“No competition comes without controversy, and this one is no exception.” –Gary Hagen, 2003 Handlebar Moustache World Champion
Decked out in a silver vest and black cowboy hat with twin six-shooters slung from his waist, Kevin Riordan surveyed the scene from a grassy slope. A man in a lion costume with a blond mane and scraggly sand-colored beard walked by and slapped someone on the back with his tail. A barbarian drank beer from a hollowed-out animal horn, his thick, curly black beard absorbing the white foam like a sponge. A woman with an “I heart chubby bearded guys” T-shirt and a beer in each hand strolled past free samples of Just for Men hair color scattered in the grass.
The National Beard and Moustache Championships had come to the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater in Las Vegas, Riordan’s hometown, but the 32-year-old two-time regional facial hair contest winner wasn’t socializing with his bearded brethren. Riordan was watching the competitors in the Natural Goatee category onstage. And he was feeling slighted. “I’d been waiting for this for months, and I feel like it was ripped away from me at the last minute,” he said.
Riordan says he has been growing his goatee, which nearly reaches his toes, for 12 years. The red spike of hair that descends from his chin is harnessed by more than 80 black rubber bands spaced at regular intervals and has won him trophies in LA and Davis, California, in the Natural Goatee category. But before Las Vegas nationals, one of the judges in both of those contests and a former goatee champion himself, Paul Beisser, argued that Riordan’s rubber bands constituted a “styling aid,” forbidden in the natural categories. After a contentious dispute, which included the threat of a boycott, barbs traded over Facebook and numerous people from the beard and mustache community weighing in, Riordan was asked to either take the rubber bands out or switch categories.
Beisser, who has a gray and white tuft shooting from his chin, did compete in the Natural Goatee category, but didn’t make it to the finals. Afterward, he stood by the stage and shook the other contestants’ hands, congratulating them. “It’s the brotherhood of the goatee, man; brotherhood of the goatee.”
The idea for the National Beard and Moustache Championships was taken from the Germans. The World Beard and Moustache Championships started in Germany in the 1990s, and Phil Olsen, a Lake Tahoe resident who speaks German and owns a coal-black beard of his own, witnessed the competition in Sweden in 1999 and fell in love.
Olsen was integral in bringing the World Championships to the U.S. in 2003, and in 2010, he founded the National Beard and Moustache Championships. The competition, which came to Vegas for the first time this year, brought contestants from more than 40 states and half a dozen countries to battle for bragging rights in 18 categories, including Dalí, Musketeer, Garibaldi and Amish.
While the German competition tends toward older contestants and a more staid atmosphere, American competitors skew younger, many wearing costumes to match their facial hair. On Sunday, there were men in kilts and dresses, a Union soldier, cowboys, a garden gnome, Paul Bunyan, Luigi, a unicycle rider, ship captains, mariachis, a monk and Yosemite Sam. Competitors congratulated each other on victories and stopped to offer compliments on a perfectly pointy Dalí mustache or the amber highlights in a particularly luscious, full beard. Aarne Bielefeldt, a German émigré who now lives off the grid in Northern California, said he uses a combination of olive oil, lavender oil and rosemary to keep his belly-button length gray beard healthy enough to spin into swirls and loops that extend from his face like octopus arms.
This year, Olsen made an attempt to unify the national regulations with those of the international championships, one reason Riordan was asked to switch categories. It also led Gary Hagen, the 2003 champion in the Imperial Moustache category, to protest switching the name of his ’stache from the American “handlebar” to the German “imperial.”
“It’s an insult to America, apple pie and Rollie Fingers,” Hagen said of the name change, referring to the relief pitcher who helped make the handlebar mustache famous and currently resides in Las Vegas.
Having been kicked out of the Natural Goatee category, Riordan was bumped into Partial Beard Freestyle, which allows for styling aids. Typically, freestyle competitors use wax, gel and hair spray to create elaborate designs, some spending hours to shape their facial hair into everything from intricate geometric patterns to depictions of buildings. Still, Riordan decided to wear his goatee on competition day as he does every day. “I think if I change it now I’d be selling it out to win, and I don’t want to do that.”
For spectators not entwined in the world of competitive facial hair, the controversies of the championships went mostly unnoticed amid the spectacle. Competitors said the disputes were part of the growing pains of the competition and that the spirit of fraternity still prevailed.
Jack Passion, the two-time World Champion for Full Natural Beard, stood backstage with gold-rimmed sunglasses topping his flowing, auburn beard. Passion is well known for his competitive success, his book about beards, The Facial Hair Handbook, and his starring role on the IFC reality TV show Whisker Wars.
Asked about the opposing currents of brotherhood and competition at the event, Passion said he wasn’t surprised. “It’s like motorcycle riders. There’re guys who ride Harleys and guys who ride BMWs. They’re different people with different lifestyles and different ideas. There is commonality there, but there are bound to be clashes.” Passion added that facial hair competitors are men who buck trends and have strong individualistic tendencies and personalities. “They want validation,” he said, “and you get it by winning.”
Later in the afternoon, Riordan stepped onstage in the category he assumed he had no chance of winning. He works in construction, and typically tucks his massive goatee into a full-body mechanic’s suit, protected from sharp objects and the sparks from welders. Now it was time to let his goatee shine. When Riordan left the amphitheater that evening, he had a first-place medal hanging from his neck. And his chin—and 12-year-old goatee—held high.