God, that’s sooo gay!
That was the gasp that was heard around the block and around the world when the International Male catalog would arrive in the old days, the closet-bursting 70’s. Then it was the hottest crypto-homo publication sold over the counter — no, not even sold, sent to you for free (was it ever in a brown wrapper?) with its pictures of hunky, porn-caliber models in mesh briefs with padded codpieces. Oh the thrills, oh the chills that shuddered through many a young heart.
â€œI remember when it came in the mail, youâ€™d take it into the bathroom to have a little fantasy,â€ confesses Marc Berkley, the 52-year-old editor of Homo Xtra, in a Radar Magazine feature this month. â€œThey obviously had their models fluff a bit.â€
But there was more! Once you got past the bulge check and flipped to the “dressy casual wear,” you had the eye-spinning, steam- pouring-from-the ears zaniness of super macho models in super sissy clothes. Flounces and fun furs and pants tied at the waist with scarves.
It was a scream. And the wildest thing about it was these guys were so massively cock-heavy that they carried it all off with their hotness intact.
The models, in fact, got their own fan mail — though they were never identified by name. Letters were addressed to “the guy on page 5 in the deep-scoop “cleavage” T-shirt.” In answer to many a fan’s prayer, some of these catalog stars did, in fact, go on to enjoy healthy porn careers in male-on-male films.
The catalog’s popularity was legendary, not only with the readers of the Advocate, then a local Los Angeles gay paper, but with those straights who trolled the back ad pages of Playboy. Built on the mail-order success of one far-sighted, must-have product — the “Sock,” a softer cotton jockstrap with no leg straps — International Male eventually became a $26-million-a-year business, reaching 1.25 million men. Its founder, the inventor of the Sock, Gene Burkard — a Wisconsonite who came to Southern California, like so many us, with a Hollywood dream and a love of flat-stomached surfers — eventually sold the business in 1986 for an undisclosed sum.
But without a Queer Eye to guide them, the new owners mishandled IM badly, so much so that they were forced to put the catalog up for sale in 2003, only to find — in a bolder sign of how steeply IM had fallen — no takers.
Now, according to an email sent out by the marketing staff, the owners — Hanover Direct of New Jersey — are trying to “reposition” the brand. Apparently they are ashamed of the ass-out jerk-off-ability of the old classic line and so refused to speak to the Radar reporter. â€œWe are all acutely aware of what the catalog was in the recent past!â€ sniffed IM spokeswoman Eadie Kelly, adding that she had no interest in “flogging old news.â€
Thankfully, this did not stop the reporter from going ahead with his novel idea for a first-person piece about the company: In the Adventures of an International Male, a straight man — the author, Andrew Goldman — spends a hilarious week in some of the more heart-stopping ensembles from the classic IM days:
- sequined capes with black pants laced up the sides
- flouncy “poet shirts” with ruffled sleeves
- low-slung white capris filled out with padded-bun, padded-jock undies
The object of the exercise: To make it to Friday without getting his head handed to him on the streets of Manhattan. In the process, Goldman rides subways, goes to ballgames, gets thrown out of restaurants (â€œYou got another shirt —with sleeves?â€ scowls a bouncer, eying the tufts of black hair pushing through Goldman’s open-mesh top.) Yet to his surprise, the author finds that rather than incite bloody murder from blue-collar troglodytes, he becomes the point of contact for every happy-to-see-him nutso in Manhattan.
Everybody stops eating, for instance, when he enters the tony Four Seasons restaurant in a strawberry-swirl suit with a knee-length pimp jacket. â€œYou must trade jackets with me!â€ cries one of the co-owners and then “performs a balletic revolution around the dining room in my billowy coat, asking diners at each table if they approve of his new finery… Our neighbor, the sugar baron Pepe Fanjul, smirks as he announces, deadpan, that he owns the same suit, but in yellow.”
On the street in this same strawberry monstrosity, “two separate broken English-speaking tourists ask for directions to City Hall, presumably because Iâ€™m the consummate flashy New Yorker.” For the first time in his life, Goldman writes, “I am popular among black people … from the young man who pokes his head out of a locksmithâ€™s on 23rd Street to yell, ‘Love that suit, man!’ to a vendor hawking gold jewelry on the street who nods approvingly and says, ‘Mmmm! Nice suit.’ In those moments the waves of nausea induced by my superwide shoulder pads are replaced by something that feels like welling pride.”
Nobody even notices his rainbow-pinstripe seersucker when he goes to Yankee Stadium with a buddy. “Two rows over, a cornrowed Cracker Jack vendor shouts, ‘That suit is sharp! That thing linen?’ My new kinship with the brothers remains intact, but apart from that, nobody responds to my pretty new pastels. Jed, on the other hand, gets called a faggot near the snack bar, but, really, what did he expect, wearing a Red Sox cap?”
Finally, Goldman takes his most outlandish ensemble — the sequined cape and lace-up pants — to a leather bar:
… I head over to the Eagle, a Chelsea leather bar for men who seem to pride themselves on their resemblance to straight firefighters and cops. The wearing of cologne, I am told, is frowned upon here, and apparently so are capes. Up on the roof deck, pressed against clammy man flesh, I feel hostile eyes burning holes in my sparkly shroud. A shirtless guy who reminds me of the kid who beat me up in middle school taps me on the shoulder. â€œHey,â€ he says, â€œgive me a little room. You keep backing into me.â€ I fear that my sequins may have been chafing untold numbers of bare chests around me and that if I donâ€™t watch the fabric I may be the first recorded victim of a Chelsea straight-bashing.
By weeks end, Goldman is completely converted to the International Male Way of Life. He goes clothes shopping, still in his flouncy “poet shirt” and lace-up pants:
Amazingly, I find that in every boutique I enter on the Upper East Side I am given the kind of service I have never once received wearing my civilian clothes. â€œIt would be perfect,â€ Cady, a lithe West African saleswoman at Dolce & Gabbana, tells me when I ask how she thinks the ruffled shirt, combined with her $700 gold-lapeled white jacket, will be received at an upcoming opera date. I prance around the racks, like Mozart. â€œSo, you got any capes?â€ I ask, and she looks honestly regretful when she tells me she does not.
At Calvin Klein, handsome little Gino so convincingly tells me he loves my shirt with an $850 velvet blazer that, as Iâ€™m fluffing the folds of my ruffles through the front of the jacket in the mirror, I begin to see a courtly beauty in the ensemble. … a preening giddiness takes over. Iâ€™m not kidding when I tell Gino that the ensemble makes me look a little like English royalty. He nods approvingly.
… I follow him around the sale racks. Soon he has sold me an iridescent green cotton suit, on sale for $450, something I never would have considered purchasing before. My Andrew self recedes; the International Male takes over. If only the International Male had $2,700 in his pocket he surely would have bought the Nehru-collared knee-length cashmere coat David put on me. But I have to say I look pretty good in that green suit. The pants really accentuate my package.