Twelve Questions: Chris Olwage

South-African born Chris Olwage was last month crowned Mr Gay World in Antwerp, Belgium - the second Kiwi in two years to win the award. The 27-year-old is a professional contemporary dancer, fitness instructor and former nightclub host.

Chris Olwage says his childhood was good but his adolescence was not a happy experience. Photo / Greg Bowker
Chris Olwage says his childhood was good but his adolescence was not a happy experience. Photo / Greg Bowker

1. Is there a swimsuit section in Mr Gay World? Isn't a beauty pageant for gay men a bit retro hetero?

Yes there was a swimsuit section in fact, and I won it too. The swimwear section was sponsored by Bjorn Borg and Binoche eyewear. The beauty pageant is only the final challenge of several over four days. Mr Gay World is actually about finding an active member of the global GLBTI (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) community to represent, teach and campaign for GLBTI issues around the world. It is an ambassador role and we were challenged on everything from world politics to public speaking, culture and personal presentation.

2. Is there more narcissism in gay culture than society in general, do you think?

To a degree there is. A lot of it comes from the seeking of self acceptance, I think and some people find it through their bodies, because that's one of the easiest things to change. The body is a bit of escapism. But it depends on the person.

For some people it's about finding others - the better looking you are the more chances you have. That's not the case for me. I'm just not that highly sexually driven. I have come from being the obese kid who was bullied at school and I overcame my self-imposed shortcomings, and I overcame what everyone thought of me. My body is a direct product of the things that I love to do - dancing, being a fitness instructor - as opposed to an aesthetic.

3. Did you have an unhappy childhood?

My childhood was actually rather good, rather normal, my adolescence was not. It was awful. I spent a lot of time by myself, isolated, comfort eating. I grew up in a Pentecostal church and school and homosexuality was about the devil and his demons. I was about 9 or 10 when I realised I was gay but it was as a young teenager that I thought 'oh my God I'm evil'. I kept it completely secret but once told a friend I didn't think (homosexuality) was wrong. I was called into a prayer meeting at the school after that and prayed for. So I just switched off to people.

4. When was your lowest point?

I was really depressed by the time I was 14 and I don't like to say this, because it hurts my parents, but it was after my second suicide attempt that I became at peace with myself. It was in that moment that it dawned on me that I was always playing the victim and I could only change that myself. I'd been to counsellors who just said [my depression] was normal teenage feelings but I felt no one cared so in that moment I knew that I would care and I would change myself. I set about transforming myself, researched healthy eating and holistic lifestyles and things did begin to change.

5. Why did the weight matter so much, do you think?

Weight doesn't matter but how it is perceived by others does. I felt fat because it was what I was called whenever I walked down a hall, tried to play a sport or even just walking home. I was made to feel fat. I never felt beautiful, I never felt part of the crowd. I believe it is our collective responsibility to educate others on healthier lifestyle choices while also teaching that it is wrong to judge the way someone looks. My work as a fitness instructor is not to make you skinnier (unless that's what you want) ... it's to make you healthier which is about being happier.

6. And now you're a dancer - would your 14-year-old self have believed that?

When I was 12 I asked my mum if I could do dancing like my sister did and she took me along to the teacher who looked at this pudgy boy and said 'no. We don't teach boys here.' So no, I don't think I would have believed it.

7. But you also bake?

My love of baking comes from my love of sugar! And from the joy it gives to others.

8. Why does it seem that gay men dance better than straight men?

Ha ha, I think it is because we're not as concerned about flirting with, or how we look, in front of a lady. Seriously though, maybe it is because some of us have had to fight for self-validation and self-acceptance and are just truly happy to rock out to our jams without a thought to what others might think.

9. You performed a black swan ballet on New Zealand's Got Talent last year - and incensed some in the dance community by going en pointe. What was that about?

Incensed, aye? Wow ... I didn't know that. My intention was never to incense but to prove to myself that I could do it. And I've got strong ankles. I've been asked to perform with other dance troupes since then so perhaps not everyone is incensed.

10. You've been a nightclub host in Auckland - where's the city's best bar?

I went clubbing for a few years but it was always work. I was a host - like a maitre d' in sparkly undies - or a dancer. Now my favourite bars are the weights at the University of Auckland rec centre. Ha! If I'm not working, I'd much rather be lying on my bed watching ballet videos on YouTube. So I'm not qualified to say.

11. Do you think South Africans get a hard time in New Zealand?

I don't think they do. When my family came here 13 years ago we left everything we were tied to behind - the church, everything. My father was determined we would become New Zealanders. We avoided the South African community here. It was a breath of fresh air for me, though it took me years to learn how to make friends again.

12. And next year you're going back to South Africa?

I've been invited to be a guest of honour at one of the Gay Pride parades and I can't help thinking about that. I left the country as a fat, depressed, bullied kid 13 years ago and I'm going back as Mr Gay World. That's a big responsibility for me - to be the person that I needed to have when I was a 14-year-old kid.

- NZ Herald

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