Greet the meat – Johnny Verburg is Mister Bear Belgium

The 12th edition of Belgium Bearpride is done and dusted – bears from around the world came together in Brussels for a celebration of diversity, inclusion, and body positivity.

One of the highlights of the festivities was the election of Mister Bear Belgium 2023.

Seven candidates were competing for the crown, but it was Johnny Verburg who was crowned top bear.

Johnny was born in Rotterdam, grew up in Spain, and now lives in Antwerp. I caught up with Johnny to talk about the title.

Why did you decide to enter the Mr Bear Belgium contest?

In 2018, I participated in Mr Bear Netherlands and came second. I moved to Belgium three years ago.

People have been encouraging me to take part in the Mr Bear Belgium contest – finally, this year, I decided to try one more time.

One of the main reasons I decided to do it was that I was again at a point where I felt insecure about my body. I wanted to convince myself that I really can be myself. That was one of the main things that I felt when competing back in 2018, the feeling that you don’t have to be ashamed about your body – that’s a beautiful thing to feel.

One of the main themes of Mr Bear Belgium is body positivity – what does Body Positivity mean to you?

I’m convinced that ‘body positivity’ is mostly in your head. If you’re comfortable in your head, you can also feel good in your own skin. Of course, speaking from my own experience, that’s easier said than done.

It seems that everyone is always ready with an opinion about your body. The secret is not to listen to them but to just follow your heart.

Everyone is handsome in their own way, and everyone is unique in the world.

How did it feel when you were announced as the winner of Mr Bear Belgium?

It’s indescribable.

I was confident that I could place in the Top 3 – I thought probably I would place third, maybe second. When third place and second place were announced, I just thought that I had failed again and that everyone would laugh at me for not making it into the Top 3. I felt bad for everyone that helped me to take part in the competition.

Then, suddenly, I heard my name being called as the winner, that I was Mr Bear Belgium – I was numb. All the emotions and the stress came out. It was the best feeling ever!

The project that you will be leading will focus on providing information and support to LGBTQ refugees seeking asylum in Belgium – why did you choose this area of work to focus on?

My boyfriend is from Georgia. Since we’ve been together, it’s made me realise that it’s quite difficult to find good information about health care and day-to-day life – particularly for LGBTQ people.

I want to set up a platform that can help everyone access the information they need – it can make a big difference.

What advice or guidance would you give to young gay guys who might be struggling with their body image?

Don’t listen to any negativity from people around you – most are jealous or are very insecure about themselves.

You have to believe that you are handsome. If you love yourself then the world is at your feet.

Find out more about Belgium Bearpride