Friday, June 23, 2006

International Mr. Leather 2006: Oh, Canada!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #289, June 23, 2006)

Want proof that the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest is truly international? Canada swept the competition this year, winning both the International Mr. Leather medal and the International Mr. Bootblack trophy.

This year’s IML host hotel was Chicago’s famous Palmer House, which gave the contest a different feel after three years at the Chicago Hyatt Regency. The Palmer House is old, massive and elegant as opposed to the Hyatt being modern, sleek and elegant.

And while the Hyatt had one massive exhibition space for IML’s Leather Market, at the Palmer House the Leather Market sprawled from elegant ballroom to elegant ballroom over two floors. The shopping was still great, however. (There were over 100 vendors including, from the Twin Cities, Gear Essentials and Marc Debauch Erotic Art.)

At Thursday’s opening ceremonies, the IML contestants (this year there were 51) were introduced alphabetically and drew numbers to determine their order of competition for the rest of the weekend. One other event of note (or, more accurately, notoriety) took place Thursday evening: IML 2005 Michael Egdes’ step-aside speech.

Egdes eloquently described the state of the leather nation and all the issues currently facing us, and throughout the speech he was constantly interrupted by enthusiastic applause from the audience.

But the speech went a bit long—some said it ran 51 minutes, others 57 minutes—and the near-record length of the speech ended up being a topic of conversation (and good-natured kidding) for the rest of the weekend.

To his credit, as Leather Journal publisher Dave Rhodes observed, Egdes’ speech “was filled with good content, did not trash anyone in the leather community and he mercifully did not sing.”

Friday evening started on a melancholy note with a ceremony of remembrance for the late Thom Dombkowski, who for many years was IML’s Chief Judge. Tears were then dried and claws sharpened in order to roast outgoing IML Michael Egdes. Other Friday evening events included the International Bootblack, Don’t Mess with Texas and Florida parties, as well as a first-ever SmokingHOT Guys party held in the Palmer House’s Windsor Lounge (the only smoking area in the hotel).

The International Mr. Leather weekend has grown to be about networking as much as contests. On Saturday the following workshops and gatherings were available if one could tear oneself away from the Leather Market: a Leather Archives & Museum general membership meeting; IML Boy Gathering; Mental Health Professionals discussion group; People of Color leather leadership forum; Chicago Hellfire Club party; a neo-pagan workshop and ritual presented by Brotherhood of the Phoenix; a Positive Force Chicago Meet & Greet for HIV-positive men; a(nother) cigar party; the International Ms Leather party; the BLUF party for men who enjoy wearing breeches, leather and other uniforms; and the San Francisco party.

IML’s physique prejudging, affectionately known as “Pecs and Personality,” was presented Saturday evening in the Grand Ballroom at the Palmer House. Each IML contestant got a chance to show off both his pecs (and in most instances almost everything else) and his personality by answering a humorous question posed by the emcee of the weekend’s events, Brad Balof.

Then it was time for more parties—I mean networking—including Canada’s Maple Leaf Party, the Onyx dance party, the Puppy Party and the Leather Archives & Museum’s 15th-anniversary celebration.

The City of Chicago’s official Memorial Day Parade had marched on State Street, right in front of the Palmer House, on Saturday. On Sunday there was a second parade on State Street—except this time all the marchers were wearing leather, and they were marching to the International Mr. Leather Contest at the legendary Chicago Theater, conveniently located a few blocks from the Palmer House. Last year the contest was at Navy Pier, this year at the Chicago Theater—after all these years, IML has definitely hit the big time.

This year’s contest was the shortest in recent memory, and maybe the shortest ever. After all the contestants had been introduced, “Mr. Marcus” Hernandez (leather columnist for the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco) had the honor of announcing IML’s top 20 finalists. In announcing Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2006 Mark Beckler as a finalist, Hernandez paid Beckler a special compliment when he said, “If it was up to me to marry one of these guys, this would be him.”

At the end of the evening, when the competition was over and while the tallymasters figured out the winner, the audience was entertained by the legendary Bruce Vilanch. He ended his comedy routine by inviting the audience to join with him in shouting one of the legendary punch lines he wrote for Bette Midler as Sophie Tucker (all together now): “Ernie, get off my back!”

And with that, it was time to announce the winners: The new International Mr. Bootblack is Benjamin Palmer from Vancouver. For International Mr. Leather: Second runner-up is Philippe Lepine, Mr. Fetish Switzerland 2006-2007; first runner-up is Larry Golubski, Mr. Long Beach Leather 2005; and the new International Mr. Leather 2006 is Mr. Leather Montreal 2006 Bo Ladashevska.

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