(Pic Andrew Biddy Horne)
Steve Williams’ journey to become Mr Gay South Africa has been nothing but convoluted and controversial. (There’s probably some kind of allegory in the story about youth versus maturity…)
The 38-year-old internal audit manager passionately competed for the title last year, becoming the oldest ever finalist in the competition. At the Grand Finale in December, his score was so close to 22-year-old winner Jason Rogers – the youngest ever – that organisers actually stopped the event for a recount.
Steve was suddenly thrust into the spotlight again last month with the shock resignation of Rogers, just a couple of months before the Mr Gay World competition in Belgium. Rogers said that his work and study needs prevented him from meeting his commitments. Steve was asked if he’d take over the title, which he agreed to do.
The news was welcomed with a mix of support and derision – much of the latter to do with Steve’s age. Haters slammed him for not being a blue-eyed, blond twink.
As he prepares to represent South Africa in Antwerp and compete against representatives from more than 24 countries next month, Mambaonline spoke to Steve about the controversy, and got know more about him.
How does it feel to finally be Mr Gay South Africa?
It feels weird to some degree, as the competition finished last year already. But I had to hit the ground running. Mr Gay World is almost here and I have a lot of work and preparation to do. Although I’ll be giving a lot of my focus and energy to Mr Gay World, I also can’t forget the work that awaits me locally.
Does it matter to you that you got the title after Jason resigned?
No. What matters to me is what I do now that I have the title.
What was your initial reaction when the organisers contacted you?
One of disbelief. Then it changed to panic. I wondered whether I’d be able to manage everything and prepare for Mr Gay World. Then it turned into excitement about the challenges ahead.
Yours and Jason’s scores were very close at the Grand Finale last year. There were rumours that you weren’t happy. Is that true? Did you feel that you should have won?
The scores were very close. It was a very tough competition and I think any of the other finalists could have walked away as the winner, as each of them brought their own strengths and personalities to the table. When you take part in a competition like Mr Gay South Africa, you try your best to win, which is what I did. At the end of it all you have to have faith that what you did was enough. The judges scored it and I accepted that.
Do you think that Jason did the right thing by resigning?
I believe that, with the information available to them, all people make choices that are right for them at that given point in time. It would have been one of the toughest decisions that Jason has had to make. It could not have been easy, and it actually took a lot of courage to resign from being Mr Gay South Africa. We should respect him and his choices.
Your age is a bone of contention for some people – they seem to feel that someone younger should hold the title. How does that make you feel?
I’m aware that there will always be critics out there, but at the end of the day I’m here to do my best and hopefully be a great Mr Gay South Africa. Age should not be a factor in this, but rather my actions and what I stand for.
Why do you think age is such an issue for some people in our community?
Some gay men especially are obsessed with perfection, youth and looking good. However, that’s not limited or unique to our community. We find it everywhere. When you page through fashion magazines, you’ll struggle to find a wrinkle or grey hair in any of the photos, as they’re usually photoshopped to death. All the models have porcelain smooth skin, without any pores or imperfections. Even the models in fitness magazines train and plan specifically for the day of the photo shoot. They dehydrate their bodies to appear as trim and toned as possible. This unfortunately creates an incorrect image of what people look like every day, but that’s what others aim for.
Do you think the gay community is ageist? Have you had any experience in this regard?
I do believe that we do find elements of this in our community. Even when the announcement was made that I was the new Mr Gay South Africa, there were comments made about my age and I was called a “granny”. But this isn’t true for all people within our community; there are many for whom age is irrelevant.
Over the years we’ve noticed on Mambaonline that some members of our community seem to revel in making bitchy and needlessly nasty comments…
In my opinion, these are isolated instances and should be treated as such. No matter who you are or what you do, you have to accept that you’ll never be able to please everybody at the same time.
What do you think your experience and maturity can bring to Mr Gay South Africa?
The fact that I am older than most men who enter Mr Gay South Africa means that I have more life experience. I’ve experienced a lot, both positive and negative, and I’ll be able to draw from my lessons and experiences when helping others in the community.
Mr Gay World. How important is winning this to you?
South Africa has had such great success in the competition over the past three years. Each year more countries take part and the competition is getting tougher every time. I’m very fortunate to have the support of my partner and the Mr Gay South Africa team. I’ll have to make sure that I follow a strict diet and work hard in the gym. But the competition is not only about looks. I’ll read up on current events as well as gay history, as the competition also includes a written exam. Although I have little time to prepare, I’ll do my best to bring the title back home.
What advice would you give to other guys who want to enter Mr GSA?
It’s not a competition that just consists of walking on stage and looking good. I’d advise anyone thinking of entering to make sure you do it for the right reasons. You should enter if you feel that you’ll be able to make a difference and make a positive contribution to the LGBTI community, and society as a whole. Being Mr GSA requires you to be visible, and that demands a lot of hard work and commitment. But in saying that, it is an enriching experience.
How much time do you spend staying in shape?
I go to gym about five or six times a week and do weight and cardio training. I grew up in a sporty family and played sport from a very young age. At high school and university I played tennis and hockey, but I don’t have a lot of time for that anymore. When I do have time, I play squash.
Did you struggle with coming to accept that you are gay?
Being part of a conservative, Afrikaans family, I expected the fact that I was gay to be a disappointment to my family and I was very afraid of being rejected. My family didn’t know any gay people or gay family members, so I didn’t know what their reaction would be. After all, growing up in a small town in the Dutch Reformed Church and being gay was not acceptable.
Tell us about your experience of coming out…
I realised when I was about 15 that I was gay. I was attracted to some of the boys in my class, rather than the girls. It was a strange feeling, being “different” from the others and being different from what you were taught to be as “normal”. At university I was in the biggest male residence where “being a man” and playing rugby was predominant. Even then it was difficult to be myself, due to the fear of rejection and public humiliation.
I started going to gay clubs for the first time when I was 21. It was a world that I wasn’t used to, but where I felt that I belonged. A place I could be myself. I started making friends with other gay people, and realised that there were others just like me; with similar stories, backgrounds and fears. Even then, I wasn’t brave enough to tell my family.
It meant keeping the two worlds apart. It also meant a lot of sneaking around and lying to my family about my whereabouts and the people that I was spending time with. It caused a lot of tension for me, as I wasn’t being truthful to the people that meant the most in my life.
And when did you tell your family?
It was only when I was 24, when I was in my first relationship, that I was ready to tell my family. I told my mom first. I went through it in my head many times, imagining how it all would play out. I eventually gathered up the couage and told her. I decided to tell her in an environment that she’d be most comfortable in, so I did it at home. When it came to that moment; my heart was racing, my mouth was parched, my palms sweaty. I knew it was the right time. I couldn’t continue living a lie.
She was calm. To my surprise, she didn’t cry. She left the room after we discussed it a bit. I’m not sure, but she could have wept then. The next few days were a bit awkward. We were uncomfortable in each other’s presence. After about a week, my mom opened up. We had a good talk where she asked questions and I answered them.
During the next few months, I spent a lot of time with my family. I wanted to show them that being gay didn’t change me. I was still the same person that they had always known. Only now they really knew me.
Have you had any gay role models in your life?
My role model is Gareth Thomas, who played international rugby for Wales from 1995 to 2007. He was the first openly gay male athlete in a team sport. He was able to break down the “stereotype” of what a gay man is. He showed that gay men can do anything and that we too can achieve whatever we set our minds to. I admire his bravery and sense of humanity.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing LGBTI people in South Africa?
The biggest challenge for us is accepting the differences of others within our own community, so that we can stand together as one and work together at other challenges facing our community. If we learn to do this, we’ll be more united and it’ll be easier to gain the acceptance of people outside of the community.
Tell us about your partner…
His name is Manny. He’s an amazing man and he’s been so unbelievably supportive through this whole experience. We met through a mutual friend who introduced us, or rather exchanged our numbers and said that we should meet.
Are you keen to get married at some point?
Yes, definitely. And so is Manny. We’ve discussed the subject as we know that we want to marry each other. But we’ve also decided not to rush things, so it will happen when the time is right.
What do you do to relax and socialise, on weekends or when you have time off?
I spend the majority of my weekends with my boyfriend. Usually we go to gym, take some time to go see a movie or spend time with friends. I also try catch up a little bit on TV series or by watching some sport, especially when South Africa is playing international games. We also enjoy a quiet evening at home for quality time, as that’s rare. I’m from Cape Town originally and my family lives there, so I try to go down whenever I can to visit them and also catch up with friends there.
What would you like to achieve as Mr Gay SA in your short reign?
I’ll try my best to raise awareness about issues affecting our community, as well as educating others about the people in our community. Hopefully, through my actions I’ll be able to break down some of the stereotypes of what gay people are.
Food: Braaivleis, roasted chicken or pizza
Dessert: Ice cream or anything chocolate
Drink of choice: Water, green tea or whisky
Holiday spot: Cape Town or London
Place to live: I love both Cape Town and Johannesburg
Actor: Colin Firth and Channing Tatum
Music: Any music, but not heavy metal
Place to eat: Espresso in Parkhurst, Tasha’s and Beefcakes
Pets: I love animals. I can’t choose between dogs and cats
Style of dress: Very casual – denims or shorts and t-shirt