Opinion: Mr Gay World 2019 – To be (a beauty pageant) or not to be (a beauty pageant)

Pic by Neil Coulson

Mr Gay World has been running for eleven years, yet it seemingly can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a beauty pageant or a competition. And in the process of trying to be both, it may fail to hit the mark on either.

This is what the president of Mr Gay World, Eric Butter, had to say about it at the Grand Finale in Cape Town: “Mr Gay World is not about wanting to be someone, Mr Gay World is about wanting to do something. We are enablers – enablers of education. We create a platform to seek a possible gay role model. So delegates from all over the world come together, so we create a safe space where they can share their stories. We educate them, they educate us. And they educate each other. We like to see Mr Gay World as a public performance where we create an event to talk about gender and sexual diversity.”

It is unclear to me how or where this conversation on gender and sexual diversity took place this year. Perhaps the delegates discussed gender issues among themselves, for there seemed to be very little if any activities on the program for the week covering gender, nor any events where the public could participate in such a discussion. As to how sexual diversity was addressed by this event, whether directly or indirectly, this is also not clear. Perhaps it is accomplished solely by the fact that twenty-two gay men, generally all well built and good looking, had come together; and this alone would be enough to spontaneously ignite these types of discussions among themselves.

The delegates were kept very busy during their weeklong stay in Cape Town. They attended a cooking class with chef Jenny Morris. They went to some local queer entertainment spots. They had to conduct a social media challenge and study for a written test. Some parts of the competition, such as the Niku underwear and national dress sections, were judged on the Thursday and Friday after the main panel of judges had arrived. This panel consisted of among others Coenie Kukkuk, a former organiser and an old hand when it comes to judging, while Simone Heradien provided both brains and looks to the occasion. Other judges included Michael Fraser of sponsor Michael Gameplan and Mango Airlines’ Kevin Morudu.

Having an accommodation sponsor like that of the President Hotel must have been a great relief that eased up some of the stress that accompanies managing an event of this nature. The hotel was well appointed and handled the events held there professionally.

As an educational event, the delegates were taken to both Khayelitsha and the Pride Shelter Trust. This may have given them some insights into local situations. The delegates had some opportunities to share their stories and learn from each other, and in the process perhaps developed life-long connections. Unfortunately, this is a hidden part of the event, the moments in between when people click and form bonds, when they open up, moments we don’t have access to.

For it is exactly here where the true value of this competition may really lie; the opportunity to teach these men skills that would set them up to all be active role models. The twenty-two were of a varied age range, each bringing their own level of maturity and experience to the group dynamic. These men are already ambassadors and, with their age mix, in a unique position to exert some influence within the LGBTQ+ community by using their combined skill set in a more coordinated way.

This group of delegates has the potential to form a global network that connects for the benefit of not only gay, but more inclusive rights, and they can bring visibility to problem issues that need addressing and provide insights into solutions within their experience. It is these opening up of communication processes around the globe that can be life changing and saving. There, however, seems to be no formal support from the Mr Gay World organisation for activities throughout the year, which is an opportunity lost to drive the various campaigns so nobly embarked on by the delegates in the lead up to the event.

Jordan Bruno for instance, the winner in 2018, was in Los Angeles at the time of the grand finale and he sent a video message to the proceedings. Having followed him on social media, I did not see much “gay politics” on his page driving his campaign or any efforts by last year’s batch of guys to work together in any structured way. (He did post a lot about his mother and cooking, as far as I can remember.)

It thus appears as if Mr Gay World does reach some of its aims, but misses an opportunity to really engage with the delegates in a structured way that will drive their advocacy while keeping up to date with what is happening around the world.

On the other hand, Mr Gay World mainly presents its “public performance” in the form of a beauty pageant with all the traditional aspects thereof, including the categories, questions, crowning ceremony and some entertainment. The body beautiful was very much on display this year, with not one delegate not fitting the generally accepted gay body standards. Last year one delegate experienced body shaming, but no such issues this year as all the bodies on display in underwear or in some of the national dress promoted the body beautiful (have a look at Mr Ireland, for instance, who comes from Brazil, by the way).

A pageant in the gay community is usually presented with some level of flair and Cape Town, in particular, has a reputation for producing well organised queer beauty pageants. The expectation for a great show in the beautifully refurbished City Hall seemed a glittering prospect. Well before the advertised starting time of 6 pm, a long queue was snaking down the street in true fabulosity style, but the cold wind had everybody impatient to get inside in time for the start.

In true South African style, the event ran late. At first (and to the organisers’ credit) it was decided to at least get people out of the wind into the first foyer, before later opening the bar area, where the long wait continued, this time at least with a drink in hand. When the doors eventually opened, no refreshments were allowed inside the main hall because of the newly refurbished seats, which delayed the audience even longer as they had to drink up before coming inside.

Ireland’s Guilherme Souza

The show itself had an awkward start before finding its feet well into the night. Former Expresso presenter Ewan Strydom walked on, script in hand, trying his best to get a read on the audience, the script, the stage, and the people involved. He solved this by flashing his abs at the audience, twice. One would have hoped for a spectacle to rival other pageants, but alas, it was generally drawn out affair. 5West, a brand new American boy band which was formed two months ago and had their very first performance at Mr Gay World Cape Town, looked like they were having some fun on stage, as did seasoned local performer Tamara Dey.

The second part of the show whittled the contestants down to first the top 10 and then Top 5. It was here where the educational side collided with the pageant and it was not an easy fit. Delegates were asked incredibly detailed and extended questions which seemed out of place. Somebody in the audience remarked that the pageant had turned into a conference.

This event does not come free, of course. The main funding drive comes in the form of the President’s Gala and Fundraiser, held the evening before the grand finale. This year the money at the gala was raised to benefit the XOXO Foundation.

It is a pity that there are no major sponsors attached to this event who could inject some much-needed cash in order to present a search for an intelligent role model who can team up with a global network of gay influencers working towards LGBTQ+ aims.

The winners don’t actually receive any real prizes. What they do win is friendships and for some being thrust in the public eye so as to further their own careers or perhaps continue the LGBTQ+ struggle in their own ways. Perhaps they win an enriching experience, or perhaps they have a holiday with an adventure thrown in for good measure. Whatever they get out of it will depend on each individual, but it won’t be a memory easily forgotten.

Janjep Carlos, 41, a real estate businessman from the Philippines won the Mr Gay World title. He was followed by Spain’s Francisco Alvarado (1st runner-up) and Hungary’s Oliver Pusztai (2nd runner-up).

• Read our full report on the Grand Finale here
• View our gallery of images of the Grand Finale here

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