Hair Story

Combing the aisles at the World Beard and Moustache Championships

Of course, this was the beard that had to represent San Francisco.

I e-mailed him immediately. Unbeknownst to me, dozens of friends and admirers from all over the country had done the same. Sadly, Ra$pa had already committed as producer and presenter of the Headlands Center for the Arts annual fund-raising ball, a large event, months in the planning. But the seeds had been plaited; the campaign to get $teven Ra$pa to Carson City was under way.

While he fretted over the decision, I attended the WBMC meet-and-greet. Representatives from Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and Norway descended on our fair city in unanimity for outlandish follicular expression. It was as strange as one might imagine: a dark bar filled with facial hair that spilled out in swirls like heavy cream just added to coffee, or reached out like octopus tentacles, or pointed toward the ceiling in sharp 90-degree angles like inappropriate weather vanes; spikes, spires, and perfectly formed circles of hair that defied gravity and hovered inches above smiling faces. Two members of Beard-O, an old-timey music roadshow, began playing folk songs at the end of the bar, for the sheer love of beards.

Top honors went to Karl-Heinz Hille 
(right; he stands with Jürgen 
Liz Ganley
Top honors went to Karl-Heinz Hille (right; he stands with Jürgen Draheim).
Heddesheim, Germany's Heinz E. 
Christophel was awarded the 
People's Choice Award.
Liz Ganley
Heddesheim, Germany's Heinz E. Christophel was awarded the People's Choice Award.

"Isn't it exotic?" asked Norman Larson, whose cascading white beard is a local fixture in the Haight-Ashbury District and a point of discussion among the well-to-do on opening nights at Davies Symphony Hall and the San Francisco Opera House. Despite language barriers, everyone I met seemed to possess a familiar warm, lyrical quality.

I went home and e-mailed Ra$pa again, only to find that he had also attended the meet-and-greet.

"I had to see what they were like," gushed Ra$pa over the phone. "These other men who choose to work in a medium such as this."

I offered him a ride to Carson City and a shuttle to the Reno airport, if he still needed to attend the Headlands' Mystery Ball.

"It's like a morality play, isn't it?" mused Ra$pa. "The internal vs. the external journey. Here, I will be contributing to my community, but in Carson City, I might discover something about myself."

At the 12th hour, Ra$pa agreed to accompany me to Nevada, just for the parade. The costume selection took another hour, but was sprinkled with a fanciful display of striped, spindly-fingered gloves and such charming quips as, "You'd think I could grow something more practical, like corn or carrots, so I could at least feed myself."

"I grew my first beard five years ago, in honor of my best friend's father, who died in a plane crash," explains Anchorage, Alaska's Mr. Furface 2000, David Traver. Traver, diminutive in stature but large in heart and even larger in beard, is an easy favorite among the contestants, and possessing of the same whimsical nature that seems to imbue all the wildly bearded men gathered in Carson City.

"Now when I'm cleanshaven, I feel like a little kid," says Traver, "but I have an agreement with my wife. I shave off my beard every two years so she can see my face. In between, I've won a few contests."

The titles are carved into a staff made of a caribou antler that Traver carries -- a nice addition to the buckskin jacket, mukluks, and giant fur hat he wears -- but titles are not his aim.

"These nice people are worth the trip," assures Traver, who works for the VA back home. "Don't you think? They're all so great."

Amidst the Fu Manchus, Dalis, Garibaldis, Verdis, Musketeers, and Imperials, Ra$pa's daisies flit from person to person like agitated moths. Torn between his majorette outfit and a tuxedo, Ra$pa has opted for the more subdued of the two "out of respect for the forum," topped with a silver and white-feathered cape and a felt hat crowned by a butterfly, but there is no downplaying the beard. Even here, Ra$pa's facial ornamentation is an eccentric tour de force, and he is immediately surrounded by fellow beards and photojournalists.

His eyes say, "Isn't this all splendid?" even while his mouth says, "I should have worn the majorette uniform."

Given instructions from event producer Phil Olsen, himself the possessor of a full beard in the natural category -- beard flowing, mustache integrated, no artificial styling aids -- the contestants line up in alphabetical order by country of origin and prepare to march before 40,000 bemused Nevadans.

It's a parade. Like any other parade. School floats, balloons, military might, donkeys, churches with crucified Jesus floats, flag-waving, canon salutes, clowns. But Ra$pa is vibrating by the end.

"I must put on the majorette uniform." I fetch the rolling suitcase from the car, and Ra$pa changes at the end of the street and struts back up the parade route in all his San Francisco glory: red, white, and blue sequined leotard; black and white star-spangled platforms; a red, white, and blue train of feather boas; a shiny white majorette hat; fishnets; and, of course, Prepostero and Imaginaria.

"I love your beard," shouts a white-haired woman barbecuing in front of her RV.

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