“I’M Vince, Mr Bear Queensland, 44, and really nervous.”

Vince Siciliani is short and stocky, softly-spoken, and unsure of himself. He was talked into going for the sash in the Mr Bear QLD competition, and after he won unexpectedly, found himself competing to become Mr Australasia Bear.

“It’s pretty scary what’s about to happen.”

I ask why he wants to win and he’s ready with an answer: “I think it’s important for everybody to feel a sense of belonging, to feel a sense of coming together with mates. And that’s what I want.”

It’s the tail end of Southern Hibearnation, the glorious time of the year when hirsute men from around the world descend on Melbourne for a week of social events. The festivities culminate in the most prestigious night of the bear social calendar: the Mr Australasia Bear competition.  Finalists from local heats around Australia and New Zealand compete in a series of Miss America-style rounds for the title, and a studded leather sash.

We’re meeting this year’s six contestants in the “green room”, a small, corrugated iron shed in the back of the beer garden at The Laird, Melbourne’s iconic bear and leather bar. It looks like it’s usually a storage area, all boxes and exposed beams, and the guys have a bunch of milk crates pulled up around a little table. There’s a CCTV rigged up to show all the action of the competition set to take place on a stage out in the main bar area.

The guys are sitting around the room, waiting for the competition to get started. They’re friendly, but there’s a nervous atmosphere.

The bears get ready for round 1. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

The bears get ready for round 1 backstage at Melbourne’s iconic gay bar The Laird. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

The bears are here to win.

Sam Mastrolembo, 50, is Western Australia’s contender. The Italian-born, Perth-raised public servant is all smiles and confidence. His community service credentials include working on programs to end homophobia in schools and set up gay-friendly nursing homes. He rattles off a list of accomplishments but is carefully gracious.

“These are all good guys. It’s anyone’s game, and anyone’s worthy of it,” he says.

I ask how much he wants to win.

“I’d love to win. It would be a fantastic dream come true, and I’ve worked hard for it. So I’d really love to win.”

Round 1

“HAVE you ever heard of ‘fubbing’? It’s something I’ve been talking about all week and I’m introducing it to people. Can I fub you?”

Victorian Erin O’Neill, 35, tells me he wants to rub his flame-red, Ned Kelly-style beard on the side of my face.

“Just tell me if you like this,” he says, talking into my recorder. His voice is difficult to understand — Erin is hoarse from a big sing at Beareoke earlier in the week.

The experience is strangely intimate.

“For people who aren’t going to be able to see this, I’m just lightly, gently, stroking my beard on the side of your cheek. I’d normally fub both sides, but I think I’ve got to start getting ready.”

Erin. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

Erin O’Neill, representing Victoria. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

Erin is gregarious, striking and immediately likeable. He hasn’t been coming to the Laird long — it’s just 18 months since he came out to his ex-fiancé, the mother of his three-year-old daughter. Not allowed to grow a beard during his 17-year stint in the air force, Erin has made up for lost time with an impressive nine-month growth. Struggling with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Erin hopes to use Mr Australasia Bear as a platform to discuss mental health more openly in the bear community. It comes up a few times in conversation with the contestants — they’ve really opened up with each other over the week. Erin isn’t the only father in the group, either. NSW contender John Kuna, 46, and New Zealand’s Gary Edwards, 47, both have kids.

Running the show backstage is contestant coordinator Peter Callaghan, who hovers about the green room in case the guys need anything. He’s been doing the job for 10 years.

“I’m a past contestant myself, so I know what they go through. I went through the same thing,” he explains.

“A couple of them are pretty nervous now. It’s easy for me to say, shrug it off, have fun, but I know how I was feeling when I was about to go on stage.”

On the CCTV the two hosts of the competition are warming up the crowd. The Laird is absolutely packed — security have been turning away anyone who didn’t buy a ticket in advance.

To get to the stage from the green room the contestants have to leave the bar entirely and go out onto the street to get onstage via a side entrance. It’s a bit of a trek in the freezing rain, so they wait in the green room watching each other’s performances on the tiny CCTV monitor.

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

The first round of the competition is straightforward: an introduction and brief interview by the hosts. One by one, Peter reads out the contestants’ names and sends them to the stage. The guys left in the green room cheer the grainy images of their co-contestants.

Vince gets through his interview looking remarkably composed, but when he returns to the shed he says the experience was terrifying: “That was nerve-racking, I tell you. Just dripping with sweat. I feel good, I think it went down alright. I’ve just got to jump into it and push through. The adrenaline’s rushing.”

Stocky, pale, and bald with a ginger beard, at 31, South Australian Gerry Ebert is the night’s youngest competitor. While he claims stage fright stopped him entering his local Mr Bear SA competition last time around — he now holds that title — you wouldn’t know it. The affectionate, chick flick-loving plasterer from Adelaide stands out as the class clown.

“I wouldn’t call this confident,” he says.

“I’ve got a small thing. Apparently the more clothes I take off, the less uneasy I feel. I seem to be very confident once my clothes are off.”

Towards the end of the first round I ask Peter who he thinks will win — his money’s either on Gerry or Gary, the skinny redhead from Auckland, but when pressed he says in 10 years he’s never successfully picked the winner.

Round 2

IT’S either the escalating energy of the evening or the quantities of alcohol being consumed, but as the competition enters its second round the atmosphere in the green room is getting loose. The contestants are all stripping down to their jockstraps in preparation for Bear Minimum — the closest Mr Australasia Bear gets to a swimsuit round.

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

South Australian Gerry Ebert shows off his “Bear Minimum” outfit just before he goes on stage. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

Gerry’s outfit looks like it started life as jockstrap, but attached to the front is a small teddy bear — the plasterer’s penis is stuffed inside. He says proudly that the brainwave came from his partner, who also did the sewing. The announcement of the underwear round seems to have attracted the interest of anyone able to talk their way into the green room. As Gerry shows off his merkin, Erin is trying to get his penis into frame every time someone takes a photo. When he kneels down in front of Gary to lace up his boots, Erin manoeuvres his head so he’s getting teabagged by the giggling Kiwi’s jockstrap bulge. Gerry starts complaining that his penis is covered in teddy bear fur.

Everyone is starting to get emotional. When Peter asks mockingly who it was that posted something along the lines of “We’re all winners” to the Facebook page, Gerry and Erin both rush to defend the sentiment.

“We honestly feel that way,” Erin stresses.

Throughout the gushing, Vince stands off to the side of the group, clearly apprehensive about the task at hand. Unlike the other guys, all of whom are standing about in their underwear or less, Vince’s Bear Minimum outfit is hidden under a robe.

“It’s very minimum,” he says, and admits to being extremely nervous.

Vince says I won’t be able to see his performance properly on the screen, so I follow him out onto the street as he heads around to the stage door. Sam from WA is up first, dancing to calm his nerves in the cramped antechamber to the side of the stage before his performance. Vince is on next.

When he gets on stage, the Queenslander drops his robe to reveal nothing but a pair of headphones covering his genitals and arsehole.

One of the hosts jumps in after a couple of hesitant catcalls: “Explain your outfit to us tonight.”

“Yeah, just my headphones,” Vince responds, sheepishly.

“You know that they go on your head, right?”

“They are,” Vince says, to laughter.

Last up is Erin. He’s wearing a Darth Vader mask and suggestively waving around a plastic lightsaber. Huddled in the antechamber, the tech guy whispers to me, incredulous: “He’s only been out for a year.”

Round 3

THE contestants can get help from their friends and partners for the final round, so the already-tight green room is filling up fast. Round three is Bear Fantasy, where the contestants have to act out a brief scene on stage. The actual rules of the round are unclear, but it’s easy to describe: basically, the guys re-enact the first few minutes of porn — the “narrative” portion. Erin’s fantasy partner is former Mr Australasia Bear Matt Cutler, who famously won the sash in 2011 when he proposed to his partner on-stage.

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

Round 3: The green room fills as contestants could get help from their friends and partners. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

Contestants and their partners hug before going on stage for round 3. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

In the now-crowded green room most of the contestants are practising with their fantasy partners, but Vince is again standing alone, oddly well-dressed in a business shirt and tie. When the other guys notice Vince’s distance they start trying to offer encouragement. Matt even takes him aside to tell him he’s heard during the week how impressed everyone from Queensland was with Vince’s tenure as Mr Bear Qld.

Gary (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

New Zealand’s Gary Edwards performs his fantasy segment to the audience at The Laird. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

When Vince’s name is called we head around to the stage door.

“I’m good to go, just running through my head what I’m going to do,” he says.

Vince’s Bear Fantasy is pretty much just a striptease to the song Pony, by Ginuwine. It’s hard to see from the side of the stage what’s going on, but I find out later the roars of applause his performance garners are largely for some on-stage twerking and an impromptu forward roll. It turns out Vince instructs gymnastics in his spare time.

“You said you were shy,” says Sam as Vince comes off stage completely naked, clutching his discarded clothes in front of his crotch. “I am,” Vince replies as he dashes out into the rain.

Gerry and Gary have both decided on tradie-themed fantasies, and before the South Australian plasterer goes on he starts teasing the Kiwi about his obviously-fake equipment. When he gets up to perform his fantasy, it turns out Gerry has re-recorded the lyrics to Sweet Transvestite from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Wearing nothing but a tool belt and a modesty sock, Gerry struts around the stage, miming the words to Sweet Bear Tradie.

While Gerry performs, Erin is taking the preparation for his own fantasy very seriously. Dressed in matching Top Gun-style flight suits, Erin and his partner Matt run through their choreography in the side stage antechamber, with Matt calling the moves: “Left shoulder, right shoulder, left leg, right leg, then we’re up to Great Balls of Fire.”

No one complains when the rehearsed performance somehow descends into Erin, completely naked, pashing Matt on stage to the sound of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away from the Top Gun soundtrack.

Mr Australasia Bear 2014

WE’RE told it will be around 20 minutes until the winner is announced. Expecting anxious anticipation, I get back to the green room to instead find the contestants in a group hug.

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

The Mr Australasia Bear contestants all pose for one last time. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

The Mr Australasia Bear contestants all pose for one last time. (Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

They’re sharing coming out stories and discussing ways to make the community talk more about mental health. The ideas have been bubbling away in conversations throughout the night, and for the contestants it seems like a perfect way to make something tangible of their bond.

As the guys crowd around the recorder to say their piece, it’s clear most of them have been crying.

“We’ve talked a lot about mental health to you, we’ve talked a lot about mental health on stage, we’ve all just had a moment here where we’ve all broken down, and really, the competition itself does not matter. We’re here to help the community in whatever way we can,” Erin says.

The other contestants jump in to talk about how they’ve bonded throughout the competition, but we still haven’t heard much from Vince. Just minutes before the winner is due to be announced he speaks up, confessing to the group for the first time he’s just recently lost his job and his home, and he’s resigned as president of Brisbears.

“I feel like I’d hit rock-bottom, and then you guys have come along,” Vince says. The group is silent. He says talking about mental health has helped him recognise his own experience of mental illness.

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

“You guys have just been so encouraging and so helpful. You guys are absolutely awesome. I love you guys,” he says.

Leaving the contestants alone for the final moments before the announcement, I ask Peter if he’s changed his mind about who’s going to win. While he’s sticking to his guns, Peter says he hopes it will be Vince, before stepping back into the green room to call the guys to the stage.

First up is Mr Congeniality Bear. Earlier in the evening the contestants voted among themselves for who they thought had been the most supportive throughout the competition.

It’s Gerry, of course (pictured, right).

The plasterer was already in tears, but after the announcement he’s a mess.

The runner-up is announced next —  it’s John from NSW — then as the winner’s name is read out the contestants clutch each other’s hands.

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

(Photo: Bodie Strain; Star Observer)

“The winner of Mr Australasia Bear 2014 is Erin.”

The room explodes. The coveted leather sash is lifted onto Erin’s shoulder (pictured, right).

Back in the green room one last time, Erin’s face is a mess from crying. His puffy red eyes are almost the colour of his beard. He’s struggling to get any words out.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling and I’m absolutely honoured, thank you,” he says.

“I’m going to go.”

Erin turns away and is immediately enveloped by the other men, their beards wet with tears.

**This article first appeared in the August issue of the Star Observer. The September issue will hit the streets this Thursday (August 21) in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra.  Click here to find out where you can grab your free copy.

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