Back in 2012, North American Bear (NAB) Weekend in Lexington, Kentucky was a new event with approximately 100 attendees. The word spread faster than a mama bear rushing to protect her cubs. In the last six years, the annual fur-fest, brought to us by the Kentucky Bourbon Bears, has become one of the biggest and most anticipated Bear events in the world, now requiring two hotels and topping (ahem…) 1000 attendees.
In 2018, the theme was “Circus Ursus”, and the wild and woofy weekend welcomed hundreds of bears, cubs, otters, pups, leathermen, chubs, musclebears, and everything in between– plus their many admirers. Kicking off with the “Bearded Beauties Show”, the event featured costume dance parties, the famous vendor mart, educational seminars, speed dating, late night munchies, MANY cocktail parties, and an encore performance by compact comic Leslie Jordan, who had performed at NAB Weekend in 2017. The event climaxed with the “Socks & Jocks Party” on Saturday night, which pretty much says it all in its name. Many attendees took the circus theme very seriously. Friday night’s costume party had enough sexy clowns in skimpy costumes to cure anyone’s coulrophobia. There were also magic acts, snake charmers, sword-swallowers, jugglers, contortionists, ringmasters, and more (albeit behind closed doors…!)
The weekened also included the Mr. North American Bear Contest, where five guys would be awarded the envied Titles of Mr. North American Bear, Mr. North American Cub, Mr. North American Daddy Bear, Mr. North American Muscle Bear, and Mr. North American Bear Admirer. This year,the Title of Mr. North American Bear 2018 went to 32-year old Kenny “Panda” Keawekane, whose previous title includes Mr. Bear Bust 2018. Panda was Born in Hawaii, raised in Pennsylvania, and now lives in Tennessee with his partner Jesse, True to his name, he has always had an affinity for panda bears (Who doesn’t?), as evidenced by his large collection of “panda-phernalia”. Panda tells me that his nickname came about when some guy simply started calling him “Panda”. Today, he can’t remember just who that guy was… but since then, he started doing shows at gay clubs under the name “Panda”, and it stuck.
Kenny “Panda” Keawekane spoke with me about winning the title, his love of dance, his plans for the year, and much more:
JR: Hello, Panda! Congratulations on winning the Title of Mr. North American Bear 2018.
PK: Thank you!
JR: So, this year’s Mr. North American Bear contest broke new records in terms of Contestants: seventeen guys. Wow! All the Contestants I met that weekend were amazing and unique in their own way, but only five were destined go home with a Title. With all those guys in competition, what was the atmosphere like?
PK: It was pretty crazy. It was just very hectic. There wasn’t very much time for us to really bond or anything like that. But we got to meet each other, and there were lots and lots of funny moments that we all had together. There were a lot of great guys who competed this year– guys who have done a lot for the community. For me personally, it was kind of intimidating with some of the people I was competing against. I was really going for Mr. North American Bear Admirer. To be honest, I really didn’t expect to win Mr. North American Bear. I compared myself to some of the guys who were competing this year– with their level of talent, and experience, and charity work. It was a pretty intense competition. I mean, everyone loves each other, but you kind of felt that some people were like, “Oh, man! This guy’s really good at this, and this guy’s really good at that…” So, there was a lot of “summing up” each other… but of course, there were a lot of great moments of fellowship. For me, personally, I was just very busy. I’m a social butterfly, but I kind of get “stuck in my head” a little bit. I’m kind of introverted sometimes. I was either trying to focus or trying to fight off nerves! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Trust me, I get it! So… let’s start at the beginning! You are Hawaiian, correct?
PK: Yes. I was born in Maui. I lived there for a few years. My parents got divorced, and my mom moved to Pennsylvania. I lived in Pennsylvania for most of my life until I was 21 or 23–somewhere in there– and then I moved to Tennessee. I’ve been there since then.
JR: A lot of people have all these romantic ideas about what Hawaii is like.
PK: It’s everything like that! It’s really beautiful there. The sunrise, the sunset… The weather is wonderful. The natives are very nice. To be honest, and I’m not trying to put my people back or anything like that, but Hawaii does unfortunately deal with racism. Some native Hawaiians are kind of mad about how they’re no longer in charge of their land, and some of them are kind of like, “These white people!” and this and that, and it kind of sucks that it’s like that. I wish it weren’t. There are some Hawaiians who don’t really like foreigners on Hawaiian land, and it’s very unfortunate, because Hawaii is a wonderful place. I feel like everyone should experience Hawaii at least once in their life if they can.
JR: I know. I’m still waiting to do that! It’s on my list. (Laughs)
PK: It’s expensive there. Everything is imported. A lot of things are hard to get. If they have a bad hurricane season, sometimes they will run out of stuff, because they have to get everything shipped in. That doesn’t happen all the time, but it has happened in the past..
JR: What was it like to move from a place like Hawaii to Pennsylvania?
PK: To be honest, I don’t remember much about it. I do know that it was a lot to get used to because of the cold. But to me, there are a lot more things to do on the mainland than there is in Hawaii. There’s a lot more opportunity. Also, it’s most definitely different living as a native of Hawaii rather than as a tourist of Hawaii!
JR: No doubt!
PK: I did enjoy Pennsylvania. I had lived there most of my life. But moving from Pennsylvania to the South was a big change for me. I was pretty much coming out as I was getting ready to move from Pennsylvania, and then moving down to the South was different. They are not very accepting of gay people down here. They are also at times not very accepting of people of color. I have always been mistaken here as a Mexican. A Latino will come up to me and speak Spanish, and I will say, “I don’t speak Spanish. I speak English.” It’s kind of rough. As far as the gay community down here, it’s is different. I think it is harder for people in the South to be out and to be proud about it.
JR: That sucks. It’s a shame that after all these decades, we still can’t be over all that prejudice… So, at North American Bear Weekend I also met your other half, Jesse. Are you two married?
PK: No, we’re not married yet! He’s my partner. We’ve been going on four years.
PK: Thank you.
JR: How does he feel about your winning Mr. North American Bear… and all the new attention that comes along with it?
PK: It’s been pretty crazy. Ever since North American Bear Weekend, people have been hitting both of us up. It’s kind of been a roller coaster ride. The first couple of weeks, we were processing things, and I was like, “I can’t believe I actually won!”– and now there was an opportunity to do this and to do that… I don’t know. Jess, how do you feel about that?
Jesse: I’m really excited. I think this is a great opportunity for him. I think that this is a great platform for us to go around and see what we can do to help our community. It’s a great way to reach people, and to spread a message of love and positivity, and to share that love with everyone else. I’m really excited to meet new people and to see where this takes us.
JR: That’s great to hear!
PK: This was our fourth year going to Mr. North American Bear Weekend. It just keeps getting better and better every time we go. Jesse and I are most definitely all about the theme parties. We love to do costumes and get dressed up and have fun with people. North American Bear has been wonderful. It’s been our favorite Bear run. We always plan our vacation around it.
JR: I agree, it’s always an amazing weekend. So, when did you first start to identify yourself as a Bear?
PK: When I was younger, I was always attracted to beary guys. I had no clue where that came from. I was attracted to Sean Astin and John Goodman. I always thought I was weird growing up. I thought, “I like guys, but I only like bigger guys.” It didn’t make sense to me. And then I found Bear 411, and once I found it, it was totally making sense to me. I was like, “This is where I belong!” I came out at 22 or 23, and then years later I found the Bear community. I moved down to Tennessee and I had the opportunity to either go visit the Lookout Bears in Chattanooga, or to go see a trick. Of course, I went to go see the trick instead…
PK: But I ended up finding the Lookout Bears, and I was a member a few years ago. Once I was in that group, and hanging out, and going to events, and going out to eat and stuff like that, it was like church: people trying to find a place where they belong, and worship the same thing, and singing praises, and “blah, blah, blah” and that kind of stuff. That’s what the Bear community was for me. My mindset didn’t really change in that I didn’t ever really consider myself a Bear… only because I was always small. I played a lot of sports. I ran and I danced, stuff like that. It didn’t hit me that I was a Bear until I met my father for the first time in Hawaii. My biological father was not around while I was growing up. He stopped calling after I was 10, and I think that was because of problems with my mother, his ex-wife. Growing up, I had seen pictures of him. He was smaller like me. We looked exactly alike. After I turned 18, I decided I wanted to find him. I didn’t get to go see him until I was 27 or 28. And then I saw him later on, and he was now a bigger guy. He was short and stout and thick like a Bear, and I was like, “Oh My God, this is what I have to look forward to! I’m so f***ing excited about my life. I actually get to be a Bear when I grow up!” It wasn’t until then that I realized that I am eventually going to be a Bear, but I know that the Bear community is where I’m at and where I need to be. I just knew that I was a Bear when that happened.
JR: Nice! So, when you first became involved with the Bear world, did you have a role model or someone who inspired you?
PK: Yes. Chuck Hill and Mario Forte. They are a couple in Chattanooga who continuously do stuff for the community. They started the Lookout Bears. They also started TVP: Tennessee Valley Pride, an organization to help LGBT’s get together. They’ve always done so much for the community and they’ve always been so welcoming and inclusive. Mario is on the Southeast Tennessee Council for HIV/AIDS Care and Prevention. Chuck and Mario are always so willing to help people, and to make sure people are loved and that they have what they need. It was being around them and seeing the work that they did in bringing people together that made them role models for me. When we go out I always call them “my Dads”. I don’t know if they think that! (laughs) Mario actually came to North American Bear this past year. He taught a seminar about PreP. He was giving information about how to get on PreP if you don’t have insurance, and easy ways to pay for it and stuff like that. I asked him if he wanted to do it, because North American Bear Weekend was doing a lot of workshops for different things, like BDSM and puppy play. I thought they might like a seminar on PreP. Mario was willing to do it, so I connected him and Adam Rodriguez-Routt together. They set it up, and it was a great response. He was busy all day long helping people. He said that the best thing about the event was that at least 50 percent of the guys who came were already on PreP… so that means that a lot of the people at North American Bear Weekend were doing healthier sex practices. That’s really good to know. So, Chuck Hill and Mario Forte are my Bear role models who I really care about. As far as the LGBT community as a whole, I love all the Bear dancers in the world: Tony Cocuzzi, Thomas Hannivan, Jeremy Morse… There are so many of them. I’m a dancer. The lifespan for a dancer is normally up until 21, or 22, or 23. I’m 32 years old. I know that I’ve kind of surpassed my “excellent years” insofar as being picked for a Missy Elliot video, or this video or that video, because I’m not “ripped” or whatever… and that’s not really what I want to be. There’s another dance crew called Heavy Impact, and they were on America’s Best Dance Crew… They were all Bear guys, and I think that the majority of them were gay. I’m not quite sure. There might have been one or two who weren’t! I saw them growing up. Bear dancers have always influenced me to be OK with not having a dancer’s body. Looking at my life later down the road, I just know that I’m probably able to become like Jeremy Morse and become a Bear dancer. That’s really what I’m striving for: to be a Bear performer.
JR: Nice! So, what do you and Jesse like to do in your spare time?
RK: Jesse loves to crochet, and he’s been trying to teach me… but I don’t have much of a penchant for it, to be honest! I love to dance. Dancing is what I do on the side. I had a show every week for the past three weeks. I have a break next week. I’m hoping to go to Florida the following week to arrange a photo shoot for Tidal Wave. And then the weekend after that, I have a show as well. I teach show choir, and I teach at a couple of different dance studios. I have five dance pieces at one studio, and two at another… and my show choir kids put on a full show. We’re doing a TV appearance, so we’re doing all the opening numbers for different shows. This is my show season! It’s really hectic with rehearsals all the time, and preparing for shows and then actually doing them… and making it to Bear events in between everything! But dance is really my life. Jess and I love to craft together. We love to craft costumes and costume pieces for Bear events. We most definitely love to watch TV. TV was never really my thing growing up, because I was very active, but I’ve learned over the last couple of years. I do enjoy laying around catching up on a series. We like hiking, and bowling, and movies– all the normal stuff. We love festivals. We go to Bonnaroo, a music festival in Tennessee, every year. We stay really busy. Sometimes we are in Nashville and Chattanooga in the same weekend– and they are about two hours away from each other. I drive a lot! We live crazy lives.
JR: With your new Title, it’s guaranteed to get even crazier– but in a good way!. So, where can people expect to see you this year?
PK: Bears, Bikers and Mayhem in Pennsylvania in April, Bear Mayhem in Georgia in May, Tidal Wave in Florida in June, World Bear Weekend in Lexington in August… There are more, I just can’t remember them all at the moment! And of course, Bear Bust in Florida in October! That’s what we have so far! We’re still trying to figure everything out– to get all our ducks in a row.
JR: That’s quite an itinerary! Thanks for speaking with me, Panda. See you at the next Bear run!
The next North American Bear Weekend will be February 14-17, 2019 in Lexington, Kentucky and the theme is “BEARMANJI”. Visit www.NABWeekend.com for more information.
(All photos by Jed Ryan or courtesy of Panda Keawekane. This article originally appeared in Bear World Magazine in March 2018.)