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07.01.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by CURTIS CARTIER
By the hairs of his chinny chin chin: Paul Beisser's had a lifetime to perfect his goatee-ranching skills.

The Bold and The Bearded

The World Beard and Moustache Championships and the Santa Cruz connection

By Curtis Cartier and Jessica Fromm


FOR AS LONG as he's been an adult, Paul Beisser has had a beard. Be it a full and bushy face mane, a chiseled Fu-Manchu or a long and proud Van Dyke, the 58-year-old Santa Cruz postal worker's chin skin has rarely seen the light of day. It wasn't until May 23, at the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Anchorage, however, that the world finally recognized the whisker whiz for all his worth and awarded him the coveted trophy for World's Best Natural Goatee.

"Since I was about 18, I've had some sort of beard," says Beisser, a rack of white teeth gleaming from under his lip bristles. "One time I actually shaved my beard and I saw my mom and she said, 'Paul! Why on earth did you shave your beard?' At that point I decided that if even my mother wanted me to keep the beard, then I better leave it."

Beisser's face is the picture of kindliness. Gentle eyes bordered by crow's feet stare from behind fine-rimmed glasses just below a thinning mantle of hair pulled tight into a long ponytail. He speaks slowly, enunciating each syllable carefully and forcing the listener to savor every word like a piece of hard candy. His goatee explodes from around his mouth in a blossom of ash and sallow. But below his chin, the hair is quickly tamed into a long, twirled rope that dangles just past his sternum. This final step of twirling its length has been, according to Beisser, the most fruitful fashion decision he's ever made.

"Since I started twirling it, I get more compliments from women in a week then I had gotten my whole life before I twirled it," he says proudly. "They just say how neat and clean it is. It's nice for an old guy like me."

Beisser entered the beard contest on a suggestion from a co-worker at the Morrissey Boulevard Post Office--after "falling on the floor laughing," anyway. An avid hiker, cyclist and artistic photographer, Beisser says he was sold when he found out the contest was in Alaska. Driving his Subaru Baja solo the 3,300 miles to moose country, he spent the majority of his time exploring the far corners of the Last Frontier on his bicycle and kayak. And with the 2011 World Beard and Moustache Championships set in Trondheim, Norway, Beisser is planning to defend his title in a new and equally rugged locale. In fact, Beisser's 21-year-old son, Sterling Beisser, is hoping to raise the money needed to bring them both to the land of the Vikings, where he'll serve as his dad's "beard coach."

"My dad has always supported me in whatever I've done with my life. We've had some rocky roads, like any father and son, but I just hope I can be there to support him too," says Sterling, a local tattoo artist who lives with his girlfriend Becky at his father's house in Pleasure Point. "He can do it, though. He grows hair like crazy. It's like Jack and the Beanstalk growing off his chin."

Having a 2-foot-long beard isn't all awards, picture posing and fawning women. There are plenty of drawbacks, says Beisser, chief among which is the ever-present threat of getting it caught in car windows, refrigerator doors, or, God forbid, a moving object (see sidebar, page 21). And as a veteran fuzz farmer, Beisser knows to tuck it in his shirt anytime he's worried it might get caught in a painful nook. But in spite of his vigilance, he's still shut it in his car door enough times to know he needs to guard his beard like an added appendage.

Beisser also knows he's blessed to have such a rich outcrop of facial tresses and says he hopes to donate some of his mane (though likely the cranial variety) to the charity group Locks of Love, which provides human hair wigs for cancer patients and other follically challenged folks. Meanwhile, the goatee king is keeping his eyes on the prize, and, with a little luck and a decent comb, he might be taking home another trophy in two years.

"I'm just excited to compete in something," says Beisser. "I never thought I would actually win. But it's really just an excuse to travel and meet people, so I think I win either way."

About Face
Size matters to Jack Passion. So do length, shape, color, fullness, softness and overall beauty. Of his beard, that is. The UC-Santa Cruz graduate is the three-year reigning titleholder in the Full Beard Natural category of the World Beard and Moustache Championships and 2009 winner of the Third Overall award. Equivalent to the Olympic gold medal in the esoteric realm of international competitive facial hair, this honor designates the 25-year-old Walnut Creek resident's beard as the finest on the planet.

"I know I have the best beard in the world," Passion states. "It's just beautiful hair, there's no way around that. I'm young, I'm healthy and I take care of it. I know the game, and I'm confident in that."

In 2007, at the tender age of 23, Passion came out of nowhere to sweep the world Full Beard Natural title, upsetting the dominant German team and heralding a new era in the "sport." He is considered by many to be the Tiger Woods of bearding.

Passion doesn't shrink from that lofty assessment: "Tiger Woods redefined the game of golf; I like to think that I redefined how to wear a beard. It's about the most beautiful beard. They're like a piece of art. It doesn't have to be the most technically superior piece of art, but it's what moves you the most, and I've moved the judges consistently."

"Jack is pretty much our MVP," says Phil Olsen, the founder and self-appointed captain of Beard Team USA. "Whenever there is a beard competition, Jack wins it,"

Olsen, too, is comfortable with the Woods comparison. "I think his record in beard competitions is better than Tiger Woods' record in golf tournaments," Olsen figures. "What's important to remember, though, is that there are 18 different categories for competition. Jack is only in one category, but the category he is in is the one that's the most prestigious and most competitive. Jack is definitely the superstar."

Northern California is home to a handful of competitive facial hair all-stars, all of whom have been growing, brushing, clipping, conditioning and styling their fuzz for Beard Team USA.

Gilroy resident Gary Hagen, owner of the 2003 World Championships Handlebar [Imperial] Moustache title, has been painstakingly curling his world-class 'stache for years. Olsen, perhaps the most influential man in the world of American competitive facial hair and owner of a big black beard, lives in Tahoe City. Aarne Bielefeldt and his 2-foot-long gray beard hail from Willits. New to the competition this year was 25-year-old San Francisco resident Myk O'Connor.

In the 19th century, a full beard and a full belly signaled success; from Abraham Lincoln to William Howard Taft, only two presidents (Andrew Johnson and William McKinley) didn't sport some kind of extravagant facial foliage. After the smooth Art Deco groove of the 1920s and '30s, the beard became the domain of bikers, beats, mountain men, hippies and professors.

Men who shun the razor have long had to endure comparisons to Chewbacca, Cat Stevens or ZZ Top. Similarly, those men who have manicured their whiskers into mustaches have to deal with the barrage of '70s porn star and Super Troopers jokes.

Lately, however, a new age has dawned for American men, and the metrosexual preference for skin as smooth as a baby's bottom has given way to the "I don't give a shit anymore" recession beard. Not to be confused with the sports playoff beard, or the result of a frat-house dirty-man competition, the recession beard is the byproduct of the recently pink-slipped male who no longer has to keep up appearances.

"A lot of guys go through phases where they don't want to look so cleaned up. So, they let their facial hair grow a little bit and dress more casual," says Bob Paez, owner of Garden Theater Barber Shop in San Jose.

"The current thing right now is that some guys will wear a beard that's like a Miami Vice-type of beard, where it's like three days' growth, and they sketch it out. Some guys have the long hairs they clean up with shears and clippers and make them look nice and uniform. That's because a lot of guys are looking for jobs, and they have to have their groomed beards and mustaches cleaned up."

Even the ironic mustache has come back thick and full in the last few years, spurred by the urban hipster set.

"The mustache made it through somehow," Passion says. "People are like, 'Hey, I'm Tom Selleck, check out my Pontiac GTO.' The mustache came back ironically, with hipsters growing ironic mustaches."

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Photograph by FELIPE BUITRAGO
Mr. Natural: Keeping up with his luxurious, prize-winning chin locks is a full-time job for Jack Passion.

Philosopher's Follicles
Jack Passion displays an eccentric charisma both on and off the bearding stage. A freelance bass player, he's used his success on the competition circuit to propel his entrepreneurial carrier. "My beard is my brand, it's my business. I am my day job," Passion says.

This March saw the release of his first E-book, titled Jack Passion's Facial Hair Handbook, detailing his own beard-care regimen. Fans can also purchase the "Jack Passion Beard Shirt" (sold at jackpassion.com), as well as his first solo album, titled At the Opera.

Passion says the knew his facial hair was going to be prolific from a very young age: "I had huge sideburns at 13, big lamb chops. It was like instant street cred. I was the man."

He decided to grow out his beard during his freshman year at UC-Santa Cruz, where he studied philosophy (a very beardy major, he says). "I had this big thick red beard, and it was nuts; everybody loved it, and I loved it too. I was like, maybe this is a sign. This beard is like major; maybe I'm supposed to have a beard."

Passion first heard about the World Beard and Moustache Championships in 2003, when it was held in Carson City, Nev. He didn't attend, however, a decision he instantly regretted when he saw photos of the competition afterward.

"I went to the next one in Berlin. I had always wanted to go to Germany, and I was, like, I can tell my grandkids I went to a world beard championship, how cool is that? I ended up getting third place in Full Beard Natural. Everyone was like, 'Who is this 21-year-old American kid?'"

Three years later, at the 2007 Brighton, England, World Championships, Passion finally won the main event. Dressed in a blinding-white tuxedo to accentuate his gingery chin fire, he took first place in Full Beard Natural, narrowly beating out Sweden's Gunnar Rosenquist, who dressed as a wizard.

"I knew that it was going to be me and one other guy. It was going to be because his was twice as long as mine but his was thin and gray. He just didn't have the passion," says Passion.

Passion's family, whom he describes as "'60s San Francisco cowboy hippies," have always been supportive of his gargantuan beard, and even more so since he started winning competitions with it.

A born performer, Passion admits that he got into beard growing for the attention. He says the beard is also a good way to meet women: "For girls, it's a great conversation starter. I think of it as the hook. Once the hook is set, we're having fish tonight."

"It's kind of like Sex Panther cologne: 60 percent of the time it works 100 percent of the time. There are definitely certain types of girls that are way more into beards then others. At 2 in the morning, you get the girls who understand the latent thing with facial hair. It's a secondary sex characteristic; they're like 'Oh, I need that. That's what a man is.' Or they just want to cross a beard guy off their list."

In the run-up to the championships in Anchorage this spring, Passion was totally secure in his ability to retain his title. " I'm confident, I don't think I have any real competitors. There's a lot more people competing this time, but I'm not trippin'. None of these guys know what I know."

'Old Men Gone Wild'
When Gary Hagen became the world champion in 2003, his mustache measured 10 inches from tip to tip, curving in slightly at the ends. The 56-year-old Gilroy resident was the first American to ever win gold in the handlebar mustache category, known as the "Imperial mustache" in Europe.

Working on his mustache since 1994, Hagen has spent the last five years seeing how big he can get it to grow and how perfectly and symmetrically he can make it curl. Now, having produced a 20-inch-long masterpiece, Hagen is feeling fine. "I really believe I'm the portrait of an American champion," he says, "not because I have a title, and not because I have a trophy, but because I went from a standard handlebar and taught myself how to do a really long, curly handlebar mustache, without a mentor and without an instruction manual. It was brutal to learn how to do."

For competitions, he can spend a half-hour or more shaping his mustache with his own secret hot wax-based concoction, which keeps it stiff and the curl tight.

"I'm not a prima donna with it, though I can be for special events. I usually do the slap-it-together, go-to-work mustache. I can't spend the time every day," says Hagen.

Hagen, a checker at a Safeway in Morgan Hill since 2000, has gained a reputation around South County as the "mustache guy," the talkative, chipper checker with the great big 'stache. "The public are my cheerleaders. They would give me all these great accolades; it cheers me on to my perimeters of awesome," Hagen says.

He found growing his mustache for competition so challenging that he developed the "Gary Manifesto" to encourage himself to keep going: "I rise up to the challenge of waxing one of the world's greatest handlebar mustaches. I am forceful and fearless. I am tough and tenacious. I will create a masterpiece out of my mustache and my life."

Of course, sporting a handlebar mustache is against Safeway's employee policy, and Hagen has gotten grief for his exceptional mustache. He has had managers over the years tell him to cut it off, though he has resisted. He says his current boss is OK with it, and Hagen loves the reaction he gets.

"It's not every day that somebody mentions it, but it's often and constant. It's only a matter of time before somebody goes off about my mustache," he says. In Santa Cruz, he says, the attention is particularly intense.

"When I come to Santa Cruz, the interest level in the mustache spikes dramatically," he says. "People show more interest than they do in San Jose, probably because there are a lot of young people there. Young people are into it. College is a time in their life when they can experiment, grow a beard and mustache and dreadlocks."

During the holidays, Hagen has even been known to hang small Christmas tree ornaments off his mustache. He has also dyed it green for St. Patrick's Day and stuck small flags in it for the Fourth of July.

"The most satisfying time I made somebody laugh with adornments in my mustache was at Stanford Hospital," Hagen recalls. "I was walking around the cafeteria after donating blood. This lady started laughing, and I found out later it was probably one of the worst days of her life. I ran into her on a park bench out front of the building when I was leaving, and she said she had just found out her son might not live. I've never wanted to be a standup comedian, but it's really satisfying making people laugh, because when they laugh, you laugh too. It's a win-win thing."

Hagen wasn't laughing at the 2009 championships in Anchorage, though. Unable to afford to travel to Europe to attend competitions, he couldn't defend his handlebar mustache title at the 2005 and 2007 championships, so it was his second time in an international contest. For the Alaska competition he was ready, with raccoon coat and period morning suit, to dress as a turn-of-the-century gentleman to match his mustache's old-timey style. But his plan was stymied in pre-judging when a panel determined that Hagen wasn't eligible to compete in the handlebar (or Imperial) category, owing to a technique he'd borrowed from East Indian gentlemen whereby hairs from several millimeters below the bottom lip are used to augment the mustache, making it longer and more luxurious. "I was forced to compete in freestyle partial beard, and I didn't win a thing," he says, adding that he considers the distinction a matter of, well, splitting hairs. "I tell people, 'I no longer have a mustache, I have a partial beard,' and they roll their eyes in disbelief."

Still, it's good fun. "I call the contest 'Old men gone wild,'" says Hagen. "It's like meeting your brothers. You walk into a room, and everybody looks like you. It's kind of like coming home. It's hysterically funny, kick-in-the-pants fun. Older men can be creative and wild, too. It's a good brotherhood."


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