The Wall Street Journal
The Competition Was Thick and Growing
May 18, 2006; Page D8

New York

It was almost midnight Tuesday, and soon Graham Veysey's mustache would be history. This facial extravaganza he'd been nurturing and grooming since he decided a month and a half ago to enter The New York City Beard and Moustache Championships had taken him to the finals in his division. But glory was one thing, continued employment quite another.

While his boss understands and applauds the competitive spirit, "he gave me a directive," said Mr. Veysey. "After tonight I've got to shave it off."

A television producer, Mr. Veysey had briefly considered growing a mustache while at Bates College but then decided to run for student body president -- he won -- and "having it just would not have been appropriate," he said. At age 24, with politics and idealism behind him, a prize-winning soup strainer was the next big goal. Mr. Veysey likens his mustache to that of porn star John Holmes but, even with his face foliage, is the sort you'd inevitably describe as clean cut. "I had doubts about coming here," he confessed, "but it's like the New York Marathon. You know the Kenyans are going to win, but you compete anyway."

The New York City Championships, which attracted some two-dozen competitors and a capacity crowd of 400, came about as a way to publicize "Splitting Hairs," a documentary in the works about the World Beard and Moustache Championship (WBMC), a biennial event to determine the best in 17 categories.

These include the Dali mustache (a thin wisp with an upward tilt); the Wild West mustache (Wyatt Earp's your guy); the Imperial chin and cheek beard (think Kaiser Wilhelm I); the full beard natural (contestants in this group must forswear styling aids like gel or wax); and full beard freestyle (the most recent winner at the international level had whiskers shaped like the Brandenburg Gate). Costumes are welcomed -- in fact, encouraged.

The New York event held at the Knitting Factory, a music club in lower Manhattan, was a far more modest affair than the WBMC, with a mere four categories. These included "patchy," apparently for those who lack the hair-withal for a full beard. "We were going to have a category for people who resemble Kenny Rogers, but no one signed up," said the competition's organizer, Jon Friedman, referring to the pop-country star.

"People want to find a way to be seen and to be known for something, and not everyone is athletic," continued Mr. Friedman, explaining the contestants' collective psyche. "These people have found a way through facial hair to compete."

Those dissatisfied with this explanation may want to direct further questions to Phil Olsen, the founder of the World Beard and Moustache Association, a two-year-old organization designed to encourage friendship through friendly international competition. "Why the competition? Maybe it's because men are competitive about everything," said Mr. Olsen, 57, who sports a foot-long beard and who was in town both to judge the event (his day job is settlement conference judge for the Nevada Supreme Court) and to do some recruiting for beard and mustache team U.S.A. "There are some who find this a dubious achievement. I would say it's all in fun. Some people, I think, take it too seriously."

By "some people," Mr. Olsen was no doubt thinking about the Germans. The political infighting at the Olympic Games -- all those niggling debates about the suitability of certain events -- isn't a patch on the disputes in the international facial-hair arena.

According to Mr. Olsen, there are a number of beard and mustache clubs in Germany. The world championships took root in the '90s, when a couple of those clubs decided to meet on the field of display. Subsequently, several other European countries and the U.S. became involved, "but it was always the German organization that pretty much controlled where and when the championships would be held," said Mr. Olsen, who by dint of his impressive beard and his fluent German was able to effect something of a power grab: In 2003, the world championships were held in Carson City, Nev., with a panel of judges that included the chief justice of the Nevada supreme court and the then-reigning Miss Nevada. Look for a rematch in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2009.

"I want the United States to be a force to be reckoned with in international beard and mustache competition," said the doughty Mr. Olsen. "We're way behind the Germans. In Berlin, in 2005, they won 14 out of 17 events." The U.S. triumphed in only one category, a controversial one at that: sideburns. "The Germans didn't want it, because it's not a style of facial hair they recognize," he said.

"The Germans," Mr. Olsen added sternly, "made the rules, they defined the categories, they picked the judges, they determined the venues. Still, they invented the game, and I have to give them credit for that."

On Tuesday night, the local talent in the free-style beard competition didn't stand a chance, what with the presence of German, European and world title holder Heinz Christopher, who appeared set to play Captain Hook and whose luxuriant, pronged foliage could have provided housing for much of Manhattan's avian population. "This will be one of the best competitions I've ever taken part in," he said. "It's not so serious. I hope my being here will give beard presence in the U.S. a boost." Mr. Christopher won his category -- and by far more than a whisker.

"Facial hair needs to be solid -- full and thick," Mr. Olsen explained. "There needs to be a clear line between where the beard is and isn't. Each whisker should add to the overall impression and none should detract from it."

Some audience members were there simply for the diversion, others to window shop. "I love beards," said Jana Kellner, a receptionist from Alberta, Canada, who was taking digital photos of her favorites.

"She's going to choose the one she wants me to grow," said Ms. Kellner's boyfriend, Jamie Mackenzie, an anthropology professor. "And I'm going to grow it to the best of my ability."

Depending on their level of self-confidence or perhaps their blood-alcohol level, contestants simply walked on stage, nodded to the screaming fans and presented themselves to the trio of judges or shimmied and gyrated like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever."

Mr. Veysey chose the latter, going so far as to rip off his polo shirt ("there was a tear in it already," he explained later), remove his belt and rope the emcee.

"It was a little embarrassing," he said of his performance. "But I felt I had to put it out there because I'm only going to do this once in my life. I could hide behind the mustache and do things the hairless Graham wouldn't do."

"It changes your personality," agreed Jay Della Valle, a filmmaker who's been working on his handlebar mustache since the fall of 2004. "You start acting and doing things in ways you would never do without a mustache. I started wearing cowboy boots. And," he added, "I live in New Jersey."

Ms. Kaufman writes about the arts and culture for the Journal.