The crowd is drunk and antsy for the show to start. Then, suddenly, a medium build man makes his way across the room and there's a noticeable drop in the rowdy volume. I know instantly this has to be Jack Passion and, with his lush orange beard tumbling gently to his waist, I now completely understand how he became the two-time world champion bearder in the full natural beard category.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, college students, soccer dads and grandpas are letting their manliness blossom in the form of facial hair. But while ordinary whiskers may be commonplace on the streets, they're nothing compared to the au natural, waxed or styled extravaganzas found at beard and moustache competitions scheduled regularly around the US and the world.
The Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective, Portland Oregon's beard and moustache chapter, started in June 2010. The interest however has been overwhelming. On January 24, 2011 the group hosted the first West Coast Beard and Moustache Championships drawing in competitors from around the state and as far away as Pennsylvania, Texas and California. The event, scheduled at the undesirable hour of 4pm on a Sunday by the folks at the Crystal Ballroom (who expected a poor turn out), saw people lining up around the block for up to two hours, causing the contest start an hour and a half late.
But this wasn't a problem for the competitors for whom beer and enjoying it with their fellow beardsmen is as important as showing up for the event.
Shawn Hasson, a young hopeful from Fresno in Scottish garb and endowed with a several-inch-long curled and waxed moustache tells me, "Really these shows are about meeting and hanging out with other bearded guys."
With a two-year-old moustache he's new to the scene and pays his own way to and from the shows but the fun, he says makes it worth the cost.
Around the ballroom beards are omni-present, from casual scruff and women in stick-on moustaches to the obvious stars with their long or flamboyantly styled facial hair. Many of the professional bearders are dressed in gimmicky costumes. Abe Lincoln is there as well as a garden gnome, several English gents with curled handlebar moustaches, some cowboys, a mafia looking fellow with a thick black moustache and dark glasses and a grey-haired guy in lederhosen and a beard down to his waist. They walk around happily getting their pictures snapped with their fans.
I talk with the mafia-looking guy, Steve Scarpa from Southern California who tells me his bearding career started in 2003 when he was "discovered" by Phil Olsen the president of Beard Team USA in the audience at a beard competition.
"Then there were 30 or 40 members," he tells me. "Now there are a couple hundred. It's exploding."
Scarpa introduces me to Brian Snoderly one of the founders of Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective who happens to be walking by. Snoderly has a manicured beard and moustache, a silver bar through his nose and the biggest "plug" earrings I've ever seen. It ends up Portland's bearding group was started by Crystal Ballroom employees, the venue of the night's contest, and the proceeds will go towards a scholarship fund at Portland State University. But Snoderly tells me, as everyone else has, that the shows are more about camaraderie and beer drinking than anything else.
"Steve Scarpa tattooed the Beard Team USA emblem on my calf last night do you want to see it?" he says pulling up his pant leg.
Just then another bearded man walks by and says "Showing everyone the tip of your penis again are you Brian?"
Much to my surprise, the star of this world, Jack Passion, who brought near-silence to a room of drunk people less than half an hour ago, stops to join our conversation, or possibly to get a glimpse of the end of Brian's penis. As you'd expect from a guy with a long ginger beard, Jack is easy-going and ready to talk with his fans, including me. He dispels the rumors I've heard that he's not competing this year to give other beards a chance and tells me, in what seems a forced breach of his humbleness, that he's "unbeatable." As for beards becoming more fashionable he says that "men love to be appreciated as men," and that from the night's turn-out, the Pacific Northwest has got to be a center of the facial hair fad in America.
But do chicks dig beards? Passion's Facial Hair Handbook website assures that "your beard or moustache will get you laid!" but at least at the West Coast Championships I notice that it does more than that: most competitors are accompanied by their undeniably attractive wives or girlfriends. Yes, there's something about a beard that gives a guy an honest, cuddly dad-vibe, and that's something many women would like to take home for more than the night.
The show starts with the natural beard and moustache competition and as the first contestant prances down the catwalk in a tight 70s shirt, kicking like a Vegas dancer, the crowd cheers as if Katy Perry just walked on stage. Next is a man's man kind-of-guy wearing a baseball cap and a button up blue shirt - he gets a cacophony of hoots from the crowd including a loud yell "Now that's sex!!!"
Once the twenty or so contestants have strutted their stuff the audience yells their favorites to the judges and I start to understand why I saw earplugs on sale by the bar. Following come the Partial Beard, Natural Moustache, Natural Full-Beard, Natural Full-Beard With Styled Moustache and lastly, the Freestyle Beard categories. Some of the contestants just walk the catwalk, perhaps caressing their facial locks, while others get in character by shooting fake guns, playing a toy electric guitar or ripping off their shirts exposing beer guts and tattoos.
The crowd never settles and every contestant gets catcalls and enthusiastic support. But even after the awards ceremony, I have to agree with the beardsmen I spoke to. This isn't an event about winning, it's about growing facial hair, getting appreciated for it and hanging out with other people who understand the pleasure that comes from tending a garden of whiskers. And then of course, there's the beer.