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'I'm just a big flag'

'I'm just a big flag'

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Gay man to represent Canada in Manhunt International
Darren Storsley says he never expected to enter a beauty pageant, let alone represent Canada at the international Manhunt finals this May.

Yet here he sits, his intense eyes peering earnestly into mine, describing the journey that led him to this podium.

"Years ago," he begins, "I was the kid in school who was always picked on. I was overweight. I was not an attractive kid.

"It took many years after graduating from high school to realize that I'm okay just the way I am."

In fact, it took almost a decade, two post-secondary degrees in education and counselling, a teaching position and now a title to piece his confidence back together. Even now, the 29-year-old says it's still a work in progress.

But that work got a serious boost last year when he entered-and won-stage one of the competition that will soon fly him to Shanghai, China to strut alongside about 55 other newly discovered fresh faces from around the world.

According to Manhunt International's website, the annual pageant began in 1987 in Singapore as a male model search. At the time, says the website, there were "numerous pageants for women" but nothing for men. That soon changed.

"The Manhunt competition gave new opportunities in advertising and promoting of male related products and services in a refreshing and macho way," the website says.

The hunt went international in 1993. Four years later, 38 countries were competing for the title and the contest was being broadcast around the world. Contestants are judged on their catwalk skills, their personality, how photogenic they are (in a lean, toned kind of way), and how well they project "health, lifestyle, youthfulness and vitality."

But though its name may sound promising to gay viewers, Manhunt keeps its sights trained firmly on the women. "Manhunt is organized in a macho way with outdoor activities, thrilling events, public presentations, talent routines and even a chance to meet and impress the ladies," the website says.

Enter gay man, stage left.

"I'm the first Mr Canada, ever, who has been gay. And to my knowledge the first contestant in Manhunt International who will be openly gay while I'm there," Storsley says.

Does he feel awkward participating in a traditionally straight contest? No, Storsley replies. "There's no reason why I don't fit in. I fit everything in their criteria.

"I know how to handle myself," he continues. "I know who I am. I don't say things that don't represent myself just because other people want to hear them."

In fact, Storsley pretty much came out during his acceptance speech for the Mr Canada title. "My victory tonight isn't just for me," he told the audience assembled in Ontario last September. "It's for anyone who's been laughed at for how you look, or because of your gender, or because you are gay-winning this represents all of you because I've been in your place."

Though he hedges now when I ask if he meant to come out on that stage, he quickly adds that it's "great" if people took him as gay.

And if the next Mr BC turns out to be gay, too, that would be a blessing, he continues. "I don't want to be the last one. I think it's a good thing for the pageant this year to have a gay guy who's out about it."

**
Storsley's route to the pageant began last February, when he first heard about Manhunt International. On a whim, he checked the website-and decided to enter.

He did it to challenge himself, he says. "It was the end of the whole struggle for self-esteem. I wanted to prove to myself that I had achieved a level of confidence within to do this."

He never expected to win.

When the call came four months later, Storsley asked the organizer if he was sure he called the right person. Apparently he had.

"I just went nuts!" Storsley says. "I did. It was one of those moments in life where you just think 'wow.'"

Last fall, Storsley travelled east to try his luck against the other provinces' chosen ones. He still remembers the order in which the finalists were announced as the competition drew to a close.

First they called Mr Ontario, he says, then he expected them to call Mr Quebec and Mr Alberta. But Mr Quebec didn't make the cut; Storsley did.

When the organizers asked him to step forward, Storsley again thought there must be some mistake. Any moment they would ask him to step back again, he remembers thinking at the time. But that didn't happen.

When the announcer called his name again, Storsley says he cried. "Oh my god. That was one of the most incredible moments of my life, definitely."

That's when he gave his now well-known acceptance speech.

There hasn't been much fall-out from coming out. A couple of people have objected to Mr Canada being gay, he says, and one group in the Okanagan cancelled a speaking engagement after it found out, but that's about it. Most people, including the organizers, have been supportive, he adds.

And the speaking invitations keep flooding in. Storsley has been using his title to lead anti-bullying campaigns.

It's a topic he's particularly well-versed in. In addition to his own personal experiences, Storsley now teaches French to students in grades eight, nine and 10 at a Langley high school.

He is also the faculty advisor for the school's gay-straight alliance (GSA). GSAs are important, he says. Kids need to feel safe in school, and GSAs can help. "I've been there," he notes. "I can now do something about it."

Maybe, he adds, if he'd had a GSA when he was growing up, he wouldn't have felt "so isolated and alone."

Then again, he continues, maybe if he'd grown up with a GSA, he wouldn't be Mr Canada now. "My self-esteem might not have been as depleted as it was."

Could've-beens aside, Storsley is now leaving for China in just a few weeks.

Is he nervous? Not really.

"My biggest stress," he smiles, is whether to introduce himself in English or in French for the opening number. "The whole 'bonjour' is so sexy compared to 'Hi, I'm Darren from Canada.'"

But he shows no stress whatsoever when it comes to his costume for the opening number. It's so sexy, he grins.

Storsley is planning to walk on stage with a big maple leaf flag draped around his shoulders, a small maple leaf Speedo, mukluk boots on his feet and not much else.

"I'm just a big flag," he laughs.

He still can't get over the fact that he's going to represent Canada at an international beauty pageant. And in a swimsuit no less. "I used to be so embarrassed of my body," he says. "And now, years later, I'm revealing it on stage in front of so many people. I'm going to be on stage in a Speedo in front of the world!

"I'm still in total disbelief that something like this could happen to someone like me," he smiles. "I used to hate myself."

MANHUNT INTERNATIONAL.
www.manhunt.com.sg.
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