It's been derided as a soup strainer, cookie duster, lip spinach and even face fungus, but if Australian expat Adam Garone has his way, each November the maligned mustache will become as potent a symbol in the fight against cancer as the pink ribbons that blossom each October in support of breast cancer awareness.
"I call it our hairy ribbon," said Garone, explaining that supporters of the movement start the month of "Movember" ("mo" is Aussie slang for mustache) cleanshaven and, for the next 30 days, cultivate the facial forest between nose and mouth (no beards and no goatees, please) as a way to raise money and awareness in the battle against prostate and testicular cancers.
Garone, the co-founder and chief executive of the Movember Foundation, says the campaign started on a lark in 2003, the result of a Sunday afternoon conversation in a Melbourne pub. "A bunch of us were just sitting around talking about how everything from '80s fashion was coming back -- except for that mustache. Our dads had them, the sports stars of the day had them. So, for no particular reason, we decided to grow our mos."
Shortly after that, Garone (pronounced Guh-ROW-nee) and his buddies realized the exercise in follicular folly would make a great way to help stereotypically reticent menfolk start talking about health issues. "Especially prostate cancer," Garone said. "It's the cancer that affects the most men; 1 in 6 of us will get it in our lifetime, and it's as big an issue as breast cancer, but there's a significant gap in the level of funding and awareness. And I firmly put that down to the fact that we, as men, are apathetic about our health, and just don't want to talk about it."
While the organization has raised $47 million to fund prostate cancer research worldwide, the movement only reached the upper lips of American men in 2007. That's when Garone decamped to the West Coast, settling here in Venice. That first year saw 2,000 U.S. participants raise $600,000. Last year 7,000 stateside "mo bros" (and their supporting "mo sistas") raised $1.1 million, which went to the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Garone says just getting men to raise the issue is even more important than raising funds, and that's the special magic of the stand-alone 'stache. "When it's somebody who doesn't normally have a mustache, the guy becomes a walking billboard. . . . We want them to go home at Thanksgiving and have a dinner conversation; ask their dads and uncles if they've been screened for prostate cancer."
This year, for the first time, the Movember monies will be split between the Prostate Cancer Foundation and a new beneficiary, the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Garone points out that testicular cancer, which that group's namesake founder famously battled, is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for 18- to 35-year-old men.
To get onboard, participants need to register and join the campaign at www.movember.com "> www.movember.com as an individual or part of a team (women can join as supporters), and then ask friends, family and colleagues to sponsor their 'stache-growing efforts. At the end of the month, mo bros will celebrate with a series of parties around the country (in L.A., the party is slated for Dec. 4).
As for when the "hairy ribbon" of men's health reaches breast cancer awareness' pink ribbon level of mass cultural awareness? Based on the success of efforts Down Under, Garone thinks it's about three or four years down the road. "In the scope of things that's not very long at all," Garone said.
Not bad at all for a 3-year-old, grass-roots, word-of-mouth whisker campaign.