What makes a champion? Is it how high you can leap? How fast you can run? How many points you can score? Is it perhaps something less definable, an inner resolve, a vague courage, something quietly growing from within that separates you from the rest? With these question in mind I set out to get a behind the scenes look at the 2015 National Beard and Moustache Championships in Brooklyn, New York.
You may be thinking that growing facial hair hardly seems like a sport, much less a competitive one, but you would be wrong, for the world of competitive bearding (and stache’ing) is getting bigger all the time. Since the first facial hair competition was held in the small town of Höfen an der Enz,Germany in 1990, numerous events are now held around the world, and many are backed by large corporate sponsors. In the case of the 2015 National Beard and Moustache Championships, the event is sponsored by Just for Men, a hair coloring company that sells beard dye to cover up those grays — just for men, though apparently its fine for women too in case you were wondering.
Unlike the competitors of other popular sports, who get paid enormous sums of money for their participation, those in the bearding and moustache world still do it largely for bragging rights and the camaraderie and fellowships of the competition. Even in major competitions like this one there is virtually no prize money. You can’t make a living on the competition circuit, strictly speaking, but you can still be a champion.
It’s a gray overcast day with temperatures pleasantly in the ‘60s for November as I arrive at 10 a.m. at the Sheraton in downtown Brooklyn, where many of the competitors are staying. The competition doesn’t start until 1 p.m. so the hair-athletes (you can’t miss them) are milling about, going out for breakfast or just taking a stroll around the neighborhood. For some this is their first trip to New York, their beards and moustaches have led them from the small backwaters of their hometowns all the way to the Big Apple. I take a few photos and then head to the seventh floor to meet up with Nate Johnson and Roberto Campos.
Nate Johnson and Roberto Campos
You may have seen them before. Roberto Campos was the 2014 champion in the Imperial Moustache category at the Just for Men National Beard and Moustache Championships, held last year in Portland, Oregon. And then there’s Nate Johnson, a multi-award-winning champion with a slew of awards under his belt, er beard, for his enormous “Chops”, his nickname as he is known in the bearding world. In the last five years, Johnson has been in thirty-six competitions, with First Place victories thirty-one times, as well as an astonishing seventeen Best In Show finishes.
As per the criteria of the Imperial Moustache category, Campos’s moustache is small with the tips curled upward, heavily shellacked with styling aids. It is elegant is its design, charmingly eccentric.
By contrast, Johnson’s facial hair might best be described as wild or beastly. When you think of sideburns you probably think of the heavy patches of hair on the checks popularized by Elvis Presley. However nothing prepares you for the two massive dangling strands of seaweed-like hair hanging a full two feet from Johnson’s jowls. The sheer scope of them of them almost defies imagination. While Campos, unwaxed, might travel among you facial hair mortals without attracting an unusual amount of attention, Johnson’s look demands your gaze.
Johnson’s chin and only his chin is shaved clean, landing him in the category of what is known as Partial Beard Freestyle and Sideburns, as opposed to a full beard, where the chin hair would also be filled in. (You might argue that the whole thing is a tremendous moustache, since one way or another it’s all attached to his upper lip. However those in the competitive facial hair world would disagree, since the numerous categories, sixteen in all, each have their own very specific set of rules.) The effect is one of startling originality, a look that might otherwise be sported by outlaw bikers or others living on the fringes of society. Wherever Johnson goes, people notice. Living in Los Angeles makes it easier on him. In LA people just think that he is on his way to a casting session, and often times he is. So far Johnson has been in a Fiat commercial, a PSA for the deaf in Sweden, as well as background gigs on TV shows 2 Broke Girls, Castle and Rizzoli and Isles.
Campos also lives in Los Angeles and together the two men have journeyed across a continent to compete in all their hirsute glory. The hotel room they are sharing with another mustachioed friend is a shambles of empty beer cans, scattered clothes, and unmade beds since the men arrived from the west coast last night. Out in the distance the Statue of Liberty looks on, silently approving.
The two men begin their preparations. Campos, whose moustache is already hardened to perfection by the time I arrive, suits up in a mariachi outfit that makes me jealous, because I would love to have one just like it, chocolate-brown with pale yellow scrollwork on the legs that matches the jacket. He tells me that he gets his outfits at La Casa del Mariachi in Boyle Heights back in Los Angeles. Johnson also recommends Santee Alley for those looking for cool threads.
Johnson begins his preparations, spritzing his chops with Got 2B glued blasting freeze spray, which, as the can announces, provides screaming hold for hair. It’s manufactured by a company called Schwatzkopf, just like the famed U.S. general who lead the coalition of forces in the Persian Gulf War. Coincidence? Perhaps. But indeed Johnson is going into battle today against some fierce competitors, and he’s going to need all the freeze blasted hold he can get his hands on, in this case a 14.4 oz can.
Johnson sprays his beard, baking it with a hair dryer and working it with a two-sided comb. He dresses in a purple and white plaid shirt, accented with a white-collar and cuffs, and dark blue suit pants, pausing to drink from a tall-boy can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, his preferred pre-game beverage. Working his chops with his hands like a chef with a freshly made ball of pasta, Johnson removes any remaining tangles. He then winds the upper portions of the chops onto his cheeks, matting them there with some more hairspray and another blast of heat from the hairdryer. After some consultation with Campos to determine their essential evenness, he is satisfied. He adds a vest and the coat of his three-piece suit, rounding out his look with a chapeau and mirrored aviator sunglasses. As a final thought he ties a fur foxtail, his good luck charm, to his belt.
The outfits, of course, are a crucial part of the overall presentation, serving to heighten the experience of the facial hair and win the judges’ favor. It all adds up to a performance. And if this is starting to sound like a beauty pageant, well it is one.
Properly primped, Campos and Johnson are ready. We walk into the hallway and await the elevator. A man on his way to his room preemptively apologizes for his meek, wispy, fish-like moustache, looking on enviously at Campos. Campos and Johnson good-naturedly console the man, it’s not so bad, at least he’s trying, give it time. The man nods, seemingly hopeful, imagining how his moustache might look in another year — or two.
You might think it’s easy to grow some extraordinary moustache or beard, you might think that you could do it too, you might think that there’s nothing to it, just let yourself go to seed, but there again you’d be wrong. First off, just like everything, there’s a genetic component to facial hair success. Some people just aren’t born with the follicles. And secondly, just like any athlete, there’s the question of will. These hairy gladiators have to be dedicated, letting the hair grow for years at a time. It’s not a mask you can take off on a whim. Their moustaches and beards go home with them and to work with them and everywhere else with them. To grow some massively heavy beard requires a certain determination, especially if you live somewhere hot like Los Angeles or Miami. You need to have the guts to go all the way if you’re going to be a champion.
Outside the hotel we climb aboard an SUV and join two other beardo friendlies in the competition, Marc McShane and R. Roman Hudson. Both have sturdy muscular builds. McShane sports a dirty blonde Amish beard, meaning full beard sans moustache, that covers the throat, and is dressed from the neck down like the Gortan’s fisherman. Hudson sports a sprawling full beard and wears a sleeveless blue vest and a camouflage kilt belted by a piece of taxidermy, a scruffy badger’s head perhaps? A weasel? A wolverine? I’m not sure and I never get a chance to find out its significance, but there it is.
The car drives down Flatbush Avenue to the historic Kings Theater located south of Prospect Park. Originally opened in 1929, the theater was vacant for more than thirty years until a full-scale renovation took place in 2010, returning it to its glory. In 2012 it was added to the Register of National Historic Places.
R. Roman Hudson
Johnson, Campos, McShane and Hudson stand before the theater posing for pictures as more of their compatriots arrive on the scene, all of them getting a number of curious looks from passersby on the street. Jaws hang open at the sight of the extraordinary facial hair on display, shaped, pointed, hanging, waxed, unwaxed, swooped, and styled. Laughter is often the first reaction of many, not dismissive laughter, but a kind of awestruck laughter, a kind of joyous disbelief.
Inside the theater the contestants renew old friendships. They’re on the same circuit after all, and tend to run in the same circles, members of different beard and moustache clubs across the country. The spirit is one of camaraderie and fellowship. While these men have come here to compete against one another, the competition seems secondary to the outpouring of good will. Compliments are free-flowing as men admire each other’s facial hair and pose for pictures for each other and the multitude of media outlets on the scene.
At the top of the grand staircase the contestants line up holding flags representing most of the fifty states as well as a handful of foreign nations. They then proceed into the theater, accompanied by individual theme songs representing their localities with all the pomp and ceremony of the Olympics, and together stand upon the stage before an appreciative crowd of hundreds of spectators.
What begins soon thereafter is a nearly four-hour competition as the multitude of contestants compete in their respective categories. There’s natural moustaches, English moustaches, Hungarian moustaches, Freestyle moustaches, natural goatees, Fu Manchus, musketeers, Amish beards, freestyle partial beards, full natural beards, full beards with styled moustaches, Verdi beards, Garibaldi beards, freestyle full beards, and as previously mentioned imperial moustaches and sideburns.
The competitors in each category are summoned backstage. They stand quietly, checking their costumes, giving their beards and moustaches a few final touches to make sure that they are perfect, taking a few deep breaths. And then their names are announced to the roaring crowd and one by one they enter onto the stage.
Campos faces some tough competition from a crowded field of those sporting the imperial moustache, but as a former champion I think his odds look good. After a few minutes as the judges tally their marks however, Campos is shut out of the top three spots. He seems to take the news hard. Johnson goes to console his friend with a reassuring pat on the back. This is how it goes sometimes, hopes can be dashed in a few moments after years of preparation. Campos is back to his cheerful self in a few minutes though, laughing and looking forward to tonight’s post competition festivities.
Johnson only faces two other competitors in his category, since it is so unusual, and seems almost certain to win first place. But in a stunning upset, he finishes in second place as the top prize goes to Steffen Rasile, perfectly attired as a 19th century navy officer, with his full red rounded sideburns. Afterwards Johnson, ever an emblem of good sportsmanship, is happy for Rasile and considers him highly deserving of the first place victory.
McShane would go on to win First Place in his category for Amish Beard. Hudson would get shut out in the massive pool of full beards.
After the competition the sun is beginning to set as the four men stand outside the theater waiting for the car to take them back to the hotel. Later there will be after-parties going deep into the night. But for now these four men take a moment to reflect on what has transpired, their victories and defeats. Champions.
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