The most surprising thing to come out of the 2009 World Beard and Moustache Championships held in Anchorage over Memorial Day weekend was not the Americans' triumph over the long-dominant German competitors, with 11 first-place wins (including the overall champion category) to the Germans' five.
Nor was it startling to see 25-year-old Bay Area champ Jack Passion score a repeat victory in the "full beard natural" category with his glossy, flowing set of ginger chin whiskers.
No, the most astonishing thing about the event was the way three generations of men with a shared appreciation of facial hair spent four days unselfconsciously sharing grooming tips and kitting themselves out in outlandish garb that included Wild West costumes, Krishna robes, musketeer costumes, and pink suits with fringed hats.
Bonding as they went, they accessorized with whale baleen, harpoon guns and whisks. Some knotted flowers into their beards or coaxed their mustaches into wild forms (freestyle mustache winner Keith Haubrich's took the shape of kitchen utensils); others had the help of stylists -- including full-beard freestyle winner David Traver, whose beard was woven into the shape of a snowshoe.
The competition itself was a testosterone-fueled mash-up that fell somewhere between bachelor party and beauty pageant. A handful at a time, contestants in 18 categories took to the T-shaped runway in the cavernous Dena'ina Convention Center in downtown Anchorage, flanked by photographers and friends, in front of a panel of judges and a streaming Web camera.
Some men vamped and preened, others swaggered. They paraded while nursing beers, smoking cigarettes, carrying painters' palettes or incense burners. Some ended with a deep bow to the audience -- and one did deep-knee bends.
All were mindful of the contest's three elements, explained 2009 sideburn/mutton chop world champion Toot Joslin, a swimming pool contractor from Lake Tahoe, Calif. "First is the beard and what you do to it, second is the costume and third is the presentation to the judges. If you're in a military outfit, you might salute them; if it's a cowboy suit, you might mosey."
Joslin, who also does Old West re-enactments, competed in full mosey mode, wearing a Stetson, striped riding britches, spurs, canvas vest and a deputy marshal's badge. He's created an entire persona to go with his gargantuan white walrus-tusk sideburns.
This level of tonsorial commitment -- and the realization that, as many attendees put it: "You don't choose your beard, your beard chooses you" -- seemed to spark connections. "It's the first time I can remember when seniors and young adults weren't afraid to talk to each other," said Jack Tannatt, 61, a semi-retired Glendale resident who entered the full beard freestyle competition.
"It reminded me of Trekkies -- we all had the same thing in common and bonded over that. The level of camaraderie between the different age groups was pretty impressive."
Anyone walking past the intersection of 5th Avenue and G Street in Anchorage the day before the competition would have heard two partially bearded twentysomethings from New Orleans chatting with a pair of graybeards from Washington state about a hair spray called Freeze It that could be picked up at the local Wal-Mart.
Townspeople were happily pulled in as well. When podiatrist David Powell, from Mt. Vernon, Ind., couldn't find the right neckerchief to accent the beard he'd shaped like a whale's tail ("I did it on a fluke," he joked), a shopkeeper at a craft store called the Quilted Raven, whipped one up -- it shows a whale tail slapping the ocean's surface.
Powell's sidekick Breman Grove of Evansville, Ind. (who went on to win second place in the natural goatee category), raided the kitchen of the Westmark Hotel for a pie tin to stand in for a gold pan. Haubrich, a waiter from Seattle, cajoled a chef's smock out of the proprietors of a local eatery the Quilted Raven to complete his last-minute outfit.
Such enthusiastic fussing seemed natural, probably because the biennial facial hair competition provides a macho camouflage that allows men to trim and twist and curl and weave, to dye and oil and wax their whiskers, to play dress-up in top hats and tails or to dress down in bearskins and flannel and indulge in grooming rituals that under any other circumstances would be derided as peacockery or mocked as metrosexual.
In the end, the biggest surprise was that the beardsmen and stache-thletes who assembled in Anchorage don't grow their facial hair to hide anything. It turns out they do it to show exactly who they really are.
The hirsute high jinks continue in a gallery of photos from the championships.