Mr Gay Canada thought he was off to change the world.
As he packed for the Mr Gay World pageant in Malta in April 2016, Derek Bedry talked publicly about his excitement to represent Canada, set human rights goals with his fellow delegates, and speak out about his favourite cause, gay men’s mental health.
A self-described nerd, despite his impressive biceps and 15,000 Instagram followers, Bedry (who also contributes to Daily Xtra) never imagined he would join a beauty pageant. But when the opportunity fell into his lap, he jumped at a platform from which to do some lasting good.
He came home bitterly disappointed.
Bedry told a story, corroborated by five other Mr Gay World competitors from around the globe, of a tarnished competition reduced to little more than glitz.
Documents, emails, Facebook messages and testimony provided to Daily Xtra by Mr Gay Canada, South Africa, Czech Republic, Argentina, New Zealand and Malta seem to show the organizers of Mr Gay World threatening a contestant with poor scores if his producer complained about management, calling the people of the host country Malta “scum,” changing events at the last minute, dismissing criticism, and calling a contestant who objected a poor loser.
(Mr Gay Czech Republic Jirka Korytar may have been destined for a top slot until his producer started complaining./ Jirka Korytar/Instagram)
It all started with a death.
In March, only a month before the pageant, British club magnate Haydn Pope died of cancer at age 49. Pope ran the European AXM chain, including a location overlooking the Mediterranean in the Maltese city of St Julian’s, and was the local organizer for the 2016 pageant.
Only 10 days earlier, Mr Gay World CEO Dieter Sapper, an Austrian event planner, told the 2016 contestants over Facebook that despite Pope’s death, the show would go on.
Sapper and Australian Mr Gay World president Eric Butter stepped in to run the event personally.
On April 11, Mr Gay Czech Republic producer Honzik Jakubec sent a Facebook message to Sapper, asking what was going on with Mr Gay World. Up until this point, Sapper had been friendly and supportive to the Czech Republic’s contestant, Jirka Korytar. In fact, a few months earlier Sapper had seemed to hint that Jirka was assured a top spot in Malta.
“It’s our first time, so I want Jirka to be better than Slovakia,” Jakubec joked on Feb 1 in a Facebook conversation he later provided to Daily Xtra.
“Of course he will and I help you,” replied Sapper, who is also a judge at Mr Gay World. “I want Jirka in top 5.”
“Nice to hear. Really hope it will be like this,” Jakubec wrote.
“He has to,” Sapper said. “He is my favourite for top 3.”
But in April, in a second Facebook exchange provided to Daily Xtra, Sapper changed his tone as Jakubec pressed him for more information about what would happen after Pope’s death.
Jakubec complained that promotional videos for the contestants had been put online unevenly, and that he had been told he had to fill out a form that nobody had mentioned before.
“When you make troubles this only let Jirka look stupid and he will loose the chance to become top 5 as Mr Gay World don’t want to have complicated producers,” Sapper wrote.
“Right now Dieterer please stop. How can you say that?!” Jakubec replied.
“And of course I will discuss in the name of Czech Republik as when you complain I will have to tell and then they can decide and talk,” Sapper replied.
“If it’s so you make me think that voting is unfair,” Jakubec wrote.
“You think so?” Sapper said. “Good then this is another point I will discuss in your name.”
(Mr Gay South Africa, Oelof de Meyer, took detailed notes of everything that went wrong at the 2016 competition in Malta./Oelof de Meyer/Instagram)
This isn’t the first time Mr Gay World has kindled controversy.
For the first few years, after the pageant was founded in 2009 by Butter and Canadian organizer Dean Nelson, sailing was smooth, as it moved from Whistler to Oslo, to Manila, Johannesburg and Antwerp. After Nelson’s departure in 2013, however, trouble started.
In the 2014 competition in Rome, Mr Gay New Zealand, Mr Gay Australia and a sponsoring skincare company all pulled out, citing bullying, poor living conditions, and inappropriate pressure to hook up with other contestants.
Mr Gay World claimed the two contestants had actually been kicked out for alcohol abuse and rule breaking, while admitting that Rome “did not adhere to the standards of our previous events.”
In 2015, the winner of the competition, Mr Gay Germany Klaus Burkart, stepped down seven months later citing mysterious “personal changes,” and was replaced by Mr Gay Hong Kong. In text messages to the 2016 contestants, provided to Daily Xtra, Sapper hinted at an “investigation” that had taken place at the competition, but was never reported in the media.
In 2016, the contest landed in Malta, a tiny Mediterranean island state off the coast of Sicily with a population of less than half a million. Malta had just been named the most gay-friendly country in Europe. If there was anywhere for things to look up, it was there.
By the time Oelof de Meyer, Mr Gay South Africa, arrived at the airport in Malta, things were already looking down.
De Meyer had bought out of pocket black tie formal wear for the “president’s ball,” in which the contestants were to meet the president of Malta. He also put in the legwork to secure three copies of South Africa’s constitution — the first in the world to protect LGBT rights — signed by notable gay rights reformers. The ball and the auction were then both cancelled.
It was announced that contestants would need a white shirt and blue jeans for the runway, so De Meyer went out and bought those too. Then the blue jeans competition was cancelled as well.
From the airport, things only got worse. A driver showed up 20 minutes late to pick him up and take him to the hotel. He dressed for the welcoming event, where the Mr Gay World Handbook assured him local media would be waiting. The event started late, around nine in the evening, and no reporters appeared. Neither did dinner, and the contestants had to pay for their own drinks.
De Meyer, an engineer, meticulously wrote down his disappointments throughout the competition. A boat trip was cancelled, then a white party, then a photoshoot challenge. A lunch never arrived, and the contestants ate leftover pizza. At one runway event, all 22 men had to share two bathrooms to prepare.
A Maltese designer was commissioned to sew a complete set of costumes for the runway competition, completed the work, and then the segment was dropped at the last moment without explanation.
Several of the contestants told Daily Xtra that the moment that best sums up their frustrations was when Butter scuppered their chances of meeting the Maltese president. While the presidential ball had been cancelled, the contestants were told the president still wanted to meet, and an opportunity had been arranged. The appointed time came and went, however, and the meeting never materialized.
(Mr Gay Malta Iven Fenech says organizers didn’t listen to his advice on how to get along in his native country./Iven Fenech/Instagram)
In a message Mr Gay Canada provided to Daily Xtra, Butter later explained what had happened:
“The president’s meeting was arranged by the owner of the AXN club, we were all ready and on schedule, but we got a notice saying only 30 were allowed to visit. I told him it was ridiculous, we were about 40 in the core team, so it was everyone or no one.”
In total, there were 22 competitors at Mr Gay World. Passing up the opportunity to meet a head of state and discuss gay rights because not everyone in the production team would be able to come along, Bedry says, felt like the peak of hubris.
In their messages to contestants, provided to Daily Xtra, Butter and Sapper were quick to throw blame elsewhere: on Pope’s death, on bad luck, and especially on their Maltese partners.
“The Maltese treated us pretty bad,” Butter wrote in a Facebook message to Bedry, while explaining what had gone wrong at the event.
Bedry then pressed Butter to write an email to the competitors explaining everything. Butter declined, but continued to complain about his Maltese partners, including a venue owner who he said demanded more money.
“The man closed the door and said pay me more! He knew we could cancel the event hours before. . . . What would you have done?” Butter asked Bedry.
Butter then concluded, “Maltese are scum.”
The organizers did not spare their contestants from criticism either.
When Mr Gay Argentina, Esteban Jerkovic, complained in a Facebook exchange that the judging for a photo shoot competition did not seem to add up, Sapper called him a “poor looser [sic].”
“They treated everyone like garbage,” says Mr Gay Malta, Iven Fenech. “They didn’t know what they were doing. Everything was changing all the time. And they didn’t want the Maltese’s help.”
(Kelly Heelton and Peter Carbonaro hosted the 2016 Mr Gay World live from Malta on Youtube on April 23, 2016./Mr Gay World/Youtube)
Daily Xtra contacted Butter about the competitors’ complaints. He replied by email, and said he believes Bedry was just trying to “sell a story,” and said the accusations were either exaggerated or false.
He also said he thought Bedry was not well prepared for the competition, and “was not able to deliver or inspire.”
He flatly denied that Sapper had threatened Mr Czech Republic’s scores, or that he had called the Maltese “scum,” and stressed his good relationship with the Maltese.
“It is up to the contestants if they want to join the winner’s circle or make the decision that they don’t belong to the winners circle,” Butter wrote. “I know for a fact, that amongst the contestants great friendships and memories are created and they will last for many years to come.”
Butter also said Sapper was sick, and unable to talk to reporters. He declined to put Daily Xtra in touch with Sapper. He also declined to provide Xtra with scoresheets for the competition because he said it might embarrass low-scoring participants.
When Xtra presented Butter with screen captures of the Facebook messages between him and Bedry and between Sapper and Jakubec, Butter responded with a letter accusing Xtra of a smear campaign against him and Mr Gay World.
“We resent journalists who try to bring disrepute to our organisation and gossip about meaningless aspects of the event,” Butter wrote.
He stressed that Mr Gay World provided positive gay role models, and said that every year participants who lose the competition try to find a way to discredit it.
Butter did not answer questions about whether the Facebook messages provided to Xtra were genuine. Xtra verified the messages, however, by asking Bedry to log into Facebook in front of an Xtra reporter to display the messages in person.
(Mr Gay Canada Derek Bedry says he’s disappointed with the whole Mr Gay World experience./Harry Leonard/Instagram)
Not all contestants share Bedry’s negative impression of the competition. Mr Gay Spain, Roger Gosalbez, who won the competition and was crowned Mr Gay World, says the ups outweigh the downs.
“Some contestants feel disappointed about the contest and organization and I agree with some complaints,” he says. “I’m so happy about winning the contest and I think it was fair.”
Gosalbez also points to the LGBT rights presentation portion of the competition as evidence that Mr Gay World is focused on doing good.
Dean Nelson, the Canadian co-founder of Mr Gay World, says he can’t be sure what happened in Malta, but that he both empathizes with Butter as an organizer, and is disappointed that Mr Gay Canada had a bad time.
He also says Mr Gay World will conduct a “full investigation” into Sapper’s conversation with Jakubek, and that the organization will have to take care in future to avoid conflict of interest.
Back in Canada, Bedry says he has lost faith in his title of Mr Gay Canada, and the Mr Gay World competition as a whole, to do any real good.
“I’m trying to stop Mr Gay World from taking money and then falsely representing themselves as an advocacy organization when they’re not,” he says. “They’re taking these guys’ money and saying it’s about human rights. I think there’s a public interest in stopping that.”
Bedry says he still wants to talk about human rights and mental health issues among gay men. He just won’t do it under the crown of Mr Gay anything.