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Phil Olsen (Court Leve/Court Leve)
Phil Olsen (Court Leve/Court Leve)

The weirdly wonderful world of competitive bearding Add to ...

In late September, Seymour Kanowitch sat down to write an e-mail to his friends and colleagues with the subject line "My new interest." Recent sporting events -- the London Olympics, the Euro Cup -- had fired up his competitive spirit, he wrote. "Unfortunately," he continued, "at age 60, I'm not exactly in peak form." He was writing to tell people he'd discovered a new "sport" competitive beard-growing. "I've become a proud member of Beard Team USA."

This weekend, Kanowitch will march behind the Canadian flag into a Las Vegas amphitheatre as one of at least two Canadians competing at the 2012 National Beard and Moustache Championships (registration is still open). The competition, described by a judge as "a cross between a beauty pageant and a dog show," is only in its third year, but thanks in part to the reality show Whisker Wars on IFC (which documents the lives of cut-throat, smack-talking "bearders"), it's quickly gaining popularity.

"My first thought was that I'd just watch," said Kanowitch, a semi-retired speechwriter who lives in Toronto. "But then I got that feeling of being a eunuch in a harem. I thought why just be on the outside?"

At the competition, he'll walk along a stage in front of an audience "like a stripper," he joked, "but you keep your clothes on" and judges will rank his beard on a range of criteria including mass, texture and overall impression (which often means the contestants wear costumes or carry props). Judges can walk up to each contestant to get a close look, and at least one Alaska competition includes a "petting zoo" portion where judges (and women in the audience) can touch or tug contestants' beards.

Kanowitch will be competing in the "Garibaldi" category (a wide, round beard named after the hirsute 19th-century general Giuseppe Garibaldi). Other categories include the Fu Manchu (long, thin mustache, with the tips pulled down), Amish (long and flowing) and freestyle, where competitors are allowed to use aids to twist and shape their beard into elaborate sculptures. In past competitions, beards have been teased and moulded into everything from an intricately woven snowshoe to a pastoral scene complete with a moose grazing by a tree.

"Men aren't supposed to care too much about the way they look," said Adam Tschorn, a clean-shaven Los Angeles Times writer who has written extensively on bearding and will be one of the judges at the Las Vegas competition. "So for some men, bearding is a manly, non-threatening way to pay attention to and establish identity through the way they look that isn't going to get them made fun of."

Though the competitions are partly about having a laugh and drinking beer (to avoid any mess, mustachioed competitors sometimes use tiny hair clips to hold their mustaches back while eating or drinking), Tschorn said bearders and their beards "are easy to mock, but not easy to fully understand." The showdown is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but egos are still on the line and the competitors aren't above trash-talking one other. "Myk's beard is like a shredded old dishrag, or maybe the underwear of an old woman," says world champion bearder Jack Passion in a promotional video for Whisker Wars. "It's thin and weak."

Kanowitch, who's been preparing for the past eight months, said he's "mostly just concentrating on growing my beard, which doesn't involve a lot of concentration because it kind of does itself." He trims it every few days so it stays round, and shampoos it in the shower (along with his "head hair"). Since he's always being told he looks like Jerry Garcia, he's leaning toward wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt onstage to complete the look.

There are many reasons for growing a beard, including, of course, liking the way it looks, said Dr. Allan Peterkin, a Toronto psychologist who has written on the cultural history of facial hair. A beard can be a statement of individuality, or mark a time of transition (a beard after a breakup or a loss is common, Peterkin said, like Al Gore's beard after losing the 2000 U.S. election). "There's often a reason for a beard," he said, "but I'm not sure the man will always be able to tell you what that reason is."

Beards can even be linked to the economy, Peterkin said. The better the economy, the more clean-shaven the men hence the popularity of the "layoff beard" during the financial crisis of 2008.

But for many men, Peterkin said, beards are worn to signal inclusion within a community what he calls "the brotherhood of the beard," pointing to Amish men, sports fans wearing playoff beards and Movember mustaches. Bearding competitions are an exaggerated version of this brotherhood: A hyper-exclusive group of men who have proven their fortitude with exceptional follicular activity.

Though Toronto's Kanowitch is still a rookie, he's excited to join the bearding community. He's always looked at his beard as a way to break barriers, he said. When travelling, it's sometimes a conversation starter. "I had this thought that if we got all the bearded people of the world together I don't know if we could solve world peace," he said. "But we could certainly make progress."

Tschorn echoed the idea of a bearded brotherhood with his own cautionary tale. Though he's clean-shaven now, he used to have a beard and when he shaved it off, some of his bearded friends ignored him. "At first I thought they didn't recognize me," he said. But he realized that wasn't the case. "They recognized me," he said. "They were just being beardist."

Beards: a history

Dr. Allan Peterkin, author of One Thousand Beards and The Bearded Gentleman, has spent years studying the cultural history of facial hair. Here's his list of recent definitive styles.

1950s: The Beatnik beard small and usually rounded.

1960s: The hippie beard long and natural, often worn with long hair.

1970s: The "hyper-sexualized mustache" a full mustache paired with sideburns, popularized by "Castro clones."

1980s: "Designer stubble" think Miami Vice.

1990s: The goatee, popularized by boy band members.

2000s: Anything goes. "Men are being much more playful about the ways they groom," Peterkin said. "They can wear whimsical or ironic styles and get away with it."

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