04/16/2012 07:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pecs, Personality, and Pre-Internet Bonding: The Story of International Mr. Leather (VIDEO)

By Whitney Weiss

From humble beginnings at Chicago's Gold Coast bar to its current incarnation as a four-day extravaganza, International Mr. Leather has come a long way. But what's particularly impressive when you're watching archival footage of guys in hot cop drag and tiny black shorts flexing for the crowd circa the 1980s is the fact that all the pageantry was organized in a world devoid of cell phones and email, where finding like-minded individuals who shared your interests might be described as slightly more trying. Especially if those interests included jockstraps and ball gags. And you were living in Cincinnati.

It is what it sounds like: the leather community's equivalent of the Miss America pageant.

Founded by Chuck Renslow, Mr. Leather grew out of the "Mr. Gold Coast Contest," which in 1979 boasted 13 contestants from as far away as New Orleans and Denver. Then and now, the rules and regulations weren't particularly complicated: hometown bars held contests or decided to sponsor whomever had the most winning personality (and Adonis-esque build), and that special guy got sent to Chicago to hold his own against opponents from around the U.S.A. and beyond, first in a preliminary round, and then, hopefully, in the finals. So in theory, you could be the lone leather daddy of Jacksonville, Fla,, find a gay bar that would sponsor you, and go try your luck at placing first in Pecs and Personality and eventually securing the title of Mr. Leather.

This course of action proved appealing for guys from around the country. And as interest (and the number of participants) organically grew, Renslow wanted to keep the momentum going, so he moved the contest to a larger venue. With the venue change came the name change to "International Mr. Leather," a rebranding suggested by Renslow's then-lover and partner, Dom Orejudos, the person responsible for the contest's truly amazing logos and posters over the years.

Unlike a straight beauty pageant, where the contestants may name such nebulous concepts as "happiness" and "world peace" as their passions, International Mr. Leather keeps it real. During 1986's competition, the host nonchalantly narrates one toned and chipper participant's walk down the runway with this: "His hobbies include body building, football, porno, and spending someone else's money." And despite the fact that International Mr. Leather boasts sponsors like ID Lubricants and, there's something downright cheerful about the older footage, which includes earnest speeches that urge attendees to be serious about brotherhood and sisterhood, and guys whose day jobs include bartending and electrician work -- but who look self-aware enough that you feel confident that you won't be reading about their sex lives on the news (that's an honor reserved for self-loathing, repressed Republicans).

Even if your own closet is devoid of whips and vests, there is one universal truth that can be found in watching the International Mr. Leather contests of old: the undeniable coolness of pre-Internet bonding. For those who've never known the joy of managing to discover something by having to put on pants and leave one's apartment, it's an experience different from feeling a connection sitting alone at a computer screen -- whether you're hitting up a record store or making a beeline for a bar called Spurs. Kudos to the leather community for figuring that out and sticking with it for three decades running.

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