Pup Tugger onstage at IML

Pup Tugger onstage at IML. Photo by Matt Baume for the Advocate.

The leather community has always had its shares of competitions and titles. In and near Seattle, we have the Washington State Mr. and Ms. Leather competition, Seattle Leather Daddy and Daddy’s Boy, Northwest Puppy, and others. One of the most famous in the country, though, is in Chicago: IML – International Mr. Leather.

Held over Memorial Day Weekend since the 1970s, International Mr. Leather has crowned leather men based on physique, audience engagement and leather image. Winners and contestants have definitely pushed boundaries in the past, notably with a trans, person who uses a wheelchair crowned as the winner in 2010.

As a contest steeped in tradition and history, though, seeing contestants who present outside of those traditions is a rarity.

When Pup Tugger sashayed onto the stage in a long flowing cape, with a tight corset and five-inch high heels, the audience was taken aback. He gave a powerful, memorable speech (which later went viral) in the competition, talking about incorporating femininity into his leather and kink.

Some booed his appearance and criticized it later, leading to the hashtag #tuggergate. Overall, impressions of his appearance were positive and strongly supportive, though.

While he didn’t win the competition, he placed very highly (fifth place) and was the most talked about contestant of the weekend.

I chatted with Pup Tugger on the phone a week after the competition. The first thing on my mind: what led you to dress that way for IML, a competition steeped in tradition?

“When you’re prepping for IML or any huge contest like this, you have a lot of people telling you to just be yourself,” he shared.  “Most of where I got my inspiration was that in that same breath, a lot of those people also said: Well, but maybe you shouldn’t do this. I took that and ran the opposite direction.”

Pup Tugger didn’t want to stifle who he was just to win a title.

“When I was in the middle of making my cape that I wore during my scene,” Tugger explained, “which took three weeks to put together by hand, I had a lot of thinking time. The entire time I’m debating: Is this a good thing?  Is this something that I need to say? I ended up just going for it. I kicked everything up. I decided to make a statement. And all of the people who said ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do this’ ended up coming up to me later and telling me they were really, really glad that I decided to do it anyway. So it worked out really well.”

It’s situational bondage, and you have to still perform, be social and publicly deal with that discomfort. That’s the part that I find highly erotic.”

How does more feminine attire represent who he is as a person?

“I’ve always been effeminate,” Tugger declared. “I’m very domestic. I have a kimono that I lounge around the house in on Sundays. I have all of these effeminate qualities about myself that I’ve had to just accept and love about myself eventually, because it’s difficult to get to that point.  I don’t have to present a masculine image.”

And how do high heels and corsets represent his kink?

“The aspect that reaches into kink for me is not anything to do with effeminacy, but it is more situational bondage,” he considered. “I love wearing boots and heels, because I tight lace all of them, to get them as close to wrapped around my foot as possible. I love the discomfort of walking in them. With my corset, I love having it be completely tight-laced, to where it’s hard to sit down and to breathe. It’s situational bondage, and you have to still perform, be social and publicly deal with that discomfort. That’s the part that I find highly erotic. It just happens that those are also effeminate things.”

I wondered how Pup Tugger dealt with all of the criticism about his appearance in the competition.  It’s hard not to be affected.

“The negativity can take a toll,” he admits, “because you still hear it and it doubts who you are as a person. It’s easy to write it off as that person doesn’t matter, but that is not the case. That person absolutely matters. That person has an opinion. Just because it’s different from yours doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. My approach is that that person is not where I am. I’m not saying that they’re behind, but they haven’t gotten to the point where they have learned that this representation doesn’t matter. They’re at a point in their journey where they’re negative, because they have closed off their minds to further opportunity and possibility. They have told themselves that this is the finite and this is the complete. I tend to identify with them because it’s unfortunate that they have closed off their minds to growth.”

There is an old guard tradition behind the leather community that a lot of what Pup Tugger’s mode of dress moves away from. I was surprised to hear he had experience in an old guard relationship.

“My first power dynamic, power discordant relationship was extremely old guard,” he said. “I was always the two steps behind and to the right kind of boy. Don’t talk to dominants unless you’re addressed first; that incredibly respectful, regimented, protocol leather. So I learned so much in those two years. Eventually I decided that while I loved the leather and the protocol, I didn’t need the regimentation in all facets of my life. I wanted something that spoke a little bit more to my personality.”

Given the splash he’s recently made in the leather community, how does Tugger plan on following up his IML appearance?

“I realize that there is a lot of room for femininity to grow in the leather community,” he emphasized. “I’m going to start venturing into a more educational role within the leather community, having open forums, discussions, and kink demos. I like teaching other people the art of being a fetishist.”

Tugger wants people to learn more than that, though, and hopes that his appearance at IML gave the audience some important takeaways.

“I want people to take away from me that just because you’re effeminate and part of the leather community does not mean that you’re also not a masculine individual,” he stated. “I believe it’s really important to realize that every single person has both of these aspects in their lives. So even if you’re an incredibly butch, powerfully dominant man, there is something about you as a person that is an effeminate quality. That’s not a bad thing, but realizing and accepting this, and not demeaning others for having these aspects: that’s what I want people to take away.”

Whether or not you agree with Pup Tugger’s take on leather, he has a deep respect and knowledge of the traditions of leather culture, even as he pushes the envelope. His passion and articulateness show that a run for a leather title can stand for more than your garden variety set of kinks. I’m excited to see what he does next!