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Last month, Ben Payne was crowned Mr Bear New Zealand 2023 in a hotly contested competition at G.A.Y Auckland. He talks to express about representing Aotearoa at Mr Bear Australasia and being Pit Crew on RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO ENTER MR BEAR NEW ZEALAND?

My inspiration for entering Mr Bear was about doing something different and pushing myself out of my comfort zone a bit. I’m generally a bit of a shy country lad, so getting up and making a pavlova on stage was a new one for me.

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Also, I found myself in a situation last year where someone told me I’d be worth a second look if I lost 25 kg and my body hair. Body shaming sucks. I took that really personally, and it stung to be cut down like that. Entering Mr Bear was a subtle ‘fuck you’ to that person. I am happy and comfortable with being myself – plenty of body hair, a few cuddly bits and lots of personality!

Entering Mr Bear was also a great opportunity to raise some money for the Rainbow New Zealand Charitable Trust. I wholeheartedly support the organisation’s cause and respect the huge amount of work they all put into raising money to distribute back to Aotearoa’s queer youth in the form of scholarships and grants for higher education.

Mr Bear New Zealand 2023 @ G.A.Y

WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE TO WIN?

I was surprised to be honest. I’d had one too many Yager shots so my skit wasn’t as polished as I’d have liked. There was also some very stiff competition. When Connor took to the stage and showed his prowess with leather craft, and Ralph with puppeteering, I was convinced one of them would take the sash.

YOU’LL NOW GO ON TO REPRESENT NEW ZEALAND AT MR BEAR AUSTRALASIA. HOW ARE YOU FEELING ABOUT THAT?

I am excited to travel to Melbourne in June to take part in Southern Hi-Bear-nation. I’ll
certainly be showing the Aussie bears some true Kiwi spirit and certainly won’t be taking my role as an ambassador or the competition lightly. Hopefully, I can bring enough Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent on the night!

BEING MR BEAR NZ MEANS HAVING A PRESENCE IN THE BEAR COMMUNITY. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO BRING TO NZ’S BEAR COMMUNITY?

If I can bring some profile to the bear community, it’s a massive win. People like Paul Heard, Allan Granville, and many other Bears who give a lot to the wider queer community, have supported me a huge amount on a personal level over the years.

Growing up as a farm boy in the South Island, I didn’t know any queer people, let alone have any queer role models. If I can be a role model for just one queer kid struggling to come to terms with themselves in the provinces and show them that being gay, bi, trans, etc., is totally OK and can be a happy experience – I will be satisfied. 

WHAT POSITIVE CHANGE WOULD YOU PERSONALLY LIKE TO BRING TO NZ’S QUEER COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE?

Mr Bear New Zealand 2023 Ben Payne

Collectively, our queer community has made huge progress with achieving acceptance externally.

A lot of this is on the shoulders of community elders, some of who are members of the bear community, and have tirelessly advocated for LGBTQ+ rights.

Internally though, there’s still a lot of nastiness at times. People readily cut each other down based on superficial things like looks and body type.

Also, hook-up apps like Grindr have changed our sense of community, and sometimes it feels like being a gay man has diminished to a series of transactional sex interactions based on how good your profile pics and hidden album are. I’m not speaking for others, but this sometimes makes me feel hollow and sad.

I would like to be an ambassador for inclusion. A friendly bear who is easy to talk to, transcends cliques and embraces a sense of connection and community.

YOU WERE ONE OF THE MOST NOTABLE PIT CREW MEMBERS ON SEASON 2 OF RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE DOWN UNDER. WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE FOR YOU ON SET?

It was a lot of fun. I had never been on a TV set before, so it was very different for me. RuPaul spoke to me for five or so minutes, and I got the impression he was curious about me cause I didn’t fit the usual mould for their Pit Crew.

WHAT WAS THE REACTION LIKE AFTER YOUR EPISODES HAD BEEN SCREENED?

I was hesitant to be Pit Crew at first, because my impression was that you had to have a rippling 6 pack. I was wary of being the chunky, hairy one in the middle of a lineup of Adonises and hence only put myself forward for one episode.

As it turned out, people watching Drag people liked seeing a ‘normal’ body in the
lineup.

YOU ARE BASED RURALLY IN THE SOUTH ISLAND – WHAT HAS TAKEN YOU THERE, AND DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS TO RETURN TO CITY LIFE?

Not at this stage. Living rurally was only meant to be a short-term thing when I couldn’t move to Europe at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. I love living in the countryside, close to mountains and lakes, but I also have the best of both worlds because I regularly travel to the city.

WHAT ARE THE URBAN QUEER COMMUNITIES WHO CAN NEVER IMAGINE LIVING RURALLY MISSING OUT ON?

Different strokes for different folks, but every season brings recreational opportunities. Hiking, mountain biking and boating in the summer, skiing in the winter. I love the mountains, the bush, the lakes. I am also part of a tight-knit community, where I feel I can be open about my sexuality, and people are very respectful.

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