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"As the idea progressed, they decided to "get the whole world in on it" and called it the International Mr. Leather Contest and designed a poster to that effect. Their first poster was also printed in German and sent to bars in Germany in order to attract an international crowd."

A Short History of IML
by Jack Rinella

When participating in the leather extravaganza called the International Mr. Leather Contest, you can't help but be impressed by its size, diversity, and power. The events comprising the weekend, including parties, judging, and exhibits generally run smoothly and efficiently, as well they should for an annual event of its longevity.

The "roots" of IML go back to pre-leather days when Chuck Renslow's avid interest in photography and men led him to start, with his friend Harry Mickelsen, Kris Studios, which specialized in producing and selling photos of the male physique.

Chuck had been involved in weight lifting during high school and had continued his exercise program thereafter, though he admits that it was as much to be around good looking hunks as it was for the benefits of the exercise. This interest also led him to get involved in the Amateur Athletic Union. It also was a way for Chuck to find models for his photography.

Chuck's lover Dom Orejudas had similar interests. Both had experience in physique contests and he and Dom had won some championships and state meets while in high school.

It was at this time, too, that they met Cliff Ottinger, one of the noted physique photographers in Chicago. Because of their interest in physique, Melv Gruberg of the AAU turned over the physique contest part of the AAU to Chuck and Cliff to run, including the Mr. Chicago and the Mr. Illinois contests. It was a situation made in heaven for Kris Studio and afforded Chuck the opportunity to meet just the men he needed for his photographs. For similar reasons, in May of 1958, Chuck and Dom purchased a gym on Van Buren Street in the Chicago loop area, which they re-named Triumph Gym. Chuck gave his models free memberships in the AAU. The result, of course, was that he had all these contest winners working out in his gym, as well as a steady supply of models.

In 1959 the Pan American Games were held in Chicago. Once again Chuck was involved in the contest both as contestant (in some of the non-official events) and as a staff member.

The fifties saw the birth of what we now call Leather, as gay men, seeking their self-realization and expression of their masculine homosexuality, created small groups to learn and experience "rough sex". Over the course of the decade rough sex evolved into the style and culture of today's leather community. In 1960, the group was given the opportunity to purchase the bar where they had begun meeting regularly. Eventually then, Chuck, Dom, and two others bought the Gold Coast Show Lounge on Clark Street.

With his background of physique contests, it was natural for Chuck to host a Mr. Gold Coast Contest. The first contest was held in October of 1972, where John Lunning became the first leather titleholder.

The yearly contest became extremely popular, filling both floors of the Gold Coast. Television monitors were installed in the "Pit" so that the patrons could at least watch the action going on upstairs. Audio speakers were installed outside so that the overflow crowds on the street could listen to an announcer describing the contest.

By 1978, the size of the attendance was so large as to become a problem and the decision was made to hold the event elsewhere. Chuck, though, was reluctant to move it. Instead he suggested that he and Dom create a new contest. Dom agreed, saying, "Let's create one for the whole United States." They began going through names, quickly eliminating ones already in use, such as Mr. America, Mr. USA, and Mr. Olympic, finally settling on Mr. Leather.

As the idea progressed, they decided to "get the whole world in on it" and called it the International Mr. Leather Contest and designed a poster to that effect. Their first poster was also printed in German and sent to bars in Germany in order to attract an international crowd. There weren't any international contestants in the first contest, but there were some attendees from Europe.

The First International Mr. Leather Contest was held on May 20th, 1979. Dom recounted the evening in First Hand Events magazine in 1988: "Although it was more modest in scope than the powerhouse, high-entertainment extravaganza the event would eventually become, that first contest was nevertheless an exciting, eye-opining spectacle which was presented with a confident lustre of professionalism and already stamped with its own unmistakable character and style.

"The evening's competition had been preceded by a weekend of leather fun and festivities that had been successful beyond our expectations, attended by an impressive number of appreciative leathermen who had journeyed to Chicago from far and near to participate in the revels.

"The lineup of contestants, only fifteen in number, was more modest in size than what we are accustomed to today.. Although fewer in number, the 1979 contestants exhibited the same sterling qualities of leather manhood and hot sexuality that have been notable and in such abundance at every IML competition. From the very beginning, the judges have not had an easy time choosing a winner from among so many superlative contenders.

"That year, when the votes were tallied, we found we had our first (and thus far only) tie for first place! David Kloss of San Francisco and Durk Dehner of Los Angeles had each captured the exact same number of votes. The judges were called upon to vote out the tie and David narrowly edged out Durk to become the first International Mr. Leather. Durk contented himself with the first runner-up award."

The second IML winner, Patrick Brooks, Mr. Australia Leather, confirmed the international status of the title. As Chuck remembers: "That was very interesting because the first prize that year was a motorcycle and we had to ship it to Australia. The tariffs to do so were exorbitant. Since it was a Japanese bike, and Australia and Japan had reciprocal trade agreements, we shipped the bike back to the factory, from whence it was then shipped to Australia.

"Shipping it cost more money than the bike did. I tried to get Brooks to take cash instead, but he insisted, 'No, I want the bike that I won,' and he did."

The 1981 winner was Marty Kiker of the Phoenix Bar in California. The next year the title went to that year's Mr. Drummer, Luke Daniel, also of California.

As Dom recounted, "In 1983, muscular, blond Colt Thomas from Texas arrived just as contest registration was closing; a few more minutes and he would have been unable to enter the competition. He won the title that year. Had he arrived just a little bit later, someone else would have been 1983 International Mr. Leather.

"To insure fairness in the selection, IML utilizes the Olympic scoring method and endeavors to select judges from a wide range of political, geographical and social backgrounds. Among the many distinguished gentlemen who have assisted me," wrote Orejudas, "in judging the contest are my good friend and colleague,the world-renowned artist, Tom of Finland, the Reverend Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, and representatives of Advocate Men, Honcho, and Falcon Studios, and the owners of some of the world's best known leather establishments.

"And then there are our 'regulars': Bay Area Reporter columnist Mr. Marcus, Lou Thomas, former Colt and Target Studios entrepreneur, and Bob Lewis of First Hand publications. And, of course, each year the previous year's winner joins the panel of judges to help select his successor."

Seventeen years later, IML has well-earned its reputation as the world largest and best Leather event. "These, then, were some of the impressions left by the first ten years of International Mr. Leather," wrote Orejudas in 1988. "It has been a decade of wonderful experiences. I cannot help but look forward with eagerness and anticipation to the many years of IML weekends to come."

Neither can we, Dom. Neither can we.

Copyright 1999 by Jack Rinella. This material may not be copied in any manner. For permission to reproduce this essay, contact mrjackr@leathermail.com

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