There were supposed to be paparazzi, Korean journalists who'd memorized his soap-star-like face, a limo driver, a full-frontal assault by barrier-crushing Asian girls screaming Brandon! Brandon! Brandon! At least a former contestant had told him there would be. But when Brandon Michael Anderson's plane touched down at Incheon International Airport, no one was waiting for America's delegate to Manhunt International, the biggest male beauty pageant in the world.
So the 29-year-old model and part-time caterer from Los Angeles had to find his own way to his hotel in Seoul. When he finally checked in, unpacked his clothes, and ran himself a bath, there was a knock on the door—and Anderson learned he wouldn't have the room to himself. The organizers had randomly paired him with Lin Shao Hua, Taiwan's muscle-bound delegate. Hua didn't speak a word of English but insisted on making small talk through a language translator on his laptop that repeated everything back in a eunuchoid digitized voice.
"MIXED NUTS," the computer noted as Anderson downed a handful of almonds and cranberries.
"Yeah," Anderson nodded. Hua clacked away some more.
"You nervous?" the machine asked. Anderson considered a philosophical response—something about how there's no reason for a man to be nervous when he's being himself. He thought better of it. "No," he said instead.
To make matters worse, Anderson's hair straightener blew up when he attempted to plug it in at the same time as his blow-dryer (Seoul's humidity is hell on his shoulder-length dark-brown hair). And within 24 hours of his arrival, he had already been asked to drop trou: Manhunt's promoters had signed the contenders up for a "fashion show," part of a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Seoul's airport. And so Anderson found himself back at Incheon International—this time on a catwalk, in a procession of men wearing nothing but snow-white briefs.
It's not that he'd arrived with any delusions that he'd become the world's next male supermodel; the free trip was incentive enough. But that night, as Anderson lay in bed in the glow of the bathroom light (his roommate couldn't sleep without it), he came to a realization: This was going to be one strange week.
"You know what, though?" Anderson says. "That's one of the reasons I did this—to step out of my element."
Every year since 1993, 47 men aged 18 to 30 have come from around the globe to compete in Manhunt International, the male equivalent of the Miss Universe pageant—squaring off against each other in swimwear, eveningwear, and "national costume" contests for the top prize. There are trophies and sashes, titles like Mr. Physique and Mr. Friendship. The competition has been held in locations around Asia and Australia. But unlike its feminine counterparts (Miss Universe had 600 million viewers last year), Manhunt languishes in relative obscurity in the Western World. Its founders are trying to change that—and along with it the very idea of men competing in a beauty show.
While there are no immediate plans to hold the finals in the United States, Manhunt's founders hope one day to see the competition rolled out beyond Asia and Australia.
"America will probably have to learn to accept [the male pageant]," says Alex Liu, the Singaporean who started Manhunt with his Australian business partner, Rosko Dickinson, 15 years ago. To this end, there is something they want westerners to understand: Manhunt is not a gay competition. The misconception that it is is not easy to dispel for an event that includes a shirtless dance routine—and shares its name with a popular gay-hookup website. But this year's added obstacle is just cruel coincidence. The hotel in Seoul at which Anderson and the other jet-lagged delegates arrive one breezy May evening, carrying the swords, capes, and feathered headdresses of their national costumes, goes by the name of Young Dong.
The hotel ballroom smells like the inside of a glove. It's a hot Saturday afternoon, and the delegates have just two days to learn the dance moves they'll perform on national television. It isn't going smoothly. The Korean choreographer has to communicate through an English-speaking translator. And the moves—a lot of side steps, 360-degree turns, and overhead claps—aren't proving easy. The contestants intermittently collide with each other. India, who goes by the unlikely name of Romeo Gates, has decided to rehearse in a cowboy hat and a black leather vest. Greece never takes his sunglasses off. Hawaii, the only noncountry in the competition (it's a popular enough tourist destination to warrant the exception, the promoters say) keeps his on, too. But they do nothing to aid his rhythm. There are missteps and pileups. These send quite a few delegates into fits of laughter, and their window of rehearsal time for the day is closing.
"Ten minutes left!" the Korean translator tells them. "Please, no funny, okay?" A boom box blasts OutKast's "The Whole World."
5, 6, 7, 8!
"I'm so ready to get the fuck out of here," South Africa grumbles.
They've been keeping a grueling schedule—8 a.m. breakfasts followed by 14-hour days, back-to-back rehearsals—and to make things worse, some of the delegates are beginning to suspect that they're being used as shills. A few of the men were picked to film a television spot at a local sauna, and there's concern among them that they were tricked into doing a commercial for no compensation (Liu insists it wasn't a commercial and that it was used to promote the event, not the sauna). Others have been selected by the local fashion designer Andre Kim to model his clothes at a runway show on the day of the finals.
Dickinson strolls over to the podium with a black folio under his arm as the boys (as he calls them) finish their rehearsal. He shakes his bald head at the spectacle. Dickinson's job is wrangling the delegates—which effectively means being a camp counselor. The contestants are given black marks for transgressions such as showing up late (or drunk). These are tallied and given to the panel of 11 judges for its consideration.
"Gentlemen, I have a special announcement," Dickinson says. "Tonight at nine o'clock we are doing Manhunt International karaoke!" The response is lukewarm. Not all the delegates speak English—and the ones who do aren't particularly thrilled about the prospect of a mandatory sing-along. Nevertheless, the boys take part in what may be the cruelest form of recreation ever devised: alcohol-free karaoke.
The evening has its poignant moments. Five countries team up on the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," and everybody sings along to Ghana's version of "You're Beautiful." Nepal learns that his country has become a republic, and Morocco, a dark, 26-year-old telephone operator whose disposition is as sunny as his hometown of Tangier, pours his heart out for U2's "One." But Anderson is over it. As far as he's concerned, tonight's karaoke is a ploy to keep the boys sober and supervised before their big day—a candy-coated house arrest.
While many of the contestants had to go through rigorous trials to make it to the finals (Australia's Dean Tahana competed against 800 men in 12 heats for the privilege), Anderson had America's complete lack of Manhunt awareness on his side. Manhunt's U.S. directors—a flight attendant and a transgendered woman who works in retail, both Filipino—found him on a modeling website. They paid his way to Seoul out of their own pockets, with the stipulation that he give back 20 percent of any winnings. The only real challenge was the national costume. Anderson would be responsible for making it himself. He opted for Native American dress.
"I worked on it for a month, piece by piece," he says. He scoured fabric shops until he had exactly what he wanted: a feathery black shoulder piece with leather bottoms. "I didn't want to settle," he says. "I thought it was important to bring it back to its roots rather than be a sexy firefighter."
The morning after the karaoke, Anderson is nowhere to be found. The big white bus has been idling in front of the Young Dong for 30 minutes, loaded with delegates. But America, Greece, and Hawaii are missing. Dickinson is enraged, and he's on the verge of telling the driver to leave when the trio, wearing dark sunglasses, finally amble out of the hotel. No one gave them a schedule.
"You guys are fuckin' hopeless, all right? Fuckin' hopeless," Dickinson says. "You do that again you're out of the show."
The three find their seats quietly. If they're worried about the prospect of black marks, it's not immediately apparent. But when they disembark at a park next to a stream that runs through the center of town, it becomes clear why a contest like Manhunt works in Asia: Throngs of Korean grade-schoolers in sailor suits surround them—Beatlemania-style—screaming and fanning themselves. In a country that has maintained most of its ethnic homogeneity, Manhunt's delegates are more than just attractive: They are novelties.
Later that night, at the prejudging competition in the club beneath the Young Dong, the group adopts an air of Olympics-caliber fraternity. You see it when Venezuela offers Hawaii his lip gloss ("It's good for the camera," he says). You see it when America holds Turkey's arms down for some shoulder presses before the physique-judging portion. And you see it when the men—most of whom are straight—momentarily abandon any sexual hang-ups to slather each other in baby oil as they line up for the swimsuit round. Even the banter is laced with ego-propping reassurances.
"That swimsuit cracked my balls," Morocco says as he adjusts his tuxedo.
"Nice ass, though," Luxembourg tells him. Morocco looks like he didn't quite get that.
"Good hump," Luxembourg says. "You know, hump ass? Bang? Chitty chitty bang bang?"
During the competition there are no questions about world peace or solving the hunger problem. At Manhunt, Morocco's hump ass might be his greatest asset.
The day of the finals is chaos. The event is being televised from a nightclub called the Circle, in Seoul's glitzy Gangnam district. The minimalist décor is intruded on by a tangle of power cables running between the bottle-service booths. TV crews make their preparations behind a semicircle of 11 judges, who sit up front by the raised black stage. A swarm of Korean makeup girls set up stations to get the boys ready. One of them kneels in front of China, working on the lines between his abs with a powder brush. Pakistan is having his stubble augmented with mascara. Anderson strolls by in his Native American getup, streaks of war paint on his face.
"You know how yesterday I had a transsexual rubbing baby oil all over my back and I'm in a blue Speedo thinking Where the fuck am I and what am I doing?" he says. "Well, today I've had about a hundred of those moments."
Dickinson sits at the announcer's table, near the stage. He's clearly exhausted, and Manhunt's Korean director, Richard Oh, had to be hospitalized for three days because of stress. But as the lights dim over the sea of photographers, over the hundreds of spectators (mostly women), the table of sashes, and the panel of judges, it's easy to get a sense of what makes it all worthwhile.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Dickinson says, "you're about to see 47 of the world's best male models take the stage! Please sit down and enjoy the show."
The music starts and the national-costume parade begins. The boys come down the runway and strike poses. There are plastic Viking axes and ninja swords. Morocco's latticed robe lets the judges get a good look at his shimmering bronze abs. Hong Kong's attempt is off the charts—an immense gold contraption with hula hoops, glitter, dragons, and shimmering lamé. Anderson does a little rain dance at the front of the stage. The scene backstage is frenetic. Nepal has lost his bottoms but recovers them an instant before the swimwear heats. Vietnam cuts his foot on a broken bottle behind the curtain. There is blood everywhere, but he swabs the cut with toilet paper and gets back in line.
"And now," Dickinson announces, "something for the ladies." They crank up the OutKast as the boys appear in their tiny turquoise swim trunks to start the clapping and snapping routine. Dickinson seems nervous. But the delegates pull it off, for the most part—and what they lack in rhythm they make up for in smiles and spirited hip twists. The women in the audience look as embarrassed as they do excited. After the tuxedo procession that is the eveningwear round, the boys await the judges' decisions. Anderson makes the top 15, but that's as far as he goes. Turkey's six-foot-foor delegate is named Best Runway Model. India, who has cultivated a solid fan-base on Manhunt's pay-per-vote website, wins Mr. Internet Popularity. Nepal gets the Mr. Friendship sash, and China upsets the shoo-in, Taiwan, for the Mr. Physique title (the ab-brushing clearly paid off). And then the big moment arrives.
The 2008 Manhunt International title goes to . . . MOROCCO!!!
Abdelmoumen El Maghraouy looks stunned as he bends over to receive his white sash and bouquet of roses. The Korean MC hands him a microphone.
"Sorry, I can't talk right now—I'm so sort of emotion right now," he says. "I just want you to know that I had a really good time."
"How's Korea?" the MC asks him. "And especially . . . the Korean women?!!!"
"Wow," he says. "Amazing."
"Could you explain what kind of model you like to be? What is your dream?"
"Well," he says, "just for . . . famous model." The host smiles. "You're already famous," he says.
As the applause dies down, the contestants rush onstage to congratulate each other in a 47-member group hug under the floodlights. The producers cue up "Heal the World."
Anderson joins the stream of delegates backstage and starts peeling off his tux.
"Are they seriously playing Michael Jackson?" he says to no one in particular. A few of the Latin delegates light up cigarettes in the stairwell and start stripping down. Theories are being tossed around about Morocco's surprise win. One of them is that he was the delegate "who kept his mouth shut and didn't talk shit about the production." But nobody seems too sullen about it.
In a dark room strewn with headdresses and clothes hangers, Anderson zips his Native American costume into a backpack. The transgendered national director comes in, bangles clattering, to see if he needs any help (he doesn't)—and to tell him how much Angola resembles her ex-boyfriend. Tomorrow he'll fly back to L.A. But for now, as the crowd thins out, Anderson heads to the Circle's bar and procures something that, at this moment, seems far more valuable than glass trophies, silk sashes, and honorary titles: two complimentary drink tokens.