Vegas casino/hotel. With no windows in the public areas to let the outside world be a distraction, the totally-controlled environment is the same day or night. The public areas of the hotel are a maze of hallways, balconies and alcoves that are charming but sometimes hard to navigate.

A Palmer House press release touts the pool and complete fitness club, which it said provides guests “with the opportunity to pursue ‘the sporting life.’” But it turned out that the management of the Palmer House didn’t want us leatherfolk to be pursuing our version of “the sporting life” on their premises. A letter handed to each guest upon check-in informed us all that “as we ready for the upcoming summer season, we are in the midst of renovating our swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi and steam room, as such, they will be out of order for some time. We hope that you can return and enjoy these facilities after June 10th, when the work will be completed.” What perfect timing for a renovation! And if the pool and fitness center were, in fact, going to be out of commission “for some time”, I thought it strange that the hotel management didn’t take down the many placards throughout the hotel (and in many of the elevators) encouraging folks to visit the fitness center.

Next Year And Beyond

Next year’s 24th International Mr. Leather Contest will be held on Memorial Day weekend, May 23-27, 2002. The expanded weekend’s events will start a day earlier next year, on Thursday. For information call Box Office Tickets at 1-800-892-6560 or visit

Next year’s host hotel will be the Hyatt Regency Chicago on Wacker Drive, a hotel that is the exact opposite of the Palmer House. It’s new, bright, open and airy—contemporary opulence as opposed to the classic opulence of the Palmer House. If you plan to come to IML next year and want to stay at the host hotel, right now would not be too early to make your room reservation.

And what number comes after 24? The 25th International Leather Contest will take place in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, 2003. Host hotel will be the Palmer House. According to IML Coordinator Bill Stadt, preparations for a “normal” IML begin 18 months prior to the actual IML weekend. But the 25th IML is going to be so huge, planning for it has been going on since last February. That should give us all something to look forward to.

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