Do Kiwi men have the potential to become world beard- and moustache-growing champions?
In a top hat and tails complemented by a bushy beard and handlebar moustache, Chris Berry looks like a distinguished gentleman from the 19th century. Yet here on stage alongside 20 other bearded gentlemen, he doesn’t look at all out of place. The men are competing in the Verdi category of the 2011 World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in a stuffy hotel ballroom in Trondheim, Norway.
The category is named for Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who was famous for his sophisticated beard (as well as for the operas La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Rigoletto). The Verdi, the rulebook states, must be rounded, no more than 10cm long and should be accompanied by a styled moustache. Berry, who comes from a family of Havelock North beekeepers, has had to trim a couple of inches off his year-old scruff to meet the criteria.
The 28-year-old, who had been working as a truck driver in Norway for 18 months before the competition, is New Zealand’s first competitor in the international event. He’s only here because his Norwegian brother-in-law happened to suggest it – his preparation didn’t go much beyond spending five minutes waxing his usually droopy moustache.
But Berry has grown fond of his beard as a fun way to accentuate a look. “Not to use a cheesy pun, but it grows on you,” he says. “I guess it is a manly thing.” His Norwegian fiancée, Kristine Aurlien, is rather fond of it, too. “It’s the masculinity, I guess, it’s really attractive,” she says. “The first time I met him, I went away for almost half a year and I actually asked him not to shave until the next time we met, and he didn’t.” Not that it’s all fluffy love. “I wouldn’t be too sad if the moustache disappeared,” she confesses. “It’s a bit hard to find the mouth.”
The World Beard and Moustache Championships have been held every two years since 2005 as a way to bring together the world’s bearded brethren in the name of fun, camaraderie and friendly competition. Over the years, the championships have attracted ample media attention – mainly for the cache of odd photos they routinely provide – but with around 500 attendees, it has never grown much beyond an intimate event dominated by the old facial hair clubs of Europe.
This year, Trondheim – Norway’s moustache capital – is host to 163 participants from 15 countries who are taking part in categories with names such as Sideburns Freestyle, Dali Moustache, Garibaldi and Musketeer. The biggest contingent of competitors comes from Beard Team USA, but all the traditional European clubs – from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK – are well represented, and a couple of Aussies have made the trek from Downunder.
Berry reckons New Zealand, given adequate resources, could make a strong showing on the international bearding stage. “There are a lot of hairy men. Even in my own family there are beards that could compete in the Garibaldi class. There are a lot of good beard-growing genes from Scandinavia and Scotland and all that.”
Hamilton beardo Jeremy Mayall, founder of the New Zealand Beard and Moustache Appreciation Association, agrees our men could make an impact on the world stage. “There is potential for some world champs to come from New Zealand. There are some stunningly strong beards in New Zealand, but it is the competition part that is new to the beards of this country,” he says. Mayall has plans to bring larger-scale beard competitions to New Zealand in the near future.
These unusual world champs are a testament to facial hair’s mysterious magnetic force, a power that has prevailed throughout most of human history. Indeed, the beard has a proud history in Western cultures, but in the past century it has undergone a stunning decline.
“A hundred years ago, if you had a beard, you were like an industrial titan … you were a leader and it was dignified and it was respected,” says Paul Roof, an assistant professor of sociology at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina who runs lectures on facial hair as part of his gender studies classes. “Now these leaders look like boys.”
Roof, who is competing in the Full Beard Freestyle category at the champs, points out it has been 100 years since the US had a bearded president. Ever since the introduction of the Gillette razor and its accompanying marketing, which Roof likens to a conspiracy, shaving – or, as he puts it, “stripping your manhood” – has become the societal norm.
Roof has a firm ideological ally in Beard Team USA captain Phil Olsen, who says what shaving really comes down to is men trying to look more effeminate. He says, “You have to start asking yourself, ‘Why do men go through this daily ritual of scraping their hair off their face in order to look more like women?’” Many smooth-faced men have told Olsen – a lawyer by day – they don’t grow beards because their wives or girlfriends won’t let them. “The women are demanding of their men that they look more like women,” he concludes. “So, what I’m always wondering is, ‘What are they going to ask us to cut off next?’”
Olsen, naturally, is a tireless campaigner for facial hair issues, railing against organisations such as Disneyland, the US Army and the New York Yankees that prohibit beards. “Beard Team USA stands for the promotion, acceptance and respectability of facial hair worldwide,” he says.
Meanwhile, back in the Trondheim ballroom, Berry has proved no match for his formidable opposition, and Germany’s Elmar Weisser is on the podium accepting the trophy for Best in Show. This is his third world title, and he is a clear winner. The 47-year-old hairdresser’s lustrous salt-and-pepper whiskers have been fashioned into an elaborate diorama featuring Norway’s flag, a wispy tree and a detailed reindeer.
In previous years, Weisser has won competitions with bearded versions of London’s Tower Bridge and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. His sister, also a hairdresser, spent four hours on this Norway-specific creation, and Weisser invites her up on stage to share the glory.
Amid the applause and cheers, Weisser salutes the crowd, and beneath the tangly thickets of hair crowded around his jaw, it’s just possible to make out a broad smile.