This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Kim, the host of The Competition. Season two of The Competition will debut on September 2nd. I gave The Competition a 5-star review last year after its season one profile of the Van Cliburn piano competition. It was always crystal clear to me that season two would be about a totally different contest, and I loved that idea; it’s a show that can constantly reinvent itself. Kim and his team, Elyssa Dudley and Cameron Kell, chose Mr. Los Angeles Leather 2018 as the season two competition. Read on for more about this choice and how the show came together for this season.
Audible Feast: First of all, I want to say, the artwork is awesome for season two.
James Kim: Hahaha! Yes – it was definitely a labor of love. My boyfriend is actually a storyboard artist, so he created the art. We were a little bit worried about putting it up, because we weren’t sure if outlets would publish it, because it’s a little bit risqué. In the first episode, we start with the story of this type of art and why it exists.
AF: I love the personal connection. You mention that in the press release about the show, too. What made you want to get more personal in season two?
JK: When I was making the first season, I felt more like a reporter. It was the first time for me as a host, and I didn’t want to become a character in the story. I felt natural as a reporter. But then when I listened to other shows that I loved, there was always a reason for the host being in that particular chair. For example, in the first episode of Bodies, it’s all about the host (Alison Behringer) and that first episode sets up the entire show, giving the listener a personal connection to it, like it matters to the host. So in season two of The Competition, I wanted to insert myself a little more in the story and not be afraid of putting myself in the spotlight.
AF: I think that’s brave! How did you even know about this particular competition?
JK: This was actually not the initial competition we planned on featuring in season two, but we happened to stumble upon this event list of things going on in Los Angeles, and the name of the event caught my attention. The funny thing is, I’ve actually been to one of the leather bars on the day of one of these competitions, but I had no idea it was a thing that other bars do, I thought it was just a one-off fun night. But then I started looking into it more and realized there was a main competition. We knew this was going to be great as a season of The Competition because on the website for Mr. Los Angeles Leather, there’s a bio of every single contestant, who all shared something really compelling about why they were competing. It drew me in immediately and was a perfect fit for our show.
AF: Did you go into recording thinking of any particular angles you might want to share?
JK: Not really – we didn’t have a lot of time to plan, because we only found out at the last minute that we were approved by the organization to cover the event and create a podcast about it, so we just started recording everything when the competition week began. We figured we’d follow a similar format as the first season – and if you think about it, the format is so easy to duplicate; there are contestants to profile, a beginning, a middle, and an end – and a winner – which makes for a great story. We just had to figure out what the middle would be for this story.
AF: How did you pick which contestants to profile?
JK: We decided on four contestants, because more than that just seemed like too many. This season, I have a co-host (Elyssa Dudley) and all the people on the team have full-time jobs, so we’re just trying to figure out how to make this passion project work (as so many podcasters do). So I ended up choosing two contestants I just had a connection with, and Elyssa doesn’t have a car, so she chose the two that were closest to where she lives! All the contestants had great stories though.
AF: What’s different from season one besides the topic?
JK: We were trying to, by design, record as much in real-time as we could, because I was thinking that would be doable and authentic. But it was really hard to keep up with the schedule, and we weren’t really able to think about how to piece the stories of each contestant together to make a bigger story; there was no real storyboarding. So this season, we really wanted to approach this competition in a way that tied all the stories together.
AF: Mr. Los Angeles Leather is so different from a the Van Cliburn competition. What do you think the audience is going to think based on the trailer for and first episode of season two, and what do you want them to take away from the show?
JK: We want the shock value. We went with a sensationalistic approach in the first episode, and want people clutching their pearls – we want to push the boundaries. The subject is attention-grabbing, and we want to lean into that. But in the whole season, you’ll see that the goal is truly to find out who these people are. Anyone who competes in Mr. Los Angeles Leather or in the Van Cliburn contest is so dimensional and has fascinating reasons why they feel passionate about what they do. The episodes in the middle where we get to know the contestants are standalone storytelling pieces of their own, similar to Strangers or Love + Radio. We want to show these people in a way they’ve never been seen before and pull back the curtain on a community that isn’t talked about very much. We really want to highlight something that we feel needs a voice.
AF: I love that, because in any community, no matter how niche some people think it is from the outside, there is a wide spectrum of people who make it up.
JK: I was personally always categorized as “Asian,” and coming out as queer, I faced a lot of stereotypes or preset notions about who I was, so that’s something that drives me now, to help tell stories from people that get labels attached to them that minimize the depth of who they are. You can’t define a community by attributes.
AF: What can we look forward to in the future for The Competition?
JK: Every season is an opportunity to tell a brand new story, with a familiar format for the listener. We have some pretty out-there ideas for future seasons – unfortunately for now we have to stick close to home and can’t travel a lot to record (that day job thing again) but we have some really fun ideas. This is truly a creative outlet for all of us. We love having a passion project and want to put our all into it, so we will put a lot of thought into whatever competitions we decide to profile in the future.
AF: What podcasts have you been listening to lately that you would recommend to listeners?
JK: Bodies, Everything is Alive, and The Big Loop – all terrific storytelling with great hosts. Check them all out!
Thanks to James Kim for this interview. The Competition, season two, debuts this Sunday, September 2nd. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts, and can follow the show on Twitter at @competitionpod.