WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — The dusty red Geo coasts into a parking spot and stops directly in front of a sign that reads "15-minute parking." The driver strokes his beard and waves his hand at the warning, like Merlin, trying to make it disappear from the Walnut Creek mini-mall. "That doesn't apply to Jack Passion," he says.
Jack Passion seems to be able to bypass other conventions as well. When he enters a coffeehouse in the mini-mall, part of a tour of local haunts, baristas gape in wonder and drinks are on the house. When he walks down the streets of his hometown, passersby greet him with smiles and slaps on the back.
It's all because the 25-year-old musician sports a cascading corn silk of red hair that tumbles to his belt and makes him look like Elijah Wood grafted to a ZZ Top beard.
In 2007, those majestic whiskers earned Passion a first place in the "full beard: natural" category of the World Beard and Moustache Championships (WBMC) in Brighton, England, and overnight celebrity in the insular subculture of competitive facial hair.
Since then he has incorporated, launching a line of organic cotton T-shirts silk-screened with the likeness of that full ginger beard. Last week he put the finishing touches on a self-published how-to tome called "The Facial Hair Handbook." In addition, Passion, a bass guitarist, is recording his first solo album, "At the Opera."
But there's one thing that stands in the way of Jack Passion's campaign to fully leverage his follicular fame. One simple thing that can swat away all the bragging rights, cut into book sales, endanger endorsement deals and maybe, just maybe, end all that free java. On Saturday, at the biennial battle of the bearded and mustachioed in Anchorage, the defending world champion will have to step in front of the judges and do it all over again.
"People are gunning for me," Passion says. "There are people talking . . . on the Internet. America doesn't love champions, America loves underdogs."
Though men have no doubt been engaged in low-level facial-hair competition since the first Neanderthal learned to scrape hair from his cheeks with a flinty arrowhead, the WBMC can be traced to the Verband Deutscher Bartclubs (Assn. of German Beard Clubs), which held the first contest in 1990 in the Black Forest village of Hofen-Enz. From 1995 on, the contest has taken place every two years, attracting clubs from around the world.
In 1999, when Phil Olsen, Passion's teammate and now captain of Beard Team USA, stumbled across the Eurocentric event, he was one of only two Americans at the competition. He decided, pretty much there and then, to build American awareness and participation. "It wasn't going to truly be a world competition unless America had adequate representation," said Olsen, a part-time judge from Lake Tahoe.
Eventually the Germans reached out to him about holding the face-off in the United States, which resulted in 2003's event in Carson City, Nev., where 60 Americans competed and claimed four victories (including Gary Hagen of Gilroy, Calif., who won for his Imperial -- a.k.a. handlebar -- mustache).
Media coverage from Carson City helped build interest in Beard Team USA (an umbrella organization of loosely affiliated clubs), and this year, 185 Americans (out of a total of 248 contestants) have registered to compete in Anchorage's Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. They will be judged by a panel of locals -- including dog mushers, hair-care professionals and a pro hockey player -- who will be looking for adherence to strict rules governing length and shape as well as subjective criteria such as presentation and confidence. Costumes are crucial, and contestants have been known to doff their hats, blow kisses and do somersaults on stage.
For all their trouble, the winners in the 18 categories will return home with trophies. (The contest sponsors are local businesses -- pubs, restaurants and hardware stores -- and proceeds go to charity.) But participants say the bragging rights for the next two years are all the reward they need.
With the competition back on American soil, a relatively young team, and who knows what kind of facial fur from the Alaskan wilderness, Olsen thinks this year is the tipping point. "If we could win 12 gold that would be spectacular," he said. And Jack Passion plays a big role in his plans.
Passion grew up in Walnut Creek and describes himself as "the son of aging San Francisco hippies," who, he says, blessed him with the middle name Passion, which he has adopted as his professional identity. He asked that his real surname not be published. Apparently, even the modest level of tonsorial distinction he's achieved to date has made him the target of cyber-harassment.
"Right now there's someone pretending to be me on Twitter," he said. "They're saying all kinds of things, sexual innuendo, things I'd never say."