Friday, June 24, 2005

International Mr. Leather 2005: Day by Day

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #263, June 24, 2005)

Thursday, May 26: What a beautiful sight—the Hyatt Regency on Chicago’s Wacker Drive was stuffed to capacity with leather enthusiasts of every description. They had come to witness the 27th annual International Mr. Leather (IML) Contest, an annual ritual that this year attracted 52 contestants from 25 states and six countries.

That evening in the Hyatt’s Grand Ballroom the contestants met their public and the contest’s nine judges. Introduced alphabetically by last name, they drew numbers that determined their order of appearance for the rest of the weekend.

In a break with tradition, outgoing International Mr. Leather 2004 Jason Hendrix delivered his step-aside speech at the contestant introduction ceremonies. (In past years the outgoing IML’s speech had always been delivered at the contest on Sunday night immediately before the new International Mr. Leather was announced).

Friday, May 27: It was a beautiful day in Chicago. The sun streamed in through the Hyatt’s atrium roof and beckoned me outside for a walk through nearby Millenium Park. Throughout the hotel, the park, and the surrounding Michigan Avenue neighborhood the Leather Nation was on full and beautiful display. I remember thinking that it doesn’t get much better than this.

Friday evening started with a touching memorial service for a fallen comrade, writer Robert Davolt, whose recent and premature death brought shock and grief to many attending the weekend.

The Davolt memorial ceremony was followed by an event of an entirely different sort: Now that IML 2004 Jason Hendrix had stepped aside, it was time to roast him. The stories flew thick and fast—wicked and bitchy and tender and loving, all at the same time. (Hendrix handled it all with good humor, only occasionally burying his head in his hands.)

Then it was time to make the rounds of the evening’s other parties hosted by bootblacks, International Ms Leather, Texas, Canada, and smoke fetishists.

Saturday, May 28: In the morning I dove into the Leather Market, which was huge (137 vendors) and jam-packed. Along with the usual array of leather and fetish goods were some items I’d never seen before—for example, an ingenious St. Andrew’s cross that becomes a curio shelf and plant stand when non-kinky company comes to call. (See it at <>.)

Saturday evening’s entertainment was the Pecs and Personality portion of the International Mr. Leather competition, in which the contestants try to be witty while wearing as little as possible. This year they seemed wittier than in years past—if I didn’t know better, I’d swear IML hired Bruce Vilanch to write their shtick.

One thing I found notable about this year’s Pecs and Personality event was the way the audience embraced and enjoyed all of the contestants, whether they were gym-bodied or not. It was an entertaining, and hot, evening.

Sunday, May 29: During the day I was lucky enough to be invited to an ad-hoc meeting on the subject of putting sex back into GLBT politics. The thesis of the organizers was that the gay community basically neutered itself in preparation for the last presidential election, and our side lost anyway. So it’s time for a different, and perhaps more honest, political strategy. It was a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion to which I could (and probably will) devote an entire column.

Then it was time to board the bus for the high point of the weekend, the International Mr. Leather Contest and Show. It was a short ride because the contest this year was at a new venue: the Grand Ballroom at the end of Chicago’s famous Navy Pier. (What a treat it was to be able to go outside during intermission, walk along the water, and feel the lake breeze on my face.)

Along with the new venue, the contest and show gained a new and quickened pace. A short opening dance number was followed by the introduction of all 52 contestants, a welcome by IML Founder and Executive Producer Chuck Renslow, introduction of the weekend’s judges, and the announcement of the top 20 semifinalists.

The nine bootblack contestants were brought onstage, and the 2005 International Mr. Bootblack title was awarded to Arthur “Boo Boo” Funni (sponsored by the Great Lakes Leather Alliance of Indianapolis and Laws Leather of Cleveland).

The twenty semifinalists each gave their 90-second speeches and worked the crowd during the physique-judging round. Then, with all the evening’s competitive events completed, there was a very short speech on behalf of the Leather Archives and Museum before the inimitable Judy Tenuta was brought to the IML stage for twenty minutes of politically-incorrect and hilariously unhinged comedy as only she can do.

The evening’s brisk pace had paid off—barely three hours after the contest had begun, it was time to announce the winners. Except, unfortunately, it wasn’t time yet—the tallymasters were still computing the final scores. This was trial by fire for first-time IML master of ceremonies Brad Balof, and he gamely rose to the challenge to keep the crowd entertained until the winner could be announced. Eventually he was joined onstage by outgoing IML 2004 Jason Hendrix, and then by IML Coordinator Bill Stadt, who finally had the house lights turned up for about ten minutes until the scoring was completed.

Finally the winners were announced: 2nd runner-up, Alan J. Bowers MD from New Orleans; 1st runner-up, Dodger Allen of San Francisco; and the new International Mr. Leather 2005, Michael Egdes of Fort Lauderdale.

Buses carried the IML audience back to the Hyatt for another new tradition: the IML Official Closing Ceremonies, which featured a parade of club colors participated in by 56 clubs.

The Closing Ceremonies also saw the completion of another new IML tradition: the IML flag. Unveiled at Thursday’s Contestant Introduction, the flag had been on display all weekend in the Leather Market. IML attendees had been invited to sign the flag with a short message for future generations. Now the 2005 International Mr. Leather, first and second runners-up and the 2005 International Mr. Bootblack became the last four people to sign the flag before it was turned over to the Leather Archives and Museum for display and safekeeping.

Monday, May 30: As the weekend wound down, the weekend’s winners and other contestants met the press and posed for photos at the IML Press Conference. The final blowout party of the weekend was the Black & Blue Ball. It was held at Excalibur, an amazing club (the building formerly housed the Chicago Historical Society) with an atmosphere highly reminiscent of the original Studio 54 in New York. The dance area on the second floor seemed to go on forever, and there were three levels of balconies above it from which to view the action below. Amazingly enough, the air was not smoky and the music was at a level that allowed conversation without screaming.

Tuesday, May 31: Back to reality. The Hyatt’s lobby was filled with leatherfolk enjoying the few last moments until it was time to exchange goodbye hugs and catch their cabs to the airport.

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