DANNY Payne may have lost out on a Mr Gay Ireland title when the 2017 competition was held in Cork recently, but he’s determined to use the rest of his year as Mr Gay Cork fighting for mental health awareness in his home county.
The 26-year-old Zumba fitness instructor from Crookstown lost out on the national title to Stephen Lehane from Dublin, but the fund-raising he did for suicide charity Pieta House in the lead-up to the competition opened his eyes to the need for additional resources for mental health services in Cork.
“I want to use it as a platform,” he says. “Mental health services are under a lot of strain in this country. I do think there’s a big mental health epidemic in Ireland and Cork is a black spot. Teenagers aged 13-14 are really struggling, and I want to stand up for them and help make changes in that regard.”
Danny raised more than €7,000 for Pieta House with a “Strictly Come Dancing” charity event, and plans on more fundraising, as well as community outreach.
“I’ve been going into schools, to Transition Years and upwards, and giving talks on anti-bullying and mental health, and talking to LGBT students who may be struggling.
“We had a meeting with Pieta House and they told us that the oldest person using their services was 85 and the youngest was six, which absolutely shocked me. They told us that the €7,000 we raised helped seven people. They were thrilled with it, but I was taken aback. It made me really want to do more.
“The amount of work that they do behind the scenes with no praise is outstanding. I really got an insight into what they do and my passion for that area just grew from there.”
The Mr Gay Cork competition was held in July 2016, and Danny was something of a reluctant participant; he was talked into it by fellow Cork man, Konrad Im, who held the Mr Gay Ireland title last year.
“I was always suggesting changes to Konrad for how the event should be, and he said, ‘instead of asking, you should just put your name down and do it,’ so I did.”
It was in honour of Konrad Im’s HIV awareness-raising work that the Mr Gay Ireland competition was held in Cork for the first time this year, in Chambers bar and nightclub.
The evening’s event saw eight finalists, including Danny, compete in a formal wear round, a casual wear round, and a swimwear round that Danny describes as “very scary”.
“It was an incredible experience; very well-organised,” he says.
“I was in the competition with a great bunch of guys. There was a lot more to it than what people saw on the night, though. We were in there from midday.
“We had to do a team-building exercise and a HIV awareness seminar, and we also were interviewed by two different panels of judges.”
Although Danny didn’t take the title, he was awarded the “Mr Congeniality” prize on the night.
Now, he’s keen to use the rest of his year as Mr Gay Cork to continue to spread a message of positivity and hope, especially to LGBT teens. As a young man, he says that coming out in a small town was difficult, but physical exercise has been part of the key to his resilience and he wants to spread that message too, and “inject positivity” into the lives of those around him.
“I want to go to students and say, look, I’m the same as you,” he says. “I’ve had a hard time, but I didn’t let myself get sick or get bogged down. I always say to LGBT people that it’s easy to get bogged down with bullying and stuff like that, but sometimes we can be our own biggest bully. That’s what happens to a lot of teenagers, and that’s what I want to erase if possible.”
Although Danny now runs his Zumba fitness business full-time, while living at home with his parents in Crookstown, he plans to study criminology at UCC in the future.
With all his plans and his busy working life, has Mr Congeniality found time to date recently? His role as Mr Gay Cork must have made him quite the catch — has he been inundated with offers? He laughs. “Not as much as you’d think!” he says. “I’m going to try to stay single if I can for the next year or two; I’m not out there looking. I’ll see what happens after that. All my friends are shocked by that; they say, ‘you’re not even looking?’ But when you’re gay, it’s very common that as soon as your straight friends meet another gay man, they automatically try to set you up. I think they think that there’s only you and this other gay person in the whole world.”
Anyone affected by the topics raised in this article, or who is otherwise in need of support, is urged to contact Pieta House on 1800-247247 or The Samaritans on its Freephone number 116 123, text The Samaritans on 087-2609090.