Friday, June 28, 2002

Inside IML: A Judge’s Notebook

(Full-length Leather Life column published on Lavender Magazine website, Issue #185, June 28, 2002; a shorter version appeared in print.)

Wednesday, 8 A.M.: The train pulls out of St. Paul bound for Chicago and the International Mr. Leather (IML) 2002 contest weekend. (The host hotel this year is the Hyatt Regency Chicago, the largest property in the Hyatt Hotel chain.) I have been at the contest every year since 1994, but this year I will be seeing it from a very different and somewhat exclusive angle: In addition to my press badge, I will be wearing a badge identifying me as one of the weekend’s judges.

Packed in my carry-on bag is a document I have been thinking about and constructing for the last three weeks: a five-page description of all the qualities I feel the man selected to be IML 2002 must possess. My theory: if I have a very specific image of the man I’m looking for, I will recognize him when I see him; if, on the other hand, I don’t know what I’m looking for, I’ll probably wind up with something else.

Wednesday, 9:30 P.M.: This is surreal. Stefan Mueller, the outgoing IML 2001, has invited everyone to kick off the weekend at, of all things, a roller skating party (proceeds benefit the Leather Archives and Museum). I haven’t roller-skated since high school. But I skate most of the evening and have a good time: I only fall down once, and I am able to avoid getting blisters on my feet. It’s an odd but effective way to meet and interact with some of the contestants I’ll be judging this weekend.

Thursday noon: At the Judges’ Orientation Session I meet my fellow judges and we all meet Billy Lane, who competed in IML in 1998. He has been one of the judge handlers ever since, although this is his first year as Judges’ Coordinator. We also meet his two assistants, John Brook and Bruce Saari, who promise to assist us in any way possible this weekend so we can concentrate on judging.

In addition to outgoing IML Stefan Mueller, my fellow judges are Jerry Acosta, American Leatherboy 1999, from San Francisco; Pat Baillie, International Ms Leather 1995, from Albuquerque, N.M.; Hervé Bernard, International Mr. Drummer 1998, from Paris, France; Patti Brown, general manager of The Leather Rack in Washington, D.C.; Brian Dawson, International Mr. Drummer 1989, from Los Angeles; Wayne Nesbitt, Mr. DC Eagle 1998, from Washington, D.C.; and Judge Emeritus (and fellow leather columnist) Marcus Hernandez, aka Mister Marcus, of San Francisco.

This is the first year of a new, revamped judging process for IML, and we’re the guinea pigs. For the last several years a chief judge (Thom Dombkowski) has run the judging proceedings and provided continuity by returning year after year. But no longer—this is the first year of IML’s new “no repeat judges” policy. IML has given us only a few basic judging ground rules and is going to trust us as a group to come up with a judging process. We have the option of choosing a chief judge. We decide not to, although Brian, as the “point person,” is always the first to speak to the contestants when they enter and Stefan usually asks each contestant their final question.

In previous years the tallymasters have been in the judging room to act as timekeepers, but this also has changed. It is up to us, the judges, to choose a method of timekeeping. Three judges volunteer to share those duties, but Jerry will end up being the sole timekeeper for the weekend’s interviews—using the countdown timer on his cellular phone.

Dividing the time available for interviews by the number of contestants leaves us with eight minutes per contestant. That hardly seems like enough, but if we exceed that time limit we not only increase our own workload, we also throw off contestant and staff schedules for meals, rehearsals and photo sessions. We decide we’ll just have to make it work.

Thursday, 1:30 P.M.: The judges are officially introduced to the IML contestants at their orientation meeting. There is some social time and I speak to a few of them, but not as many as I expected. I am making mental notes of who takes the trouble to introduce themselves to me and who doesn’t—some of the contestants seem to look right through me.

Thursday, 9 P.M.: Opening ceremonies. This isn’t an official judging event, but I still take notes on how all the contestants present themselves and compile my “eye candy” list. (So do several of the other judges.)

As in other years, all the contestants get at least a polite response from the audience, while several contestants are obvious audience favorites and have larger cheering sections. The purpose of the evening is to draw contestant numbers to determine the order of competition for the rest of the week. Contestants are introduced in alphabetical order; each draws an envelope and gives it to Tom Stice, the weekend’s emcee (who holds the titles of Southeast Drummer 1998 and International Slave 1995). While Stice opens it (I notice they use really good glue on those envelopes), the contestant states his name, title, and what city/club/sponsor he is representing. Stice then announces the contestant’s number and is then supposed to hand the number to the contestant. Unfortunately, quite a few of them walk offstage without taking their number, making Stice run after them to give it to them. (This happens every year—opening night jitters, I suppose.)

Friday, 8 A.M.: The judges gather and prepare for the first day of contestant interviews. Continental breakfast is served. The contestants have been divided up into groups of nine or ten; the first group of contestants is ushered in promptly at 8:30 A.M.

Friday, 9:15 P.M.: Over thirteen hours later, I turn in my score sheets for the first day of interviews. We have talked to 38 out of 66 contestants. To the amazement of the IML staff, we have actually finished each group ahead of schedule—this is the first time anyone can remember that happening.

Looking back on the day, I am grateful for the fact that all the judges seem to be on the same wavelength, and we work together very well. With only eight minutes per contestant we are resigned to the fact that not every judge will get to ask a question of every contestant. But we pretty much held to the eight-minute-per-contestant time limit, and none of the judges seemed to feel he or she was not getting enough information.

Along with questions tailored to each contestant based on his entry form, certain questions have been asked of almost everyone. Surprisingly, Marcus Hernandez found very few contestants able to talk knowledgeably about ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) and NCSF (the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom). Patti Brown found no one who knew what important and ubiquitous symbol the late Frank Moore designed (the red AIDS ribbon). Wayne Nesbitt stumped many contestants with his question about the only biological brother-and-sister team to hold the International Mr. Leather and International Ms. Leather titles (Ron Moore, IML 1984 and Genelle Moore, IMsL 1997).

As a group I am very impressed with today’s contestants. The old cliché about “There’s only one IML, but all of you contestants are winners” never seemed truer. Several of them could be strong contenders for the IML title, but no one has distinguished himself as being head and shoulders above all others. Actually, that’s good. It means it’s shaping up to be a close contest, which is always more interesting than when someone walks away with the title.

Of course, that could change. We still have 28 more contestants to interview tomorrow.

But for now, it’s time to drop in on some parties at the hotel: the traditional roast for outgoing IML Stefan, the bootblack party, the Canada party, the Texas party. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Saturday, 6:15 P.M.: The end of Day Two of interviews (only ten hours today). Again, I’m the last one to turn in my score sheets. (Memo to self: I won’t be able to take so much time at the contest on Sunday night.)

Today we’ve seen the judging process evolve in subtle ways. Yesterday the contestants came in as a group and were introduced, and then all but the first contestant to be interviewed left the room. After we had spoken to each contestant individually, the entire group was again brought back into the room for one last look—but no more questions.

By contrast, when today’s contestant groups were brought back into the room, the conversation continued. Was there anything they didn’t get a chance to say during the interview that they would like to say now? What they were afraid we would ask that we didn’t ask? What made them most uncomfortable during the interview? It evolved spontaneously, and it seemed to work very well.

Based on the interviews I don’t have any inkling who will be chosen IML 2002. There are several contestants who I believe would fill the role very well. But that’s getting ahead of things—the more immediate parlor game is trying to guess who will or won’t make it into the ranks of the Top 20 Semifinalists, also known as “making the cut.”

Okay, here’s the Price Waterhouse moment: All 66 contestants are judged on both the interview (which contributes 70% of the preliminary score) and the Saturday night physique/personality prejudging (which contributes 30% of the preliminary score). The contestants having the 20 highest scores are announced at Sunday night’s contest and show and go on to compete in the semifinalist speech and physique segments. These men start competition as equals, because no scores are carried forward from the prejudging rounds into the semifinalist competition. Olympic scoring is used throughout, which means that each contestant’s high and low scores for each round are discarded before the scores are added up. (Games judges play: In both the prejudging rounds, where the scoring range is from 0 to 100, I never award anyone more than 90 points on the theory that fewer of my scores will be thrown out. But I wonder how many of the other judges are doing the same thing.)

What do all these judging mechanics mean in the real world? It means, as Billy Lane tells me: “All these men you’ve just finished interviewing? Two out of three of them will be disappointed tomorrow when they don’t make the cut.” That’s sobering. And I realize that I will be disappointed too, because there are at least 45 of them I would like to see make the Top 20. There are 25 speeches I won’t get to hear and 25 men who I won’t get to see strut their stuff onstage Sunday night. But that’s the agonizing, excruciating part of judging this contest. In the candy shop that is IML, how on earth can anyone choose only twenty? How on earth can anyone choose only one?

Saturday, 9 P.M.: The Physique Prejudging, also known as “Pecs and Personality.” The contestants, who are wearing as little as they dare, walk the stage and let the audience admire them. They are then asked a question based on the information on their contestant application forms; their response will ideally be as witty, entertaining and seductive as possible. Some contestants look hot but don’t do so well answering their question, while others who might not have the best physique get a tremendous audience response because they give the perfect answer to their question. Things move at a good pace and the evening goes by rather quickly. (But next time, IML, please give the guys some background music to strut to—after the applause stops, it’s hard for anybody to be sexy against an aural backdrop of utter silence.)

Sunday morning: Free time—what a concept. Other than a group photo shoot at noon, the judges have nothing official to do until we board a bus at 5:30 P.M. for the contest and show at the Congress Theater. I finally get a chance to wander the Leather Market (116 vendors, something for everyone) and have my boots shined by one of the fourteen contestants in the International Mr. Bootblack Contest, occurring concurrently this weekend with IML. But that’s another column.

Sunday, 6:30 P.M.: The contest gets underway. There’s a prison motif going on this year, with the contestants being presented as prisoners in a line-up. The jockstrap review contest segment is supposed to happen in the prison’s shower room, but due to a problem with the showerhead scenery the audience only gets to see the towels (and very large jockstraps) hanging on the wall. That is still enough to set the scene, however.

Later: The Top 20 are announced. Fourteen of them are on my personal Top 20 list. (Some of the other judges have a higher batting average, picking seventeen or eighteen out of twenty.)

We hear the first ten contestants give their speeches and see the second ten strut their stuff. There is an intermission, then the second ten contestants speak and the first ten strut. It all seems to be happening extremely fast—I try to pay attention to what they’re saying or what they look like, scribble a few notes, and calculate a score for them in comparison with all the other semifinalists.

The contestants are not making it easy for us judges. They’re all good. They’re all excellent. It’s a twenty-way tie. I am convinced that IML Executive Producer Chuck Renslow and Coordinator Bill Stadt are sadists, gleefully watching the judges in agony. I’m not the only one who is feeling this way: Brian Dawson, who is seated next to me, at one point pounds his fist on the table in frustration and says something on the order of, “They’re all too good! How can we choose?”

I jettison all thoughts of Olympic scoring and trying not to have my scores thrown out. If the content of someone’s speech is amazing and the delivery is flawless, they get the highest score I can give—likewise if their leather image, personality and attitude make me think, “It doesn’t get better than this.”

9:45 P.M.: Stefan Mueller is in the middle of giving his farewell, “step-aside” speech. I, however, don’t have the luxury of listening to it right now because I am feverishly trying to get my score sheets done and handed in. (I’m tape-recording it, though, so I will be able to listen to it later.)

I hand the scores to Billy Lane, and then it hits me. It’s over. I’m done. Mission accomplished. The adrenalin, which has been pumping continuously for three days, shuts off. In clinical terms I think this would be called a “delayed stress reaction.” It is now safe to let the enormity of the weekend’s undertaking come to the surface and overwhelm me.

The rest of the evening is a blur. Stefan finishes his step-aside speech by serenading the audience with charming renditions of “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “When Will I See You Again.” Then, while tallymasters Craig Beardsley and Jim Raymond busily punch numbers into their adding machines, diva extraordinaire CeCe Peniston entertains the crowd and calls Stefan to the stage for a brief duet.

10:30 P.M.: The winners are announced: 2nd runner-up Herb Kaylor, Mr. DC Eagle 2002; 1st runner-up Borisz Mos, Mr. Leather Holland 2002; and the new International Mr. Leather is Stephen Weber, Mr. Texas Leather 2002 from Dallas.

I think to myself: I’m very happy with the outcome, proud to think that I helped achieve it, and profoundly grateful for being given the chance to judge. Then I mentally remove my judge’s hat, shift back into columnist mode, and rush the stage with the rest of the press.

Postscript: It’s late Monday morning, Memorial Day, at a restaurant just down the street from the Hyatt where some friends and I are having brunch. As I walk up to the buffet line I see Stephen Weber and his partner Blaine standing by the door. Stephen sees me and flashes me a big smile, and I walk over to talk to them. It turns out this is a reality-check: Last night Stephen was celebrated all over town as the new International Mr. Leather, but that makes no difference this morning—the restaurant has stopped seating people for brunch, so he and Blaine will have to go elsewhere. After the whirlwind of the previous evening one would think they would have to be hungry and exhausted, but they handle the situation well. The irony of the situation doesn’t seem to dawn on either of them. Good for them—I hope they handle the rest of the year’s inevitable misfires and disappointments with such grace.

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