In Portland, Oregon’s historic Crystal Ballroom, the house lights dim, ambient music fades, and the roar of conversing voices coalesce into a delighted hum of anticipation. Beer sloshes from plastic cups onto shirts and shoes as the crowd surges forward, and the warm footlights glow up onto hirsute men who begin to strut across the stage, flaunting follicles Melvillian to near-monstrous in size and style. Their aesthetics range from gutter punk to American Gothic. They are young and old, slim and stocky, foreign and local, from every vocation, class, ethnicity, and sexual identity. What these men all share: facial hair worthy of competition.
This is people-watching at its prime. Many patrons sport sculpted facial fur. Some also swagger in fanciful outfits which compliment their bearded bounty. Bowler-derby hats, ascots, and canes abound among the multi-generational crowd, along with lederhosen and German bar-maid dresses, leather pants, lots of tattoos, pea-coats and Greek fishermen caps, and top-hats. Some cephalopod-like mustaches seem to wriggle forth on their owners’ faces, curling tentacles of hair defy gravity. There is at least one Abraham Lincoln. A man in his late thirties is dressed like a garden gnome, with a very tall red conical hat and a flowing blue blouse. His long reddish beard comes to a gnomish point somewhere around his xiphoid process. One young man rocks a WWII-era officer’s dress uniform, while his companion wears a full Scotsman’s outfit complete with a peaked cap and kilt, complimented by his full rusty-brown mustache and van dyke. Their chins raise and their chests balloon when I ask if I can take their picture.
While my own facial crop is far from contest-worthy, I jump at the chance to attend such a bountiful celebration of the man-flag. As a transman, the ability to finally grow facial hair was an enormous milestone in my journey to male. It took years of hormone therapy, but now I can grow a beard or mustache that exceeds that of a teenager. I go to learn — like many trans people, I’m a perpetual student of gender —to see what I might divine about maleness and masculinity. I go as a spy, undetectable as anyone other than a man who’s always had the promise of facial hair on his horizon.
I grasp my own plastic cup of bland beer, and make my way toward the stage through the throng of attendees at the first annual West Coast Beard and Mustache Championships. I attend by myself, and unburdened by idle chit-chat or the impatience of others, I am free to explore. I’m on my own private anthropological investigation.
Competitors from Austin, Texas unfurl a large Lone Star state flag from the balcony and pump their fists into the air like 60s radicals, to which some in the audience hoot and yee-haw in return. Their massive mustaches and beards bloom from beneath well-worn cowboy hats, as if supporting the innate Texan belief that everything is bigger in Texas. Finally the judges take their seats at a table festooned with a hand-painted banner for the Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective, whose logo depicts a beaver wearing a handlebar mustache standing atop a stump. The judge wearing a white polo shirt and ballcap is Phil Olsen, president of Beard Team USA. He strokes his stately full and rounded beard with a soft brush as he contemplates the line-up. It is time for round one: Natural Mustache.
Phil Olsen started in Bearding while traveling in Ystad, Sweden in 1999. It was a coincidence that he happened upon the World Beard and Mustache Championships, hosted by the Svenska Mustaschklubben —The Swedish Mustache Club.
“I had a substantial beard at the time and fit in really well,” says Phil, whose dark, rounded beard and gruff demeanor belie a surprisingly eloquent and musical voice — he could be a radio announcer or a voice-over actor. Phil is the founder of Beard Team USA, the acting president, a frequent competition judge, and the visionary who introduced the sport of Bearding to the United States.
“I take full credit for the trend,” says Phil. “The people who know me recognize what I’ve done for the sport. People close to me know how hard I’ve worked.”
“America was underrepresented,” he says of the 1999 Worlds. “Most of the competitors were Germans. I speak German and they thought it was pretty cool.” In 2001 The Association of German Beard Clubs asked Phil to organize in the United States. He started Beard Team USA in 2003 at the Worlds in Carson City, California. The recent surge of interest in facial hair is “difficult to explain — [Bearding] is a natural thing.” Phil pauses. “Being clean-shaven is unnatural. Shaving is altering your appearance, removing a masculine characteristic. Shaving is for men who want to look like women.”
This doesn’t bode well for men who, due to genetics or heredity, can’t grow much of a beard, but Phil sees that as just their natural state. “They can save it or shave it. I would admire those who save it, but I would understand those who shave it thinking it doesn’t look good,” he elaborates. For those whose profession requires them to be clean-shaven, he says “I feel sorry for these guys. The requirements are irrational, but that is the fault of those adopting the requirements, not those who must comply with them.” Pity a man who suffers from pogonophobia. It’s not that a lack of facial hair makes a man less of a man, rather, Phil is advocating for men to celebrate this aspect of masculinity if they so choose. “Men who want to have beards should have beards. Men who want to look like women should look like women. I believe most men want to have beards. Too many of them shave because they think someone else wants them to.” Despite his sometimes provocative pro-beard quips, Phil’s stance on gender might not be so black and white. He doesn’t think that women who can grow a natural beard are trying to look like men, he thinks they are trying to look more like themselves. “Since such women are a very small minority of women, it takes a lot of courage to let their beards grow. I would not criticize them for shaving it in order to avoid being a curiosity.” Phil is adamant to make everyone feel that they are welcomed in the sport, whatever their facial hair ability or proclivity.
As for what inspired him to grow a beard, Phil says “I didn’t ‘grow’ a beard, it just grew. I am not sure — is it evolution or creation?” Phil values individuality. He says that people should be themselves. A semi-retired lawyer, Phil says that having a large, full beard hasn’t affected his work. He gets exclusively positive comments on his beard. “I am very fastidious in maintaining it — it adds to my professionalism.” Part of the mission of Beard Team USA is advocacy. He says that some believe having heavy facial hair is akin to uncleanliness, like not showering or brushing your teeth.
“I am breaking prejudice by showing that a beard can compliment a person’s appearance.” The mission statement on his website declares that “BTUSA opposes discrimination against the bearded, mustached, sideburned, and goateed.” Phil has, on several occasions, written letters to various organizations requesting that they permit an employee to have a beard.
Some employers have a strict dress code which precludes beards, others try to enforce a “look policy.” For many employees whose workplaces fall under the at-will employment doctrine, there is little protection from being fired if having facial hair violates the dress code, unless the firing can be demonstrated to violate religious freedoms, anti-discrimination laws, or medical exceptions.
“We oppose discrimination in any form, and are open to fighting it. But the more effective strategy is to set an example. Beards are [becoming] more accepted. I don’t feel out of place in a courtroom because I have a beard.”
To date, there have been three beard competitions in Portland. The first one was in September 2010, an outdoor event at The Pirate Festival. Phil Olsen was a judge at that one, too.
“It poured rain most of the time but nobody seemed to notice but me,” says the Tahoe City, California resident. He sees Portland as a great city for beards, but is quick to add “You could talk to lots of people and they would say their city is a great place for beards. Beards are growing everywhere.”
Phil is not sure which chapter of Beard Team USA is the largest. The Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective is very active, so is the Charleston, South Carolina group, which is hosting a competition soon. The Los Angeles chapter will also be sponsoring a competition in a couple of months.
“I made an effort for [Beard Team USA] to not be like the Rotary Club. There are no rules, no dues, no secret handshake. [The goal is] to have fun, and spread Bearding.”
The Beard Team USA website states that:
Membership in America’s team is open to everyone. There are no annoying applications, dues, membership requirements, or gender tests. Unlike some sporting organizations, Beard Team USA encourages the use of performance enhancing substances.
“It’s [also] a family thing.” Phil sees the family-friendly atmosphere as part of the inclusive nature of the sport. “In Portland there were lots of families, people brought their kids.”
“Everyone has a great time,” explains Phil. “It’s universal — the camaraderie is what the events are for — everyone agrees. People from different walks of life find friendship through an odd interest. In Sweden, I saw that it brings people together. I encourage people of different ages, locations, countries, religions, languages, racial backgrounds to get involved — I want everyone to feel included. The competition should be playful. It’s all in fun, but it’s not a joke.”
When I was a little kid I’d lather Barbasol thick as cake frosting on my face. It was easy to imagine my beard beneath the white shaving cream shadow on my reflected visage. I’d slap my cheeks loudly with my father’s aftershave, breathing in the wonderful stink of musky lime – Hai Karate! The alcohol was cool then dried with a sting. My father had shaved off his beard before leaving for his two-week summer Army drills, and I freaked. Who was that man, standing at my father’s sink? One of our neighbors across the street was a long-haul truck driver like my grandfather. But my grandfather had been a Marine in the Pacific Theater, he was clean-cut and trim with neatly Brylcreemed hair. I would go talk to shaggy-haired Mr. Stoddard, fascinated by the blue thick outline of a naked lady tattooed on his leathery-brown forearm, obsessed with his long Frank Zappa mustache. I always knew I’d grow up to have facial hair –—somehow.
During the third round of the WCBMC, Full Natural Beard with Styled Mustache, a woman in the audience declares: “It’s like a man pageant.” The WCBMC contestants are not unlike male birds strutting their splendid plumage. There are few opportunities that I can think of for men to be admired for their looks in this way. I wonder if such pageantry is an important outlet missing from our culture. What exactly is the cultural significance of facial hair competition?
“It’s about men wanting to look like men,” Phil says.
Justin Cate, founder of both the Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective and the WCBMC, as well as the event’s emcee, thinks it is just another arena for men to be competitive, as men often are. “I don’t think it says anything necessarily about manhood, but it does illustrate the ability of social networking to be able to foster the growth of a group, consisting of just about any demographic one can imagine.”
“Before this modern competitive scene started, facial hair may have been a way to display individuality, and show indifference to the standard, corporate way of life. Now though, it seems to have become chic or another fad that has infiltrated society,” Justin says.
The commodification and marketing of men’s grooming seems to be on one end of an American male cultural spectrum, and on the other end are guys growing three-foot long beards. I wondered if competitive facial hair is a statement against the pampering, pruning, and plucking of men? Justin says that his impetus to grow a beard stemmed from sheer laziness at first. “But for me, as well as nearly all of the competitors, grooming has become a daily routine for us. I would argue that many of my friends have to spend more time grooming than many clean-shaven, or corporate types.”
Phil has developed his signature rounded technique over the years.
“It appeals to me, so I keep it that way,” he says. Like asking a famous chef to divulge their secret ingredient, it seems rude to ask how he achieves this magical roundness. He could be my beard Obi-Wan Kenobi, if only I had the guts to ask. All in good time, young Skywalker, I tell myself, scratching at my muttonchops, all in good time. But Phil freely offers general Bearding wisdom: “You have to start experimenting with different ways to style, shape, condition, and groom your beard. It has to fit your personality. My main advice is to have fun with it.
There are many women in the audience at the WCBMC, and quite a few are strolling the ballroom in mustaches. Some are Fu Manchu-types cut from black felt, others are more convincing —thick synthetic hair, attached with spirit gum. As far as I can tell, there are no naturally mustachioed or bearded women present. At least two women compete in the Freestyle Mustache heat, albeit with artificial mustaches. The crowd hoops and hollers right along for them, especially for the woman in a German Fraulein dress, which accentuates both her cleavage and the humongous handlebar mustache which extends several inches beyond each cheek into the festive air. She roars like a lioness while two-fisting steins of beer above her head. The crowd goes insane. Phil reiterates that he wants everyone to feel included and to have fun in Bearding, and says the women are welcomed by the guys.
“Any woman with a real beard should enter the competition.” He explains that the fake beard category has been historically conflated with the ladies category, but he doesn’t agree with that practice. “There shouldn’t be categories between men and women, it should be just divided by real beards and fake beards.” After a pause he adds, “I feel sorry for women who have to put on a fake beard to have a beard.”
Last summer, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) premiered its latest reality show, Whisker Wars, bringing national attention to the subculture of Bearding. The program was created by producer Thom Beers, who has graced cable television with other testosterone-pumped hits like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, and Coal.
“It has raised the profile of the sport and created tremendous interest. I’ve been working toward that [level of exposure] for years and [the show] is excellent for that,” says Phil Olsen. But he now sees negativity and hostility where there previously was not. “The show thrives on conflict — that was never a part of Bearding before. We never had booing or disrespect.” It is no surprise to Phil that programs like this trump up disaccord. “It is unnecessary to create drama — as long as you are inquisitive and perceptive you can see the drama that is already there, you don’t need to inject it. I try to promote the integrity of the sport and to welcome everyone, to make it friendly and open. Controversy has come up over judging. I’ve tried to make it as open, transparent, and fair as possible. I try to make sure that the judges don’t know contestants and are not affiliated.”
Phil says that the competitions are a fairly new thing, they’ve been catching on since 2009, and there seems to be an event now almost every couple of weeks. Phil sounds as serious as a heart attack when it comes to fairness and appropriateness in his sport. Its all in fun, but it is not a joke, after all. But drama is the meat of reality television. As Thom Beers told The Hollywood Reporter: “…it’s not just about the job, it’s finding a culture where there are rules and codes, heroes and villains. That’s what’s fascinating to me.”
“Some contests have had a secret judging criteria — that’s a big mistake.” Phil says. “The most important thing is to have a fair contest and avoid the appearance of impropriety.” Listening to Phil talk about unethical judging reminds me of something Norman Mailer wrote: “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.”
On January first, my younger brother announced the beginning of what he was calling his “Beard Year.” He vowed to not shave for twelve months.
“After many failed attempts at growing a big beard, I started doing research. I got a lot of good advice on the internet which was helpful. So I set a goal, one year: from January 2012 to January 2013.” His beard loomed larger, especially on the horizontal plane, every time he posted new pictures to Facebook. He finally caved, nearly six months in. On Memorial Day weekend he shaved.
“ I was hopeful to follow through with it. To grow a giant beard and maybe enter the Nationals if I could in fact go through with it,” he said.
I recently shaved clean for the first time since last August for a job interview. I didn’t have the hugest beard — there are fourteen-year old boys and grandmothers who can grow a more robust beard than me — but it was over six months of intensive growing, and I was quite fond of my biggest, longest beard to date. There was something comforting about it, like a security blanket, or a favorite hat. It was also like a part-time job; or keeping a pet such as a small rodent or lizard, a living thing which required at least a minimum of human interaction every day. It will be a long time, if ever, before I’d be able to compete in the Full Natural Beard category. However, I experienced a bit of chin dysphoria when I shaved — I couldn’t believe how tiny and pale my chin seemed, in fact it took me a couple of weeks to accept that this was now my face: my beardless, gray, shorn face. I just didn’t feel quite like myself for a while. I asked WCBMC’s Justin Cate if this is normal.
“I shaved just after I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go to the 2009 Worlds. That was one of the only times I’ve seen my chin in the last 15 years or so…the last time I shaved, I felt a little naked. I don’t know that I’ll shave anytime soon, as my beard has become a part of my personality.”
Phil invites everyone to join in the fun this fall at The National Beard and Mustache Championships. They will take place in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater on Veteran’s Day weekend. Phil expects to see familiar faces from all across the country as well as from the international community of Bearding. “It is open to everyone: no rules, no dues, have fun, everyone is welcome,” Phil tells me. “I encourage everyone to grow a beard for America!”
“For the first time in history, the Nationals will utilize the seventeen-category system commonly employed at the World Beard and Moustache[sic] Championships. The categories range from the delicate Dali moustache to the anything-goes full beard freestyle,” the announcement reads. With six months until the Nationals, participants have plenty of time to “practice your poker, grow your beard or moustache, and make plans to be in Vegas!” The seventeen different competition categories, as observed by the Worlds, are worth reading over. Pretty rich stuff. Turn to it for pictures, history, inspiration, humor, past category champions, and general beard-geekery. The category description for Full Beard Natural reads: “This is it! The Marathon, the main event, the Real McCoy, the Superbowl…Length is important, but isn’t everything. Mass, density, shape, color, and overall impression all count. This category always draws the largest number of contestants and the most heated competition.”
The Crystal Ballroom crowd is getting drunker, the cheering rowdier. During the WCBMC’s fourth heat, Full Natural Beard, I catch myself nudging elbows with a stranger wearing dark glasses, a black fedora and a huge black mustache. He and I point at a contestant’s antics, and laugh together. My face is sore from smiling. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that makes watching a beard and mustache contest so enjoyable, but it really is. I have been having a ball all night. It strikes me that I often have a similar reaction at a crowded dog-park, where there is huge satisfaction taken in observing variations in a species.
I realize the source of my muscle-ache-inducing smiling is this: it is the joy of diversity. It is the pleasure of witnessing flaunted difference —the amazingness in how alike, and yet unalike, we all are.
I may never have the beard it takes to be part of this sport as a competitor, but I am reassured by the infectious enthusiasm of the Beard Team USA President that there is a place for me amongst beardsmen.
“Bearding is the easiest sport there is,” Phil Olsen says. “To get started, you do nothing.”