It’s the leather world’s most anticipated contest of the year. From all corners of the globe, leather-folk travel to Chicago for camaraderie, play, networking, mentorship and everything in between. Against the backdrop of parties, the leather mart, dancing and sightseeing more than just the city, people congregate to mingle and grow in the unique scene that binds them. And at the heart of the weekend is the contest for which it’s all named. Many will compete, but only one will become the next International Mister Leather.
This year, that special man is Texas-raised Los Angeleno Marcus Barela. Entering as contestant 54 and holding the title of Eagle LA Mister Leather 2023—which he won only four months prior, after his first time competing—the Mexican–American college student and bartender whose bio describes him as “sober, sweet, sexy and slutty.” We recently chatted with Marcus about his amazing victory, the importance of authenticity, and how he plans to use his time as IML 45.
Bear World Magazine: First, congratulations on a well-deserved victory. Can you try to go back to the moment you heard your name as the new International Mister Leather and share the thoughts rushing through your head?
Marcus Barela: After I gave my speech, I felt a sense of relief. I knew I had performed in a way that made me proud. Every section of the contest was over and I felt that I represented myself in the best way that I could. In short, I was at peace because I knew I had given it my all and I had done my best. I stood there as I listened to the first and second runner-up being called and before they called my name as the winner, I thought to myself, “Yeah I have a really good shot at being the winner.” But as soon as they called my name, I was immediately struck with a sense of confusion. There was disbelief and an old foe instantly came back, the voice that RuPaul always refers to as the inner saboteur, the voice told me, “You’re not doing this right. You’re not winning correctly.” I have a very cosmic mind and I enjoy journeying through dream analysis and through mediation… The moment I won felt like jumping universes into a new dimension. I felt an impulse that I wanted to go back to the familiar dimension that I inhabited before. When Gael put the medal around my neck, I told him this isn’t really happening. I was shocked.
You see “IML” to me, was always a sort of icon and a legend. I held it in this mystical high regard as something that I would likely never achieve but admire from a distance. As soon as I became IML 45 it was like the bubble burst around “IML” as an icon and suddenly it became a real thing or, to use a different word, an ordinary thing, because I’m an ordinary person. Enter the saboteur yet again, which tells me that I’m going to be the demise of “IML” as an icon and legend. If somebody like me could win this title, people will realize that “IML” was never actually special at all. It’s a sort of Trojan horse, a facade that doesn’t truly hold any power and never actually did. How’s that for imposter syndrome? LOL.
My confusion and imposter syndrome aside, I eventually looked to my left and saw all the people that helped me get to this moment in my life. Hunter and Charlie hired me to work at Eagle LA when I had just moved to LA from Texas at 21 years old. I’ve been saying that they brought me into this world. In a sense, they did birth me into the leather community. Also, sitting over there was Mike Gerle, IML 29. He was my mentor who helped me prepare for the Eagle LA Mr. Leather contest and then he was my mentor that helped me prepare for the IML contest too. This win was a win for Mike, Hunter, Charlie, the Eagle LA, and the Los Angeles leather community as much as it was a win for me too. When I saw them over there, I dropped to my knees and bowed to my family standing there to my left. I owe it all to them.
After I gave my speech, I felt a sense of relief. I prepared for over a year and a half for that moment. The speech was the thing that I was looking forward to the most. Before IML and before I’d written my speech, I wondered, What the fuck do I have to say on this stage? I knew telling my story on the Eagle stage was easier and made a lot of sense because the Eagle has been my home and my livelihood for almost 18 years, but what did I have to say that is meaningful on the international stage? What message speaks across cities, countries, and generations? That’s what excited me about the contest. The contest gave me the opportunity to do some very deep exploration. One might even say that that’s my kink, going deep. I was up for the challenge, and I’m pleased to learn that I succeeded and came out on the top of the podium, but now I’m left with a new challenge. What am I going to do with this title?
BWM: After years of being around the scene via your job at Eagle LA, you say the first leather convention you attended was CLAW 2021. Were you inspired then and there to run for a title? Or was it not until you’d gone to a few more?
MB: Yes, after attending the first CLAW Leather Getaway in L.A., I knew that I was ready to do the Eagle Leather contest. I’d worked at the bar for almost 17 years at that point and I always told Charlie that I would do the contest when it was meaningful to me. The bar was closed for a year and a half during the pandemic. There was a time when we weren’t sure if it was going to survive but it did. Largely, thanks to a GoFundMe initiative where the community provided a very generous outpour of support. When we re-opened, suddenly I was the bartender that had worked there the longest. The pandemic was such an interesting time because at the end of 2019 my own world personally already felt like it was falling apart for various reasons, but then the whole world collectively started to reflect the experience that I was having personally. The pandemic gave me a chance to reassess my values and priorities and re-orient myself in a new direction. As certain dreams and relationships fell away, I felt it was time to start anew but throughout all of my adulthood, one thing has been consistent — my employment and my enjoyment of working at the Eagle LA.
I’ve always been amazed by the generosity that our customers show me for opening a bottle of beer. I know that statement diminishes my contribution to the special energy that I help facilitate at the bar, but it truly usually feels that way to me. I’m given so much in return for doing something that I love anyway. I’m eternally grateful. The Eagle and our community have supported my livelihood and given me a life beyond my wildest dreams. Going to CLAW made so much sense to me on many levels. One: I could pour the money that my customers give me back into our community by supporting and attending leather events. Two: I’m actually kind of a shy, introverted nerd who really likes to attend workshops because it feels social and often less scary than going to dance parties and nightclubs. Three: If I’m the senior bartender that makes a lot of money at this bar, I should educate myself to understand what our community wants and needs.
I know that being a bartender could be as simple as showing up, serving drinks, and being friendly, but that’s not how I usually approach anything in my life. I am always driven by a higher purpose. I think people come to the bar because they want to feel connected to a sense of community. As human beings, we are social creatures. We need each other. The higher purpose behind my showing up at the bar for the last 18 years is my desire to be a part of a community that I love with all my heart. It wasn’t easy for me to feel “a part of,” but now that I do, I feel a responsibility to learn how I can help facilitate that same feeling of connection and belonging for others. At face value, the Eagle sounds like just another sleazy bar but it is so much more than that to me and many others. It is truly a sacred place
BWM: How did competing in the larger IML contest compare to your run a few months prior to be Eagle LA Mr Leather? Would you say you went through a similar journey just on a smaller scale?
MB: Yes, it was definitely a similar journey. One of the differences was that I allowed myself to travel so that I could attend events, meet people, and discover more of myself in my own personal leather journey. I went to Antwerp, Belgium, where I attended Darklands; I went to Cleveland for CLAW; and I also went to Austin Kink Weekend in Texas. At these events, I attended workshops on topics that focus on the experience of trans people, non-binary people, and titleholders of color. I also went to a fisting workshop. At these events, I played in dark rooms, an all-gender-inclusive playspace, and even had my first fisting experience. I made new friends, met lots of new people, and consciously tried to talk to all people not just the ones I wanted to fuck. After attending a few of these events I’ve grown fond of describing these leather conferences as family reunions. It has truly been so delightful to feel as though my scope of community grows in such a global way as I continue to gear up, show up, and get off with all my leather folx from all around the world.
Another difference was the gear. The stage at IML is a wonderful place to show off new gear. As I mentioned, I like to go deep, so my gear was not just a hot and sexy leather design. It was all based on the journey that I’ve been through in learning to accept myself and my heritage. I have an artist’s heart, mind, and vision, so naturally leather gear and self-expression through fashion have always been important to me. For IML, I got to really explore the story that I wanted to tell through my gear which is basically the story of my life and where I come from, who I am, and who I’m becoming. With the help of Adrian Bernal from Rough Trade and Michael Schmidt of Michael Schmidt Studios, they helped my leather dreams become reality.
BWM: You talk about authenticity as something you’d like to focus on during your time as reigning titleholder. How did authenticity come to be so important to you?
MB: Authenticity is everything. I had to come head to head with that when I was struggling to come out of the closet. Relationships are another thing that really brings up the necessity to remain true to oneself, which can be really hard when becoming entwined with another individual. When a three-year romantic relationship fell apart, I was destroyed and that experience made me realize that drinking was inhibiting me from truly being authentic. At 27 years old I finally became desperate enough to stop trying to do things my way and instead, I asked for help and started my journey in recovery. I have now been sober for over 12 years. Sobriety for me is the foundation from which I practice living an authentic life.
BWM: How can a person know they’re living authentically, being true to who they really are? What are ways you stay in touch with, or things you do to be true to, your authentic self?
MB: This is a great question and a very challenging one. First I will tell you some of the ways that I have found that help me. These are all part of my Marcus process. My favorite book is called The Artist’s Way. This book has changed my life. One tool that I learned from this book that has become a staple in my life is stream-of-consciousness journal writing. The book has various questions and exercises that are all geared toward learning to cultivate listening to the inner voice that we all have. This voice speaks to each one of us and sparks our curiosity. When I follow that curiosity it usually leads me on a journey to greater authenticity. It is not an easy process and it does require facing a certain amount of fear but the book really outlines in a very practical way, how we can gently lead ourselves toward having the experiences that we crave. I’m very into introspection. I believe that is an essential practice if a person wants to achieve a new level of self-actualization. I have many practices which I use as tools for exploration. They are called “practices” because I continuously go back to them, and do them over and over again. It’s important to be willing to continue to practice exploring one’s inner world because we are ever-changing and evolving and often achieving the things we set out to achieve.
I’ve found that this space of connection to a higher power and inner guidance is so important to return to over and over again. What happens when our dreams come true? Well, then it’s time to dream a new dream. I do this by continuing to tune in by practicing tarot, astrology, and meditation, talking with mentors, making vision board collages, building altars, burning sage, and practicing rituals. I also think travel, adventure, and play are really important. Going back to school has also been pivotal in revealing more of my authentic self. I learned more about the word and discovered more about myself through the process. I believe in having new experiences and paying close attention to everything. The universe is sending us messages and signs abound if we choose to pay attention. I find my authentic self through vulnerability and tears of joy, gratitude, frustration, and even anger. I continue to explore my curiosity. I also generally keep in mind that I’m stronger with others. If there’s something I want to achieve I’m probably going to need to ask for help and I’ll also likely enjoy the process more if I do.
BWM: I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the fact that you are an absolutely stunning man. What are your health and fitness habits? Any insider secrets?
MB: OMG. Well, I don’t diet and pepperoni pizza is my favorite food. I actually eat the same thing every day. Chicken and rice. In regard to exercise, I love exercise. In the past, I’ve been a marathon and ultra-marathon runner and a tri-athlete, but I’ve been doing CrossFit for the last 7 years. I must admit that as I approach 40 my body isn’t allowing me to work out in the same way that I used to. In the past when knee pain prevented me from running, I started doing yoga five days a week and that really helped me recover so of course I started running again and stopped my yoga practice. I’ve been dealing with back pain and I think it’s my body’s way of telling me that it’s time to change up my exercise routine. As I mentioned before, I usually find that doing challenging things is often easier and more fun to do with a group. I believe that the next step for me is to take some yoga and Pilates classes. In my head exercise is about gains, but I think that mentality gets me into trouble. As I’ve been experiencing pain in my body, movement and maintenance have become most important because I know that physical exercise is necessary for my mental and spiritual health… plus it makes me feel sexy and increases testosterone. GRRRRR.
BWM: If your IML experience, from registration to victory party, were a movie, what genre would it be, and why? Rom-com? Action? Drama… mystery?
MB: Well, it would be a superhero movie because I referenced superheroes in my speech but also I love teen dramas where the actors that play 16-year-olds are actually 20-something and the characters are way too sexy for their age but you don’t feel so weird watching them because you know that they’re actually adults. Maybe the reason why I like these kinds of movies is because of the intensity of adolescence. Young people can still be very in touch with their dreams and their hopes but also they are still so in touch with the pain that often accompanies the process of growing up. They are beautiful and young but so tormented; ultimately they live out their fantasies all while looking sexy doing it, sometimes it goes well and sometimes hard lessons are learned but they definitely go through an emotional rollercoaster. These are the kind of movies that hold my attention, when I can relate to a person’s humanity but also get drawn into their captivating beauty. For better or worse, I want to be as captivating as the characters in the story for all the ways that they are strong and sometimes also for the ways that they are weak because I too possess the very same qualities, only you better believe that I’m gonna arise victoriously. Think Winona Ryder as she lights her cigarette and walks away from her high school after killing her psycho boyfriend Christian Slater in Heathers.
BWM: What aspect of the leather community is most special to you?
MB: Tradition. Family. Community. SEX. I think I’d like to emphasize the sexual component. It was my desire for sex that led me to the community in the first place. It’s as simple and primal as that. SEX is powerful. It is yet another avenue to explore which can lead to transformation and transcendence. SEX is sacred. One of my mentors always says to ask myself, “Does this get my dick hard?” It’s a wonderful tool (teehee) to gauge authenticity and genuine excitement. It’s a question that can be used to gauge excitement about anything. It’s similar to the prompt “Follow your bliss.” Only “Does this get my dick hard?” is a way sexier prompt.
BMW: Are there any specific people you want to call out or thank for helping you get to where you are?
MB: I want to thank Charlie Matula, Hunter Fox, and Vince Quatrocchi for welcoming me into the Eagle LA family. I want to thank IML 29, Mike Gerle, for being my mentor, handler, and friend through the contest preparation and after. I want to thank Michael Schmidt for making my bandoliers for my leather super suit. I want to thank Adrian Bernal at Rough Trade for making all of my custom leather looks. I want to thank Jim Neuman for letting me borrow his Chippewa boots. I want to thank Eagle LA Mr. Leather 2010, Tom Pardoe, who is one of my first leather mentors. I want to thank the man whom I call “my everything,” Greg Sirota. I want to thank the Catholic priest that gave me the best advice that a young gay boy could have ever received. His words helped me come out of the closet and more than 20 years later, they helped me win this title. I want to thank my mother, father, and brother who have always loved and supported me unconditionally. And I want to thank Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican Revolutionary hero whose picture I’ve had on my altar for two years and whose legendry existence continues to inspire people, like myself, to be the most revolutionary version of themselves.
BWM: What do you hope to achieve during your year as International Mister Leather?
MB: This is a question that I have spent the last month pondering. I haven’t figured that out yet. I’ve been actively seeking the answer and utilizing all the tools at my disposal. A month before IML I received an acceptance letter to finish my undergraduate degree at UCLA. This is quite a big deal for me to be accepted to this school. Previous IML winners end up traveling the world as IML and going to all kinds of leather functions to judge contests and enjoy the experience of being a chosen representative for the leather community. Previous IMLs have also lent their time and energy towards charitable causes that make a difference in the lives of other queer people that may be in need of support. Mostly I would like to be remembered for doing something that leaves people feeling inspired. I have some ideas of what this could be but the way forward isn’t clear yet. Being a full-time student at UCLA might not allow me to do as much travel as I’d like. What I’m really hoping for is a creative way to bridge UCLA with my service work as International Mr. Leather. I’m imagining that maybe I can turn my title year into a research project for a queer studies minor. One thing I do know is that dreaming and taking action got me this far, so dreaming and taking action will surely lead me to something wonderful again. What’s also true is that it will be completely authentically me. I have full faith that I will do it my way. Just like with the contest, I want to do my best and be proud of what I create.
Be sure to follow Marcus, International Mister Leather 45, on Instagram.