Thorns and Roses

Here she comes, International Ms. Leather

LAS VEGAS—Sexy butch dyke Pam Meyer took the stage in a blond wig wielding a straight razor. She pranced around a hot fag—no shirt, really buff—seated in a barber chair. When the music changed from bubblegum to deep trance, she tossed the wig, dropped the razor, and whipped out a 10-inch dagger, smeared his pecs with shaving cream, and shaved his chest with her shimmering blade. I practically wet my pants when she first laid the knife against him and kissed him passionately. This was Pam's fantasy, and it happened to be one of mine, too.

Pam was a contestant at the 13th Annual International Ms. Leather Contest (IMsL, pronounced im-zull) at the World Trade Center Hotel in mid July. The premise: 14 women from around the country, most of them winners of regional contests (can you believe a Ms. Leather Nebraska?) vie for the title, the sash, and fabulous prizes. The lucky IMsL '99 travels the globe, judges local competitions, and promotes a positive image of leather people.

Ms. Leather, it should be noted, is a title not to be interpreted literally. Folks who are into s/m, the event's core audience, see leather as more than wearable flesh—it symbolizes radical and transgressive sexuality. Leather's suggestion of rebellion originated with outlaw bikers, a spirit of toughness that flows naturally into the realms of s/m, kink, and fetishes. People attracted to leather's meaning may not even wear it—strict vegans can be leatherwomen.

The Ms. Leather competition is much like the crowning of Miss America but with a few small differences. The talent portion is called Fantasy. Gowns and swimsuits are replaced by corsets and chaps. The roses in the winner's bouquet still have thorns—and they like it like that. Although the contest is pansexual and the contestants represented a range of sexual practices, most of the 800 attendees were leatherdykes. And leatherdykes sure know how to have a good time.

Interview scores on the weekend's first day determined the 10 contestants who advanced to the final competition, a contest that lasted four-and-a-half hours and only got tedious near the end. Each of the 10 gave a prepared speech, modeled erotic hot wear, and performed a fantasy. The speeches proved there's more to a love for leather than the fashion and the sex. They emphasized leather history, support for kinky youth, and the importance of activism and education.

Some fantasies were political, others personal, the best a little of both. Ms. Leather Pride '98 Sybil described her life as a single mom and leatherwoman who has been investigated by the department of children's services because of her "lifestyle." Manhattan's own New York Leatherwoman '99 Peggy a/k/a O revealed the story of coming out about s/m to her father; her honesty and articulateness surely vaulted her into the second runner-up slot. (This reporter first met O while volunteering as an organizer at the New York contest.) When the dagger-wielding 40-year-old Pam spoke about bridging the generation gap, she said, "I can't believe that a lot of you out there are in your Saturn return [the period between ages 27 and 30 when the planet Saturn realigns exactly as it was at birth and usually all hell breaks loose], and I am going through menopause."

The evening's fantasies—dramatic scenarios usually set to music: think the Marquis de Sade on MTV—were crowd pleasers. Some contestants went the traditional route of discipline (flogging, cross-dressing, and cocksucking). Ms. Southern California Fantasy '99 Crickett Watkins snapped two floggers at once like a cheerleader on speed (a bravura performance that clinched her the first runner-up title). In the funniest fantasy, Ms. Baltimore Eagle '99 Michele Smith cast herself as a puppy, exploring the potentials of leashes, owners, and housebreaking. Other fantasies starred pop icons: Xena, Winnie-the-Pooh, Barbie as a fistfucking and a buttfucking leathergirl. (That's right, two Barbie fantasies, both set to "Barbie Girl.")

A mock-mantra heard among leather folk is "It's all about the fashion." Once a way to identify oneself to like-minded others, leather fetish wear has been so appropriated by the mainstream you can't tell the perverts from the tourists. Sure, dressing up is fun and often part of the kink, but what you wear can read like a hand-stitched personal ad to others. It can symbolize desire for power and sex in very specific ways. Some women in Las Vegas wore leather armbands to signify top/bottom propensities, a practice borrowed from their cruising brothers. A military uniform promises serious discipline. Then there's the exploration of the limits of one's body spilling out of a corset. A leather vest is not always just a leather vest.

But let's talk about the fashion for a moment. The most popular accessory at IMsL was around the neck; I saw more collars here than at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (don't think I'm making fun—I wore one the entire weekend). Midori, a San Francisco professional dominatrix, slithered about in multicolored latex dresses shined with Armor All to a high gloss by willing submissives. A trio of Catholic-school– uniformed girls (ages 20 to 50) were led to brunch by a priest with a menacing ruler in hand. Generals Butch, Blade, Gunner, and Kane of the Dyke Uniform Corps, decked out in formal dress uniforms, rigorously inspected their recruits before dinner.

Most humorous were American Leatherwoman '99 and American Leatherboy '97, a dyke couple from Maryland, dressed in khakis and polo shirts. I overheard one woman ask, "What's with those two in the leisure suits?" The couple proved two important points: (1) you don't have to wear leather to be a leatherdyke and (2) kinky people can eroticize almost anything. The yuppie duds were fittingly eye-catching in a room full of s/m fashion overkill—in this context, deliberate costumes. In a place where even the most mainstream J. Crew cookie-cutter clothes seem fetishized, I caught myself thinking, "Are they doing some sort of gender-bending, incestuous father-son golfing trip scene?" Or maybe a midwestern - tourists - stumble - into - the - wrong - convention scene. There's such a thing as forced feminization and public humiliation, so what about forced preppy-fication?

All the dress up wasn't just to be seen taking notes at the master/slave workshop (in lieu of pens and paper, the fisting workshop moderator recommended bringing lube, gloves, and a towel). Cruising, playing, and fucking were a big part of the event. Some women, after forging deep, intense online connections, met face-to-face for the first time; others made on-the-spot lust connections in a girl - flagging - hanky - on - the - right - meets - girl - flagging - hanky - on - the - left moment.

A local s/m group hosted a few play parties, but the more spontaneous flesh fetes garnered the juiciest gossip, like the duo who converted their suite into a dungeon, complete with a hanging sling for willing guests. A group from the East Coast moved their king-size bed into the adjoining room and replaced it with a blue plastic tarp for easier cleanup. Another room had so many soiled towels piled outside the door, housekeeping needed an extra cart to take them away. The continual sounds of beating, wailing, and moaning reverberated throughout the corridors.

As a reporter and part of the New York contingent supporting its first IMsL contestant, I was lucky enough to be part of the festivities. I played the distracting femme in a Dyke Uniform Corps Recruit Training Session, watched a German dominatrix pierce her bottom with needles, had my body mummified in yellow CAUTION tape, picked up a tourist and a puppy for a six-way scene, and hosted a femme gang interrogation-torture scene of my butch top. Damn, I never did get to play out the shaving fantasy with the new International Ms. Leather, Pam Meyer.

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