(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #315, June 22, 2007)
In 1979, about 400 gay leathermen gathered in Chicago for the first International Mr. Leather (IML) contest. Last year, the IML weekend attracted an estimated 15,000 visitors to Chicago, and this year’s weekend was even bigger.
Now in its 29th year, IML has become more than a contest. It also is a family reunion, a tribal council, and a shopping trip to the Leather Mall. The many different activities packed into one weekend, and the number of people who show up for those activities, make IML a rich and intense experience.
Host hotel for the weekend was Chicago’s famous Palmer House Hilton. The Palmer House currently is undergoing an extensive and meticulous refurbishing, but the construction barriers didn’t seem to impinge too much on the weekend’s festivities. In prior years the carpeting in the Palmer House’s grand lobby has been covered with plastic sheeting as the area was turned into the world’s largest leather bar. This year the carpeting had been removed, revealing the very nice terrazzo underneath. But the lack of carpeting and other sound-deadening materials in the lobby mixed with the booming voices of thousands of leathermen resulted in a low roar echoing throughout the lobby the entire weekend.
Official contest events started with the IML Opening Ceremonies on Thursday evening, May 24, at which this year’s 52 contestants were introduced. Contestants this year came from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy and the United States.
The weekend’s nine judges spent Friday and Saturday conducting private interviews with the contestants. The array of other Friday and Saturday activities was overwhelming. There were gatherings for leatherwomen, leatherboys, neo-pagans, kink-friendly mental-health professionals, and members of the Leather Archives & Museum. Receptions included International Bootblacks, Ms/Mr. World Leather, Chicago Hellfire Club, Chicago Dragons rugby team and a People of Color Leather Leadership Forum. Leather 12-step recovery meetings were held throughout the weekend.
Evening events included the San Francisco, Michigan, Kentucky, Onyx, and Jocks, Boots & Booty parties. A gathering for pups and handlers was advertised as B.Y.O.B. (bring your own bowl).
And there was shopping at the IML Leather Market, celebrating its 20th year. Over 100 leather and fetish vendors, clubs and organizations were spread over four ballrooms and exhibition halls on two floors of the hotel. One area of the Leather Market was devoted to the five bootblacks competing in the International Mr. Bootblack contest, this year celebrating its 15th anniversary.
By Saturday evening the judges had finished their contestant interviews and it was time for the official IML Physique Prejudging, affectionately known as “Pecs and Personality.” Each contestant was asked a question based on his contestant application and had the opportunity to demonstrate by his answer that he could be witty while wearing as little as possible. A grand time was had by all.
The high point of the weekend, the IML contest and show, took place Sunday afternoon at the legendary Chicago Theater, on State Street just a few blocks north of the hotel. All 52 contestants were introduced, and then “Mr. Marcus” Hernandez (leather columnist for the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco) announced the top 20 finalists. Each of the finalists made a 90-second speech and participated in another round of physique and leather-image judging.
While the tallymasters figured out the winner, the audience was entertained by actor and comedian Hal Sparks, who played Michael on Showtime’s “Queer as Folk”—although at times it almost seemed that Sparks was being entertained by the audience. (Mention must also be made of the evening’s earlier entertainment: Veniamin, the Human Slinky, direct from “The Late Show with David Letterman.” I’m not sure what it had to do with leather, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.)
The new International Mr. Bootblack 2007 is sponsored by Great Lakes Leather Alliance. International Mr. Leather second runner-up is Bill Hoeppner, Mr. Ramrod 2006, from Florida; first runner-up is Rob Grant, Mr. Washington State Leather 2006; and the new International Mr. Leather 2007 is Mr. Los Angeles Leather 2007, Mikel Gerle.
IML will reach a milestone in 2008 as it celebrates its 30th anniversary. Host hotel will again be The Palmer House, which by then will be completely refurbished. Get all the details on this year’s contest, and plans for next year’s, at IML’s official website: <www.imrl.com>.
PHOTO: IML 2007 winners (from left): First Runner-up Rob Grant, International Mr. Leather 2007 Mikel Gerle, and Second Runner-up Bill Hoeppner.