International Mr. Leather

International Mr. Leather or IML is the most well-known event in the fetish calendar and this quarter it comes of age with its 40th celebratory gathering. In effect, this leather title contest has grown over four decades into a beacon of light across the entire fetish world and has become the template for countless other contests and title events. It has also been adopt- ed by every other fetish tribe with their own Mr. Puppy, Rubber, Superhero, Bootblack, Bear contests, and next year, the first ever Mr. Skinhead, Otter & Daddy contests. All can trace their roots back to IML as the originator of all titles. It now annually attracts 20,000 guests from many countries around the globe each year to reunite and celebrate all things leather and fetish. 

The 5-day Chicago event is held late-May over Memorial Day Weekend and features the premier leather vendor market expo, special events, fundraising and, of course, the International Mr. Leather and International Mr. Bootblack Competitions. Typically, one downtown hotel is chosen to be the “host” hotel and it is entirely crowded with leather and fetish folks. In addition to the contest itself, there are dance parties, socials, presentations, meet and greets, community gatherings, and the famous and massive leather/fetish market place offering as much new gear and erotic equipment as you could ever imagine. Likewise, Chicago’s entire gay scene turbocharges to welcome and entertain the huge influx of fetish visitors. 

Any current titleholder from anywhere in the world can enter the IML Com- petition and this usually results in about 50-70 contestants in a given year. Some contestants represent countries, others represent states or regions, and still others may represent well known bars or organizations such as Mid- Atlantic Leather (MAL) or the European Confederation of Motorsport Club (ECMC); or groups such as Gay Days or Mr. Man Of Color. These contestants compete for 3 days through various categories, including physique, personality, and a serious and grilling 8-minute interview. After several rounds of real-time judging, a new International Mr. Leather is announced to a huge live audience. 

There are many big events throughout the weekend with parties every night and many organizational meetings. The partying is largely in the Host Hotel over the Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The weekend comes to an end with the Victory Party at the legendary House Of Blues on Sunday night following the Contest. The weekend wraps up on Monday night at the Black And Blue Ball. 

IML was co-founded by the legendary Chuck Renslow (1929-2017; Leather Hall of Fame 2009), and his partner Dom Orejudos (1933-1991; Leather Hall of Fame 2013) more commonly known as the erotic artist Etienne. Be- cause this will be the first year without Chuck Renslow and also IML’s 40th anniversary, emotions will be run- ning high. 

IML’s forerunner was the 1970s “Mr. Gold Coast” bar contest held at Chicago’s Gold Coast leather bar, owned by Renslow and Orejudos. As the Mr. Gold Coast contest became one of the bar’s most popular promotions, it got too big and expanded to the former Radisson Hotel. With the new venue and increased popularity, the contest was renamed International Mr. Leather...and the global fetish institution was born. 

DAVID KLOSS REMEMBERS

“Prior to 1979, my experience in leather had been limited to two cities: Philadelphia and San Francisco. At the time there were few leather titles other than the occasional bar title which was voted on by the patrons of the bar. No one cared anything about the title after that evening. 

In my case, from a few years of exposure to the bars in San Francisco (augmented by the fact that I was working on oil rigs a month on and month off, leaving almost six months of ‘play’ time in the city), I got to become involved with people in the leather world including Alan Selby (when he owned Mr. S), the editors of Drummer, Rev. Troy Perry, Mr. Marcus, bar owners, bartenders, bar patrons and many others. 

In 1979, Chuck Renslow sent out a note to bar owners, and through the Gay Press he an- nounced that there was to be a contest in Chicago called International Mr. Leather. My friends encouraged me to run for the title at our favorite hangout at the time – The Brig. Becoming Mr. Brig took about eight weeks at that time. Each Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday...) they would ask for contestants to run for the title to represent the Brig. We were led up to a stack of beer cases and asked questions, usually by Mr. Marcus, Leather Columnist for the San Francisco BAR (many were more to entertain the crowd). After the questioning, as we were wearing bar leather, patrons were asked to vote by applause for the winner for the week. At the end, the winners from each week were all on display on an impromptu stage made of stacked beer cases and patrons were asked to vote again to select the final winner by their applause.

So, the honor of competing in Chicago was given to me by those with whom I played and partied at the Brig and others local bars. I think I was more focused on being involved at the local level rather than on the competition in Chicago.

Chicago and the new contest were all a great unknown. No one had any idea of what to expect. IML didn’t hold the status it does today. There was no precedent, no responsibilities, no parameters. Essentially contestants were leather men coming from our respective communities, myself included.

So I headed to Chicago with my lover, a plane ticket, the leathers I owned – a Master’s cap, a vest, chaps, a leather pouch and boots - $1,000 from the owner of the Brig, Hank Diethelm — and a white bathing suit!

The contest and hotel rooms were in the Radisson Hotel on Michigan Avenue. The scene there was a most un- likely one because it was far different from the leather world we knew and in which we were comfortable. It was a mix of very elegant surroundings including many guests from the straight world, and some sort of religious organization having their convention at the same hotel. The contest was in a hotel ballroom which had a stage and runway. Walking from our hotel rooms to the Ballroom was an interesting and unique experience. Remember: in those days leather was very conspicuous in public including in the mainstream gay world... Gay sex was still illegal in most of the United States (one of the few exceptions being Illinois). The leather world was underground and in the shadows. Full leather in broad daylight was indeed conspicuous. We definitely stood out. We were coming out.

There were 12 contestants — all from the USA (one from Canada had withdrawn). There were three parts to the competition:
1st: Leather Image (leather or leather related outfit)
2nd: Physical Appearance (swim suit or shorts)
3rd: Attitude and Personality (a 2-minute speech to tell about yourself so the judges could learn about you)

From these humble beginnings IML was born. I was lucky to win and I returned to the event many times since. It has been fascinating to see the event turn into what we know today and to witness its influence grow.”

IML TIMELINE HIGHLIGHTS

There have been many high points during IML’s 40 year history. These are best shown below in the bullet-point timeline of select highlights.

1979 - IML 1: First ever ‘International’ fetish contest on planet earth with 12 contestants, half of whom were representing US states, the rest from cities, and no overseas entries. The winner is the then-Mr. Leather Brig, David Kloss. The Black and Blue Ball, which also still continues 40 years later, is started and is the relaxing closing-night event on Monday.

1980 - IML 2: The publicity from the first event leads to 18 contestants and the first overseas candidate, Mr. Leather Australia Patrick Brooks, who beats 17 Americans and becomes the first overseas winner - The International title is now a worthy description and the event is ready to grow...and it will!

1981 - IML 3: Marty Kiker, sponsored by The Brig & The Phoenix in San Francisco, wins the title. The contest moves to the prestigious Park West, where it has returned in recent years.

1982 - IML 4: Luke Daniel, Mr. Drummer from San Francisco, is the winner this year. The number of contestants leaps to 46 and the whole world starts taking notice of a very positive event just as AIDS is hitting the gay world like a tsunami... IML is a positive beam of light in scary times.

1983 - IML 5: Coulter Thomas, Mr. Texas Leather, brings the title to his hometown of Houston, Texas. There are 44 competitors that year as the AIDS epidemic continues to grow and casts a shadow over the community.

1984 IML 6: A Landmark year since the contest has its first African American winner in Ron Moore. This was a controversial choice at the time, as Chuck remembers in the IML movie “Kink Crusaders.” Leather becomes more diverse and there are now new options next to the traditional looks of the ‘traditional leathermen’ (the ones we find in Tom of Finland or those in The Wild One with Marlon Brando).

1985 - IML 7: Patrick Toner, Mr. Chaps San Francisco, bests 26 other contestants. Patrick uses his title year as a platform for political and HIV activism, a first for any IML titleholder.

1986 - IML 8: Scott Tucker, Mr. Philadelphia Leather, carries the title back to his hometown and the birthplace of America. As the death toll from AIDS continues mounting with the Reagan administration offering indifference as its only response, Scott, a longtime activist in Gay Liberation and radical politics, seems to be the titleholder the community needs. During his title year, he continues the trend started by Patrick Toner and helps turn the title into a position of leadership.

1987 - IML 9: Europe gets its first winner with Thomas Karasch, Mr. Leather Europe, from Hamburg, Germany who beats 31 other contestants.

1988 - IML 10: Michael Pereyra, Mr. Leather San Di-ego, is sashed on the stage at The Vic Theater. Michael also extends the use of the title’s prestige for HIV activism and fundraising.

1989 - IML 11: That year, IML attendees are witnesses to two events of major importance for the leather world. First, during IML, Tony DeBlase introduces the Leather Pride Flag. Second, IML 11: the title goes to Guy Baldwin (Leather Hall of Fame 2012). Baldwin was already well known for his popular monthly column on “leather relationships” in Drummer Magazine; he had also played a key role at the creation of the Society of Janus in the early 1970s. Guy’s title work in 1989 extended and expanded the social and political activism previously forged by Patrick Toner (IML 7), Scott Tucker (IML 8), and Michael Pereyra (IML 10). Their title work made it clear that IML had become more than a Butch beauty pageant.

1990 - IML 12: Mark Ryan, Mr. Boston Leather, wins out over 41 other contestants.

1991 - IML 13: Out of a field of 50 contestants, D Cannon, Mr. CC (of Palm Springs), brings the title back to his hometown of Hollywood, California. That year, the fledgling Leather Archives are founded and announced, with no fixed home as yet.

1992 - IML 14: Lenny Broberg upgrades his Mr. San Francisco title for the IML sash and remains a vital community leader and MC for contests and major fundraisers.

1993 - IML 15: The winner is Henri Ten Have, who takes the title back to Amsterdam. The International Bootblack Competition is started and, at the time, is open to both men and women. David Morgan, sponsored by the DC Eagle in Washington, DC wins the first International Bootblack Competition

1994 - IML 16: Jeff Tucker, Mr. San Jose Leather, is sashed the winner. Jeff is currently on the IML Staff as Den Daddy for all IML Contestants. William Shields, sponsored by the Chicago Eagle and the Chicago Hellfire Club, is named International Bootblack.

1995 - IML 17: Larry Everett, Mr. Oklahoma Leather, wins out over 49 other contestants. International Bootblack selects Tim Cousins of the DC Eagle.

1996 - IML 18: Joe Gallagher, Mr. Leather New York, brings the title to New York City for the first time. Todd Nelson of Seattle, Washington is named International Bootblack. The Leather Archives and Museum acquires a storefront to permanently display their incredible collection of fetish memorabilia. Tony DeBlase, co-founder of the Museum, curated the opening exhibits.

1997 - IML 19: Kevin Cwanya, Mr. Minnesota Leather, wins out over 52 other contestants. “Driller,” sponsored by the SF Eagle and Daddy’s Bar, is selected International Bootblack. Joseph Bean begins raising funds for a permanent building for the Leather Archives and Museum which has been massively supported by revenues from the contest.

1998 - IML 20: Tony Mills, Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, wins over 62 contestants. It is the first time in its history that the contest has over 60 participants. The Centaur MC of Washington, DC celebrates the selection of Matthew Duncan as International Bootblack. It is announced that the International Mister Bootblack Competition will become a new title and that a separate competition solely for women will be held at International Ms. Leather. IML celebrates its coming of age with its 20th Birthday.

1999 - IML 21: Mr. Rocky Mountain Leather, Bruce Chopnik of Denver, Colorado wins the title and Robert Ehrlich from the DC Eagle wins the newly named International Mr. Bootblack (IMBB) title. The Leather Archives and Museum moves into its new home in Rogers Park.

2000 - IML 22: Mike Taylor, Mr. Heartland Leather, from Cincinnati bests 59 other contestants and proves that a ‘Bear’ can win at IML. David Hawks, sponsored by Centaur MC, is announced as the new International Mr. Bootblack and, after his title year, goes on to serve as Coordinator for the IMBB title.

2001 - IML 23: A new record of 63 contestants sees the title head to Munich, Germany with Mr. Bavarian Leather, Stefan Muller, for the win. IMBB is won by paksen of Washington, DC.

2002 - IML 24: Stephen Weber, Mr. Texas Leather, wins the title. The Lure, of New York, New York, wins the IMBB title with Michael Lanzini. More growth as the contest reaches the all-time peak of 66 contestants. Joseph Bean retires from the LA&M and Rick Storer becomes the new LA&M Executive Director.

2003 - IML 25: The United Kingdom takes its only win with John Pendal, Mr. Hoist. John spends lots of time in North America and now returns annually to host the Mr. Chicago Leather Contest. Richie Chameroy, sponsored by Daddy’s Bar & the Powerhouse Bar in San Francisco, California, wins IMBB.

2004 - IML 26: Jason Hendrix, Mr. DC Eagle, wins the title over 57 other contestants. Alan Tunstall of Los Angeles, California, takes home the IMBB title.

2005 - IML 27: The contest is held in the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier, and sashes Michael Egdes, Mr. Ramrod, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Boo-Boo,” of Cleveland, Ohio, is named IMBB. The annual presentation of the IML Flag was started.

2006 - IML 28: The IML title is won by Bo Ladashevska, Mr. Leather Montreal. Great year for the Canadians: as IMBB goes international, they are get that title with the win of Benjamin Palmer of Vancouver, Canada.

2007 - IML 29: Mikel Gerle, Mr. Los Angeles Leather and the first openly HIV-positive contestant, wins IML. “Spot,” sponsored by the Great Lakes Leather Alliance, is the winner of IMBB.

2008 - IML 30: Gary Iriza, Mr. Palm Springs Leather, wins. “Bootdog,” from Oakland, California, takes home the IMBB title. The book ‘International Mr. Leather: 25 Years of Champions’ is published and every contestant receives a copy. “Kink Crusaders,” the IML movie created by the late Mike Skiff, is filmed during the weekend. Big fetish changes as rubber, skins, puppy play and more begin appearing at events and community gatherings.

2009 - IML 31: Jeffrey Payne, Mr. Texas Leather, swept to the top of the podium under a huge wave of Texan flags from the crowd. IMBB returns to Canada with the selection of “McG” from Toronto, Canada.

2010 - IML 32: Tyler McCormick, Mr. Rio Grande Leather, wins the title. A trans man with a disability, Tyler is the first IML to receive his title in a wheelchair. He has done considerable work to break barriers and he has created considerable change and acceptance. Tim Starkey, sponsored by the Boston Ramrod, is sashed IMBB. Also, IML announces that effective this year “it will no longer allow participation in the IML Leather Market by any entity which promotes barebacking or distributes/sells any merchandise tending to promote or advocate barebacking.” IML is inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

2011 - IML 33: Eric Guitterez, Mr. Leather Europe, takes the sash back to France. Jim Deuder of New York, NY, wins IMBB. Chuck Renslow announces the formation of “The Renslow Charitable Foundation” that will take ownership of IML upon his passing and ensure that IML is a direct funding source for the Leather Archives & Museum.

2012 - IML 34: Woody Woodruff, Mr. Michigan Leather, wins over 48 other contestants. IMBB is won by Nick Elliott of Portland, Oregon. “Kink Crusaders”, the IML movie, is released on DVD.

2013 - IML 35: Andy Cross takes the title back home and, by bringing to 6 the number of IML from San Francisco, he makes sure no other city will contest San Francisco’s lead in the con- test anytime soon. The IMBB title stays in Portland, Oregon for another year with the win by Sammy Sklover. International Mr. Bootblack introduces judges alongside the custom ballot system.

2014 - IML 36: Ramien Pierre, Mr. DC Eagle, brings the title back to Washington, DC for the second time. Scout, of Oakland, California, wins IMBB.

2015 - IML 37: Won by Patrick Smith, Mr. Los Angeles Leather. Patrick revives the tradition of IML from the late 1980s by adding gravity to the way he conceives of his role. He travels the world and visits with communities facing homophobia and violent crimes in Uganda and Russia among others. He also creates the Leatherpedia Project, an online collaborative project that works as a repository of leather knowledge. Bamm-Bamm, International Leatherboy 2012, is named IMBB.

2016 - IML 38: David Bailey, Mr. New Jersey Leather, bests 58 other contestants. Hailing from Anchorage, Alaska, Erick Joseph is the winner of IMBB.

2017 - IML 39: The contest is won by the contestant who made nude cool, Ralph Bruneau, Mr. GNI Leather. Ryan “Pawlish” Garner-Carpenter, of Cincinnati, Ohio, wins the IMBB title. Rick Storer announces his retirement from the Leather Archives & Museum just as The European Leather & Fetish Museum is launched in London. This contest was the first that Chuck Renslow was too ill to attend. He did, however, watch it via live stream! Chuck died on June 29, 2017. In late August, The Renslow Charitable Foundation became the owner of IML.

RALPH BRUNEAU THOUGHTS

Ralph Bruneau, IML 2017, talks about what the title means to him:

“IML is, to me, a family reunion. It is the central gathering of our tribe. I was honored to be chosen IML #39 and have spent my title year traveling the world making relationships with you all—from small towns to large. It has been amazing to be the standard bearer for our community this year. I am grateful to have shared my thoughts, my heart, my mind, and my body with you all. Your warm embrace has been amazing. For me, this title has been about my mind and my body, about my heart and my soul, sexuality and activism.

Chuck Renslow was an activist, a leatherman, a business owner and, in many ways, a politician. He spoke on many occasions of the importance of unity. We as a community need to protect and unite, obviously, but we also have an obligation beyond our community to protect and affiliate with those who are in need. We share our strength.

My personal belief is that our youth are our most vulnerable so I feel responsible to use my personal, professional and whatever titular power I have as IML to protect those who can’t protect themselves and who need our protection. I have had the opportunity to travel the country and the world raising awareness and funds for #BornPerfect, the fight to end Conversion Therapy. No LGBT kid should ever be told that they are anything less than #BornPerfect.

They are, I am, we are all born perfect.

In fighting for them every day, I fight for freedom - personal, physical, sexual, relational and psychological freedom. This is how I play and I’m having a hell of a time. I never thought this is where I’d be at 65, so, thank you, IML. I’m savoring every minute.”

“AND NOW, ON WITH THE SHOW!”

 IML is 40 years old this year. With IML as well as with his other endeavors, Chuck was determined to nurture what he called “the Brotherhood of Leather.” We’re sexy, accepting, loving and, above all else, true to ourselves as well as to one another. The Brotherhood of IML is both a legacy and a living testament to the vision that Chuck and Dom had way back when it all started.

And with that, as Chuck said each year...”And now, on with the show!” For another 40 years...and beyond!