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Backstage at the world's biggest 'facial hair party'

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Backstage at the world's biggest 'facial hair party'
Photo: Maddy French
09:38 CEST+02:00
Sitting on a bench in a school hall, two suited and booted English gentlemen discuss the benefits of wax over hairspray while to their right someone with a large moustache delicately sips beer through a straw.

In the bathroom nearby men jostle for space in front of the mirror while the ladies' toilet is almost empty. It can only mean one thing: the World Beard and Moustache Championship is in town.

Taking place every two years, the contest attracts over 300 contestants from dozens of countries and, as one contestant describes it, is “basically a huge facial hair party”.

This time it's Austria's turn to host, doing so at the weekend at the local school in the sleepy mountain village of Leogang, in Salzburg.

Kicking off with a welcome party, there is a friendly atmosphere in the air as contestants catch up with one another and get a first look at the competition, though almost all insist they are taking part just for fun.

“Everybody is good friends here,” says Patrick Dawson, a partial full beard contestant from Seattle, who has been growing his beard for 14 years and started competing around six years ago. “Some people probably take the competition more seriously than others but it's just good fun really.”

This sentiment is echoed by others but there is no denying the party gives way to a slightly more competitive atmosphere when the judging begins the following day.


They start early... Photo: Maddy French

'I just love beards'

Although the judges are told beforehand to only consider the facial hair when choosing a winner, many contestants believe it helps to wear traditional garb or at least get creative with their clothes.

Amongst the lederhosen and top hats, additional items this year include cod pieces, aviator goggles, swords, a fireman's hose, and several inflatable props.

The judges insist they are not swayed, although one of the panel - Victoria Ambrosetti, founder of the beard website Beard Revered - says if it comes down to two people then it might have a small influence.

This is British Ambrosetti's first World Championship although she's no stranger to beard competitions, having judged before in the UK. “I just love beards,” she told The Local. 

“When choosing a winner, I'm looking at the quality of the hair. I like grace and elegance over anything too flamboyant. But I think a lot of it comes down to genes really.”


Photo: Maddy French

Despite some contestants taking hours to style their beards, those I spoke to agree that the natural quality of the hair is what's important. “Genes definitely come into it,” says Dawson.

The American contingent - usually young and tattooed - is big at the competition, along with contestants from Great Britain and the German speaking world, who are generally a bit older and ruddier-faced.

Some are obviously more competitive than others, with the reasons people give for taking part ranging from “I just wanted a holiday in Austria” to “I'm here to beat the Yanks”. A few even have their facial hair sponsored by companies.

As the day progresses, it becomes apparent categorising and judging facial hair is a complicated matter. Within three overarching themes - moustache, partial beard, and full beard - there are 18 categories in total, with names as vague as Freestyle Moustache, Imperial Partial Beard or Garibaldi.

There is some debate over the stipulations for each category and some contestants are even pulled from the stage mid-competition and reassigned to another heat when it is found their facial hair does not meet requirements.

Three or four ‘dramatic' moments stand out from the day. One is when an elderly Austrian man with a neat white beard starts crying after he receives 10 points - the highest possible - from all but one of the seven judges.

The hall is also electrified when young American Madison Rowley - a rising star in the beard world - also receives six 10 points for his magnificent long and dark ‘Full Natural' beard, making him the winner of that category.

Madison's father Charley is also competing at the Championships and tells The Local he is “very proud” of his son.

“I only started growing my own beard a year ago because of a bet with Madison. He was in a previous competition in the US. I bet him that if he won, I would grow my beard too. He won and now I'm competing here.”


Beards galore... Photo: Maddy French

Most contestants are part of facial hair societies or clubs, with a friendly rivalry between them, sometimes bordering on animosity.

The British Beard Club, for example, say they accept anyone as members, even those with no facial hair at all because “being bearded on the inside is what counts”. This contrasts with the “beardist” attitude of the Handlebar Club - the international moustache club that has a strong English contingent.

Strictly moustaches only, the Handlebar Club claims to be the world's oldest whiskers club and was founded in 1947 by former RAF pilot Jimmy Edwards who disguised his war wounds with a large handlebar moustache. Edwards also started holding facial hair competitions for charity, the earliest form of modern beard and moustache contests.

Drinking and joking with the Antwerp branch of the club, British Handlebar Club member Allan says they like to jokingly provoke their friends.

“Their leader won't let us join his club so we've come here wearing their jackets and ties just to annoy him. But we all get along with each other and it's just a bit of fun really,” he says.

After around ten hours of beard judging and prize giving, the official side of the event draws to a close but the party continues to the sound of the local traditional band, who are celebrating their 125th anniversary by playing at the Championships.

Stumbling out of the bar a couple of hours later, Irish contestant John - who competed in the Musketeer category - has a huge smile on his face.

“I told my wife if I had a podium finish this time, I'd finish with the whole moustache thing. I placed eighth, which was great, but I'm going to press on and try again next time in Austin in 2017. See you in Texas!”

By Maddy French

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