On an average day, an ordinary man begins the process of transforming himself into something spectacular. He strips off his clothes and, with the assistance of a generous helping of talcum powder, he steps into a shiny, black, skin-tight latex suit. After polishing the suit, he dons a pair of imposing, black rubber boots, and finishes the look off with an anonymising rubber hood. He has become The Gimp Man of Essex.
Although his attire would be bang on trend at a fetish party, The Gimp Man walks the high streets of the cities and towns of Essex, interacting with people, chatting and answering questions. He’s engaging in a novel kind of fundraising for Mind, the mental health charity, that harnesses the power of social media: for every picture that passers-by take and send in to his Facebook page, he donates a pound to Mind. So far, with a combination of photo donations and fan contributions from his JustGiving page, The Gimp Man has raised over £1,400 for the Colchester branch of the charity.
His fans – who have captured the videos and photos on The Gimp Man’s page – offer a variety of public impressions; some photographers snap shyly, as if they’ve found a celebrity among a sea of people, and some take gleeful selfies with an up-close, over-the-shoulder Gimp. All are delighted to have found him, a real-life urban legend. He will dance, pose or give a cheerful greeting; there is nothing of the stereotype of the furtive fetishist about him. He is sensitive to the reactions of passers-by, interacting only with those who seem interested, and takes care to go out only during term time weekdays, in order to avoid families and children. “You can tell five or six meters away that someone isn’t comfortable so I will actually walk away from them…Then you see people who really want to ask you what you’re doing, but they’re too shy, so I’ll say, ‘Hi,’ or ‘Good afternoon’…I like people to come to me and draw their own conclusions after they’ve spoken to me,” he says.
In wearing his rubber suit and mask in public, The Gimp Man is not partaking in a sexual act, but an aesthetic one. To an enthusiast, the wearing of rubber and latex clothing is a sensual delight. Its look is unmistakable and eye catching, and the sheer, skin tight material allows an all-over sensitivity; many fans of rubber and latex attire enjoy wearing it outdoors and staging photo shoots. “I’ve always been a bit of a mad person, would do anything for a bet…I had this overwhelming desire to do it,” he says.
“I had wanted some photographs done in my suit outdoors…I found out about a guy who had been spotted a couple of times, out in his gear. When I looked into it, it turns out there’s nothing illegal about it – and then the more I thought about it, you’d see more [revealing attire] from a cyclist, that goes out in their Lycra,” he says. The hood gave The Gimp Man pause, but discretion dictated that he wouldn’t go out without one; “It’s just common sense, you don’t want to walk into a bank with it,” he says.
After a few weeks working up the nerve, one day The Gimp Man donned his suit, drove to the town centre, parked, and emerged for the first time. “When I went out, it shocked me how good the reception was,” he says. He searched on Facebook after his first appearances, and saw a few people talking about him and sharing photographs, which is when a photographer friend came up with the charity idea, and suggested Mind. “Years ago I did suffer a bout of depression, and when I went away and had a good read up on Mind, I thought, what a great charity…I probably give a few hundred quid a year to people doing charity runs, marathons, bike rides, so I thought, why don’t I go out, and rather than sponsor these people, I’ll do it myself,” he says.
Every time The Gimp Man goes out, a few more pictures appear on his Facebook page, and fans are always thinking of new fundraising ideas. One woman had caught wind of a surprise party planned for her birthday; she turned the tables on her friends by booking The Gimp Man as her surprise date, with a £50 donation to the charity. Attention, and donations, have increased with a recent spate of media coverage, led by the BBC. “I’ve had a lot of private messages from people who are saying ‘I’ve used Mind, they’re a fantastic charity,’ and donating a few pounds,” he says.
Colchester Mind has been glad to receive the benefit of The Gimp Man’s campaign. “We don’t really know a great deal about him, we don’t know who he is,” says director James McQuiggan. “Of course we’re really thankful for what he’s doing, he’s reducing some of the stigmas associated with mental health, and raising our profile as well,” he says.
In regular life, The Gimp Man is married and works a busy job. Although his wife supports his love of rubber, and humours him wearing it around the house, she is not yet aware of his charity campaign. Perhaps, though, the separateness of the character of The Gimp Man enables its creator the release of becoming someone else. “It’s a fairly different persona to me in my everyday life; I don’t crave attention; I’ve never had an inkling to want to be famous…Spiderman is Peter Parker, when he gets his costume off he writes for a newspaper,” he says. His growing legion of fans may agree. In a recent exchange on his page, The Gimp Man wondered what fundraising target might encourage him to remove his mask. A lively debate followed, and the majority of his fans agree; they hope that he always remains masked.
When the donations started adding up, The Gimp Man got the idea to bring his donations to the Colchester Mind office in person. “The first few times I donated online, anonymously. Then I rang Mind, and said, ‘I’m The Gimp Man of Essex,’, and they said, ‘We’ve heard of you,’” he says. When he asked if he could bring in the donations in costume, they gladly agreed; so far, he’s come in twice with donations, and had photographs taken for his page. In their ordinary gratitude for a donation from an extraordinary source, Mind is helping to bring forward social attitudes about kink. And even if his identity remains unknown, The Gimp Man’s outings, and his campaign, do more than raise money for charity. In his own way, he is combating stereotypes, and making space in public life for anyone who is a little bit different.