Friday, 29 March 2013

A Salute to the Leather Ladies

Thinking about last month’s posts on the International Mr Bear contest and leather community flags I realised that I could do a feature combining parts of both. So here is a post about a female leather contest for Women’s History Month – the International Ms Leather contest (IMsL). This is also in celebration of this contest, being only a few weeks before the next IMsL contest is held from April 18th, and a tribute to Joann Lee, one of the founders of the contest, who died on 26th October last year.

The first major contest for female leather-lovers was held on 5th September 1981 in San Francisco organised by Samois, the world’s first women’s sado-masochist (s/m) fetish group. Many in the feminist movement of that era, being vocal in their opposition to female beauty contests, were also vocal in their opposition to female involvement in s/m claiming that such activity was male-dominated and run purely for male pleasure. Fortunately, many women ignored such views of the female leather community and it continued to grow.

Many male leather clubs around America were the first to hold small, local female leather contests because there were very few women’s leather clubs around at the time. The male leather community embraced this new dimension to the scene. Another reason was because of the AIDS crisis which was building into a major threat to the community. Like other parts of the lgbt community it was lesbian groups who were among the first to support the gay victims of the disease and raised thousands of dollars for them. The gay community was, perhaps, in too much of a state of shock to handle the crisis on their own.

In the mid-1980s the whole community was experiencing a back-lash of public opinion on the basis of AIDS and it was a combination of a desire to create a united positive community spirit and a meaningful charitable fund-raising effort that led to a group of leather-lovers in San Francisco getting together in 1986 to organise a one-off contest, the first International Ms Leather (IMsL) the following year. The steering committee were :
Kathy Gage – perhaps the first to suggest such a contest;
Joann Lee – nurse, and s/m activist;
Alan Selby – owner of Mr S. Leather Store;
Gayle Rubin – co-founder of Samois and feminist academic;
JimEd Thompson – model and editor of “Action Male” magazine;
Chris Burns – gay porn actor and JimEd’s partner;
Patrick Toner – International Mr Leather 1985;
and Christian Haren – actor and model (recognisable to readers of my generation as “The Marlboro Man”).

In the first IMsL contest there were 16 contestants from across north America representing the full diversity of sexualities found within the leather community itself. The contest had full support from Chuck Renfrow, the owner-producer of International Mr Leather, and from Outcasts, the successor to the Samois group, who acted as volunteers. The first IMsL was Judy Tallwing McCarthy.

This one-off event was so successful that plans were begun to turn it into an annual event. The contests were held in San Francisco for the next 7 years. By that time the committee, which had changed little since day one, found it increasingly harder to organise the event and were in need of new blood before the contest died altogether. International Ms Leather 1993, Amy Marie Meek, stepped forward to take up the reigns as owner-producer.

The biggest change Amy brought was to host the contest in a different city each year, starting with Chicago in 1995. Over the years the contest grew into a full weekend event with extra attractions, parties, ceremonies, and fairs. In 2002 costs were getting rather high and the committee decided to base the contest in Omaha, Nebraska, for the foreseeable future to help keep costs down.

Amy Marie Meek handed over ownership of IMsL to Glenda Rider in 2006. Glenda brought the contest back to its original home of San Francisco in 2007.

The IMsL contest continues to attract thousands from around the world. Many thousands of dollars have been raised for diverse causes – from AIDS charities to the Girl Scouts, from theatre groups to animal rescue shelters.

To end my little tribute to International Ms Leather and celebrate the coming contest on 18th April here is a complete list of IMsL winners. Good luck to all contestants.

1987  Judy Tallwing McCarthy
1988  Shan Carr
1989  Suzie Shepherd
1990  Gabrielle Antolovich
1991  Kim Hallenger
1992  Blair Kituhwa
1993  Amy Marie Meek
1994  Anne Bergstedt (resigned Sept.)
1994  Cindy Bookout
1995  Pat Baillie
1996  Jill Carter
1997  Genelle Moore
1998  Megan Dejarlais Martin
1999  Pam Meyer
2000  Jo Blas
2001  Joni Perrie
2002  Russ Cosgrove
2003  Tammie
2004  Lori Ellison
2005  Jess Holmanahart
2006  Lady Faye
2007  Lauren Ide
2008  Hobbit
2009  Lamalani
2010  Mollena (Mo) Williams
2011  Sara Vibes
2012  Synn Evan


  1. Thanks so much for this great write up about the earliest women's leather contest and IMsL - please correct the spelling of my last name - it's Rider not Ryder.

    1. I'm always pleased when I get positive feedback from people I mention in my posts. Thanks Glenda. Your name has been corrected.