Soon, five men will prepare to strut their stuff to the raucous cheers of community members gathered to watch the male pageant that’s the stuff of South Whidbey lore.
After a three-year drought, the contest to see who will be crowned the next Mr. South Whidbey returns to Freeland Hall on Oct. 1.
The event is a major fundraiser for Friends of Friends Medical Support Fund, a homegrown nonprofit organization founded by the late Langley resident Lynn Willeford in 1997. To date, Friends of Friends has dispersed over $1.6 million in funding to cover the medical expenses of those in the community who need it most.
Kristi Price, the president of the organization’s board of directors, said these funds have helped nearly 200 South Whidbey residents with their medical bills. The organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
As usual, people use their dollars to vote for their favorite Mr. South Whidbey contestants, who are nominated by past contestants, community members and Friends of Friends board members.
“Every vote has always been a dollar,” Price said. “We didn’t raise that cost for inflation.”
The men begin the night by entering the venue dressed in what says “Mr. South Whidbey” to them, followed by a question-and-answer period. Finally, they present their special talent to the audience. Whoever earns the most votes will be crowned Mr. South Whidbey 2022 by current reigning champion Jasper Hein, who won last year in a virtual pageant.
Campaigning before the main event is entirely optional and something many contestants have chosen to take advantage of, with some beginning to ask for votes as early as July, Price said.
This year’s crop of contestants were all born in different decades and come from varied backgrounds. But above all, they share a love for South Whidbey.
At 31, Clinton resident Ansel Santosa is the youngest contestant competing.
“It’s very fun,” he said. “I’m a little nervous for the actual event on Oct. 1. The stage is not where I’m most comfortable, but it’s a fun, campy, very Whidbey thing.”
Ansel and his wife, Sarah, are relative newcomers to the island. Together they own and run a farm sanctuary, which a growing number of rescued animals call home. Santosa is also a software engineer for a tech company that makes robots which zap weeds with lasers.
“I didn’t have an affinity for farming when I moved to Whidbey,” he said. “I have since developed an affinity for farming.”
For his special talent, he plans to do a dance with his 3-year-old daughter Gwen and long-eared billy goat Peter.
“Being crushed by unexpected medical bills is unfortunately kind of a common story in the U.S., particularly in the last couple of years with the pandemic,” Santosa said. “I feel it’s more important than ever and there’s more threats to people’s health than ever.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Steve Strehlau is just shy of turning 76.
The father, grandfather and great-grandfather has long been a supporter of Friends of Friends and has known many Mr. South Whidbey contestants over the years.
“I like the organization and the whole principle behind it,” he said. “It’s good for community-building and everything.”
A managing broker for Windermere Real Estate, Strehlau lives in the Bayview area with his wife, three dogs and a couple of goats. He stayed mum about his special talent, only saying that it involves music and an act.
“I think you’re always a little nervous,” he said. “If you’re not, there’s something wrong with you.”
Clinton resident John LaVassar, 61, decided this year was finally the year to be a Mr. South Whidbey contestant. In the past, he was hesitant to accept the honor when it was offered.
“It’s a good cause and I couldn’t turn it down a second time,” he said.
Though currently a fifth grade science and PE teacher at South Whidbey Elementary School, LaVassar also previously taught driver’s ed for 20 years. He’ll be bringing to the stage some comedy in the form of a skit involving this job, which he refers to as his second career. His many siblings are looking forward to cheering him on at the pageant.
“I was kidding around and said it was on my bucket list,” he said of the contest.
Dishwasher and prep cook Tony Wright, 33, is another contestant who was also a bit hesitant at the start. He plans to read some poetry he wrote during the talent section of the evening.
“I’m not much of an extrovert, so this has kind of been a process,” he said.
The Langley resident is a 2009 graduate of the Bayview School, where he joined the “prestigious ranks” of the Bayview super seniors. The alternative high school closed in 2012. He’s been raising funds through Prima Bistro and Saltwater Fish House and Oyster Bar, where he works.
Wright, like the others, acknowledged the importance of having an organization such as Friends of Friends.
“Especially in our community, you have a lot of people who are working service industry jobs and maybe aren’t making a whole lot of money or only qualify for super basic health care,” he said. “Things happen and suddenly you’re hit with a hospital bill and now you’re in debt for three years. Knowing that there’s an organization that can help you out, it’s definitely comforting.”
Freeland resident Erick Westphal, 64, is also competing this year. A school bus driver, Westphal has been involved with the Whidbey Children’s Theater, the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts and South Whidbey Fire/EMS. Together with his wife, Sue Averett, he created a photo book titled “Whidbey Magic.”
Pageant tickets are $40 each this year. The purchase includes light fare and entertainment. Beer, wine and soda will be available for additional purchase. Price said only about 100 seats are available this year, and the event usually sells out before the big day.
On Oct. 1, doors open at 6:30 p.m. in Freeland Hall and the show begins at 7 p.m. Masks are optional and parking is free.