Beards mean everything to everyone. A fuzzy mask hides the face of the recluse while a well-greased ‘stache helps the villain seem snooty; a full beard softens Santa’s authority; a goatee gives the beatnik a certain je ne sais quois. In our hard times, the beard marks the unemployed man, too depressed to pick up a razor. “There’s this joke that people with beards are either homeless or professors,” said Matthew Saccoman, organizer of this year’s New York City Beard & Moustache Competition. This year, he added the new category “Recession Beard” and asked that all contestants be unemployed. It’s not about being lazy. It’s about going against the man. Or simply being the man. “There’s a universal message in beard growing: Look at what I have,” said Saccoman. “I have some sort of power, some gift within.”
On Saturday, those desiring to share that gift sauntered up North 6th street to Public Assembly, passing a gamut of downsized Manhattan press drawn to the scene of so many unshaven ragamuffins.
This was the third year that the event was held in the New York area but the first that it was held in Williamsburg, a ’hood scoped out by the organizer as “beard-friendly.” It isn’t just that in Williamsburg there are so many more beards per capita (there are) or that here, the dominant aesthetics of corporate culture are not as heavily at play (they’re not); It is that even a local lingerie store, its walls bare and white and clean, offered to hand out postcards for the show. In America—clean-shaven dominates. And Brooklyn loves the underdog.
The self-consciously hokey contest featured separate categories whose winners, as in a dog-show, finally faced off for an audience award that garlanded the finalist with $500 and some pots of salve (ideal for waxing a moustache). Between categories—such as “Patchy,” “Sideburns” and “Ladies Artificial”—played a moustachioed banjoist, a bearded comedy troupe, a bluegrass outfit, a punny ladies burlesque show and a ZZ Top cover band. It went until 4 a.m. Exhausted, half-drunk judges ruled not on length (how dull) but on originality, creativity, cut. “They can’t just be growing a beard as a fad,” explained Araceli Cruz, a judge and Williamsburg resident accustomed to seeing beards in the street. “Beards seem like they say you rebel against the system,” she noted. “But they also conform to eachother, conform to a look.” Hipster hypocrisy! Cruz sought the beard of beards; the original of in a sea of originals.
In the audience—beards everywhere, in every direction. At the bar before the evening started, in a suit, polka-dot tie, and neat fur chapeau with a fur-coat folded over his arm, stood Bill Webb with his wife of 35-years, Eva, sipping languidly at cocktails while the hoopla rushed around them. It was their first time in Williamsburg. “I’m told it’s beard friendly,” said Webb. His mane—once black, now grey—has gotten him mistaken over the years for everything from a university professor to a jazz musician to, after September 11th, 2001, a terrorist—“Which is especially bad for a person of color,” he noted. Across the room stood Atom Shock in a traditional keffiyah and long robe, which his friend in the Peace Corps in Jordan had sent to him. “I just thought it would go with this look,” he said, of the beard and the middle eastern attire.
Tom Vu, of Orlando, wore a different traditional costume, conveying the power of the beard: a floor-length Vietnamese robe of golden silk to accompany his upper lip moustache, which spokes out, taut-as-wire. There is a kind of eternal competition between Moustaches and Beards, palpable in the air. “Beards are 75% more area than a moustache,” said Saccoman, who sports a Full Natural. “And America is all about Size Matters.” “We continually lose in the moustache categories,” noted Phil Olsen, Founder of Beard Team USA which competes internationally and every year loses ‘staches to the Germans. “They’re not as popular amongst Americans.”
Conventionally Americans—especially the ladies—do not seem to even like beards very much. Magin Schantz is not one of these ladies. In a Jackie O shift, a fur shawl, and a luscious blonde false beard, Schantz said of her facial hair: “It’s taboo. It makes me feel like I’m being naughty.” She was here to compete in “Ladies Artificial.” Besides, she said breezily, “I love beards on men.” Though—what a tragedy!—her own boyfriend can’t grow one; He’s a firefighter.
But at least he’s got a job, at least he isn’t competing in the Recession Beard category. The redhead who had nicknamed his beard “Pink Slip” sadly did not win. It was number 64, who had this to say for his victory speech: “[Expletive] the economy.”
“If you get laid off you can look on the bright side of things,” explained organizer Saccoman. “Now I can finally grow that beard, make it up on my own time.”
“The only thing the recession does is bring everyone down to my level,” said Jesse Harkins, who along with three bearded pals had driven up from Lancaster, Pennsylvania—“Where they have the best soil and the worst chins,” explained teammate Jeff Roth, whose beard studded out like the prongs of a sea anemone, due to lots of gel. The team, named “Bart Und Schnauser” (German for “beard and moustache”) celebrated the victory of member Leon Lutz, whose face is overrun by a thick swivel of moustache and two long C-shaped curves of kinky brown hair. “I’m a sculpture,” said Lutz, brandishing his gold medal. “I’m like a Greek Goddess. I’m Michael Phelps—only more high.”
In the audience, a well-shaved Ben Robbins would have stood out but for his false Groucho Marx moustache. Why the clean shave? “It’s the job,” Robbins said. And where do you work? “Finance.”