The “Mister Leather” title was supposed to play a significant role in the Gay Leather Culture, symbolizing leadership, community representation, and advocacy. It is supposed to involve competitions where contestants showcase their understanding of leather culture, community engagement, and BDSM skills. These titles vary by region, with winners serving as ambassadors and promoting Leather Culture.
Strangely, this description doesn’t seem to represent what we all witness today, when we look at the lives and work of the majority of title holders, and in this article, which has been updated since its first version from 2017, we will try to uncover the history of the “Mister Leather” title, its scope, and how it’s carried on today.
What is the Mister Leather Title?
The Mister Leather Title is a title given in the Leather scene as a result of winning a jury vote based competition. The first Mister Leather contest took place in 1979, marking the inception of the International Mister Leather (IML) competition in Chicago, Illinois. It all started thanks to Chuck Renslow, who during the 1970’s owned the Chicago’s Gold Coast Leather Bar, and who created the competition “Mr Gold Coast“. This event became so popular, that shortly after the first editions the need to move to a larger venue was evident; that’s how the title changed to “International Mr Leather” (IML) and moved to its first venue in 1979 at the Grand Ballroom of the Radisson Hotel. The International Mr. Bootblack Competition was added in 1993 to the IML program.
For a full list of the runner and winner of each years title’s, you can check out the dedicated wikipedia table.
This is how IML worked and works:
- 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.
The rules of the IML competition clearly outline the presence of local (be them club, bar, state or country related) “minor” titles, which are needed to actually compete in the IML competition. In other words, the Mister Leather Title per se, is part of a long-run achievement, and as per the words of several past Title Holders we have interviewed, including Mister Bavarian Leather 2013, is supposed to serve the following scopes:
- Representing your country’s, or a continent’s, and run to represent the whole international community
- Being a role model about the values and ideals of this community, both for its peers and both for external people
- Spreading BDSM and Leather culture, preventing it from being forgotten and empowering it into nowadays culture
- Empowering and protecting young gay people, teaching them our values and protocols and trying to guide them towards each own’s path
- Having your own personal agenda to present about how you plan to achieve these goals.
Holding this very important and historical title is about how can we be better for ourself, our community and to spread Leather and BDSM culture. It is no secret that the Leather scene has become increasingly watered down in terms of authenticity and BDSM lifestyle, while the number of people participating to the “scene” has increased beyond scale. The two factors, are mutually inversely proportional.
It’s like if before the Hiv epidemic and its tragic death toll, this community was reaching its golden age. After those terrible years that are way too easily forgotten by new generations, the Leather and BDSM community (which was highly decimated) begun to shrink down. So the need of a Title Holder, someone who could revive our Culture, show everyone how it’s still actual as it’s very nature is linked to human nature in a everlasting bond, was (and is) higher than ever.
For my personal experience in over 16 years of 24/7 lifestyle, I can’t say that clubs and title holders are behaving accordingly to these standards, but we’ll come to that later.
The local and International Mister Leather competitions are heavily regulated by the infrastructure of clubs and organizations that have been created since their beginnings in the 1970’s, so let’s take a look on clubs and organizations in regards of the Mister Leather Title.
Leather Clubs and Mister Leather Titles
Leather Clubs (as associations and organizations, not as in clubbing venues) have been spreading all around, and they are all referring, in Europe, to the ECMC (European Confederations of Motorcycle Clubs).
Historically, these clubs trace their origins back to a pivotal period—post-World War II (more on that on the history of Old Guard Leather). Emerging in the wake of global conflicts, the proliferation of behavioral codes and values represented by leather culture began to flourish. In this era, leather clubs served as more than social gatherings; they offered vital coordination, protection, and a sense of unity, especially as until the “leather look” became pop, leatherfolk wasn’t exactly welcomed by the whole of the glbt scene. However, in time the Leather community became a major ally and entirely part of the glbt community. The fight for rights in this context meant confronting harsh realities—risking one’s life, facing discrimination, losing jobs, families, and friendships. Creating strong, guided collectives provided a crucial support system and sanctuary.
However, contemporary times raise questions about the legacy of these clubs. While their historical significance remains undeniable, the dynamics have evolved. Today, the vigor of the struggle has often waned, as the Leather “scene” is spread in western societies where social rights have reached a more tolerable. The sense of urgency in teaching traditions, value-based codes of conduct and creating an authentic community, is often less pronounced in today’s more inclusive environment. And that’s an euphemism to say that almost none of the title holders are fighting for a united goal, and most of them are not fighting at all.
This observation is often echoed by those who’ve participated in leather meetings and BDSM gatherings. Today, the activities of most of the clubs are frequently perceived as centered around social events, primarily parties.
As leather clubs have traversed this transformative journey (based on money, more than authenticity to core values) and have evolved from vital support networks during times of adversity to current manifestations where their purpose, at times, feels more inclined toward socializing and revenue, the Mister Leather Title and its meaning has consequently been impacted.
The Mister Leather Title today. Parties, Gear, Popularity.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, what are exactly parties good for, to our community? Is there anywhere in the glbt world a lack of parties?
I hope the reader won’t misunderstand where I’m coming from. I love partying, and I’ve visited several times these “events”. I don’t “do chems” since I really don’t feel the need (and especially as a Master I must always be as sober as possible), but I do love to have a good time in the SSC context (Safe, Sane, Consensual). So this is not a puritan post against parties, not at all. I like having fun, just like we all do. And I also think that partying is good for the soul and good to tell all those homophobes to go fuck themselves in their little frustrated lives.
But again, we cannot just party. The fight for glbt rights has lost its grip too many years ago, and in many western societies we are seeing a going-backwards motion in that department; meanwhile, 90% of the people wearing leather gear aren’t sure why they wear it for, nor are they able to voice a specific identity associated with leather itself. So why all we seem to care about is partying? Well of course because party generate money income to the clubs and to the hosts, and most of all, partying means sponsors.
Capitalism has been hitting the Leather community really hard, and all the pop leather scene seems to care about is having new Leather, the most expensive Leather, or even the cheap one in other cases, the important thing is to get the look.
Get the London look. Get the Folsom look.
So, in a spiral without end we started something really good (where sponsors and the opportunity to buy leather easily actually was a good thing too, nurturing local communities and enabling local artisans), and we apparently completely lost the goal of our actions, and got tangled inside the only thing that counts, it seems: get high, get railed, party, buy, post on instagram.
Though I think the reader will share the idea that this is not being a Leatherman, and this is not being a community. This would have been labeled in the first decade of the century as interiorized homophobia, and behaving like society wants us all to be: mere walking sex acts or consumers.
But Leathermen (and mankind in general) are far more than just this, and we must do something about it. It is worth noticing that many of the clubs devolve part of their incomes to many great associations trying to fight HIV and other STDs spreading, to help the elderly gay people, and to many other good causes.
Is this enough though? In my opinion its no, because only a number of clubs behave this way, and rarely these operations are regulated and disclosed to the public in a clear way.
Hundreds of Mister-something titles in the scene today
By the time this article is being updated, there’s not just the Mister Leather Title. The contests are in every bar, every club, every event, and sometimes even websites. These are some of the titles that are part of the context circuit today. As you can see, there’s nothing of the original meaning and value of being a title holder, as the scene seems to become more and more a popularity contest divided in “kink” categories. Pretty much like in a videogame hero roster.
- Mister Leather [country, venue or region]
- Mister Bootblack [country, venue or region]
- Mister American Leatherman
- Mister American Leatherwoman
- Mr Fetish Grancanaria
- Mr Club (Mr Eagle)
- Mr Bear (and variations)
- Mr MidSouth & Kink LeahterSir
- Mister Fetishman [country, venue or region]
- Mister Rubber [country, venue or region]
- Mister Puppy [country, venue or region]
- “Italian Fetishman of the year”
- Mr Baltic Leather
- MSC [country, venue or region]
There are many other titles in what is today a must-have in every single club and bar attracting the modern kink crowd. Also notice that all these titles are interchangeable between Mr and Ms.
What did the Mr Leather Title stand for
I was raised and taught that living by the Old Guard Protocols and Values was something to be deeply proud of and requiring deep responsibility. I grew up developing an image of myself and of the Man I want to become which is strictly linked to a strong sense of moral, ethics and Protocol. After all, being a Leatherman doesn’t mean being a person wearing Leather accessories. Otherwise, today I would be a cottonman.
Some of the key elements to demonstrate as founding in an individual to be recognized as a Leatherman were:
- Live by the code of conduct and value system your Mentor has passed down on you
- Respect Leather traditions and meaning, and help in preserving and educating newcomers
- Find pride in being authentic and standing for your beliefs, without having fear of being judged
- Show respect for experience, maturity and wisdom, and respect other cultures
- Do not judge a book by its cover
- Don’t gossip
- Care about your brothers and offer your help at all times to the Community
- Be in the first line when defending your people from homophobes and any abusive behavior
- Have a strong sense of hierarchy and respect the Elderly
- Don’t gloat and show off your economical, social or Title status
- Be human and kind
- Don’t slutshame, roleshame or be abusive to anyone.
- Welcome masculinity and embrace it as much as you welcome femininity, or any other kind of human nature
- Wear your Uniform and Leather as a statement of your Pride of living by these rules
These points are not set in stone, it is a summary of the Values that were taught to me by my Mentors. I am not asserting that these must be the only ones in a Leatherman’s sense of ethics, and there’s a full article about what it means to be a Leatherman on this site.
How often these concepts are looked for in the selection a Title Holder? Do you feel deep in your guts and in your heart that you want to be a role model and a leader or at least representing us all as a community? What is your plan, your agenda? Or all you want is to feel validated by your popularity?
The feedback and contribution of Title Holders to this article
Before I started writing this article I’ve been speaking to a small group of Title Holders. I will keep their identity private as requested, but here I am referring to present or past Mr Leather Poland, Mr Bavarian Leather, Mr Leather Italy, Mr Leather Europe, and organizers of IML.
I’ve been talking to them because I don’t want to write without being accurately informed first, so I wanted some feedback from people who actually lived through being Mr Leather for one year. Leaving one of them aside, from whom the answer to all of my questions was “Look, I applied to the contest because I was drunk and high, I don’t give a shit about this title, and I hope I’ll be done with my year soon“, the summary I can get out there is the following:
- There is a huge lack of coordination between clubs around Europe. The most critical content that was put to light is that at the end of the day, each club, or for better saying, each country does what they want. There are political and financial fights going on between clubs in different countries, and all the possible political drama that you can imagine. So talking about community and the value of the Title of Mr Leather per se, is wrong. There are countries that try to do their best with activism and contents, and others that are merely promoting parties and trying to make money.
- Most of them agree that nowadays a Mr Leather is merely chosen because of how pleasant visually he is, and if he has a the right friends in the right places, but not a lot of them think this is a new situation.
- Germany seems to be one of the leading communities, and not because as Italian people say “ah, they have Berlin, they have Hamburg, they have the best clubs, they can go around in leather in the cities and they won’t get harassed), but because they have many circuits and programs to try and give young gay people a place to be, and instruct them about the kinky world and its nature.
- There is a political hierarchy that seems impossible to overstep. Meaning that you can have the best plans in your mind on how to bring on your agenda, but then the very clubs that gave you the title don’t want you to make any noise or rock any boat. You must behave and speak accordingly to what you are allowed to, showing up at the right places, dressed up with the right gear, and wait for you year to be finished.
I got to learn also that while some clubs give the title to the Title Holder in an “old fashioned” way, which means that the person applies to the competition, the request gets examined by a commission, and then the jury (made by other Title Holders) will vote, some others will handle the Title Holder election including Facebook-based engagement as part of the voting system. One example is the election of Mister Leather Spain.
So, this article has been in the boiler for a very long time. I’ve been cold feet wether to publish it or not for almost one year, and the reason is very simple: I didn’t want it to feel like a deliberate aggressive judgement towards the New Guard Community. And given the situation, it is difficult for it not to sound this way. But the real reason behind this article is the following: I hope it generates discussion. I hope to get comments from Title Holders or ex Title Holders, or by Leather Clubs Managers that want to enlighten me about the informations that I didn’t find online or by the peers of my conversation. So please, share your comments with me, because at the end of the day, what I’m looking for is some light and hope. I am simply a younger member of this Community that feels that we can all do more, but we can do better if we do it together.
At the time that I published this article first, in 2017, The Rolling Stone Magazine have published this article regarding International Mister Leather contest. I will end this article quoting a line from the article itself.
a leatherman will be crowned Mr. International Leather for his appeal in a jockstrap.
Are we still sure we’re doing everything in the right way and direction?
What is the International Mister Leather (IML) title?
The International Mister Leather (IML) title is an annual competition that used to be about the celebration and recognition of outstanding individuals in the Leather + BDSM community. It often includes leather, fetish, and kink elements. Nowadays the event has gained more touristic and entertained based traction, and this is true also for the election process.
Who can participate in IML and similar contests?
Participation requirements vary by contest, but generally, contestants must be LGBTQ+ individuals who are actively involved in the BDSM and leather community, often mandatorily sponsored by a regional or local club of which they are title holders.
What is the purpose of these titles and contests?
These titles and contests served to promote the lifestyle and its roots and goals, foster a sense of community, and honor those who contribute positively to the LGBTQ+ BDSM community. They also provide opportunities for education and advocacy. Nowadays, these events are more versed on fundraising and entertainment/commercial purposes.
What are the criteria for judging these contests?
Also this varies accordingly on the historical time and geography of the event. Contestants are judged on a variety of factors, at times including their knowledge of BDSM culture, their involvement in community service, their stage presence, and their ability to represent the values of the community. In many cases nowadays the criteria are based on the popularity and sex appeal of contestants, accordingly to Matt Baum.
Do you need to be a part of the BDSM community to attend these contests?
While it's not mandatory to be part of the BDSM community to attend, these events are primarily focused on celebrating and advancing the interests of the LGBTQ+ BDSM and leather communities. It would be arrogant to think you can be the representative of a culture you're not part of.
What is the role of titleholders after winning these contests?
Titleholders become ambassadors for the community, representing it at various events, educating others, and supporting charitable causes. They serve as role models and advocates.