Friday, September 15, 2006

A Different Kind of Leather Contest

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #295, September 15, 2006)

PHOTO: Mr. World Leather 2006, Mufasa (left), and Ms World Leather 2006, Jae Januze

If you could change one thing about leather contests, what would it be?

In 2001 the Ms World Leather title (<>) was founded as “a different kind of contest for a different kind of woman,” and the new contest represented a re-engineering of the traditional formula for a leather title competition. For 2006 the contest, held this year in Philadelphia at the Society Hill Sheraton, added a concurrent men’s competition and was billed as Ms/Mr. World Leather.

The leather contest and title system was not necessarily started with the purpose of choosing community leaders, but many titleholders assumed leadership roles during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Nowadays it is assumed in the community that leather titleholders will be leaders and role models.

The first International Mr. Leather and International Mr. Drummer contests were held in 1979. They created the basic formula that has since been followed by local, regional and other international leather title contests: a private interview with a panel of judges, a short speech, judging categories for “leather image” (more clothing) and “physique” (less clothing), and sometimes a fantasy (erotic skit) performance.

The Ms/Mr. World Leather contest makes several major changes to this formula. The contest models itself to a great extent on the paradigm of contemporary television: talk shows, Sunday morning political shows, and reality shows such as “The Apprentice” (although at times the contestants might have felt more like they were participating in “Survivor”).

Unlike other leather contest weekends, there are no separate educational seminars at Ms/Mr. World Leather. The entire weekend is devoted to education, consciousness-raising and fundraising, with the contestants acting as the weekend’s educators and persuaders.

Each contestant chooses a cause, and one or more charities, that will be the focus of her or his title year should she or he win. Past winners have focused on lupus, AIDS and homelessness, breast cancer awareness, organ donation, and ASL communication and deaf culture.

This year’s contestants were introduced during “Ms/Mr. World Leather Glo,” the opening meet-and-greet talk show on Friday evening. It was presided over by Goddess Lakshimi, Ms World Leather 2003 and the weekend’s emcee.

This year there were two Ms World Leather contestants: Jae Januze of Colorado (platform: additional resources for “next-generation” kinky folks ages 18-35), and Sarah Hoffman of Philadelphia (platform: removing kinkiness from official diagnostic lists of mental illnesses in the same way homosexuality was removed in the mid-1970s).

Four men competed for the first-ever Mr. World Leather title. Scott Erickson, of Boston, chose Rape Awareness as his cause. Noted author and fellow leather columnist Cain Berlinger, of New York, spent the weekend promoting Diabetes Awareness. Matthew Cary, of Knoxville, Tenn., chose Leather History as his cause and the Leather Archives & Museum as his charity. Mufasa, a proud adoptive father living in Chicago, campaigned for the cause of GLBT adoption.

On Saturday morning, another feature unique to Ms/Mr. World Leather became apparent: Everything about this contest is open to the public, including the interview with the judging panel. During each interview, the contestant was given about ten minutes to present her or his platform. (Four of the six contestants used a PowerPoint slide show as part of their presentation.) The judges then spent about ten minutes questioning the contestant. By and large, the questions were not easy ones.

If the questions from the judges on Saturday morning were sometimes difficult, the questions from the assembled leather press corps (including your humble columnist) during Saturday evening’s “Crossfire” event were merciless. One by one, each contestant had to endure and respond to a relentless five-minute barrage of quick, challenging, no-holds-barred questions from the press, while the judges scored them on their press-handling ability.

Next, the judges were dismissed and it was time for the “Audience Choice” event. Before the event started, each audience member had been given two poker chips (and the opportunity to purchase up to five more if they felt like stuffing the ballot box). Each contestant had two minutes to convince members of the audience to vote for her or him and to make a contribution to her or his charity of choice. At the conclusion of the presentations, audience members voted by dropping poker chips (and contributions, if they chose) into locked boxes, one for each contestant, at the front of the auditorium.

The main contest event took place Sunday afternoon. Each contestant answered a question posed by the judges—again, no softball questions here—and made another 2-minute speech (no PowerPoint this time) recapping their platform.

With the competitive events complete, the scores were tallied while the audience heard from a plethora of titleholders and other dignitaries. As a prelude to announcing the winners of the contest, Audience Choice awards were presented to Sarah Hoffman and Mufasa.

Then came the high point of the weekend: the announcement of the winners and new titleholders. First runner-up honors went to Sarah Hoffman and Matthew Cary; Jae Januze was sashed as Ms World Leather 2006; and Mufasa became the first-ever Mr. World Leather 2006.

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