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I started entering beard competitions in the mid-2000s. People were always telling me, “That’s a heck of a beard.” So I started competing. Last year I won the World Beard Championships near Stuttgart, Germany, and the year before I won the International German Beard Championships. I was also on the television show Whisker Wars, which followed me and other contestants as we travelled across the US competing for top bearding honours, leading up to the USA National Beard title in 2010, which I won.
My main category for a long time was Full Beard Natural. My beard tends to grow longer than most – about two-and-a-half to three feet long – and I’ve always liked the natural look, so it was an obvious choice. Then about three years ago I came up with the Octo-beard. It was a bombshell at contests, and I started winning a lot in the Full Beard Freestyle category. While I prefer the natural beard, I also consider myself an artist, and I think the Octo-beard has advanced the art form.
It takes me about six hours to style the Octo, though I could probably throw it together in three if I had to. I don’t get any help. I do it all myself with a hairdryer and about half a can of hairspray.
Ever since I could grow facial hair I’ve had some kind of beard. When I was a kid in Germany, my dad had a nice beard. At some point he cut it off and I was stunned – shaving was a concept I didn’t understand. In the 1990s, I had a Fu Manchu but that’s as much shaving as I’ve ever done.
I’m 48 and I came to America about 25 years ago to attend college. I liked it, so I stayed. I bought a place in northern California that had no power, no water, nothing. It was totally off the grid. I built my house out of recycled materials. I make my own power and my own heat with solar energy and locally made, organic biofuel, and I consult and help build other off-the-grid houses.
My wife Rita and I have been together 17 years and she’s never seen me without a beard. I don’t do much maintenance: I shampoo and oil it, and that’s it. I never use clippers either.
I’ll admit, sometimes the beard’s a hassle. There are safety hazards: it can get caught in a machine, stuck in a car door, lit on fire by a gas burner. But you can roll it and pin it under so it’s like a short business-beard, if you don’t want the mountain-man look. Or I’ll braid it and tuck it into my shirt. I can make the beard disappear.
People approach me, especially women. They see the beard and come running with both hands out, wanting to touch it. I duck and run for cover.
But the biggest hassle is the airport. The metal detector cannot handle the beard. A siren will go off and I’ll get a pat-down. I’ve gone through the scanner with the beard pinned back and a clip in there, and when security does the search, they’ll get hung-up on the clip and it’ll set them off. Once in a while they’ll freak out and be on the verge of shutting the whole terminal down. And if I have it braided down my chest, they’ll think there’s a stick of dynamite in there.
But 99 per cent of the time it’s a positive experience. Beard competitions are for fun. It’s beards. So how serious can you be? Rarely do you get paid – it’s a gentleman’s affair. Most competitors don’t want it to become commercial, for contests to take place in a baseball stadium with beer sponsors. Some people try to cheat, or turn a profit, but they’re in the minority.
I’ve been reading about hipsters and beards. I don’t know anything about that. Despite the trendiness, I can travel from California to Germany, on several planes and through numerous airports, and not see a single beard.
It’s still part of the counterculture. I’ll always have my beard. Well, then again . . . A friend of mine recently had open-heart surgery. He had a long beard like mine and, when he woke up from the surgery, the nurses had shaved it off. You never know what life will bring you.