Man, are you in for it! For what, exactly? That, I’m afraid, you will have to discover for yourself. But I am happy to offer you some guidelines to help you make the most of the experience of representing the Leather Community here in Palm Springs at International Mr. Leather XXXIV.
First off, bring a friend. You will leave things in the room, you will be done for the day very late and come back to the safe harbor of your room out of your mind with hunger, you will need someone to run down to the lobby to get you a latté in the morning while you get yourself ready, you will need someone to interrupt the voices in your head telling you what you should have said in your interview and remind you that you did the best job you could and you should be proud of yourself. Competing at IML is intense and it’s a lot of work. It is a very good thing to have someone there to help you shoulder the burden.
Commit yourself now to doing the best possible job that you can. Make sure that your boots and your leathers are looking their best as throughout the weekend, nine pair of eyes will be scrutinizing them. In the weeks and months you have available to you, read everything you can about the world and the history of leatherfolk. Who is Guy Baldwin? What was the Gold Coast? What does it mean when someone is flagging Hunter Green in his right back pocket? But don’t approach it as rote memorization. Take some time to think deeply. Talk to friends. Talk with me. Form opinions and have a point of view. What does all of this mean to you and your life as a leatherman?
It is to be hoped that you are a kind man with a generous spirit. From now on, and especially in Chicago, greet people warmly, talk to them, and listen. When someone catches your eye, don’t turn away: smile and approach. Be open and forthright. Among the people you will encounter are nine people who will be judging you. And, these people have friends. Think about it: how would you approach the task of judging fifty-odd men, most of whom you have never met? You would ask people you know about them. Remember that in the leather world, the “six degrees of separation” is reduced to two or three degrees.
Whether you are terrified of speaking to a room full of strangers or whether you are the biggest ham ever, stepping out onto the stage at IML--one of the largest “conventions” that the City of Chicago sees every year--will be daunting. And the same goes when you step alone into the interview room to face a barrage of questions on any subject (!) from your judges. Here is all I can say to help you through that: everyone in the room is on your side. They are with you all the way, they want you to shine up there. It is not uncommon for a contestant who has made it to the Top Twenty to be standing on stage, delivering their speech, and fumble in their words. The same thing always happens: a roar of applause and cheering goes up from the audience. They love you, Baby! They’re just looking for a way to love you more.
Don’t worry about winning. This is not Olympic Figure Skating. The judging is almost entirely subjective. The judges do not have to substantiate or defend the scores they give you to anyone. So, “Gosh! He looks just like my 8th Grade Gym Teacher! Whom I hate to this day! Now’s my chance to get even with Mr. Frobisher” is perfectly okay. (Although hopefully rare.) But dedicating yourself to perfectly meeting the expectations of nine people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and axes to grind is a fool’s game.
“Don’t judge me!”, right? “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Well guess what, Bucko, you’re gonna be judged. How often in life do you stand in the Star Chamber and have someone give thumbs-up or thumbs-down--not on some skill or ability you possess and have honed through practice and effort--but on you as a person? Probably not ever. But that’s what you’re in for at IML. But here’s the thing: fundamentally, it does not matter a bit. You are still the man you are, an amalgam of beauty, kindness, pettiness, brilliance, thick-headedness, insecurity, generosity, and all those qualities that make up the human spirit. Now would be a good time to start liking yourself. Take some time to read Joan Didion’s essay “On Self Respect.”
I realize full well that pressure like that is enough to make a strong man cry. (And it will!) But you will be sharing that experience with fifty-odd other men. My advice would be to lose yourself in helping your brothers make it through that dire crucible. Give them your support, never missing an opportunity to let them know how much you admire and respect them.
You may, or you may not, make the Top Twenty on Sunday Night. You may, or you may not, be a first or second runner up. You may, or you may not, become International Mr. Leather 2012. Of all the men who have achieved that title, I do not doubt that all of them looked around the room at some point and thought, “I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell here! Look at these guys!” And in the next moment, “That could be me up there on that podium wearing that sash when all is said and done.” And both are always true throughout the contest up until the very last minute.
This experience will change your life. When you return home, no matter the outcome, you will be a man set apart from the friends, family, and well-wishers whom you left behind. Like a combat veteran returning to the routine of whatever job it was he left behind, things will never quite be the same again for you. You have entered a select fraternity. There are barely more than a thousand men in the world who have experienced what you will have experienced. Among them alone will you truly be able to talk to someone who understands what you have been through.
And here is the best part: one day, less than a year from now, you will have the opportunity to throw your arms around your successor and congratulate him. You will look at his beaming face, filled with questions about what the hell he’s in for, and know that it is to him that you will pass the torch, and you will usher him into an amazing experience.
Welcome, Brother. You are setting off on a journey. I am behind you all the way, but like all important things in life, you are going to step through the doorway alone.