Friday, May 17, 2002

Web Extra: IML, The Beginning (Full-length interview with IML 1979 David Kloss)

(Full-length Leather Life column published on Lavender Magazine website, Issue #182, May 17, 2002)

This year’s International Mr. Leather (IML) contest will be happening in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend. Best of luck to Wayne Butzer, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2002, as he represents the bar and the local leather community in the contest. (Your humble columnist will be seeing IML from a different angle this year as one of the contest’s judges.)

The next International Mr. Leather will take his place in a line stretching back to David Kloss (pronounced “Close”), the first man ever to hold the title and this column’s interview subject.

It has been 24 years since Kloss became the first International Mr. Leather, but he still looks great—some would maintain that he keeps improving with age. For our interview he is wearing a tight navy blue t-shirt, jeans, and black boots. He has piercing blue eyes, a great moustache and a winning smile. He sports a neat, trim haircut and there are veins popping on his muscular arms. In the words of former IML chief judge Thom Dombkowski, he is “the first International Mr. Leather and still the best-looking one of them all.” But looks aren’t all Kloss has going for him. He is obviously intelligent and very articulate. Here is his story of the making of a leatherman, a leather contest and a leather titleholder.

“I was born in Philadelphia to a split family, moving around a lot, settled basically in the Philadelphia area and then went to school in New York. I graduated with a degree from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in 1972 and then went to work for the Port Authority.

“A couple of friends of mine said, ‘The oil field business is looking for people with licenses. Let’s go have an adventure.’ So, we went off and joined the oil business. Within two years I was the only one left, and I was still there twenty years later.

“After traveling around for awhile I met my first lover in Philadelphia, moved back from England, and then quite by accident went to San Francisco to do some construction in Vallejo on a drilling rig. That was 1977, and while there I had my introduction to a whole new type of gay life, especially the leather scene.

“I was really green in those days. My idea of gay life had been essentially suburban household. I’d go off to the rig for two weeks, come home, take care of the yard, entertain a few straight friends and go back to the rig. This was in my 20’s. I guess I knew I was gay—in that period of time it was post-Stonewall but it was pre- the era when you could even mention it. So I fought it, and I lived a dual life—being insular was fine with me, because I didn’t want that many people to know what was going on. So I kind of played it down.

“Then I went to San Francisco. It turned out to be a magnificent summer, one of the best they ever had—middle of a drought, no water, but it was an adventure that was amazing. I met a man who was very good friends with Marcus Hernandez [long-time leather columnist for the Bay Area Reporter], and another man named Alan Ferguson, who went on to open the Arena Bar, which was a very famous leather bar in San Francisco. Their place and choice of play was South of Market in the leather bars. So I kinda walked in there as a wide-eyed kid of 27, with very little experience, and had my eyes opened, and discovered a certain fascination for it, and slowly but surely it became my way of life. Although I did visit other venues, so to speak, basically all of my friends were based South of Market in the leather community. There was a sense of companionship, and friendship, and of course the sexual atmosphere.

“Between 1977 and 1979, I had seen various different events, like bar contests and slave auctions, although they never had a title connected with them. Some of my friends had gotten involved in these events, and I was kind of a shy person to begin with, but I had a lot of friends.

“In 1979, the notice came out from Chuck Renslow [IML’s founder and producer] to the leather community: ‘We are holding an international leather competition.’ At that time, nobody knew what that meant, but we all thought, hey, we’ll get some people and put together a situation and send representatives.

“There were a number of leather bars in San Francisco at that time, but the only bar that responded was The Brig. They got a situation going where for eight weeks, I think, every Wednesday they would have a number of contestants, usually five, six or seven, get up there on a stack of beer cases. The bar would be packed, and the audience would participate by selecting the man to be the contestant for the final selection after all eight weeks were finished.

“One week I entered the contest. Friends said go ahead, you can do it. And I figured, well, what the hey, I will. So I did—I got up there, and I won. I was surprised—I mean, it’s not one of those things I went after saying ‘I am going to be a titleholder.’ But it was a wonderful experience. Of course then I had to get by the next step, eight weeks later, and go through the final with the ‘chosen ones’ from each of the previous weeks. When the final night came, I was chosen overwhelmingly by the patrons of The Brig to become the first Mr. Leather San Francisco, and therefore to go on to Chicago to compete in the first IML in 1979. The bar supported me, sent me there, paid for it. My lover at the time was very, very supportive. Marcus knew about it, and unfortunately that was the only IML contest he has never attended. I knew absolutely none of the judges.

“So I arrive in Chicago at the beginning of IML. Nobody really knows what to expect. There is no history, there’s no infrastructure. One minute there’s no contest, and the next minute there is. We arrive, all twelve of us, from across the country. It wasn’t truly international—we were supposed to have someone from Canada, but they backed out at the last minute. It was a very strange mixture of people from different parts of the country involved in leather.

“If you look back at the original poster, the figure used for a number of years as the epitome of International Mr. Leather was a gentleman named Durk Dehner, who’s still around. He was in the contest with me, and it was kind of like understood that the contest was built around his image—I’ll leave it at that.

“So here I am, sort of a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed guy with a big ol’ mustache, big smile, and my leather which I had acquired over the years, a piece here and there—I didn’t just go out and buy it all at once, you know—and I got up there on the stage at the Radisson Hotel on Michigan Avenue with a group of other men to compete for this contest. It wasn’t as extravagant a production as it is today, but it was the hotel’s grand ballroom and there were thousands of people in the audience.

“It was very interesting, too, that when the hotel booked it I believe that they thought they were booking something like North Beach Leather—are you familiar with North Beach Leather? It’s kind of like a Calvin Klein leather store, you know, mainstream leather. So the hotel thought they had a convention of leather retailers. They had no idea what the contest was going to be. At the same time they had a Baptist convention going on, so opposing worlds met—a bunch of leather-clad people with their butts hanging out in various states of dress and undress and radical leather, and a bunch of people for a convention. I think everybody was shocked.

“But the energy level was good because it was in the days before major political movements and before AIDS. Everybody talks about gay life in the 1970s, and it really was a time of great celebration. Even though we didn’t have as many civil protections, we were really feeling our oats and getting out there and feeling strong, and every day was a celebration of life. So the whole crowd was just really, really enthusiastic.

“The contest itself was pretty traditional—I think in those days they had swimwear, optional jockstrap. They were modeling it more after a traditional pageant, so to speak—I hate to use that word—but it was heartfelt, and the participation was fun. I enjoyed the people I was with, made friends with a few of them. You had to make a speech—I can’t tell you today what I said. All I was told is, what I said they reacted to very positively, and when I walked down the runway the smile that I gave the crowd was apparently what won, the image that I portrayed was what they wanted. And as contestant #12 of 12, I was highly honored to be chosen International Mr. Leather 1979.

“I must say, I don’t believe I thought I was going to win. I was afraid to hope that I would. Inside of me I knew if I did I’d be elated. It’s kind of one of those things where you don’t want to build up your hopes. You hope for the most, you expect the worst, and you graciously accept whatever happens. And then all of a sudden you get it and it’s like, your head goes off, your heart goes out, and it’s like WHAM! You walk out there, with all of those people standing and cheering and celebrating you, and knowing that you are part of them. It was a very emotional experience.

“Holding a title was very different back then—you look at today versus then, and it’s a tremendously different world. As I mentioned, there were no major political things. Anita Bryant was behind us, so we were feeling our oats. There was no real political agenda, there was no AIDS, so all of the radical parts and pieces of politics hadn’t even fallen into place. There was no infrastructure for titleholders. Basically I went back to San Francisco, and I was feted in the city of San Francisco at the leather bars. I would do guest bartending, and I wasn’t paid, but all the tips would go to a charity. And you basically just let people see you out and about, and you celebrated with your family, so to speak. It was a quiet year. I really believe that holding a title started to take off after the advent of AIDS.

“I stayed in San Francisco until 1980. Being in the oil business entailed a lot of travel, because in those days I was still working on the rigs. It entailed taking 28 days of work on the rig, plus about four days of commute, back and forth between the rig and San Francisco. I tried looking for jobs in San Francisco, but in those days, believe it or not, San Francisco was a cheap place to live, and salaries were not very big. I couldn’t find a job for 50% of my salary. A job offer came along from Houston in 1980, the year after I had won IML, and I didn’t want to but I moved to Houston, Texas, for my career. And from that point forward Texas was my home base for about eighteen years except for when I was traveling overseas and living in Europe. I moved back permanently to San Francisco from Texas in 1998.

“I have to admit that I’ve gone in and out of the community. Friends who were in the community, and who are still alive, are still good friends. But my job kept me traveling, mostly to Europe, and I was on the road so much it was difficult. Sometimes when you’re in Angola, Africa, or someplace like that, you just put your life on hold.

“I have to admit, too, that often, in the eighties, coming back to San Francisco was a devastating experience for me. Because when I left there life was good, we were indestructible. I don’t know how to explain the euphoria of being gay and being alive and being young. The world was our oyster, and being in San Francisco, I mean, everything was just what has been written about it. We danced, we partied, we loved, we laughed, it was just basically a celebration of life.

“And then when AIDS came, the leather community was hit very heavily and devastated. And for me to come back and find places and people and friends in large numbers gone from what I knew, it was like a horrible dream and a bit of a nightmare and a ghost town. I kept track of people as much as I could, but every year I sent out Christmas cards and every year numbers of them would be coming back, you know, ‘deceased’ and all that.

“I moved back to San Francisco because I figured it was time for involvement again on a fuller scale. I’ve been HIV-positive for many years and have gone through all kinds of things, so I figured it was time. I was coming back to San Francisco basically because health care was good, and I did enjoy the city—it’s a beautiful city—and I still had some friends there, and I wanted to sort of get away from some memories in Texas.

“Actually, coming back to San Francisco has been a little bit of a shock for my partner Gerald. I don’t think he was quite aware of my previous leather involvement, it was just kind of talk. But San Francisco never forgets their titleholders, and of course being involved with Mr. Marcus it’s impossible to forget that you were a titleholder.

“And of course, the older you get and the longer the line of IMLs becomes, the first one seems to be more and more of an—I don’t know what the word is. Some people say it’s an icon, other people are surprised you’re still alive—just the fact that somebody can say, ‘Oh, I remember back then.’ Little kids come up to you and say, ‘I was in third grade then.’

“As I’ve gotten involved with the community again, one of the things I’ve found is that there are a lot of people with a lot of heart in the leather community. And I really believe a lot of them are so giving—oh, you hear about backbiting and bitching and that kind of stuff, and it’s true. But as a core of people, they give of their money, they give of their heart, and if somebody needs a shoulder to cry on, they’re there. And there are a lot of people in the leather community that are still helping to raise a lot of money. So that’s another reason why I came back and got involved again.

“Gerald can tell you that life since moving back to San Francisco has been very hectic. He’s basically become a charity widow, so to speak—I did overextend myself a little bit. I joined the SMMILE [South of Market Merchants & Individuals Lifestyle Events, Inc.] board. I’ve been on the beneficiary committee, so that took a bunch of time to do that. I was also chair of the [South of Market] Bare Chest Calendar, which means trying to get that all produced, plus still be on the SMMILE board for their two main events, Up Your Alley and Folsom Street Fair. And it takes a lot of time.

“And we attend a lot of different functions at all levels, even black tie. To go and help people in need, we just seem to feel that basically that’s what our life’s about. The rest of the time it’s nice being home, snuggling, enjoying our home and entertaining friends.”

In addition to holding the International Mr. Leather title, Kloss has been an IML contest judge three times: he judged in 1980 when he stepped down, and he was invited back to judge both the 1998 and 2000 IML contests. I asked him what it was like to judge IML and how the judging, the contest, and the experience of being a titleholder has changed and evolved from 1980 to the present day.

His response was that judging the IML 2000 contest was “the ultimate. Previous years you had a number of people who would get up on the stage for various reasons: to promote themselves, promote a bar, promote a vendor. Now, don’t get me wrong, people are still promoting, but they’re supporting, too. Back then there was a little bit of backbiting, there were differences of opinions, and there wasn’t really a camaraderie as such. I mean, yes, there were groups that formed and stayed. But what happened since has been amazing. The contest grew to 62 people in 2000, and it’s important to say there was a real camaraderie between 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.

“The judging sessions that year were very emotional. None of our judging questions were trivia, like ‘Who did this’ or ‘If you were a fruit what would you be?’ We asked them who they were, what were the most difficult things they had to deal with, what were their most admirable qualities, what would they change in IML? And with the stories that came from all of them, we went through five boxes of Kleenex. Every single man walked out of there, in our eyes, a winner.

“All I can say is it was amazing. We weren’t really judging them, we were 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 job—it’s a very emotionally-draining job.

“The contests over the years have varied tremendously. When I first came out, interaction with the community was more localized and a lot less political. I personally saw it evolve through kind of an angry political scenario, and slowly but surely it’s evolved into inclusion. It was kind of a ‘man’s thing’—we’re leather people, we want to be out there, everybody’s got to pay attention to us. Now what they’re trying to do is say ‘Okay, let’s show the heart and soul.’ So titleholders have heavy schedules, and they have a lot of support. People are asking them to come and talk to their community and they’re involving them at many different levels. And traveling gives them a broader perspective—San Francisco is not Peoria, but there are people in both cities who face the same kinds of problems, and yet at the same time they may have different solutions.”

So, if someone was trying to decide if they should enter IML, what advice would Kloss have for them? “If you’re going just for the glory of the title, don’t do it. Be prepared for a lot of work, a lot of responsibility, a lot of tears, and a lot of good times. You’ll also find divisions within the community that you have to bridge. Sometimes you fight, but you have the main purpose of focusing everybody toward the positive aspects of people who are different from mainstream America. You have to have your heart into it, and you have to have come to grips with who you are because if you don’t, you’re lost.”

And if someone decides to enter, what advice does Kloss have for them? “The predominant piece of advice that’s given out these days is: Be yourself. The judges want to know who you are. They want to feel that you’ve experienced life, and you’re growing. And if you cry on stage, it doesn’t make you any less of a man.

“Enter with the idea that even without that IML title you can do a hell of a lot. The only thing the title does is give you the opportunity for a greater canvas to work with. So realize that even if you don’t win, you’re a winner just by being there, and you can go back with a wonderful sense of experiences and new friendships and new ideas to take back and help at home.”

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