M.J. Simpson tweaks his ‘tasche and enters the curious and secretive world of the competitive facial hair convention.
“The beard is narrow and pointed. The moustache is slender, long, and drawn out in a slight bow. The moustache may not include hairs growing from more than 1.5 cm past the corners of the mouth. Styling aids are permitted.”
Welcome to the extraordinary world of competitive facial hair-growing.
Every so often there will be a quirky story on a website or in a newspaper about a beard and moustache competition, with photos of elderly, often German, gentlemen, their beards sculpted into fantastical curved shapes implying an homage to the work of Henry Moore. Beard competitions are one of those odd fringe hobbies that seem to exist in their own little world, somewhere between bodybuilding and trainspotting.
In August I noticed a tweet that mentioned the 5th British Beard and Moustache Championships was being held a few days hence, in the town of Rugby, only 80 minutes or so from chez Simpson. For the past two years I have sported a rather natty ’tache with (when I want to look presentable) waxed ends. It fitted the criteria for the ‘handlebar moustache’ category (“A bushy extended moustache with graspable extremities curled up in open or closed loops to resemble bicycle handlebars. Styling aids are permitted.”) and Her Ladyship granted me day release so I submitted my application fee and braced myself for a new experience.
The BBMC has been held every two years since 2012, albeit the 2020 event was postponed to this year. The magnificent Temple Speech Rooms of Rugby School provided a suitable gothic setting, in a town with an extraordinarily large number of barbers. (“A few years ago, it was held in a working men’s club,” confided one of my fellow competitors.)
About 120 men competed, including some who had travelled from Germany, Belgium, Iceland and the USA, especially for this event. With assorted wives, girlfriends, children and organisers there were about 200 people present. So it was the size of a small, specialist science fiction convention, and with the same feel of enthusiastic amateur organisational zeal.
There were twenty categories of beard and/or moustache, defined by shape and length, plus two ‘fake beard’ categories for women (‘creative’ and ‘realistic’) and one for kids. Two categories had no entrants – sadly no one had styled their moustache in an unavoidably racist ‘Fu Manchu’ – while some had only two or three entrants, guaranteeing all competitors a podium place. Others had 15 or 20 blokes vying for honours.
Two fancily clad hosts (a man in a blue doublet, a woman in a sequinned gold dress) conducted proceedings and certainly earned their keep. One by one, each contestant in each category was ushered on stage and asked a few questions. Since everyone there was, by definition, extrovert and exhibitionist, the hosts had no difficulty in soliciting responses (except from some of the little kids).
About half the contestants had gone for some degree of ‘dapper’, with large amounts of tweed on display and many waistcoats. (I affected a fancy brocade number, under a purple jacket, teamed with what I think was the event’s only cravat.) Some men went all-out with actual fancy dress, while others were dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt. Again, not unlike a sci-fi con. The most extreme was a portly fellow dressed as an Oxo cube (big cardboard box, silver foil, red writing) who had managed to train his ’tache into the same brand name!
Where the BBMC differed from my experience of conventions was in its relentless progress through the categories. It was a tiring day, like watching a con masquerade contest, but one that lasted (checks watch) six and a half hours. Albeit there was a 40-minute musical break halfway through with a performance by a local singer-songwriter. There was also a burger grill, a coffee van and a bar, plus several dealers’ stalls, where manufacturers of male grooming products proffered their wares. Since everything was running late, I left before the raffle and a performance by a local band.
Those competitors whose category was in the second half needed to keep their facial hair, styled at breakfast time, looking good throughout the day. Hence the most unique, Bizarro Universe aspect of the whole event: there were always free cubicles in the ladies, but there was a constant queue for the gents, including many folks who merely wanted to pamper and preen themselves in front of the mirror.
I can’t deny it was a friendly event, with generous, increasingly raucous support for every single competitor and every award recipient, and with everyone happy to pose for photos and selfies. Four judges sat hunched over laptops with, presumably, identical spreadsheets of criteria. After speaking with the hosts, each contestant passed over to the judges’ table to be examined in detail while the next person had their on-stage chat.
To my extreme surprise, I came second in my category (from a field of six), meaning that for the next 24 months I can legitimately claim to have the officially second-best handlebar moustache in Britain. I don’t know what the judges were looking for, but it certainly wasn’t size as my moustache was probably the smallest in the entire competition. I would hazard a guess that I scored well on neatness and symmetry.
I was one of several newbies, but most people there were experienced competitors, with some belonging to various facial hair clubs and societies. There is apparently a globally roving world event (another similarity to SF fandom) where, I was told, Europeans view the whole thing as fun but some of the Americans take it all very seriously. There is a beard and moustache contest somewhere in the States pretty much every weekend apparently and, unlike in Europe, there are substantial cash prizes to be won.
My own prize was a somewhat wobbly, silver-painted rugby ball with a moustache, on a wooden block, plus some gubbins from one of the sponsoring dealers. I can’t imagine I’ll be back in two years to challenge for the gold, having achieved such unlikely success so early on. But as an insight into a rarely glimpsed subculture, it was a fascinating day.
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