For those unfamiliar with IML winner Marcus Barela (he/him), a brief word of caution: appearances can be misleading. While he may be a hot leather muscle daddy, that’s far from his full story. Once you take time to peel back the layers, you discover far more to him than meets the eye. Just like for many others, he is a leatherman on a journey to putting himself out there and allowing himself to be seen.

Photography by: Dusti Cunningham


As a Mexican American gay boy growing up in Texas, Marcus was a flurry of creative activity in high school. Despite occupying himself with the dance team, choir and theatre, he speaks of far too many moments of solemn reflection. “I had one friend who went to another school. Other than that, high school was a lot of me sitting alone at lunchtime, journaling by myself in an abandoned parking lot.” He touched upon these adolescent days in his IML speech, referencing a pivotal moment in his coming-of-age. “The first person I told I was gay was a catholic priest. I was 17 and I thought this was the reason I would always be lonely and unloved. That priest told me, ‘You’re going to have to accept that about yourself if you’re ever going to be happy.’”

Videos of Marcus on the IML stage are available on his Instagram (@marcusmonster). At first glance, you see an eloquent and masterfully presented candidate who grabs your attention and holds it. Keen-eyed viewers will notice the small unscripted moments in between: an unexpected gasp of air, a sideward glance and a powerful moment of pure, teary-eyed emotion. That’s when you catch a glimpse of the bigger story which we all share – that of a person finally comfortable in their own skin, who is ready to be seen.

Photography by: Dusti Cunningham

As Marcus describes, IML was the calumniation of a sobering process of accepting layer upon painful layer of his true self. In recovery from alcohol for over twelve years, he speaks openly about his journey with sobriety. “I got drunk for the first time at 18, and blacked out. I thought this was normal, but it wasn’t. However, I kept drinking, because I finally got some sense of being comfortable in my skin and being social. When I drank, I could have friends.”

Marcus continued drinking and ‘blacking out’ into his twenties, while continuing to explore who he was. “I remember my first time at The Eagle LA. It was my first time in a leather bar, and I was all by myself. I went there to get drunk and get laid. That night, there was a moment I briefly came out of my black-out, when the manager asked me if I wanted to be a barback. In my head, I thought I wasn’t good enough or cool enough to work there. But I said, ‘sure’, and went back into my black-out. I started working there as a sad, insecure person. Now, eighteen years later, I am sober, and I have been working there the longest. The two managers are practically my gay dads who birthed me into this leather community.”


The decision to become sober, Marcus says, was hard-fought and born from darkness. “I finally got sober at age 27, but it took a while to get there. I dealt with sadness and depression my whole life, but a recent breakup left me completely heartbroken. An intense darkness had taken over me. It became torturous standing behind the bar, talking to people and pretending I was happy, while inside I was depressed and hating myself. More and more, I just wanted to be alone and disappear. That was the first red flag.”

And the second?

“Suicidal thoughts. I’d be driving in my truck and fantasising about driving it off the cliff. I would be dreaming about it. I never took any action, but I felt I hit rock bottom and told myself, ‘Wow, I really need help’. One night, working my shift drunk at The Eagle, I asked a guy out. We went on a lunch date, where it turned out he had been sixteen years sober at the time. He then became, and continued to be, a mentor to me. That was the difference that helped me get and stay sober. I became willing to let other people into my life and help.”

Photography by: Dusti Cunningham

The decision to become sober launched Marcus into a far bigger journey – not simply that of recovery, but of opening himself up more to life, other people, and leather. “Leather was exciting, and it made me feel sexy and confident. I noticed the people I connected with the most were the leather folk, and I drew inspiration from the community in terms of different, non-traditional relationships. As a Sagittarius, I’m always looking to expand and learn through new experiences. So rather than accept the ‘traditional’ hetero-normative relationship structure I was raised in and was been given, the leather community and its people helped me expand my thinking about who I was, about sex and relationships.”

The next step in his journey was running for the title of Eagle LA Mr. Leather, but only when it felt right. “I ran for the title of Eagle LA Mr. Leather when it was meaningful for me, and when I felt I was ready. I have a lot of respect for people who go up there and put themselves out there for the community.” Marcus says he became Eagle LA Mr. Leather first and foremost to represent and bring pride to the place he says was pivotal to his journey. Still, he makes no apologies in saying he knew from the get-go he wanted to push himself even further and dreamed big all the way to the IML stage.

To make his dream a reality, Marcus did his homework. “I spent over a year and a half preparing for IML. After winning Eagle LA Mr. Leather, I went to CLAW, Berlin and IML 2022 to do my research and get ready, but it wasn’t all about winning. All I wanted to do was my best, and in a way, I was really proud of myself. As a Sagittarius, I dream really big, and winning IML was a big dream. I wanted to be International Mister Leather. I wanted to travel the world, grow, and connect with people.”

Photography by: Dusti Cunningham


Upon winning IML in May of 2023, Marcus began traveling the globe, further expanding to new experiences, people, and adventures. His journey has taken him to Tromsø, Norway, the furthest north he’d ever been to, where he marched under a blanket of snow as part of Arctic Pride. No more than a week later, he ventured the furthest south he’d ever been, attending a leather competition in Bogota, Columbia – a trip which according to him was transformative.

Growing up, Marcus recognises how a certain part of himself felt missing. “I didn’t speak Spanish or properly understood my Hispanic heritage. As an American, we are taught a particular point of view. My history came from my high school in Texas.” During COVID, while many of us turned to exploring sourdough bread, Marcus turned inwards to exploring this part of himself. He began learning Spanish for the first time and dove deeper into a culture he was part of, but didn’t know. “The Latin civilisation course I took in 2020 caused a huge shift in my world and world view,” he says, “and my trip to Bogota highlighted it.”

Photography by: Dusti Cunningham

“There was a moment walking in downtown Bogotá when I simply burst into tears. I started weeping in my friend’s arms. I was just so grateful to be there for the first time. It was powerful being around people I felt a kinship with – Latin Americans and leather folk.” With tears in his eyes, Marcus then recounts another powerful moment during that trip. “I had always loved the artist Selena Quintanilla. So much so, that I wore an outfit inspired by her for one of my IML interviews. Both of us were from Texas and I always felt a connection. During the Mr. Colombia Leather contest in Bogotá, a drag queen began performing a medley of Selena songs. The whole crowd joined in singing to the music of this Texan-born singer. In that moment, I realised it. These people are my family.”

As his friend, I could tell something shifted during that trip. Of all his travels throughout the year, I had never seen him more relaxed and peaceful. When I shared this observation, he agreed. “As an American, I felt somewhat separated from my Latino culture. Learning to speak Spanish and gaining more awareness of the leather scene in Latin America has been important for me, as it’s a huge part of me. And to think it all started when I went to Spain in 2019 because I wanted to fuck hot Spanish guys!”

Photography by: Dusti Cunningham


Grounding him throughout his many travels this year have been his close circle of friends, family and leather family back in LA. Alongside him on his journey has been his sobriety, which he says remains a constant element in his life. “My sobriety is a necessity. I can go anywhere and do anything because I take that with me everywhere I go.” He engages in mindfulness practices such as journaling, meditating, and crafting daily, even creating his altars. “I’ve been making altars continuously this year. I build them with different things that mean something to me. Things I’ve chosen or that I’ve been given that inspire and ground me. I even built one for running for the title of IML.”

Marcus talks about the importance of maintaining privacy and setting aside designated time and space to restore and recharge. A self-acknowledged introvert, having peaceful spaces for rest and reflection is essential to putting himself out there, representing the community and connecting with people authentically. “There’s a lot of expectation, of doing this or doing that, so that people think I’m good or doing enough. For me, whatever I do has to feel authentic.” Authenticity, he first stated back in his IML speech, was his superpower – and it’s ours too. “I’m not going to do things just because someone expects them of me. I have to make sure they align with my greater purpose. Perhaps this idea of being there for the community, while also ensuring I get what I want and need this year is selfish. What’s interesting is that most importantly, it’s authentic and that those two things align. Being there for our community is ingrained in what I want.”

According to Marcus, connecting with more people in the community has been at the forefront of his goals for this year. Whether its people in recovery, people who share his Latino heritage, or simply anyone who starts a conversation with him, he says it’s the people who are the lifeblood of the community, and of his titleholder year. “Through the people I’ve met, I’ve been able to go and experience new places around the world as well as in myself. The kindness and friendship they’ve shown me has been incredible. And I hope to give that back to them.”

Photography by: Motorboot

As for his legacy as IML45, Marcus offers a surprising, and remarkably truthful answer. “One year to create a legacy isn’t very much. I never expect people to know who I am, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I become forgotten. Most likely, people will say, ‘He’s so sweet. Didn’t he go to South America?’ I just hope to be the kind of person who makes others feel comfortable, and accepting, and who gives you energy. That’s all I ever wanted to feel myself.”

And in that, the story comes full circle. That gay kid who journaled alone in an abandoned car park still journals, but does so now as a proud man capturing adventures of life continuously expanding, outwards and inwards, through those around him. And by opening himself up authentically and unapologetically, he might just make it easier for the next guy to do the same: seek a title, seek help, or simply seek to be seen.

His journey began long before he stepped on the IML stage and will continue long after he passes his title onto the next guy. And perhaps there lies his real legacy: an unassuming snapshot of just one of many years in the life of a leatherman, whose journey is still unfolding. As for the next leg of his journey? “I’m going to UCLA and finish up my bachelor’s degree in Spanish. I’m going to continue learning Spanish, and I’d love to study abroad. Whatever I do, I plan to continue travelling and exploring the culture and leather communities of Latin America. It’s all new frontiers for me to explore.”

Go Follow Marcus on Instagram @marcusmonster

Are you struggling with mental health issues or are you having suicidal thoughts? WINGS has compiled a list of mental health helplines that you can contact.