Santa Barbara is an odd place. Not every single person here has a beard, or a moustache, or a beer at all times.
This is going to take some getting used to.
It’s been several days since the grand culmination in Anchorage’s Dena’ina Convention Center, but the spiritual enlightenment and liver damage we attained up to and at the 2009 World Beard and Moustache Championships are still fresh in my thoughts.
How It Worked
After a morning of prejudging - during which esteemed beardsmen checked each entrant’s mane to make sure he was in the right category - the first wave of beardos filed into the building.
If they hadn’t been before, contestants now donned full regalia, their facial hair fully finessed. Moms with their babies, young women with their group of friends, and even a couple dudes (some not so reluctantly) with their girlfriends stopped us to pose for pictures.
The competition was broken up by division - moustaches and then partial beards in the afternoon, full beards in the evening (click here to view all divisions and categories). Judging goes one category at a time, and the results are announced at the end of each division.
Everyone wonders what in all that scruff the judges are scrutinizing. Truth is, it’s totally subjective. Length, girth, shape, evenness, virility, color, and quality of grooming are all important, but it’s also a “whole package” sort of deal. How does the beard complement its wearer?
That’s where the outfit comes in. Some opt for silly, extravagant, attention-grabbing, or even Halloweenish costumes that generally “match” their beard style. For instance, a full-bearder might wear Viking rags or a Moses-style robe, a Dali-sporter may don colorful multi-piece suits, and a Musketeer-waxer would probably rock a 17th-century robe and feathery tri-cornered hat.
Still others just dress for success in a fine tuxedo, suit, or (if they’re European) a club uniform.
Everyone also asks what you get if you win. First off, I usually clarify that winning isn’t the point for most of us, and not just because we don’t look like Jack Passion. Second of all, who cares what you get? Usually it’s some crappy mug or something - that, and bragging rights. This time our Alaskan hosts provided prized Gold Pans, their sizes indicating their worth, and a free fishing trip to each first placer.
The judges - this time a selection of champion sled dog mushers, event organizers, a poet, and other local movers and shakers - were considered fairly astute, making only a few major errors in their decisions.
The emcees of both sessions, on the other hand, had no idea what they were in for. That neither had done his homework was clear in statements like “I get the feeling the Germans are pretty good at this” or when they’d ask reigning world champions or multi-title holders if this was their first “international” competition (apparently meaning outside of the “nation” of Europe).
Furthermore, neither seemed to grasp that when someone doesn’t speak English, just repeating the sentence in a louder, slower voice doesn’t accomplish anything, besides making you look like an obnoxious jackass.
An obnoxious jackass with no beard.
A Close Shave
When judging began, beardsmen grouped together by category behind visually stimulating sign-bearing girls donated by a local modeling agency. When their name or number was called, contestants walked up onto a long catwalk, one by one, lining up and parading around before the judges, then posing for pictures from the hundreds of spectators and media people, and eventually returning to their seats to wait, and sip seven-dollar-and-fifty-cent cups of beer.
Moustaches went first, and many were spectacular. Past champion Gandhi Jones took Freestyle with a fork-and-spoon design that matched his chef’s outfit. The Germans took home five Gold Pans. In a moment that would make any mother proud, the Holcombe Twins of Jacksonville, Florida each placed (English and Freestyle) with their long, identical-gened whiskers.
But Max and I let out our greatest whoops when they announced the first-place winner of the Natural Moustache. It was Kees Lek, our 70-year-old Dutch friend from the previous night. Later, our new friend Milan Vermeulen lauded his strategy: “Drink a bunch of youngsters under the table one night and become world moustache champion the next day. Now I’m even more proud to be Dutch!”
As partial bearders, Max and I were in the second round. Max was in the brand new category, made especially for the Anchorage event, the Alaskan Whaler: a “traditional Alaskan seafarer’s beard,” with bushy hair on the cheeks, chin, and lower lip, but the upper lip left clean.
Thanks to a used sweater, wool Greek fisherman’s cap, and a pair of thick, brown, hot, awful, eBay-found waders, Max looked the part. As soon as he squeezed into them, he hated every sticky, sweaty, heavy pound of them - complaints which only increased through the day.
Max was the first Whaler called up onstage. I had never seen him walk the way he did, swinging his arms wide, marching and wagging his hips elliptically in those enormous waders, much the way I imagine a drunken potato would move. His facial expression was one of incongruous seriousness, with a slight dose of dementia.
I hope I never see that again.
Sideburns/muttonchops were next. I had to follow the suave, fancy suited, and not-at-all-silly-looking old Italian, Bruno Pranza, which made me and my borrowed train conductor’s outfit, silk women’s cat-printed shirt, and ugly sideburns look even less appealing.
Taking a cue from Whaler Max, I half-marched onto and down the catwalk, walking as much like a freight train as I could figure. At the optimal moment I dipped into my pocket for the secret weapon: a three-toned wooden Alaskan Railroad-stamped toy train whistle I bought for more dollars than I’m comfortable revealing.
As my right arm pantomimed pulling an overhead cable I blew into the thing, sending two shrill blasts, which sounded less like an iron horse than a dying seagull, out over the short radius that crappy toy’s sound could carry.
From the front row I heard a gristly, “Play that skin flute, boy!” Seeing it came from an L.A. Bristly Chap I recognized, Patrick Melcher, I pointed and asked him, “Yours?” The crooked smile he sent back left me unsettled inside.
I walked up to the judges, watched them not watch me, moved aside, stood around onstage for a while and eventually filed on back to my seat. There it was, the big moment.
The other categories concluded and the results came in. The real Alaskans swept the Whalers. Two heroic Americans and Bruno took sideburns. Americans and Germans dominated most of the rest. Max and I didn’t get any Gold Pans, but according to our certificates we both placed fourth in our categories.
Along with everyone else who didn’t get first, second, or third.
Incidentally (I don’t know about Max), but I was unaffected by the loss. I was still riding high on my results from several days earlier. Although you news junkies may already know, I, Devon Blunden, tied for second place in the Ketchikan, Alaska, interim mayoral election. [News Story 1, News Story 2]
Despite not being qualified - legally or otherwise - I got just as many votes as the other losing applicants, since it was actually an appointment. Meaning zero. But second place is second place, and that’s all my future employers need to know.
Home Beard Advantage
Before the full bearders started up, Captain Phil led a full procession of every beardsman from every nation into the convention hall, filling the stage and testing its limits. The cameras loved it; the event staff didn’t. Once they kicked us all off, things got going.
The full beards, although there are fewer categories, always have scores more entrants. This was especially true in Alaska, where growing a beard saves you the cost of a scarf.
But out of several rounds and two whole stages worth of full naturals, Jack Passion successfully defended his reign as the number one beard in the world. And with his wife’s painstaking wicker snowshoe weaving skills, local Alaskan David Traver became the first American - or anything else - to unseat the Germans in full beard freestyle.
All in all, it was our home turf, and we used our advantage. Beard Team U.S.A. took home 29 Gold Pans, including 12 First Placers. For having to travel half a planet to get there, the Germans weren’t so far behind with their 17 Gold Pans and five number one slots. But thanks to Traver and Passion, who also earned first and third overall, we took home both the glory and the story.
Even TMZ reported it.
I’m sure the multiple documentary crews got some great footage, and probably a lot more than they bargained for. (There are some bad beard politics surrounding the nature of World Beard and Moustache Association-recognized clubs and the model for choosing the next host city.) One moustachioed fellow, Dylan (whose BeardTrip blog across Canada with jaw-dropping sideburner, Warren Lillie, can be seen here) even brought his video camera onstage with him.
But a long, full day of beardwatching can really take it out of you. When the local beardsmen said their closing words - our joints stiff from hours of sitting, our immune systems depleted from prolonged booze intake, Max’s legs sweaty and rashed up by his waders - we were pretty much bearded out.
So rather than hit the bars with the champs, we headed for the hotel like chumps. Having refused to spend money on such wastes of booze-funds as food, we were starving and ready for as fast of food as possible. That meant McDonald’s.
Delirious, we ordered way too much, despite it all costing at least 150 percent more than in the lower 48. For some reason, the drive-thru guy had us park so he could bring our order out to us. When he did, Max saw a golden opportunity.
“Thanks. Hey, you want a set of waders?”
“‘Huh? Yeah, okay.”
“Cool. Just grab ‘em out of the back there.” He did, the sorry sucker.
But the joke was on us. Now we had to eat all that McDonald’s.
Popping the Beard Bubble
The next day was a good last hurrah, with several dozen of us beardsmen recounting the week and exchanging contact information over more free meat and beer at a rustic old gold mine. That night, before catching our red-eye home, Max and I walked down to the river and helped some BTUSA-ers kill the last of the booze. Some Germans joined the wake, calling my can of Pabst “bad beer, but good piss.”
Whatever it was, it helped us get through that long and horrible night of flying. I do remember, leaving the hotel, the Dutch guys accosting us and making us lip-kiss all their wives. But I don’t recall much of the airport security guards arguing over whether I could stash a railroad spike in my carry-on (turns out you can), being a fantastic American flag-waving ass to, as Max put it, everybody, or falling asleep and drooling all over my muttonchops.
The weird looks began as soon as we got off the plane. That morning, for the first time in two weeks, we were the only beardos around. Insulated in their beardless little lives, these people had no idea what sacrifices we had just made for them or this country of ours. Exhausted and indignant, I just wanted to take Jack Passion’s big red beard and whip them all across their smug nude chins. And to nap.
Finally, we pulled up to my house and Max hopped out of his sister’s car, ostensibly for some sort of official goodbye. “Well,” I offered. “Now we’ve done that.”
“Yep.” He stared off.
“And we never have to do it again,” I added wistfully.
“Nope,” Max agreed, turning his head. “But we will.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “Yep.”
I walked up to my porch contented, went inside, and sat down on my bed to reflect on a fortnight well spent. I had a beard, and I had fun.
And now, I realized, I have finals and a personalized invoice stating I owe one Max J. Zimmerman over a thousand dollars.
Parting Words of Beardsdom
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this spiritual journey of ours, it’s that having a beard changes your life.
It changes how you feel about yourself, what people assume when they first meet you, and what your eldest relatives now think about you and your future.
It changes how much wind hits your face when you stick your head out of a car window, or how cold you don’t get when you go to Alaska.
It changes how you eat a sandwich, how you put on a shirt, how long you shower - or, in each case, whether you even bother.
It changes how much Germans, Belgians, and you think you can drink, or how much strangers assume you do when you get up in the morning. It changes how people look at you on a bus and how quickly parents push their strollers past you.
It even changes how you physically express love to your girlfriend, and how appreciative you are that you still have one.
Yes, it changes everything you do. And for so much the better.
Not convinced? Then consult the master. In his newly released beard bible, two-time number one full natural world champ, Jack Passion, explains how having a beard makes you an exponentially more confident, more manly, better man. And he gives you more than a hundred pages of guidelines on not only how to do it, but also how to do it with style.
So if you’re itching to enter the Beard World, scratch now. (Although that issue should subside in about a month.) Beard Team U.S.A. is always recruiting.
Don’t want to compete? Doesn’t matter. Every day’s a competition, between you and lame, naked-faced, clean-shaven, bald-lipped, beardlessness. So you might as well blow off everything, and do what Max, I, and the rest of the real patriots on BTUSA do and did: just grow and go. The next World Championships are in Trondheim, Norway. You’ve got two years.
Welcome to the jungle, smoothy. See you in 2011.
For actual good photos of the WBMC, check out these beardsmen’s photostreams:
See Devon’s entire beard blog at independent.com/beard