BREMERTON — It takes Bruce Roe a solid 30 minutes of twisting, tweaking and hairspraying to get his 10-inch-wide Wild West mustache competition-ready. His wife hunts stray whiskers with a pair of scissors before he goes on stage.
Such is life for those who competitively cultivate their facial hair. It’s a little-known world that features nearly every type of mustache and beard imaginable — from the Musketeer to the Dali, the handlebar to the Fu Manchu, each of 17 categories rigidly defined by dimension, shape and styling aid.
It’s a world where men travel thousands of miles to show off a defining male characteristic, where they drink and joke across language barriers, make friends and enjoy other cultures. As with so many competitive endeavors, however, it is not without controversy.
International rifts have formed over where and when to hold the whisker championships, how to define varieties of facial hair — Should the Dali really be its own category? — and perhaps most significantly, over who should regulate the pastime.
There have been stealth votes, boycotts and power plays. Among those caught in the fray are Roe and his hirsute friends in the Whisker Club, a Bremerton-based group primarily concerned with promoting facial hair, having fun and helping charities.
Roe, 53, has sported whiskers since about 1970. He shaved them off “for about 10 minutes” after he got married, but has had at least a mustache ever since. His wife, Tommie, likes to say, “A kiss without a tickle isn’t worth a nickel.”
Roe learned of the World Beard and Mustache Championships in 1997 and went to Trondheim, Norway, for the competition that year. He knew right away his outlandish whiskers had found a home.
“I was overwhelmed,” he says. “I had no idea there would be all these costumes, and the styling of the beards and mustaches … Extreme — that might be a word for it.”
Roe was the only American in the competition. He didn’t win any awards, but he now had a goal: “I thought, we have to get something like this going.”
Roe could find no evidence of a beard or mustache club in the United States. But he worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard with another enthusiastic whisker-bearer — Gary Johnson, whose hobbies include waxing his 22-inch-wide mustache and pointy beard and dressing up as Buffalo Bill Cody.
Roe and Johnson began meeting once a month for drinks, and the Whisker Club was born. Its members, 40 in all, must have facial hair, but those lacking it — wives, for example — may join the fan club. A handful of active members attend the regular meetings.
“It’s a good way to get together, have a cocktail and shoot the breeze,” says Doug Claussen, 52, attending the group’s December meeting wearing a Santa hat. He makes a credible Saint Nick, his gray-white goatee so massive you hardly notice his cheeks are hairless.
The world’s oldest whisker club is the Handlebar Club of London, founded in 1947. Members must sport a “hirsute appendage to the upper lip with graspable extremities.”
Though one Italian club dates to 1965, the idea didn’t catch on in the rest of Europe until the 1980s, when clubs began proliferating in the land of bratwurst, oom-pah bands and Oktoberfest. Germany now has 10 clubs with hundreds of members, more than any other nation, and the whisker championships are front-page news.
It was a German club that organized the first world championships in a small Black Forest town in 1990. The same club hosted the second championships in 1995 in the nearby city of Pforzheim.
But then things started to get, well, hairy.
In 1997, the Norwegian Mustache Club held the world championships in Trondheim, and the Germans put on their own just months later.
“People boycotted because it was the same year,” said Roe, who attended both events. “They thought the Germans were trying to steal the limelight from the Norwegians.”
The issue was resolved in the manner of trade disputes and nuclear disarmament: by international summit. Following the 1999 championships in Sweden, the clubs agreed that the world championships would be held every other year. The Association of German Beard Clubs, being the biggest and hairiest, emerged to set rules and location.
This is where another whiskered American enters the picture. Phil Olsen, a 55-year-old lawyer from Tahoe City, Calif., attended the 1999 championships as a spectator and hit it off with the German participants, whose language he spoke. Eventually, his new friends inquired whether the United States might host the 2003 competition.
Olsen agreed, putting up $25,000 to finance the event, which drew 120 competitors from nine countries to Carson City, Nev.
Roe, outfitted as Wyatt Earp, took third place in the Wild West category. Claussen, dressed as a New York gang member circa 1865, took third for natural goatee. Johnson, doing his Buffalo Bill, took first in the Musketeer category.
Once again, things turned political. Some of the Germans objected to changes Olsen made. For example, in addition to picking winners in 17 categories, the judges — including the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and Miss Nevada — broke with tradition and named three overall winners.
There was also a tangle over how certain upward-turning mustaches should be judged — Imperial or freestyle?
It’s not quite the Olympic figure skating scandal, but you get the idea.
“A lot of the people think it’s gotten completely out of hand, that some of the Germans take the competition way too seriously,” Olsen says.
In October, he attended a meeting of the German association; the group waited until he left to start voting on where to hold the 2009 and 2011 championships, he says. German cities were awarded both events, even though Olsen had suggested Anchorage, Alaska. (Berlin and London had already been given 2005 and 2007.)
Furious, Olsen met with Ted Sedman – president of London’s Handlebar Club and owner of a navel-length Fu Manchu – in Berlin over Thanksgiving weekend. Representatives from five other countries, including Germany, attended.
They formed the World Beard and Mustache Association and declared they would begin accepting bids for hosting a rival championship event in 2009. Anchorage is expected to enter one, as is the Whisker Club.
“In my mind, a democratic union of groups is the way to go,” Roe says. “But I think it’s going to be a deep row to hoe. Most of what I see at these competitions is everybody’s there to have a good time. But there are some clubs that want to take home as many trophies as they can.”