I met Jewel Vanderlee of Bloomfield, New Jersey, not long ago and it quickly became evident she’s a force to be reckoned with. She helped inject new life into the International Ms. Leather / International Ms. Bootblack Weekend as she headed the social media department. The excitement for the event was at a fever pitch this year and the environment she helped to create online deserves a great deal of credit for that. On the East Coast front, she throws play parties, works for Lambda Legal, and is unapologetically fierce, femme, and proud, and will unflinchingly use her voice when she feels strongly about an issue.
Alex ‘Bear’ Conley: Where did you grow up?
Jewel Vanderlee: I was born in the Hudson Valley region of New York State, about two hours north of New York City, in a fairly small town of less than 4,000 people. This upbringing in the wilderness just out of sight of the bustling metropolis instilled a duality that plays a role in most of my interests.
Tell us about a charity that is close to your heart.
Lambda Legal, doing the heavy lifting in the courts for LGBT and HIV-positive people.
Also the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, particularly for their outreach and advocacy work on behalf of some of the most marginalized voices.
What is the accomplishment that’s made you proudest in the leather community? What about outside leather?
The first organization that I worked on in an official capacity in the BDSM world was a TNG chapter in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley is my home region, and moving back there after moving around for a couple of years, it felt important to create an intentional space for young kinky folks in what was essentially my hometown. So I founded one. Two years later, I moved to New Jersey and passed on the organization to new moderators. Two years later now, it’s still growing and thriving, providing a safer space for young kinky folks to explore their desires. To see that dream realized and live on without me is probably my most proud accomplishment.
Outside of leather? Gonna get dark here for a minute: I’m proud of surviving to 27 (my current age) and being able to help some friends along while I did. I have experience of a couple of mental illnesses and learning disabilities and I’ve had some darker times in my past. I didn’t think I’d graduate high school, much less become a successful adult!
If you could choose any actor/actress to portray you in a movie about your life, who would you choose?
As a young gayby I adored Angelina Jolie’s aesthetic, but I think I like Kate MacKinnon’s personality a lot more. A combination of the two of them.
Are you into Harry Potter? If so, what is your Hogwarts House? If not, what is your astrological sign?
Slytherin, Gryffindor rising.
What’s your favorite thing about the leather community?
The growing diversity of sexualities, identities, and bodies who come together to explore what I refer to as “alternative intimacies.” The kinship that we can form at the margins. The warmth of a hug from a friend who I met once, who supported me through some of the hardest experiences of my life, and then seeing them a year later … like we’d never left each other. In short, the connections.
If you could wave a magic wand and change something about the leather community right now, what would it be?
Less focus on “how we’ve always done things” and more focus on “how is the world we live in changing, and how can we stay relevant?” I want to see the leather community survive and thrive in years to come.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
There’s nothing guilty about pleasure, babe. Owning your weirdness is hot!
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