“I’m a glorified shoe-shiner,” I reply with a smile. Since winning International Mr Bootblack, at IML in Chicago in May, I have spent a lot of my time explaining to people what exactly a bootblack is.
Winning this title has given me a sort of notoriety, my 15 minutes of fame. It’s like a dream I cannot wake up from.
I certainly didn’t dream of becoming International Mr Bootblack when I was a little boy. I didn’t even know what a bootblack was. But the first time I cracked open a can of Kiwi boot polish and buffed my dad’s army boots into a mirror-like shine, I knew there was something wonderful about well-cared-for leather and something magical about the act of shining boots.
Bootblacking is a holistic sensory experience both for me and for the person whose boots I’m shining. To me, the smell of the polish, the sensual feel as my fingers glide across the leather–melting the polish to fill the invisible divots and grain of the hide–is something to dream about. The experience is as exciting as the finished product.
The transition from being good at polishing boots to being a bootblack was a natural progression for me. I came from a military background, and my own experience in cadets and the reserves gave me the skills I needed to be good at caring for boots and leather.
When I came out, I struggled to find a place where I felt I fit in and to build an identity for myself as part of the community. Bootblacking gave me an identity within an identity. I became not just a leatherman but also a bootblack, and that is something I will always be very proud of.
It was not until I stood on that stage at IML, with my hands in the air, victory written across my face, that I truly understood what it meant to be a bootblack, a leatherman and a titleholder.
Winning at IML was recognition for a job well done, recognition that having a passion–my passion–was worth something. Winning meant that I could make a tangible difference and a real contribution to my community.
I must say that when people talk about taking a ground-up approach to making a difference, I doubt that polishing boots is really what they have in mind. But polishing boots is something I am passionate about and something I do well.
The Canadian leather community may not be large, but it is close-knit and proud. My victory came with a lot of firsts. The most important being that I am the first Canadian to win the International Mr Bootblack title in its 14-year history. Also this year, Bo Ladashevska, representing Montreal, is the first Canadian to win the International Mr Leather title. Having two Canadian major leather titleholders has definitely strengthened Canada’s place on the leather map.
With my title came a whole new family and a group of people who have supported me through and through. My travels as International Mr Bootblack have taken me to many strange and far away places this year, and friendly faces have greeted me everywhere. There have been couches offered for me to sleep on, drinks bought, and bonds that will never be broken. I’m an ambassador of sorts, and people have been listening to what I have to say.
You may be wondering what exactly it is that I have to say? Lots!
I am nothing if not outspoken.
Bootblacks are an underrepresented group. They spend most of their time crouched down in the back corners of bars, doing a job that most people would find degrading (and for some, therein lies the appeal). They don’t get the opportunity to speak up very often, and they are acknowledged even less. I am able to give a face to those people, and help others to realize how important the bootblack’s work is.
After shining boots, bootblacks shine most when it comes to raising money for charity. Most bootblacks give part, if not all, the money they earn for their services to charity. AIDS charities, youth organizations, food banks; the list of people and groups who have benefited from the services of bootblacks is long. I get to educate people about the importance of leather care. A good piece of leather, I say, will last you a lifetime if cared for properly.
I also get to talk about things other than boots and leather that are important to me, like the critical shortage of mentors in the leather community. The chasm between my generation and the one that lived through the emergence of the AIDS crisis first-hand is deep and wide.
My title has earned me a measure of credibility with the generation that came before me, and that has allowed to me glean a world of knowledge from their experiences. Hell, I’d like to believe they may have learned a thing or two from me as well.
I’ve been able to speak to people about the unfathomable discrimination against persons living with HIV and AIDS at the American border. I have been able to speak to people about meaningful, open and polyamorous relationships. As International Mr Bootblack, I have had the chance to do not only a whole lot of talking, but also a whole lot of listening, and I couldn’t tell you which I think is more important.
I recently returned from a trip to Berlin, Germany where I attended and participated in the Folsom Europe street fair. There is something exhilarating about being nine time zones away from home, and having people recognize you.
I spent that trip bootblacking to raise money for Folsom’s worthy group of charities and networking with a whole new group of people. I will tell you this much: they definitely do it differently in Germany.
Bootblacking as an international titleholder has made my job something to watch. It has made that back corner in the bar the place to be, it has motivated people to ask questions about a different segment of the community, and it has raised awareness of the importance of caring for one’s leathers.
And if nothing else, it has given a few more people the answer to the question: “International Mr What?”