International Ms. Leather (IMsL) is a leather subculture convention and contest for women, held annually in the United States. The first International Ms. Leather contest was held in 1987, and was won by Judy Tallwing McCarthey.
Generation 1 (1987-1995)
The year was 1986. International Mr. Leather (IML) had been in existence for eight years, preceded by the Mr. Gold Coast Contest. IML had grown quickly, starting with 12 contestants in 1979 and averaging close to 30 contestants a year. The Lesbian Sex Mafia was celebrating its fifth anniversary. The Folsom Street Fair had been around for two years, and the Up Your Alley Fair had begun the year before. Many local and regional men’s leather contests were in full swing. And Samois, America’s first lesbian BDSM group, hosted a Ms Leather Contest in 1981 in Oakland, which was won by Rachael Williams, thus making her the first black person to hold what would be equivalent to a national title in leather.
For kinky lesbians and others in the women’s movement, these days are also remembered as the “sex wars.” SM women faced discrimination because some feminists believed that SM, even if practiced by women, promoted violence against women and perpetuated patriarchal role models. Many individual women and women’s groups, like Samois, found themselves at odds with a variety of women’s spaces, including feminist publications, bookstores and women’s centers. Samois folded in 1983, shortly after their publication in 1981 of the groundbreaking book Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M, yet the women’s SM community continued to grow in the Bay Area and around the country. In 1984, The Outcasts, a new organization for Bay Area SM women, drew 80 women to their first organizational meeting, joining other groups which started to form across the country and around the world throughout the ’80s.
Amidst all of this growth and activism in the leather community, a darker reality was emerging; the AIDS epidemic was raging. Women, particularly sex workers, were starting to die side by side with the countless gay men who were ill. Galvanized by an urgent need for fundraising and the sheer impetus to take action in the face of such devastation, gay and queer women stepped up to help their gay and lesbian communities. Against a world-wide backdrop of fear-based sex-negativity the women’s leather community pushed back against the epidemic by coming together to celebrate their sexuality. It was a time of growth in the face of death.
It was in this social climate that the idea for the first International Ms Leather Contest was launched. IMsL was founded in July 1986, when Joann Lee and Alan Selby assembled the initial steering committee. Joann Lee, Alan Selby, Kathy Gage, Gayle Rubin, Jim Thompson, Chris Burns, Patrick Toner, and Christian Haren composed the first planning meeting, and additional volunteers from The Outcasts were soon recruited to help out. At the beginning, IMsL had the support of The Outcasts and the Society of Janus. Other prominent members of the Leather community were supportive of IMsL, including Chuck Renslow, a cofounder of IML.
The first IMsL contest was held in 1987. It began as a one-night event, held at a bar named DV8, which boasted a Keith Haring mural on one wall. Sixteen IMsL contestants crammed onto a tiny stage that was barely the size of a few tables. The women competing were gay, bi, heterosexual, and undefined. They came from all over the country, including Arizona, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, New York, Philadelphia and other cities – and from Canada. Each contestant was a regional titleholder, sponsored by a bar, organization, or club. Some men’s Leather bars around the country put on “Ms” contests. Many of these local and regional women’s contests were created that year, to act as feeders for IMsL. Roughly 400 people – mostly gay men – packed into the crowded bar to see the contest.
For the first IMsL, DV8 donated the space to reduce operating costs, and entry to the event was $20 in advance, $25 at the door. From the very beginning, IMsL was operated as a fundraising event with the money donated to AIDS charities, particularly gay men’s AIDS organizations. For the first few years, all proceeds were donated; not even seed money for the following year was retained.
Judy Tallwing McCarthey was the first International Ms Leather. While the contest was originally envisioned primarily as a one-night fundraising event, being International Ms Leather immediately started to become a year-round commitment. Judy began holding fundraisers in various cities and used her visibility as a titleholder to draw attention and money to various worthy causes. This community activism and outreach is now an integral part of what it means to be an IMsL. As IMsL became a year-round position with national and international expectations, a travel fund became necessary. The first travel fund, started in 1988, was named for Sashie Hyatt, Judy’s partner, a cancer survivor and an instrumental organizer in the Oregon Leather scene.
After the first contest, the membership of the board shifted. Kathy Gage, Peter Rath, Sky Renfro, Shadow Morton (the first Ms San Francisco Leather), Helen Ruvelas, Alan Selby, Jim Thompson, Patrick Toner, and Audrey Joseph became the core of the group that produced IMsL for the following eight years. International Ms Leather grew quickly. The second contest was held at the Giftcenter, a tradeshow venue in the South of Market neighborhood, just a few blocks south of Folsom Street – San Francisco’s Leather nexus. The ticket price of the event went up to $25–50, as the production value and associated costs of producing the event increased. From a small stage and crowded standing-room-only setting in a local bar, the contest changed within a year to a production on a large stage, with tables and individual seating available on two levels. Businesses sponsoring the event bought tables of 10 people, as did publications such as Drummer and On Our Backs, and many individuals from the community bought tables of 4-10 people or individual tickets. There were again more than a dozen contestants and comedian Shann Carr, then from Portland, was declared the winner.
The International Ms Leather contest stayed in San Francisco for eight years. It was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in California and the board ran IMsL with the assistance of a changing crew of local volunteers; there was no paid staff. Local organizations contributed their time to make the event happen. The Golden Gate Guards, a men’s motorcycle club, volunteered as ushers, and there was a talented and enthusiastic stage crew making each event an exciting, hot production. Dramatic lighting, carefully crafted and scripted fantasy scenes, props and costumes, and hours of rehearsals ensured a captivating, sexy show every time. The team who worked to make it all happen became a tight-knit crew. Board member Audrey Joseph said, reminiscing about the fantastic stage crew, “It was family building. We laughed so much and cared about each other so much… The greatest parts of the [Leather/queer] movement, when people really shined, were when we were glued together for a cause that we really cared about.” International Ms Leather grew to be a family. The production crew was a family, the past titleholders became a family, and many attendees returned year after year to visit and play with their extended leather family from around the country.
After the Giftcenter, the contest moved to a hotel venue and then to Club Townsend, which was owned by board member Audrey Joseph. IMsL was able to use Club Townsend for free, which allowed them to maximize the proceeds that were donated to charity each year. Through the first eight years, IMsL was primarily a one-night event. Local groups and dungeons hosted play parties during IMsL weekend, and out-of-town attendees were invited to enjoy the San Francisco scene for the weekend. Each year, contestants came from around the country, often bringing with them a contingent of attendees from their home city. IMsL gained momentum as an event that brought together kinky women from around the continent and drew a small number of attendees from elsewhere in the world each year.
As the years passed the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the gay and lesbian community changed. There were breakthroughs in medical treatment, much of it spurred by AIDS activists, and in 1995 protease inhibitors were introduced, leading to dramatic declines in mortality. In 1998, San Francisco’s gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter, ran its famous “No Obits” headline, announcing that, for the first time in years, there were no obituaries to print in that week’s paper. As the course of AIDS changed, the focus of IMsL’s fundraising efforts changed and more titleholders incorporated their personal interests into their title-year activism.
Generation 2 (1995-2006)
By the mid-nineties, after nearly a decade of dedicating their time to producing IMsL, the board and many local volunteers had started to burn out. It was unclear what the future of IMsL would be, or if IMsL would continue at all. In 1994, Amy Marie Meek, IMsL 1993, wrote an impassioned letter to the board, begging them to keep IMsL alive and offering to take over and run the contest herself. The board agreed and sold the right to produce IMsL to Amy Marie for $1 a year for ten years. Amy Marie produced IMsL in 1995 to great acclaim, and she continued to produce IMsL for twelve years, taking it through to the 20th annual contest in 2006. “Amy Marie Meek – International Ms. Leather” was the recipient of the International Deaf Leather Recognition Award in 2001. Amy Marie chose to move IMsL from city to city so that each city would have the chance to host and showcase their kink community. Each host city could use IMsL as a way to rally and invigorate their local scene. Starting in Chicago in 1995, IMsL then moved to Philadelphia, San Diego, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Toronto, and Dallas. Over time, IMsL morphed into a weekend event, incorporating play parties, opening ceremonies, a vendor fair, tattoo contest and other fundraisers into a large-scale event that drew visitors from around the world. Having the same people together for a full weekend helped develop the sense of community among the attendees; people had time to get to know each other, network, cruise, and find play dates, all with a readily available dungeon or hotel room. IMsL had always had a strong educational aspect, and the weekend-long format allowed the educational component of IMsL to grow, with expert presenters teaching a variety of kinky topics. The contests continued to average between 10 and 20 contestants, drawing from an active pool of local and regional title contests. Amy Marie worked closely with local and regional contest producers to streamline and promote their events. Many of the contests converted to Amy Marie’s scoring and application system.
Throughout IMsL’s history, men as well as women supported and sustained the contest. In many years during Amy Marie’s tenure running IMsL, more than half of the attendees were men, including the support teams for many contestants. In fact, Bare Images, Amy Marie’s production company, always promoted IMsL with the tag line, “The Men Who Come To IMsL Come To Play!”
In 1993, IML had added a bootblack contest to their event; initially it was a co-ed contest accepting both men and women. In 1999, Amy Marie added the International Ms Bootblack contest to the IMsL weekend as the International Mr. Bootblack contest had switched that year to a male-only contest. Following the International Mr. Bootblack model, the IMsBB contest focused on technical skill in bootblacking. The contestants spent much of the weekend exhibiting their bootblacking craft, and attendees voted for the best bootblack. The IMsBB contest judging was later switched to more closely match the IMsL judging. Now, IMsBB contestants are still judged largely on their technical skill, but they are also judged in a variety of categories, including an interview. IMsBB has proven to be a great success and has become an integral part of the IMsL weekend; the IMsBB and IMsL winners work together through their title year to promote the IMsL contest weekend and to represent the women’s leather community.
In 2002, IMsL moved to Amy Marie’s hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, in an attempt to streamline the contest’s administration and to rein in production costs. IMsL remained in Omaha through 2006, drawing Leatherwoman from around the continent to the heartland of the country. Even in the heartland, IMsL remained an international event. In the first year it was held in Omaha, the winner was Russ Cossgrove, of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and winners in the following years were scattered through various time zones in the United States.
On November 7, 2016, the IMsL/IMsBB alumni lost their first sister with the death of Amy Marie Meek. Her legacy ranged from community activism to keeping IMsL going and growing as it moved around the country and bringing the IMsBB title to the women’s community!
Generation 3 (2007-2013)
By 2006, after running IMsL for 12 years, Amy Marie was ready to hand off IMsL/ IMsBB and have someone else take the event into its next phase. Amy Marie considered her options very carefully and an agreement was made with a community friend of 15 years, Glenda Rider. Glenda was selected for her experience, network connections, and true heartfelt passion for IMsL and the leather community as a whole.
In 2007, IMsL made a triumphant return to its roots in the heart of San Francisco and remained at that location until 2013. In 2007 Glenda ran IMsL with the year-round assistance and effort of her then-partner and co-producer, Levi Halberstadt, as well as the efforts of Darryl Flick and Celeste Devenaux. Levi’s contributions cannot be overstated as he brought both vision and day to day managerial skills to the project, keeping it on track throughout the return to San Francisco. Glenda has also been supported by a committed volunteer staff consisting largely of her friends and family. In 2008, tomo joined the team of Producers, bringing with her a wealth of organizational experiences and project management skills. Ms Rhonda, who had been on staff since the event’s return to the Bay Area, was added to the team of Producers in 2010 to draw from her extensive performance and production experience. Levi retired as a producer after the 2010 event, IMsL ran with three Producers in 2011 and 2012. The 25th Anniversary of the International Ms Leather Contest in 2011 featured the creation of a video titled Sisterhood of the Sash which included interviews and panels with 16 previous IMsLs returning to San Francisco to tell their stories and celebrated a quarter of a century of Leatherwoman history.
After the 2012 contestant, another long-time staff member who had been the lead in registration and marketing, Sharrin Spector joined the Producers to make a fourth. Sharrin brought major renovations to media, marketing, registration and worked on adding new events to the weekend. With the four producers and the continued support of an amazing volunteer staff that works year round, the contest grew and attendance by 2013 neared 800. Contestants over the years with Glenda in San Francisco hailed from the United States, Canada and Australia. In 2013, the 8 bootblacks returned and were able to celebrate the 15thAnnual International Ms Bootblack and began work on their documentary video entitled High Shine.
Generation 4 (2014-Present)
After the 2013 contest, Ms Rhonda and Sharrin felt they needed to step down as Producers as financial issues involving Glenda came to light. Glenda decided she needed to sell IMsL as a result and had several offers from the community to buy the event. She decided to offer the IMsL event to Sharrin Spector, businesswoman and former producer of PowerSurge, and pat Baillie, IMsL 1995 and former producer of Rio Grande Leather in New Mexico. Sharrin had already been recognized for event production and eye on continuous improvement with IMsL as part of the staff. She brought her improvements to IMsL registration and marketing to the table with a plan to make IMsL a celebration of Leatherwoman from around the world. Pat brings her insights and expertise as an IMsL as well as her passion for the event. The cost of the sale was $1, a nod to the first sale of IMsL to Amy Marie from the San Francisco Board going from Generation 1 to Generation 2. The agreement included that none of the debt or financial obligations from Generation 3 would transfer in the sale. Generation 4 started off with no debt and no funds in the bank. The sale was completed in September 2013. In looking at the business case, Sharrin created IMsL Production, LLC which would produce the weekend event and contest.
Pat would create a 501(c)3 organization called the IMsL Foundation which would work on the titleholder travel fund, education and historical aspects of the event. In February 2014, the IMsL Foundation was incorporated as a California non-profit corporation. An interim board was formed to set up the organization which included Spencer Bergstedt, IMsL 1994, Sara Vibes, IMsL 2011, Hardy Haberman, Marlene Hoeber from the Center of Sex & Culture. Sahra, IMsL 2013 and Bella. IMsBB 2013 were invited to join the board as interim members during the IMsL weekend in April 2014. Additionally, so that the IMsL Foundation could provide tax deductible recognition at IMsL 2014, an agreement with the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco to be the fiscal sponsor was completed in April 2014. The IMsL Foundation held it first interim board meeting on the Saturday of IMsL 2014, April 26.
The other major change in 2014 was the movement of the event to the Doubletree by Hilton in San Jose. Due to construction and changes in the hotel ownership at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco, Glenda had negotiated a contract to move to San Jose for IMsL 2014. The first Generation 4 contest was held April 24–27 with 7 IMsL Contestants and 2 IMsBB contestants with over 700 in attendance. The winners were: IMsL 2014, Patty from Toronto and IMsBB 2014, Dara Bryant from Portland.
In just 9 months, with a new location, Generation 4 had positive evaluations and welcomed in the next generation. When all the bills and taxes were paid, IMsL 2014 made a $37 profit and celebrated being “in the black”! Generation 4 continued to build and added staff and events for the April 9-12, 2015 IMsL/IMsBB Weekend. The winners were Sarge from San Diego as IMsL and Tabitha from Phoenix as IMsBB. Becca Bee was announced as the winner on Saturday night but after checking the scores and some late night meetings and discussions on the error, Becca Bee stepped down at the Sunday brunch and Tabitha, who had competed 3 times before, was sashed as IMsBB 2015. Moving into 2016, IMsL celebrated its 30th Anniversary with a look back compiling the history or those previous 29 years and then looking forward. LasciviousJane from Philadelphia won IMsL and Meghan from Louisville won IMsBB.
Winners of International Ms. Leather
1987 – Judy Tallwing McCarthey
1988 – Shan Carr
1989 – Susie Shepherd
1990 – Gabrielle Antolovich
1991 – Kay Hallinger
1992 – Blair Kituhwa
1993 – Amy Marie Meek
1994 – Anne C.S. Bergstedt (who later transitioned to male and took the name Spencer Bergstedt) won but stepped down mid-year (not due to transitioning) and was replaced by Cindy Bookout
1995 – Pat Ballie
1996 – Jill Carter (the first black International Ms. Leather)
1997 – Genelle Moore (her brother Ron Moore was the first black International Mr. Leather – as International Mr. Leather 1984 – and her win as International Ms. Leather made them the first siblings to hold international leather titles.)
1998 – Megan (DeJarlais) Martin
1999 – Pam Meyer
2000 – Jo Blas
2001 – Joni Perry
2002 – Russ Cosgrove
2003 – Tammie Nelson
2004 – Lori Ellison
2005 – Jessi Holman Ahart
2006 – Lady Faye Falconeer
2007 – Lauren Ide
2008 – Hobbit
2009 – Lamalani Siverts
2010 – Mollena Williams
2011 – Sara Vibes
2012 – Synn
2013 – Sarha Shaubach
2014 – Patty
2015 – Sarge
2016 – Lascivious Jane
2017 – Girl Complex
2018 – Girl Ang
2019 – Haley
2020 – None (event canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic)
2021 – None (virtual event held, no contest)