Since its inauguration in May 1979, the International Mr. Leather (IML) Contest has played an important role in building and sustaining the GLBT leather/SM community.
The heyday of the gay leather scene in the 1970s witnessed the creation of countless bars, bathhouses, and motorcycle clubs. Several of these local entities held informal contests, among them Chicago’s Gold Coast, one of the country’s oldest leather bars, owned by Chuck Renslow and his lover, Dom Orejudos (better known as the erotic artist Etienne). John Lunning won the inaugural Mr. Gold Coast Contest in October 1972, making him, according to a timeline compiled by Tony DeBlase, “the first leather titleholder.”
The Gold Coast event became increasingly popular. By the end of the decade, Renslow moved it to a local hotel, changed its name to International Mr. Leather, and invited bars around the world to send contestants.
The first IML contest, in May 1979, featured a dozen candidates in full leather and swimwear (changed to jockstraps in later years), parading under crystal chandeliers before an audience of about 300 men. The contestants, Jack Fritscher wrote in the September 1979 Drummer Magazine, typified “the new homomasculinity.” David Kloss, an oilrig worker representing The Brig bar in San Francisco, won the first title.
Before long, local and regional contests sprung up to select representatives to send to Chicago. Candidates sponsored by leather businesses and organizations later were included. By the mid-1980s, the typical field had grown to 40 to 50 contestants, and an elimination round was introduced to select 20 finalists. The audience likewise grew, reaching 1,500 when the contest moved to Memorial Day Weekend in 1984.
IML expanded to encompass a long weekend of events, including the Black and Blue Ball, a leather vendors market, a bootblack competition, and dozens of official and unofficial hotel parties. Publicity for the 1980 contest billed it as “a Leather Mardi Gras, Motorcycle Run, New Year’s Eve, and Roman Orgy all rolled into one fantastic weekend.” Cruising was a priority from the start, often leading to interesting interactions with hotel guests attending proms and weddings.
While IML 1980, Patrick Brooks, hailed from Australia, some two-thirds of the winners during the first 10 years were Californians. The second and third decades saw a broader regional distribution, as well as greater diversity with respect to race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Though primarily a gay contest, some bisexual men and a few heterosexual candidates have participated. The first openly transgender contestant, Billy Lane, reached the finals in 1998. But the title has yet to be held by a Chicagoan.
According to DeBlase, IML was essentially conceived as a beauty pageant. But by the mid-1980s, the AIDS epidemic and a repressive national political climate had ushered in an era of activist titleholders, beginning with Patrick Toner in 1985 and Scott Tucker in 1986. Winners increasingly were expected to serve as community leaders participating in fund-raising, education, and advocacy.
While the title system helped recruit many new people, it tended to select winners based on appearance and stage presence, rather than organizational skills.
Many of the most effective leaders, historian Gayle Rubin wrote, would “never parade across a stage in a jockstrap.”
As the leather community has evolved over the past decade, IML largely has reverted back to its original purpose as a social event—and, in Renslow’s words, a “leather family reunion.”
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.