Leather Life: Russell Waisanen – Life After The Leather Title

So you win a leather title. You spend time preparing to compete at the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest. You compete at IML. You spend the rest of your title year serving the title and the community.

And then what? When your title year ends, what do you do?

If you’re Russell Waisanen, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2016, you find many other ways to stay involved with the leather community, and you find yourself involved with the bear community, gay rodeo and the Imperial Court of Minnesota as well.

As Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2016, Russell Waisanen had a great title year. He competed in IML 2016 as part of a close-knit group of contestants who still call themselves the “38 Specials” (because IML 2016 was the 38th IML contest).

During his title year Waisanen, along with other Minnesota leather titleholders, completed a massive project creating backpacks full of needed supplies for homeless youth. Waisenan also helped raise money for causes including the Trevor Project and Clare Housing. “I never want to say, I raised that money,” says Waisanen. “It wasn’t just me. I’m one member of the team. The community helped me raise that money.”

But title years end eventually. As he neared the end of his leather title year, what plans did Waisanen have for what came next? “To be honest with you, absolutely nothing,” Waisanen told me. “I didn’t have any thoughts. I was just so excited for the next person (Eric Stafford, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2017) and to be there to help and support  him. My thought was, I’m not going to disappear. I’m going to still be here for the community.”

As it turned out, Waisanen has done a lot. In leather circles, Waisanen has been involved as a trainer with the North Star Kennel Club, is a member of the Black Guard of Minneapolis, and has participated in annual Minnesota Leather Pride events. And, before and after his leather title year, Waisanen also has held other titles in other communities including the bears, North Star Gay Rodeo Association, International Gay Rodeo Association, and the Imperial Court of Minnesota.

The first title Waisanen ever held was in 2014. At the Texas Bear Round-Up (TBRU) he was awarded the title of Mr. TBRU 19—Brother Bear. According to Waisanen, the Brother Bear title is the same as “Miss Congeniality. That was actually my very first title. That’s the title that led to the leather title.”

In 2018, Waisanen became involved as a titleholder with the North Star Gay Rodeo Association (NSGRA) when he became Mr. NSGRA 2019. He was a bit hesitant at first about holding another title. “I had so much fun during my leather title year that I didn’t want to spoil that. But I thought about it, and in my mind, it was about raising more money for the community, and going back to my country roots Waisenan grew up on a 20-acre beef farm in rural Oregon) and being part of the rodeo.” As Mr. NSGRA 2019 Waisenan raised a lot of money—“for the community, and always with help. I’m always part of a team. It takes a community to raise money for a community.”

When Waisanen was asked to consider competing for the Mr. International Gay Rodeo (IGRA) title, he started volunteering for other gay rodeos, including New Mexico and Las Vegas, where he met more of the rodeo crowd. “I volunteered for the arena crew. We’re the ones down in the dirt in the hot sun, making sure everything’s set up for the contestants and for the judges to have a good rodeo.” As a member of arena crews, Waisanen found his rural upbringing was helpful: “I know how to wrangle cows, and I had learned not to be afraid of bigger animals.”

Waisanen’s next title was Mr. IGRA 2020/21 second runner-up, and he became part of the International Gay Rodeo Association’s titleholder team and helped “raise money for all of the local communities that the rodeo is in.” He is still a member of the NSGRA board.

While all of this was going on, Waisanen’s partner, Buster, became Mr. Twin Cities Leather 2018 and then, as Leah Tyler, was Empress 28/29 with the Imperial Court of Minnesota (ICOM). “So I stepped up as Mr. NSGRA, then he stepped down as Mr. Twin Cities Leather. Then I ran for the Mr. IGRA title. Then he stepped up as Empress 28/29 of the Imperial Court. And then the pandemic hit.”

Even with the pandemic, the IGRA titleholder team kept going: “During the two-year reign of our international rodeo team, we raised $22,000—during a pandemic. That’s through virtual shows, and actual live shows once the bars opened up. That money went to the International Gay Rodeo, which helps put on the World Gay Rodeo finals, which helps raise awareness of LGBT culture within the country/western culture.

“That’s what I love about the rodeos—we help raise awareness for kids that are out there and thinking they’re alone. They’re never alone—there’s the rodeo that can help these kids feel like they have a place.”

Like his partner, Waisenan has also been involved for several years with the Imperial Court. During his time as Mr. NSGRA, Waisenan also held the Imperial Court title of Baron 27, and then he became Crown Prince 28 and Crown Prince 29. Waisenan’s latest title, as Russell “Giggles” Storm, is Emperor 30 of the Imperial Court of Minnesota. Here is his full Imperial Court protocol:

“The 3rd Holder of the Cherry on the Spoon, A Son of the Emerald Empire, VanGuard of Amusement for the Impression of the Rose, Giggles the Moosette for the House of Shade and Shenanigans, and the ‘I like warm hugs’ member of the Storm Family. The Leather Clad Guardian of the Sapphire Snowflakes, and the Bear Bottom trap of the arctic tundra, and Keeper of Pearl Necklaces, The Viking Emperor Penguin himself, Russell ‘Giggles’ Storm, Emperor 30.”

Let’s review the many different LGBTQ+ subgroups with which Waisanen has been involved: leather, pup/trainer, bears, gay rodeo, and the Imperial Court. Especially after the pandemic, says Waisenan, “I really feel that it takes someone who’s part of all of the groups to really bring all those groups back together. I honestly feel like these groups can all work together. We’re going to do amazing things for this community. I’ve seen it happen, and I know it will happen again. It’s just that this pandemic has really separated us, unfortunately. But I know we can bring everyone back together again.

“When I get to go to an actual [in-person] fundraiser and see people, I get re-energized. Because I love being around people and I love raising money for my community—and having fun at the same time. Someone once told me, every dollar counts. It doesn’t matter if you raise $1 or $5,000, you still raised money.”

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