The year was 2009. On a cold weekend in May, they arrived by ship, by plane, and by car to the Alaskan city of Anchorage. They had anticipated this day for two years, since the 2007 World Championships in London. For the first time in history, an American team stood poised to take home the most medals, confident in their home-field advantage and in Germany’s lack of elite competitors, such as former Freestyle champions Elmar Weisser and Willi Chevalier, who were nowhere to be found. This was the World Beard and Moustache Championships, the greatest beard-growing contest in the world, and Elmar Weisser’s absence particularly reverberated throughout the event. As the sport’s signature star, Weisser is, quite simply, the World Champion of Beard.
You may not know Elmar Weisser by name, but you might have seen his intricate facial hair on the internet, posted with captions like: “There is a windmill in my beard,” or the catchy “Don’t razor me, bro.” He burst onto the scene at the 2005 World Beard and Moustache Championships (WBMC), when he won the gold medal for a beard sculpted into a model of the iconic Brandenburg Gate, a tribute to his native Germany. Even more impressive, for the 2007 Championships in London, his beard was a two-foot-wide model of the city’s Tower Bridge, complete with tiny suspension cables made entirely of hair. Weisser competes in the Full Freestyle category, where anything goes; contestants in Full Beard categories grow facial hair everywhere they can, while the Freestyle category sets no style restrictions, allowing free use of styling aids such as moustache wax or hair gel.
Typically, between 15 and 20 categories of moustaches and beards are judged in the WBMC. These categories range from the nondescript, such as the Natural Beard, where competitors are not allowed to use any styling aids, to the rigorously-specified Verdi and Garibaldi categories, which specify maximum beard lengths of 10cm and 20cm respectively. Most moustache categories vary only by the degree or shape of the styling, while partial beard categories tend to cover a distinct region of the face.
Beards and moustaches are generally scored by a panel of judges chosen from respected members of the beard community, including past competitors, beard club organizers, and occasionally minor hirsute celebrities. There is no hard-and-fast rubric for judging; dimensions and quality of hair are often cited as deciding factors but so are style and sportsmanship. Many contestants are known for wearing eccentric costumes or accessories, especially in some of the quirkier categories such as Full Freestyle, where the truly surreal beards come to light and the best-groomed compete for glory.
It’s not easy to maintain a beard like Weisser’s. Before each competition, the German champion works for hours with a stylist, wrangling his beard into shape. And for many serious beard growers, simply wearing and maintaining a foot- to three-foot-long beard can become a daily chore. Natural Beard medalist Bob Gengler has stated in interviews that he has learned to drink beer through a straw to avoid getting “covered in foam,” while Michael Attree, Chairman and organizer of the 2007 competition, has admitted to wearing a protective moustache snood (a hood that fits over the moustache) at night.
Perhaps the most impressive personality is Willi Chevalier, another champion hailing from Germany, whose signature beard—stylish but not overly ostentatious—is often said to resemble a pretzel, spider, or octopus. Like many other veterans of the competitive beard world, he is quite the showman, often dressing for the competitions in dramatic black-and-white patterned suits.
After winning first in Full Freestyle in 2001 and 2003, Chevalier was forced to sit out the 2005 championships due to an accident in which his beard got caught in a tangle drill, tearing a third of the hair off his face and sending him to the hospital for a week. At the WBMC in Carson City later that year, fans printed t-shirts with images of Chevalier’s beard on them to show support. In 2007, he returned to the competition in London, showing off a new look: his sideburns shaved and his beard, thicker than ever, now fully white. He went on to receive the gold medal in Partial Beard Freestyle, making Chevalier competitive beard-growing’s greatest comeback story.
A Bearded Tradition
The WBMC has been held every other year since 1991. It finds its roots in a European history of beard clubs and competitions. London’s Handlebar Club, the oldest of the twenty or so beard clubs that compete in the tournament, was established in the 1940s as a gentlemen’s club for men with large moustaches. In the ’80s and ’90s, “beard clubs” began to spring up in countries all over Northern Europe. By 1991, many of these clubs were hosting local or national beard contests.
In the World Championships, many competitors choose to represent a particular beard club, which functions like a sponsorship without financial incentives. While the German beard clubs tend to boast fierce rivalries, every American member, regardless of local affiliation, is a member of Beard Team USA (BTUSA).Some of the associated organizations, such as the Handlebar Club, limit membership to persons possessing a specific style of facial hair, but BTUSA welcomes any and all beard-appreciators. Technically, anyone—regardless of gender—can compete in the WBMC, although to date there have been no female competitors.
The German beard clubs, which together have sent more competitors to the WBMC than any other country, had a heavy influence on the formation of the contest itself. The most obvious example of Germany’s role is the Championship’s “Imperial” moustache category, named after German Kaiser Wilhelm II (but known in the rest of the world simply as a “handlebar”).
The 2007 London Championships brought the WMBC a bit closer to the spotlight. Media coverage of the competition was more present than ever before, perhaps in part due to the efforts of the Handlebar Club. Photos of the event and the competitors can be found in blogs and newspapers across the internet. The best of these beards have been published in photographic volumes, such as Michael Elsden’s A Gathering of Extraordinary Gentleman: The World Beard and Moustache Championships 2007 which features men with beards down to their waists, moustaches so long they curled back into themselves in perfect circles, faces that sprouted grotesque horns and tentacles of hair that stretched over a foot in every direction, and of course, Weisser’s infamous bridge beard.
A New Era of Competition
The Germans did not actively boycott the 2009 WBMC in Alaska; while Chevalier and Weisser did not release official statements explaining their absence, plausible reasons abound. Most of Germany’s contestants are in their 50s or 60s, and contestants have to pay for their own airfare and lodgings. Alaska is a laborious and inconvenient trip for men used to competing in Europe.
And perhaps the Germans had other reasons to be riled. For years, members of Beard Team USA (BTUSA) complained that the beard categories unfairly favored German beard styles, and the Americans set up new categories in 2009. The Imperial Beard and Imperial Moustache, two categories traditionally dominated by Germany, were rumored to be combined into a single category (but at the last minute were kept separate); the Hungarian Moustache was renamed “Wild West,” and an “Alaskan Whaler” Natural Beard variant was added. Historically, Natural Beard is the one category consistently won by Americans.
The 2009 WBMC marked a turning point in the world of competitive beard growing. For the first time, over 200 contestants registered for the competition, nearly 90 of them from America. Alaskans, of course, made up a large portion of the American team. The Southcentral Alaska Beard & Moustache Club hosted the contest not too far from its headquarters, and its members managed to take home eight medals.
Sure, Alaska has something of a fondness for beards; in the words of long-time competitor David Traver, “beards and Alaska just go together.” But the Alaskans weren’t the only Americans to compete; California managed to snag six medals, and seven other states were represented among the medalists. Even Canada got in on the action, winning its first medal ever (a bronze in the Natural Full Beard With Styled Moustache category). Germany had a good showing with Gerhard Knapp (third in Full Beard Freestyle in 2007, 2nd in 2009) and still took home 15 out of 54 medals.
The 2009 Championships also featured an Overall Best Beard award, an honor not given most years and perhaps representative of an American drive to always have a clear-cut number one. This prize went, unsurprisingly, to an American—David Traver, of Anchorage—who wove his foot long auburn beard into something halfway between a fishing net and a snowshoe. Not quite as flashy or inspirational as some of the classic German beards, Traver’s facial hair would have undoubtedly been an underdog to Chevalier or Weisser’s, had they attended. Yet Traver’s victory shows that the world of competitive beard growing is spreading out from the strictly defined, ordered beards of the original German competitions. The beards, they are a-changing.
However, in a Bobby Fischer-like return, Chevalier re-emerged on June 5, 2010, to show he was a cut above the rest. At BTUSA’s National Beard Championships (a competition created by—but not restricted to—Americans), he won first place in Freestyle as well as being voted audience favorite. Now that Chevalier has finally made it out of Europe, he has proven he can win on foreign soil and shown that at least one German can still give the Americans a run for their money. The 2011 WBMC will be held in Trondheim, Norway. The big question is whether or not America can continue its winning streak on enemy turf.
Abe “Lightning Bolt Sideburns” Pressman B’12 is a card-carrying member of Beard Team USA.