“I’m in competition with myself and I’m losing.”—Roger Waters
Almost everyone who runs in a leather contest wants to win. Sure, different men have different reasons, some not so lofty–I was once told by someone that he wanted to win so he could go to the front of the line at the local leather bars–and a few guys don’t really care (or say they don’t care maybe as a way to protect their egos against the possibility of losing) but almost everyone who goes to the trouble of preparing for a contest, putting themselves up for evaluation and getting up on stage in a pool of sweat wants to win, and badly. I know I did. And because they want to win they almost always ask the people in their local scene HOW to win, hoping for a magic bullet or at least something to give them an edge. If you are hoping to win a leather title, here is what will help.
1. Take it seriously. Not all judges take a contest deadly seriously but they will all be turned off if it’s obvious you don’t really care and have done little to prepare. It’s insulting to the people who went to the trouble of organizing the contest and makes them feel like you are wasting their time. This is especially true in the US, where contests are often approached with the seriousness of a murder autopsy. (Europe may be a little less intense. The contest on Gran Canaria has a section that involves drinking as much beer as possible as quickly as possible.) Put together a good leather look that reflects what you like and who you are (and shows your ass), and an honest speech. Establish a rapport with the judges if you are allowed to meet them beforehand. One IML winner told me he went so far as to make flashcards about each judge. His boyfriend showed him the cards randomly and quizzed him. (I ran against him and lost 😡).
2. Don’t take it too seriously. That being said, don’t go overboard. It is a bar contest after all and if you take it too seriously you are likely to be humorless and stiff (yes it IS possible to be stiff and turn gay men away). Those don’t win people to your side. A contest is ultimately a form of entertainment. The audience and judges want to laugh, cry and get hard dicks if possible (not necessarily in that order). If you look comfortable and have fun you will have a natural appeal. And you will answer questions honestly. Obviously this is not easy to do if you are nervous and unaccustomed to being in front of audiences like most contestants but do your best to get there.
3. Be genuine. There is no way to guarantee a win but there is one way to guarantee a loss: be fake and tell the judges everything you think they want to hear. I once judged a contest with two contestants and it was a textbook case of genuine versus fake. One contestant was honest, smiled a lot and had fun. The other contestant was uncomfortable, gave the most calculated answers possible and even said the most cliched thing imaginable for a leather contest: “this bar is my second home.” I don’t even remember the details of what the winner said (I do remember when he compared piss to gatorade, though). He won because he was himself. Leather contestants tend to agonize over leather scene details–etiquette, history, personalities or being sexy in front of judges–but in my experience these are far less important than being personable. Saying “I don’t know” when you can’t answer a question is more attractive than faking your way through it to sound like you know everything.
4. Your speech. The speech is your last chance to impress judges and the best chance for you to demonstrate your individuality. Nobody ever really separates themselves from the pack answering the silly pre-written questions that litter leather contests and which all sound more or less the same. The speech is your opportunity to plant your flag and be unique: in 2017 I volunteered as an usher for both (long–very long) nights of IML. I had been a member of Toastmasters for years so the elements of a good/bad speech stood out immediately. Ralph Bruneau won the title that year. Ralph Bruneau gave the best, most honest speech. Most contestants charged through their speeches in a breathless attempt to get through without forgetting anything, like everyone with no public speaking experience. Ralph gave a measured speech, speaking slowly enough for the audience to follow. It started with a hook–a sentence designed to get the audience’s attention–and the substance was something dear to him: banning psychologically damaging conversion therapy. He won because he gave an authentic speech and that allowed judges to connect with him.
Ralph Bruneau also won because his speech was not about him but about others. A cardinal rule of public speaking is that the way to connect with the audience is to make your speech relevant to them. Why should they listen to you? Many leather contest candidates get up on stages and tell the audience their sad stories–and I’ve heard many genuinely sad stories–in an attempt to get sympathy but ultimately they only talk about themselves. Even if you tell the audience your sad story find a way to connect it to their lives.
In the end, there is no sure way to guarantee a win for yourself no matter how much you prepare. You can do everything right and still lose for any number of reasons. When I ran for Mr LA Leather we had a female judge. Somehow she came to believe I was a sexist pig. No matter what I did to win her over it made the situation worse. I put a little something in my speech to dispel this and she later told me that she initially thought I was sexist but no longer did, but up to that point she must’ve scored me about -700 points. C’est la vie.
Do your best and hope it works out for you. There are almost as many leather contests out there as porn titles now (but with crazier outfits and fewer tattoos). If you lose you can always run for another or run for the same contest again. A prominent, well-loved member of the LA leather community who I competed against ran for a title 3 times before he won. He eventually got to IML and placed 5th out of 60 contestants. You can learn many things from contests and one of them is the value of persistence.