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Twenty-five years of leather: as the International Mr. Leather contest turns 25, its first-ever winner describes why cowhide means so much to gay people. (Behind the Headlines).

David Kloss was named International Mr. Leather in 1979 before a crowd of about 400 who had gathered in Chicago for the first IML contest. Since then IML has evolved into the premier leather event, drawing thousands of gay men and lesbians from all over the world. This May the IML holds its 25th annual contest in Chicago.

The Advocate caught up with Kloss, 53, in Toronto, where he lives with his partner, Remi Collette, 34. The pair, who had met at IML a few years ago, were named Pantheon of Leather Couple of the Year in February. Still active in the community, Kloss looks back on 25 years of life in leather.

What was IML like back in 19797

It was a totally new scenario with no history. [IML founder] Chuck Renslow put out a call to the bars, saying we are holding a contest in Chicago and asking them to send candidates.

I was living in San Francisco at the time, and a bar called the Brig sponsored the local contest. I was the first representative from San Francisco and established the tradition of Mr. Leather San Francisco.

The contest was held at the Radisson Hotel on Michigan Avenue, and I remember there was also some sort of Baptist convention going on at the same time.

The contest was relatively simple: There was a brief interview, and then you had to come out in leatherwear and in what they called minimal wear. I remember I wore a bathing suit.

The prizes were the medallion, which was real 18-karat gold back then, a check for $1,000, and a Yamaha 500 motorcycle.

What does being the first IML mean to you today?

I'm honored by it. I feel that once you have achieved some recognition, giving back to the community is what you should be doing. And a lot of people know my name. I've had guys come up to me and say, "Wow, I wasn't born when you won!"

How has the leather community changed over the years?

When I arrived in San Francisco from Philadelphia in 1977, there was a lot of leather activity. There were something like 17 motorcycle clubs--and they actually had motorcycles.

Back then the leather scene was marginal, even within the gay community. There was always a sense of community. Because you were different, you hung together.

AIDS took the heart out of the leather community. We were hit very hard by AIDS, and the leather community was the first to band together to raise money. You will never find a more caring, giving group of people.

Today, it seems a bit more structured and maybe a little more mainstream. That's good, because it's nice to be accepted. But I kind of liked that sense of the forbidden too.

What do you think of the recent protests of leather events by animal rights activists?

I think it is a little ridiculous. I understand that you have to do something to get your message out, but why pick on us? I think a lot of people in the leather community actually support [the activists'] goals. But let's face it--what we're talking about here is cowhide, something that is seen in everyday use. We just use a little bit more of it than most people.

So what is it about leather?

Leather, to me, represents something that's on the edge, something that has an element of danger by pushing the limits. It represents maximum gratification, and it has an almost tribal feeling to it. Back in the '70s it was a very masculine scenario, and it had a real sense of freedom. You could dress the image and be the image.

And the smell of leather is just wonderful!

Any advice for this year's IML contestants?

Be yourself. Do not try to be what you think they want, because you can't maintain that facade for long. Be involved in your community. Deal with everybody on an equal basis, not just the pretty ones and the ones you want. And don't laugh at the judges.
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Author:DeLaMar, Roy
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:May 13, 2003
Words:679
Previous Article:Across the nation. (The Advocate Report).
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