Monday, September 8, 2008

Fifteen Minutes of Fame as the "Kilted Harley Rider"

This is the story of my Fifteen Minutes of Fame (well, one of many brushes with fame, a few seconds at a time). A few weeks of national publicity, newspaper coverage, radio interviews... and all because of a kilt and a Harley. What's slightly disappointing is that I hadn't yet sold my book at the time, so all that fame went to waste...

So--the story: Joel Reese's article about men in kilts, "Whatever You Do, Don't Call it a Skirt," appeared in the "Suburban Living" section of the Daily Herald, a Chicago/Suburban newspaper, on May 7, 2002. Of course, you're not going to be able to read the article from that tiny picture in this entry (if you click on it, it'll get bigger, but still too small to read), so I've reproduced the text of the article at the end of this posting. I'd prefer to just link to it, but the Daily Herald wasn't putting its stuff online at the time.

But first, the story--the Utilikilts people called up and asked if I'd talk to a reporter. Sure, why not? The result was this full-page article. Cool.

A few weeks after the article appeared, I got a rather excited phone call from my brother-in-law, who told me that he'd heard Paul Harvey's show on the radio, and Mr. Harvey had wrapped up his broadcast with a comment about a guy named Dan Starr, from Saint Charles, Illinois, who rode his Harley while wearing a kilt. Paul described me as a six-foot, two-hundred-pound, long-haired, bearded biker, and finished by asking, "are you going to tell him he can't? I'm not... Good day!"

For the next few weeks, I fielded occasional phone calls from radio stations who wanted to talk to the kilt-wearing Harley guy, and eventually I did on-the-air interviews with stations in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon and Ontario. It was fun; I kibitzed about how the weather's got to be just right for a kilted ride, not too cool, and definitely not too many bugs out. Ever have a bee fly up your... sleeve?

It was also complete BS; at the time I hadn't ever actually ridden a motorcycle while wearing a kilt. So where did Paul Harvey get the idea that I did? From the Daily Herald article, which a bored editor had trimmed down to a short news release and tossed out on the ABC wires one slow Sunday night. The article said I wear kilts and ride a Harley (both of which were true, as was the description), and it seems Mr. Harvey took this to mean I did them at the same time. At first, I tried to explain that I didn't actually ride in a kilt, but eventually I realized it was a lot more fun to give them what they wanted to hear.

A few years later, on my way from a parade to a post-parade party (did I mention that I had learned to play the bagpipes and joined a pipe band by then?), I made Paul Harvey retroactively honest by riding about forty minutes and twenty miles while wearing my band kilt. This wasn't my plan--the party was only supposed to be a mile from the parade, but I had gotten my directions from a member of the Shriner motorcycle corps. Word to the wise: don't get directions from a guy who spends most of his time riding in circles and figure-eights!

I don't ride in kilts very often, and it's probably not a great idea from the standpoint of safety and potential embarrassment (em-bare-ass-ment?), but it is one of those things that's fun to do a few times a year. If I get everything adjusted just right (which I don't always manage, because I'm still not sure exactly what "just right" means), a kilt rides about the same as a pair of shorts. If not, it can have a mind of its own, uncooperative and a bit of an exhibitionist.

And now you know... "the rest of the story!"

Almost. There's a sequel... in the summer of '08, when I was looking for ways to promote my book, a friend fixed me up with another Daily Herald writer, and I got a small but still useful writeup in the paper. That one's online, and you can read it by clicking here.

And without further ado... the article that started it all...

The Article: Whatever you do...Don't Call It A Skirt

By Joel Reese,Daily Herald Staff Writer

Are men who wear kilts breaking down gender walls, or are they just trying to get comfortable?

Dan Starr motors around St. Charles on a massive Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

He wears a leather jacket and sports a full beard and shoulder-length hair.

To make the package complete, he boasts several tattoos, including three dragons, one snake and the Harley logo.

"Basically, my whole back is covered in ink," Starr says matter-of-factly.

Starr looks 100 percent biker dude - until you spot his pants, or lack thereof.

For the past two years, Starr has been shunning pants in favor of a kilt (which looks remarkably like a skirt - but don't even think of calling it that).

Starr is one of an increasing number of men who are sporting kilts, and he says he wears his for a simple reason: Because it feels good.

"The main thing is, it's so comfortable," insists the 48-year-old Starr, a married man with one daughter. "I'm not on any big crusade here."

Sorry, but that's simply not good enough. There must be more to it.

Some might say, for instance, that a kilt-wearing man - who's not Scottish and who swears he's not fulfilling some repressed desire to dress like a woman - is sticking an emphatic fist in the air for male independence.

"Wearing a kilt is an expression of your freedom," says fellow kilt devotee William Parry of Philadelphia. "If you don't assert your freedom, you don't have any freedom."

Or it might be that a kilt-wearer is making a highly charged political statement about the vast chasm between men and women.

"He might claim that he's not consciously engaging in a political act of gender disruption, but that's exactly what it is," says Kasia Marciniak, assistant professor of English and feminist studies at Ohio University. "Because it disrupts the normative mode of masculinity. It's a very provocative gesture."

Starr simply shakes his head ruefully at these thoughts.

"Can't it just be that the kilt is comfortable?" he asks.

In a word, no.

The few, the proud

Starr has been a kilt disciple for more than a year, purchasing several from the Seattle company, Utilikilt ( Starr now owns four kilts and wears them as often as he can.

"I don't ride a motorcycle while wearing a kilt, for obvious reasons," he says - meaning he might inadvertently answer the oft-asked question about what lurks beneath the kilt (clothing-wise).

So except for when he rides, and on extremely cold days, Starr eschews the pants and goes for the kilt.

"When you think about it, pants are more appropriate for the female body than the male's," he says.

Kilt fanatic Parry echoes the anatomy argument in his online screed, "Bravehearts Against Trouser Tyranny."

A married lawyer with two daughters, the 60-year-old Parry writes that pants "confine, crowd, bind, chafe" and may cause rashes and decrease sperm counts.

The only reason kilts aren't more popular, Parry fumes in a telephone interview, is because "men have such a fragile facade of masculinity. They've gotten this idea that women wear skirts, and so if a man wears anything like a woman he'll be seen as weak. They don't have the courage to be a non-conformist."

But men who wear kilts aren't weak - "they're sexy," says Megan Haas, creative director of the Utilikilt company in Seattle. "What's sexier than a man who has the courage and attitude to truly not care what people think of him?"

Indeed, one local teen discovered that women flocked to him when he showed up in his kilt at a high school dance.

"A lot of the girls liked the kilt more than I thought they would," says Glenn Ricci, 17, of Palatine. "I got a real positive reaction from them."

Ricci says he gets the occasional ribbing from "jocks" and other fellow students when he wears his kilt, which is nearly every day.

"At first, I used to take offense to that," he says. "But their girlfriends actually came up to me and said, 'Don't worry about that. He's just jealous. He told me he liked it, and he didn't have the courage to wear something like that.'"

Ricci's experiences are fairly common, Haas says.

"I've had a lot of customers tell me they got lucky the first time they wore their kilts," Haas says.

And word of the kilt's aphrodisiac-ability is spreading, apparently.

Begun as a tiny lark at a Sunday Seattle street market two years ago, Utilikilt now inhabits a 3,300-square-foot warehouse/factory/store and sells five different models of kilts to customers all over the world.

The company has sold more than 5,000 kilts and sees nothing but upward growth ahead.

"Every month, we just sell more and more and more," says Danielle Villegas, Utilikilt's chief of operations, who adds that business has doubled in each of its first two years.

Kilt buyers include golfers in Milwaukee, firefighters in Vancouver, workers at a tractor factory in Wyoming and bar bouncers all across the country.

Interestingly, the most popular state for Utilikilt? Texas.


"Because in Texas, men are men and they realize kilts are the warrior's garment," Haas says. "They see the kilt and they say, 'That's my thing!' They're all over it."

The 'Braveheart' legacy

The kilts-are-masculine argument got a big boost in 1995, when Mel Gibson's bloody film "Braveheart" about the Scottish battle for freedom hit cineplexes.

"Before, rednecks might have whistled and yelled at me when they saw me," Parry says. "Now, they stick up their thumbs and yell, 'Braveheart!'"

Starr says he hasn't experienced the "Braveheart" legacy, since he's only worn a kilt for a little over a year.

But unlike Parry, Starr doesn't tout the kilt's role in the battle for male autonomy. The kilt is, he emphasizes, solely about comfort - there's no political motivation here.

"I guess I'm too old and too set in my ways to make a political statement," Starr says. "I don't know how me wearing a kilt would affect the school board elections, anyway."

Another kilt devotee says he wears his strictly for practical reasons: "The pockets float away from your body, so the contents don't get crushed," says Drew Dirschell, 30, of San Francisco. "You try carrying keys, wallet, pocket knife, lighter, cigars, a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and a cell phone comfortably in your jeans pocket."

As for blurring the thick line between the sexes, Starr insists the thought never crossed his mind.

"Breaking down gender walls? Give me a break," he says. "Does Sean Connery break down gender walls when he wears a kilt? I don't think so."

Others say wearing the kilt is, by definition, a political act.

"The skirt is culturally encoded as a feminine object," Ohio University's Marciniak says. "To wear this skirt, or kilt, points to the fragility of the boundaries between the realm of masculine and the realm of feminine. This obviously has political overtones - there's no question about it."

Haas, whose company's motto is "We Sell Freedom," agrees. "The kilt is a symbol. It's about comfort, but it's about something else, too. It's about courage, and having the attitude and the confidence to wear it. It's flirting with being socially rebellious."

The kilt is also still somewhat controversial: Last year, a Pennsylvania high school student was suspended for wearing a kilt to his junior prom.

Proud of his Scottish heritage, Matt McCarl, 18, of Stoneboro, Pa., ordered a Utilikilt just for the prom. At the dance, a Lakeview High School chaperone told him he couldn't participate in the Grand March because he wasn't wearing pants.

McCarl took this as an affront: "If I would've backed down, I would've let down all of my ancestors," he says.

So he marched anyway, and promptly received a one-day in-school suspension that would remain on his disciplinary record.

McCarl served his suspension, but the school was soon deluged with letters in his defense. The school eventually agreed to remove the suspension from his record.

"I guess I won, in a way," says McCarl, who wore a kilt to this year's prom.

McCarl says he wears the kilt to school at least once a week, and vouches for its romantic powers: "Oh, it'll get you the ladies," he says assuredly.

The disdain of Trekkies

While Starr insists the kilt is apolitical garb, he's kept a journal to note the more interesting reactions his attire has received.

His entry on Aug 5, 2001, for example, details an amusing interaction with some "Star Trek" aficionados at a sci-fi/comic convention.

At first, the Trekkies heaped praise upon Starr's kilt.

"They were like, 'That is so cool! Where can I get one?'" Starr recalls of his audience, many of whom were dressed like Klingons.

"Then I said, 'It's not a costume. It's what I wear normally.' And I got these really strange looks - and these were Trekkies, no less!"

Starr's diary also details an inadvertent crash-course in male/female relations.

On April 11, 2001, Starr wore the kilt out to lunch with some co-workers. There, a table of nearby women began asking him the age-old question about what he wears beneath his garb.

It was then he realized he was participating in a vicious double-standard.

"It's perfectly OK for a gaggle of women in a bar to speculate about what a guy might or might not be wearing underneath a kilt," he writes. "I suppose that if three guys speculated on what a woman was wearing beneath her dress, the results would be different."

But hold on a second. We know it might be a little salacious, but we can't help but wonder, too. We have to address this "what's under the kilt" issue.

Not to be too crude or anything, but - well, to paraphrase that old Brooke Shields' Calvin Klein ad: Does anything come between you and your kilt?

"Oh, nothing's worn," he says, before launching into a little kilt humor. "It's all in working order."

The Sidebar: How to Pull Off the Kilt Look

As with many clothes, there are a few rules one must observe before donning the kilt.

You've got to be a leg-man: "I won second place at a sexiest legs contest at a bar in Crystal Lake," boasts kilt-wearer Dan Starr of St. Charles.

Others say nice legs aren't that important.

"I don't generally think you need to have good legs," says kilt-wearer William Parry of Philadelphia. "That's an excuse, a cop-out. Men wear shorts regardless of their legs, and nobody cares. If you don't like the looks of your legs, wear some knee socks."

Loafers are a definite 'don't': The right footwear is essential to pulling off the look. If you're going for the full-blown Scottish look, you should go with knee socks and black patent leather shoes.

"The purists insist on polished black shoes with the kilt," J. Charles Thomspon writes in "So You're Going to Wear the Kilt!"

But, Thompson notes, "there is nothing dreadfully wrong with brown shoes or even suede."

If you're not trying to look like Sean Connery, the kilt looks best with heavy boots.

"We definitely promote these heavy, industrial boots - and clogs," Haas says.

Pack a pouch, young man: The true Scotsman look also dictates the appearance of the sporran, a pouch that a man wears on a long strap. Sporrans range from plain leather to hide-bound to those featuring the head of a small animal.

Feel free to bypass this, though - especially the small animal's head.

It's all about attitude: Perhaps most importantly, the kilt requires a certain demeanor. Not arrogance, necessarily - but definitely a self-assured disposition.

"Putting on a kilt requires a combination of legs and attitude," he says. "Some people are going to put this on and just look stupid."

As Haas notes, Utilikilt customers have a common courage.

"They don't have an ounce of trepidation when they buy their kilts," she says. "They could be bikers, they could be businessmen, they could be policemen. They say, 'This is cool, and I want it. I don't care what anybody thinks.' That's what you need to say."

Adds Parry: "It's helpful to be very self-confident. You shouldn't hide or skulk around. There's no reason to feel ashamed."

Under there, under where? Lastly, what to wear underneath the kilt.

Ahhh yes, the eternal debate.

Basically, the answer is, it's up to you.

"That's a personal choice," Haas says. "So people can wear whatever they want."

She adds, however, "We're selling air-conditioning, and the more air-conditioning the better."

(Quoted from the Daily Herald, May 7, 2002)


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