John Pendal has been one of the best-known characters on the leather scene since the millennium. He won International Mr Leather (IML) in 2003, upgrading his Mr Hoist title and becoming one of only three Europeans to win IML this century. He has worked tirelessly on many campaigns (including the famous Spanner Trust) whilst turning himself into a very successful fetish and mainstream comedian. His current one man show ‘Monster’ has five-star reviews from international media and has been hailed far and wide. He will have a headline slot at Europe’s biggest ever fetish cabaret on the opening night of Darklands in Antwerp on 6 March 2020. John spoke exclusively to Alphatribe about his long and varied career in the heart of the fetish world. And he even shared his all-time favourite fetish joke!
Who is John Pendal?
I’m a kinky guy who lives in London with a husband and two cats. Since 2010, my main work has been teaching BDSM workshops and performing kinky comedy around the world.
You famously won the IML title in 2003 and became one of only six non-North American winners in its 41-year history. What was your IML contest weekend like?
Very stressful. I hadn’t been to IML before, but I’d been told you were judged every minute you were outside your hotel room. There are official ‘judged’ events – but how you behave the rest of the week also affects your score. I only took leather, underwear, and Hoist t-shirts with me so there was no chance the judges would see me wearing anything else. (You can read my contest diary online at http://iml2003.com/diary1.htm)
How did it feel when your name was called and what happened in the next 24 hours?
I couldn’t hear my name, but I saw the number 31 appear on the monitors. I thought ‘that’s a coincidence, I have 31 written on my leg’. I didn’t move as I was convinced it wasn’t going to be me. Then someone behind tapped me on the shoulder – so I moved aside to let him through. He said, “It’s you – you’ve won!” I was so late getting to the podium; the indoor fireworks had already gone off.
After that, the top three contestants were taken by stretch limo to the official parties where we stood like statues while the DJ announced us to the dancing crowd. At 2 am we were given a steak dinner. I crashed into bed at 4 am. I was then woken at 9.30 am by the phone ringing – people from Europe wanting to congratulate me. I also had to do a press conference on very little sleep and with no clean clothes. I hadn’t thought I’d win so I didn’t plan an outfit for the Monday. So I just grabbed an old Hoist t-shirt out of my laundry bag and then thought I should add a Muir cap to complete my outfit. I’d had a week of almost no sleep and was not making good decisions!
Who is John Pendal?
John Pendal won the IML contest in Chicago in 2003 and started stand-up comedy in 2010.
What prizes did you win?
The winner gets a very long list of prizes from companies – but no time at all to go and collect them! It felt like a gameshow where you can take whatever you can carry, but you have no time to visit any of the companies or space in your luggage to take anything home. The real prizes come during the year of travelling. It felt like every fetish store and tailor wanted to give me free stock. The flipside is that every single event also wanted me to donate auction items, so I only got to keep anything for a couple of months before it was donated on.
Part of my prize was a 100th anniversary, special edition Harley Davidson motorbike. It was raffled during the year and raised over US$22,000. That money was split equally between the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago and the Spanner Trust in the UK.
What was your title year like, and did it change you as a person?
Winning IML is like being shot out of a cannon. You fly through the air for 12 months and then come to a crash landing. Within 24 hours of winning, I’d received 500 emails. By the time I reached home that was over 1,000. You can plan your own travel for the year – but within two weeks that time was mostly taken up with events that could afford to cover all of my travel costs. It sounds great but there were times I was so tired I could barely form words. One week I visited five cities and two continents in five days. I understand now when young popstars walk out on stage and say hello to the wrong place!
It’s a very intensive training course for the rest of your life. Suddenly you have an address book full of contacts, a wealth of experiences (good and bad), and a wardrobe of clothes I quickly grew out of. It’s hard to make the adjustment back to the life you used to have. I’d been made redundant from my job while I was travelling so it did feel like I was starting my life over again.
Are there now far too many fetish titles?
I have no problem with a fetish title if it leads to good work in a community. I only have issues where a titleholder expects to be treated a certain way but is putting nothing back. My favourite quote is from Mark Borkowski: “Don’t get blinded by the spotlight: it’s who’s looking, and what they see of us, that matters, not the simple fact that we’re standing there.”
Around the scene you are now best known as a stand-up comedian. How did you get into that?
There are more events wanting to book an IML than the current winner can attend. So it’s possible to be booked by events after your year is over if you let people know you’re still willing. I kept attending leather events and giving speeches, hosting fundraisers, talent shows, and leather contests. In 2010, I realised I loved telling jokes onstage more than my regular job and went to comedy school to retrain.
What is your favourite gay themed joke?
Britain is the only place in the world where you need an odd number of people at an orgy, so there’s somebody spare to make tea.
You now do many gigs outside of the gay world. Do you change your routines for those audiences?
The main difference is that a vanilla audience has no idea what I’m talking about, so I must explain everything as an outsider. A gay or kink audience gets to the joke much quicker!
You recently did the Edinburgh Festival which has launched the careers of many great comedians. How was that and what do you think of the incredible five-star reviews your ‘Monster’ show is getting?
‘Monster’ is about things that make me lie awake at night, things that fill me with shame. For example, not receiving an autism diagnosis and sorely needing one as a child, or going through gay conversion therapy for seven years. I thought I would have a very small audience of people who’d been through the same life experiences I had, so it came as a complete shock to see it get five-star reviews. A critic from The Voice magazine said:
“I could relate to so much of what John was saying, it is as if we had written the show together.”
That blew me away.
If you are interested, you can read more about the show at http://www.johnpendal.com/monster.html
What has been your best gig to date?
My best gig was to 700 people in Denver. They were lining up cocktails along the front of the stage for me to drink before I’d finished. If there’s a choice between a standing ovation and free drinks, I always prefer free drinks!
Are there any gay subjects or areas you avoid in your act?
I’m constantly learning about my own privilege, so there are jokes being dropped all the time that I no longer feel comfortable telling.
Does being able to make men laugh make it easier to get them into bed?
I once learned how to get Dutch-speaking men into bed in five sentences… and I’ve used that a fair few times because it made them laugh!!!
What advice would you give to any leather, rubber, puppy, bear, or bootblack thinking of running for a title?
I’m never short of advice! If I had to boil it down to one thing, it would be don’t buy any new clothes for the contest. It’ll mark you out as a newcomer to the community. Find some people who’ve been in the community longer than you who are willing to lend you clothes that have already been broken in. It also means you can positively answer the interview question: “Are you wearing any leather today that you haven’t bought yourself?”
In your opinion, what have been the landmark changes for the gay community over the past 10 years?
Getting BDSM and fetishism removed from the International Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organization (WHO), and from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in America. That has been a huge step forward. It was an enormous campaign on both sides of the Atlantic, and thanks have to go to everyone who helped such as the Revise F-65 project in Norway. (https://revisef65.net/)
What are your hopes and future plans?
I’d like the current trend towards right-wing nationalism to be a temporary blip and not a permanent course correction. We have a lot of rights that can be quickly removed.
John Pendal will perform at Darklands 2020 in Antwerp, Belgium. Visit www.darklands.com.