TOBIN: There’s a deep dark secret of yours that you’ve never shared on the show
KATHY: Uh huh
TOBIN: And I want to put you on blast.
TOBIN: Back in 2014, for several months, I would say, you were like texting and emailing me about how you were training for the Olympics?
KATHY: I was training to qualify for the Olympics, yes.
TOBIN: Ahh okay, wait so what sport was it?
KATHY: The, um, I find it delightfully sinister sport of Skeleton.
TOBIN: Oh my god, tell the people what Skeleton is.
KATHY: Skeleton is this winter olympic sport where you start at the top of a bobsled track...
KATHY: …and you go down on a little tiny sled…
KATHY: ...face first...
TOBIN: [little laugh]
KATHY: ...and you reach speeds of I think like 90, 95 miles per hour.
TOBIN: How do you even train to do that?
KATHY: You have to be a very fast runner, you’ve gotta start fast.
KATHY: So, a lot of sprint training.
TOBIN: OK, what was it like the first time you went down a hill?
KATHY: After two and a half months of hard, hard work training…
KATHY: ... I injured myself and never made it to a hill.
TOBIN: Oh! (laughs)
KATHY: But y’know what, I can say that I tried!
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to Nancy.
VOX: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
KATHY: So Tobin, today we’re not alone here in the studio we are joined by friend and producer. James Kim…
TOBIN: Hi James.
JAMES: Hey how’s it going guys.
TOBIN: So James, You recently put out a new season of your podcast called “The Competition.” The first season, you covered the Van Cliburn piano competition, which is like the olympics of classical piano.
JAMES: Yeah, it’s pretty intense.
TOBIN: Super intense.This season, you’re covering a very particular competition that goes on in LA every year. It’s super fascinating and the contestants are so interesting.
JAMES: yeah, I totally think so!
KATHY: Today on the show, we thought we’d a share a chapter or two from that podcast with all of our listeners so James, can you set us up here?
JAMES: Yes. so, um I have to tell an embarrassing story to story to this all off.
TOBIN: Love embarrassing stories. Dive right in please.
JAMES: [LAUGHING] Oh gosh, and I’m going to have to take you all the way back to when I was in middle school, the best time of my life. And it gets even better than that and it’s about the first time I discovered porn.
KATHY: Even better.
TOBIN: Paint the scene. Paint a picture.
JAMES: So it’s late at night and I’m sneaking into the living room where the computer was. And my parents and my brothers were sleeping and because this was the late ‘90s, I have to use Yahoo to search for something. And what I search for are photos of “hairy gay men.”
JAMES: So all these pictures started popping up, but the one that caught my eye was this black and white pencil drawing of a burly, thick hairy dude dressed all in leather. He has large muscles, tight leather pants and jacket. A thick mustache. Police cap. And the part that attracted me the most was that he had a huge bulge.
TOBIN: I know what this is. Was this Tom of Finland?
JAMES: Yes, Bingo!
KATHY: Who is Tom of Finland? Why is he of Finland?
JAMES: So he is of Finland because he was born in Finland and so “Tom of Finland” was his artist name. His real name is Touko Laaksonen. So starting around WWII, Touko did these drawings of men dressed in leather and over time he developed this cult following. Where more guys started to become attracted to these drawings, and actually started to dress like them too -- both because they liked it, and because it was kind of a nod to let other queer people know that you were also queer without saying it.
TOBIN: I see, so they started to build like a little IRL community.
JAMES: Yeah, and then over the years, it turned into a whole scene. People not only dressed in leather, but they also created their own spaces in bars -- AKA “leather bars.” People there show off their style. And they also signal what they’re into -- their kinks -- which can be a range of things: like, spanking, BDSM. But most of all, leather is all about people feeling accepted and safe and enjoying yourself. And that’s what I discovered when I started exploring the leather bar scene in college.
KATHY: What was the first leather bar you visited?
JAMES: Yeah, so in college, I discovered this bar called The Eagle, which I think they also have one in New York, but it's this bar that’s like tucked in into a back alley, which automatically, yes. And so I saw all these men who were just hairy, muscular all dressed in leather. Like it was like a Tom of Finland drawing just come to life. And, you know there’s like a back-room where a guy is getting whipped, you know it looks like a dungeon- there's chains everywhere, there’s porn playing in the background. It was like walking into a fantasy but I also noticed that there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me. There was no Asian people in the bar at all. And in some ways, it felt welcoming, because I was discovering this fetish that I was really into. But at the same time, It didn’t really feel like home. And it got me curious to dive deeper into this world.
TOBIN: So that’s kind of what inspired this new season of your podcast.
JAMES: Yeah, so I discovered this whole new level to the leather scene. It turns out there’s an international competition. And people have described it to me as like the Miss America or Miss Universe competition, but for leather.
KATHY: Love it.
TOBIN: Love it.
JAMES: So each major city has their own circuit. The first step is winning a title at a local leather bar or organization. Then they go on to compete for the city title. And if they win that, they’re off to the big leagues -- going up against contestants from Europe and South America and Australia for the title of... International... Mr. Leather.
ANNOUNCER: International Mr. Leather -- from Hamburg, Germany number 27 -- Thomas Karasch!
JAMES: The competition for the city title here in LA is especially fierce… so of course I had to check it out.
BIKER: What are you recording for?
BIKER: Alright. You guys out there listening, if you’re not here, we’re having a good fucking time. With sexy contestants on our bikes.
JAMES: This year, there are 11 contestants vying for the title of Mr. Los Angeles Leather. And the event is huge. It’s held in a beautifully renovated historic theater in the heart of downtown LA. And this place will soon be filled by hundreds of screaming, cheering leather fans, bright flashing lights, a fog machine, crazy graphics and videos displayed on a huge screen. It’s a pretty massive operation.
GUS: My story was, you know, I was happily married with two children and came to the realization that I wasn't living my authentic self. So I came out to my wife, flip my life upside down and left the house and went straight to a leather bar.
JAMES: Gus Norris is running things today but just a couple years ago, he was a contestant. And while he’s deeply involved in the leather community now, he thinks of himself sort of a late arrival to the scene.
GUS: I discovered leather by going to my local bar, Pistons. And I really just fell in love with the vibe. These are dive-y places. These are people that are immediately accepting of everybody. And you just immediately feel comfortable and part of a close knit group.
JAMES: I've noticed, especially talking with a lot of contestants and the judges that there is like a strong relationship to sex with the culture and I'm wondering where that comes from?
GUS: It entirely revolves around sex. You know, leather is at its core about fetish. It's about exploring your sexuality and all of the interesting things that you can do between two people or more. If you wish. [LAUGHS]
JAMES: So unlike Gus, a lot of the contestants actually aren’t out to their co-workers or even friends and family about being into leather. Many have separate Facebook pages just for the leather side of their life. And so that’s part of the reason why in this story, you’ll hear that some people will just go by their leather names -- to maintain their privacy. And yet, that’s also a big reason why winning this title is so important to these contestants. Every single one that I interviewed sees it as an opportunity to represent the leather community as a whole, to spread awareness about the scene, and to show people that leather isn’t just about whips and chains.
GUS: There's a lot of misconceptions going back decades about, “Oh, these people must have some mental illness, they're freaks, they're weird.” And a lot of what we're doing is expressing ourselves and showing our pride, so that we can show individuals out there that they're not alone in this that that this is not weird. We're not freaks.
JAMES: Now it probably won’t surprise you that most of the contestants at previous Mr. LA Leather competitions looked like they came straight out of a Tom of Finland drawing: muscle-ly, hairy, and white. But this year, that’s changing.
ANNOUNCER: Give it up for Spike. Mr. Precinct Leather 2018…
JAMES: There’s Spike. Who rocks a mohawk and says he can kick your ass and do your make-up.
SPIKE: Being accepted in the leather community, it’s very butch. It’s very masculine. I wear heels. I wear makeup. I have piercings. I have tattoos. I wear nail polish. So I’ve always meant to stand out and if there’s anything you can learn, it’s just be yourself 100% all the time. And if they don’t like you. That’s none of your damn business anyway.
JAMES: There’s Jose. Who’s a National Guard veteran and a father of two.
JOSE: I grew up really poor. Mexican family. I was the first generation here. And for somebody like myself that was really like taught not to be sexual active. Just be Mexican. Go to work. For me to actually come out and just be myself. I think I would serve as a good role model. I’ve never seen anybody of my descent actually win.
JAMES: There’s Ben. Who’s a costume designer by day...and a leather daddy by night.
BEN: Part of the thing that I think needs to happen in leather is that there’s a lot of white men sort of in charge of things and representing things and on posters. And I think that that needs to change.
JAMES: And then there’s the only Asian-American competing in this year’s competition -- his name is Pup Yoshi.
ANNOUNCER: How are you doing?
YOSHI: I’m great. How are you?
ANNOUNCER: I’m doing good. Now do I call you pup or do I call you Yoshi?
YOSHI: I answer to either…
ANNOUNCER: To either…
JAMES: Pup Yoshi is wearing a leather vest, leather pants, and boots...no shirt. And he has the biggest smile on his face. He just looks so happy, like he’s right where he belongs.
ANNOUNCER: If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else. What would you wanna know?
YOSHI: I would wanna know the day that I would go to Costco to buy a whole bunch of booze and food for the biggest fucking party when Trump is not our president anymore.
JAMES: One thing that’s really exciting about Pup Yoshi is that he’s representing a branch of The Eagle, which is a group of bars that come with some serious pedigree. Three of the past four winners of Mr. LA Leather have come from the Eagle. So Pup Yoshi could actually win this thing.
YOSHI: It would certainly be a great honor to win Mr. LA Leather. But the opportunity to stand up on stage as a person of color. As an Asian man. And to be someone who you don’t really see very often in the community and to be able to stand up on stage...to me that’s..that’s already the victory right there.
JAMES: You know, he says that. But I can tell he’s here to win...and truthfully... he’s got a long way to go.
KATHY: Coming up, Pup Yoshi prepares for the competition. That’s in a minute.
TOBIN: You’re listening to Nancy.
TOBIN: And we’re back with James Kim and Mr. LA Leather 2018.
KATHY: James, when you were describing this competition to us, you were like, it’s kind of like the Miss America pageant but for leather.
JAMES: It really is!
JAMES: So there are four rounds of the competition that take place all in one day: There’s the “bar wear” look, where the contestants dress up in something they’d wear to impress someone. Then they have to answer a serious question:
ANNOUNCER: What is something that you want the community to give back to you as a title holder?
JOSE: Uhhh-More fisting bottoms! [CHEERS]
JAMES: There’s the “swimwear” round, where the contestants wear basically nothing but a jockstrap.
ANNOUNCER: OK. Tell me about what you’re wearing.
MARPA: As little as possible.
JAMES: And there’s the “formal wear” round where instead of gowns, the contestants wear leather ties and leather vests. And they have to give a 90 second speech.
SPIKE: I am someone who would be proud to represent and reflect the city that I love. A city that is diverse, complicated, influential and significant in our history. I am Spike. And I am leather.
JAMES: But the very first round of the competition actually takes place away from the crowds... backstage. It’s an interview with the panel of judges who ask the contestants questions about their life. And some of those questions can get really personal like, “what are your kinks?” -- whether it’s bondage or fisting or something else. Or like, “describe -- in detail -- the first time you had sex in a BDSM setting?” That might seem like really intimate stuff -- and it’s supposed to be. Leather is all about kink. The judges need to know that the person who wins the title is someone who truly lives and breathes leather. If you’re gonna be a spokesperson for the community -- going to sponsor events and such -- you have to be truly comfortable with and celebratory of them. You can’t just look the part, you gotta walk the walk, too -- especially the kink part of it.
JAMES: For Pup Yoshi, the guy I introduced you to before, his journey into the leather community all started one night about 15 years ago… when he walked into a bar and locked eyes with a guy named Gary.
YOSHI: He is someone that draws people to him. I mean, that's just who he is. He's a very outgoing guy. But he's also...he's one of those people that you talk to and people like to be around him. They want to be around him. That's the energy I was attracted to. And I remember thinking, I just cannot believe that he's letting me be around him.
JAMES [off-mic]: Do you remember what you talked about?
YOSHI: Um...not a whole lot...It was really more of a physical thing then...yeah (laughs). Yeah, we don't really need to get into too much of those details. But yeah.
YOSHI: He invited me over the next day and he made me lunch. That was the amazing part is he made me lunch. And I...yeah, it was a french dip sandwich and he made the Au jus. Every time I tell people that story, they're like, "Are you kidding? Like, why don't you marry this man?" It's like, well I did.
JAMES: On the night they met, Gary was wearing a leather arm band and leather boots.
YOSHI: Yeah, he was the one that taught me everything. And exposed me to all of that. That’s how I found out about it.
KIM: But there’s probably a reason why you were kind of attracted to be a part of it. Because you could have opted out and gone, “No, that’s not my scene.”
YOSHI: Yeah, it was enjoyable. I mean, that's kind of the bottom line. It was enjoyable. One of the things that I like to do is volunteer at the leather tents at Pride festivals. Because you have people that are walking in there who have no experience with leather or BDSM. Or what they've seen is 50 Shades of Grey or something on TV, you know, whips and chains, whatnot. So I ask them, "What is your impression of leather? What is your impression of BDSM?" And the first thing that comes out of their mouth consistently is pain. It's like well- it’s not all about pain. It's about sensation. And the example I give people is, "Have you ever been blindfolded?" "Yeah, Of course." "Do you notice that your other senses are more aware and heightened when you're blindfolded?" Your sense of smell is greater. Your sense of hearing -- you hear more. Your sense of touch, you know, is heightened. So if I'm doing something to you, like, hitting you with a flogger or brushing you with a feather. The sensation is gonna be ten times more intense when I do it, when I take one of your senses away because you're focused on that.
JAMES: A flogger, by the way, looks like a small mop, but with strands of leather hanging down from the handle. You use it to whip people for pleasure, and send them into this transcendent state.
YOSHI: You'll hear this concept called headspace discussed quite a bit. And it's really when your head kind of almost leaves your body. You're in an altered state and you're feeling things that you don't feel normally. And you have access to feelings and emotions and sensations that you don't have access to in your everyday life.
JAMES: I want to talk a bit more about you and Gary. Are you guys monogamous?
YOSHI: I can hear the laughter already from people listening.
JAMES: He means his friends listening to this.
YOSHI: No, we are not monogamous.
KIM: How do you define your relationship?
YOSHI: So we're married. We're legally married. We're open. Uh, you hear this term mentioned a lot in leather families. We do have a boy. And we do have another one that's starting to become apart our family.
JAMES: So a “boy” in the leather community refers to someone who is submissive. And “leather family” is just another way to say polyamorous relationship. But it’s more than just sex. At least for Gary and Yoshi. Each time they bring someone new into their relationship, they have them come over, they cook for them. Some of the time, they’re all just hanging out, with no sex involved.
KIM: Is it common for people in the leather community to be open when they are in relationships?
YOSHI: You know, you talk about shaming people and I think people who are in monogamous relationships kind of get shamed. The most recent Mr. LA leather and his fiancé are monogamous and they've been that way since the beginning. I asked them you know, once like what was your most surprising moment of your year? And he said, "You know, it was the moment that I got shamed for being in a monogamous relationship." That's the thing it's like, there are no rules about how relationships should work other than everyone in there should be under their own free will and deserves to be respected. That's it.
JAMES: Yoshi’s been a part of the leather scene for more than a decade, and yes it’s a community that’s all about fetish, but he feels like he gets fetishized for the wrong reasons.
YOSHI: Somebody hit me up online once and said, "Hey, you look really hot. I love a good Asian who knows his place." So it's like, "Wait a minute," you know, "Hello?" The assumption is that if you're Asian, that you're passive, that you're submissive, that you're going to be embarrassed by sex or not want sexual contact. And I think people have a certain view of what you're going to be like.
JAMES: And the leather scene is still mainly populated by white men.
YOSHI: But I think there is something to be said that why hasn't there been an Asian man on the stage at Mr. LA Leather for several years? Why hasn't there been one? That has an impact, I think, on whether people think that this is something that is for them. I mean, I see my Asian leather friends and the joke is, "Okay, is there two of us? Three of us? Okay, we've made the quota." It's kind of a gallows humor way of thinking about it but it's the reality of things. It's like, why are people that look like us not here? Why is that the case?
JAMES: But of course, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with being in the spotlight and expressing your concerns -- especially for Yoshi, who’s generally soft-spoken and shy. Plus, this competition requires pretty extensive preparation -- which is why, like a lot of participants, Yoshi has spent months getting ready -- he even got a coach.
YOSHI: All joking aside, there is a bit of that you know “Joy Luck Club” hopes and dreams things. Like, “Oh my god! All of our hopes and dreams are in you.” There is that feeling that they have that they have to be, you know, the model minority to act a certain way. But I do feel like I have have more resources available to me to run. It’s not easy to run. It’s time. It’s money. It’s effort. It’s support. All of those things I have the opportunity. And this year, for many reasons, it was the right year. You know, again, if you don’t show up, then what right do you have to complain that that’s, you know, not happening?
[AMBI OF THE COMPETITION -- CHEERS]
JAMES: Back to the competition. It’s almost the end of the day, and the theater is packed. There are hundreds of people here... filling up the floor and balcony... everyone dressed in their leather-best. And now … It’s time for the “formal wear” round … with the dreaded 90-second speech... when Yoshi has the chance to win over the hearts and minds of the judges and the community. The lights dim. The music goes quiet….
ANNOUNCER: ...And here is contestant number 10. This is Pup Yoshi.
JAMES: He bounds on stage...
YOSHI: My grandmother uses this Japanese phrase quite often -- “Shikata ga nai” -- which means it can’t be helped. Basically, you may have been wronged or suffered an injustice, but the power of society, culture, and custom are so great that it’s just best to move on and forget about it. For too long, “Shikata ga nai” was how I tried to deal with the weight of sexual stereotypes that crushed my soul. Hearing things like, “All Asian men are passive and afraid of sex” over and over again, you start to believe it.
But then I finally realized that my kink is not defined by where my ancestors came from. My kink is defined by what turns me on.
Stereotypes hold all of us back for fear of being rejected. Even tonight, there is someone who is not here because they believed they wouldn’t be welcomed. So many of us have been told that we couldn’t truly leather because we were too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too butch, too fem, too brown, too yellow, too whatever. So I wanna say to you that I hear you. I see you. And as your Mr. Los Angeles Leather, I am ready to do the work to break down these stereotypes bit by bit until they are crushed. And never forget that we are all leather. Thank you very much.
[CHEERS -- Contestant number 10. Pup Yoshi]
TOBIN: Oh my god, Pup Yoshi what a speech!
JAMES: I know.
TOBIN: He did so great!
JAMES: Yeah he really did.
KATHY: Wait, so James, did Pup Yoshi win?
JAMES: Kathy, you know I’m not gonna tell you that.
TOBIN: We thought if we asked you in studio we would like pressure it out of you.
JAMES: No no no, you’re not that slick, nuh-uh.
KATHY: All right fair enough! So, if you want to hear how things turned out for Pup Yoshi -- and a bunch of the other people who competed for the title -- listen to the Competition. And you can find it wherever you get your podcasts.
TOBIN: Thanks for being here James.
KATHY: Thank you!
JAMES: Thanks, everyone.
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: By the way, the Competition was made by James Kim, Elyssa Dudley and Cameron Kell -- and we heard music in this episode by James, Cameron, and Andrew Eapen. A big thanks to their team for collaborating with us on this episode.
KATHY: Our producer...
TOBIN: Alice Wilder!
KATHY: Production fellow…
TOBIN: Temi Fagbenle!
KATHY: Sound designer...
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Executive producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]