Meng Fanyu may have only been crowned Mr Gay China a few days before we meet, but he seems to have settled quickly into the role of champion. Before sitting down to chat on the plush sofas of So Café & Lounge (a lower key venue from the same people behind the adjacent ICON nightclub, the scene of Meng’s triumph), we ask if we can first take a few photos. With no further prompting from us, he immediately works his way through a repertoire of pouts and Blue Steel-like looks as the camera clicks away.
He laughs it off when we suggest he’s already well used to having his photo taken, but having appeared in his underpants on stage at ICON throughout the Mr Gay China competition in front of hordes of cameraphone-wielding young men, it’s safe to say that we’re not the only ones in the city to possess images of Meng. Organisers of the competition – the first of its kind to be held in Mainland China after a 2010 contest was nixed by the authorities before it even got off the ground – have been keen to emphasise that it was about more than just pretty faces, with a focus on sexual health. But there’s no denying that 27 year-old Meng is strikingly handsome.
He’s nevertheless magnanimous as he tells us the competition was a close-run thing. ‘There were a lot of really goodlooking,really smart contestants,’ he says.‘ And up until right at the end I didn’t think I was going to win.’ Meng was in second place for most of the night, based upon votes from the crowd, but in a dramatic twist to proceedings he was catapulted into first when the weighted votes of Mr Gay China’s judging panel were taken into account. ‘It was a real shock,’ he says, ‘though of course I was really, really happy. I’m a dance teacher and I’ve taken part in competitions before, but I’ve often come in second place, so to be a champion is a great feeling.’
Meng’s dance background means that he’s used to taking to the stage, but he admits to being a little unsure of himself when he first stepped up as part of Mr Gay China. ‘It took me a few days to decide whether I wanted to enter initially. And then when it came to going on stage in the heats, I was pretty nervous. It’s very different to dancing – this was all about letting people see my personality and who I am,which was a bit scary.’
Having been selected to take part in the first heat of four, Meng returned to ICON over successive weeks to watch the other contestants and, crucially, how the audience reacted to what they said and did. Sizing up the competition also prompted him to prepare in another way. ‘I started going to the gym every day,’ he says. ‘I was doing intense work outs, we all were actually. We all wanted to beef up.’
The competition was hailed by many Western media outlets as proof of China’s increasing acceptance of its LGBT community, yet while he’s flattered (and somewhat taken aback) by the attention his victory has received in the international press, Meng is under no illusions that competitions like Mr Gay China still have a long way to go before they’re a part of the mainstream in this country. ‘It’s not like I’m getting stopped on the street,’ he says. ‘The people who know that I won are mostly from within the community; the vast majority of people here still don’t know who I am.’
Despite column inches abroad, the event was largely ignored by the mainstream Chinese press and while its successful conclusion is no mean feat for the organisers, it comes on the back of a string of more conservative moves in China, such as February’s ban on homosexual activity on TV in the wake of popular online show Addicted being pulled over its focus on gay high school students.
‘I think things are opening up and young people especially are a lot more informed in their views,’ says Meng. ‘Not everyone supports homosexuality 100 percent, but an increasing number tolerate it, especially in the big cities. Hopefully this competition can help and allow more people to understand and learn more about the LGBT community in China.’
And Meng points to another category of champion for helping in this regard recently. ‘The Olympics was good for putting a number of gay people on TV here,’ he says. ‘Like Tom Daley – everyone here knows about his sexuality and he’s an Olympic champion, which is a really positive image.’
As for Meng’s own designs on the global stage, though he has no definite plans to take part in international competitions he becomes more animated than at any other point during our interview when we mention Mr Gay World. ‘Oh, I would love to take part in the international competition,’ he beams. ‘I want to show the world that this is me. I’m Mr Gay China.’