Chris Olwage (Pic: Kevin Wuyts / Mr Gay World)
Meet South Africa’s third Mr Gay World. Well, kind of. Chris Olwage, who recently won the title in Antwerp, is actually a New Zealander but he was born and grew up in South Africa.
Olwage works as a dancing and fitness instructor in Auckland. He first wowed the public when he appeared on New Zealand’s Got Talent as a ballet dancer, spectacularly performing en-pointe (on the tips of his toes) in a black tutu.
The buff performer has previously spoken about his early life as an overweight child, facing verbal and physical bullying and living with depression and thoughts of suicide while growing up in Cape Town.
He moved to New Zealand with his parents in 2002. At the age of 20 he began to eat well and started going to gym, completely transforming his body.
He opened up to Mambaonline about his coming out, being bullied as a child, his suicide attempt and the joys of dancing in tutus.
You still have something of a South African accent? How connected do you feel to South Africa?
It will forever be the place that I am from. It’s where I first began to discover myself and also where I first had to defend myself. It is the country that birthed the root of my strength.
Is there anything you miss about the country?
Goodness me yes! The land has a particular beauty that cannot be matched… an appreciation that you’ll understand when you stand on Table Mountain or swim in the icy streams of the Cederberg. It’s a magical land where nature runs wild and the people have old world hospitality.
You’ve said you were bullied in SA when growing up. Did things change when you went to New Zealand?
Yes, dramatically. I was able to start afresh. In New Zealand no-one knew who I was, my history or my troubles. I was able to make friends and act more like the person I felt. I was no longer pressured to conform… especially to the church to which my family used to belong. I was free.
Do you think SA is or was a more intolerant society compared to New Zealand?
I think on a governmental level they are much the same. Both have LGBT anti-discrimination laws… gay marriage and equal rights. But at the level of the masses the world in general is a very different place. Within society we still have ultra conservative communities in which homosexuality is still viewed as something unnatural. There are still youth who are growing up within these prejudiced communities and don’t realise that there exists a greater world with greater opportunities. There are places in the world where self realisation comes with the fear of being caught, imprisoned, beaten or even killed.
Have you been back to SA since leaving and when can we expect you to visit?
I haven’t. Opportunities to visit had not presented themselves. I’m over the moon to say that I will be returning sometime at the end of April, and in time for the Pink Loerie festival. I am so excited. I haven’t seen my birth land in almost 12 years!
At what age did you come out?
I realised at an early age that I was different. And in my teens I realised I was gay. I was 19 when I first admitted it to someone and 21 when I told my parents. The anticipation was awful. I remember my thought processes; will they accept me, disown me, reprimand or berate me? Somewhere between the main course and dessert I let it out and to my absolute surprise it was okay. My mum assured me that although it was a shock she still loved me, my father too. It was one of the best experiences of my life at that point… there was to be no more lying, only honesty. I was so stressed about telling them that I had formed an ulcer in my stomach!
What made you decide to take control of your diet and body? Was there a breaking point or a seminal moment that you can remember?
There definitely was a moment, my darkest in fact. When I realised what I was experiencing was called being gay and that according to the Bible, as read by my pastor, it was evil, I spiralled into a depression and I comfort ate to cope. I became obese and was teased mercilessly at school. Because I had no real friends to speak of I did really well at my studies and was made a prefect. I was miserable. At a prefect camp I raided someone’s medicine cabinet and swallowed as many pills as I could and walked as far as my legs could carry me. I was resolute in not feeling anymore. I didn’t want to try. In my teary eyed meltdown, I realised that I was being a victim. I was allowing outside influences to undermine my self-acceptance. That was the moment I decided to change. I was going to be the person I wanted to be, but I also knew I was going to have to keep it to myself. I threw up the pills, somehow made it back to the shared room and decided to change. I changed what I ate – I became vegetarian for almost a year – and found a sport I enjoyed, karate. I knew that one-day I would be able to be me.
What was the hardest challenge in changing your life at that point?
Still having to put up with the ridicule and bullying was hardest… but somehow I had convinced myself to be stronger. And I really just persevered.
What message do you have for younger gay guys who are the victims of bullying?
I don’t want to sound like a cliché but I’d say ‘it gets better’! So many times I look back and see how different my life is from what it was… Bruises have healed, the scars have diminished but the strength of perseverance and my fight for self realisation have made me stronger. I am now happier, healthier and fulfilled.
You started dancing pretty late in life, right?
I attended my first dance class at 22. I had been a mover, a groover, up to that point but then decided I wanted to really dance… to perform. It was pretty late to start but I gave it my all!
Your en-pointe black swan performance was a sensation on New Zealand’s Got Talent. What inspired you to do that?
I started working as a burlesque for an occasional LGBT performance group. I attempted the dying swan variation en pointe as a sexy black swan… the audience loved it. New Zealand’s Got Talent auditions approached my best friend and a work colleague encouraged me to enter. She suggested that I do a dancier version of my burlesque routine and so we set about creating the performance. I made it into the top 30 out of 5000 entrants… and as far as the semi finals.
That performance combines elements of the feminine with masculinity – it’s a kind of gender-bending dance.
[Laughs] I love performance as a means of communication and information. Performance is also an opportunity to explore facets of yourself. I guess my performance was a way to indulge in the feminine and masculine aspects of myself whilst commenting on the traditional roles of classical ballet.
You’re a recognised painter. How would you describe your work?
I’ve always been a great fan of the Renaissance style oil painting, as well as church art and related iconographies. However, the artworks that are in galleries are my contemporary works.
You also design your own costumes. Is there anything that you’re actually bad at doing?
[Laughs] That’s a very kind thing to suggest. I’m sure that not everything I do will be to everyone’s liking. But if I had to tell the truth I’m a really bad singer and I never learnt to play an instrument.
Are you single? What kind of qualities’ do you find attractive in a man?
I am single. Qualities that seal the deal will be honesty and respect. With these I feel that most other traits can be derived. But I guess I would also like someone who is able to challenge me and vice versa, someone who is spontaneous and caring. A killer smile helps… but not essential.
If you were to write a description of yourself for a personals ad, how would it go?
GWM DTE [down to earth] comes with dietary specifications and social engagements. Looking for another DTE male up for dancing, galleries and popcorn parties on the couch with DVDs.
What would be a memorable first date?
A memorable first date? Gosh that’s a hard question. I guess the answer would definitely be one that was able to make me feel at ease. It’d have to be fun… full of surprises and just the right amount of romance to not come across as sleazy or one track minded.
What do you do to relax and let go?
What’s that? [Laughs] I love going to the city library and browsing through art books… or taking myself on solo movie dates. If it works out I really enjoy hanging with friends too.
We hear you’re an excellent cook. What would be your signature dishes?
At the moment it would seem to be steamed chicken and vegetables… But I love making food. I can’t claim to have a signature dish because I’m always experimenting. I make a mean lasagne and bake an awesome chocolate cake. Sunday roasts are a favourite but it has been a long time since I’ve made any of these.
Do you think the Mr Gay World competition can make a difference in the world? Or is it just a pageant with good looking men?
I think if it were truly a beauty pageant then I would not have won. There are others who were far better looking than I. But I sincerely believe that the competition is here to make a difference. All the delegates campaign for causes in their home countries and this competition allows us to take our collective missions globally for the benefit of LGBT people worldwide. We strive to make a difference; this competition gives us a platform to do so.
(Pic: Kevin Wuyts / Mr Gay World)
What do you hope to focus on in your reign as Mr Gay World? Are there any specific issues?
The youth have become a large concern of mine. We need to provide healthy LGBT role models, make our collective stories of survival and acceptance known and reach out to those who believe themselves to be stuck with no way out. We need to stand up as a community and support our emerging LGBT.
Other than winning, what was the highlight of your Mr. Gay World experience?
That’s an easy one: the highlight by far was meeting all the other delegates. I’ve never felt so strongly for so many in such a short time. Our time together was intense, fruitful and I’m now honoured to call them friends and brothers.
Tell us something that we’d be surprised to learn about you?
I’m hopelessly addicted to raspberry liquorice and YouTube videos of ballet. [Laughs]