Hair Story

Combing the aisles at the World Beard and Moustache Championships

No, no, not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin.

-- from "The Three Little Pigs"

Time was that an oath made on a man's beard was as binding as blood. The beard, or its lack, denoted a man's position in society and his standing in the eye of God. According to Allan Peterkin's One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair,an insult to one's whiskers, such as that perpetrated by the Ammonite King Hanum on the Hebrew ambassadors of King David, could incite nations to war. Among the ever fashionable, ever fastidious nobility of Egypt, not even the faintest wisp of body hair was tolerated, yet their beards were legendary; Egyptian kings and queens alike adorned themselves with ceremonial chin pieces dusted with gold, braided in plaits, and perfumed with oils. The Assyrians wore their beards layered in flowing curls, while the Persians preferred short, pointy beards, which they dyed red and threaded with gold, a style some defended to the death when the Tartars insisted upon a sudden change. The Greeks swore by their beards and held contests for coiffing. The Romans, while insisting their style was not as fussy or effeminate as the Greeks', introduced barbershops, where men gathered en masse to discuss gladiator scores and facial hair fashion tips. When Julius Caesar conquered the barbarians (a word meaning "bearded ones"), his first act of subjugation was a widespread shearing. In Europe, beards, mustaches, and sideburns went in and out of fashion with the fickle tide of politics, a dizzying reality that might have prompted the trend of 1350s Spain, in which owning fake beards of various colors became all the rage. It wasn't until the 20th century that the style and cut of facial hair ceased to be a mere act of fealty to church, lineage, or liege, and became something altogether different.

$teven Ra$pa.
Silke Tudor
$teven Ra$pa.
Paul Trapani
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.

"My parents hate beards," jokes Jürgen Draheim, a full-time teacher who sports an expertly manicured, walnut-hued beard and mustache, along with collar-length hair, a feathered hat, a sword, and a blue velvet tunic with a white satin crest. If there was any doubt as to whether he styled his hair to match his outfit or chose this outfit to complement his beard, he carries a small stuffed bear with the same configuration of facial hair, a mode known to barbers as the "Musketeer."

"We all have the bears," says Draheim in a thick German accent. "I made them."

Karl-Heinz Hille, a stately gentleman in a powder-gray flannel suit with a gray top hat and satin ascot, smiles and waggles his own bear to underscore his dear friend's point. Like Hille, the bear is adorned with a white mustache that fades into long whiskers growing out of the cheeks and styled upward toward the ears, like the haughty, imposing wings of a swan; the stuffed animal's chin is bare. The "Imperial," as such a beard is known, is indeed so.

"[Hille] says women will ask how he can sleep with such a beard," translates Draheim, who is also vice president of the First Berlin Beard Clubof Germany. "He says, 'Any way they want him to.'"

Hille grins. Draheim grins. All around me, German men with unrealistic facial hair and complementary outfits waggle their little bears and grin. I stop for a moment and look for a rabbit hole, but find only more beards and a ring of snow-capped mountains. I have not crashed through the looking glass but arrived in Carson City, Nev., just in time to watch competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championshipsmarch in the Nevada Day Parade. As if to punctuate the point, two military jets rip through the icy blue firmament overhead; the beards and mustaches, some of them more than 3 feet from tip to tip, turn skyward and track the planes' progress like a surrealist sculpture garden reaching for twin suns.

When I first read about the WBMC, one name sprang to mind: $teven Ra$pa. Ra$pa is a grand character belonging to a short list of grand San Francisco characters that includes the likes of Emperor Norton, Big Alma, and the Red Man, people whose carriage and lifestyle became pure expressions of their internal world. Ra$pa's world seems equal parts Dr. Seuss, Salvador Dali, Henry Darger, and Mervyn Peake. Ridiculous in intention but elegant in execution, he adorns himself in capes, platform boots, bunny ears, top hats, fishnets, stilts, tuxedos, potted plants, feathery frocks, fish, and classroom globes with equal aplomb, and manages to make a regal entrance, even when it's only a conversation or someone's field of vision that he's entering. And yet there is an easy warmth and generosity of spirit about him that makes even the most pedantic brute feel right at home. Hugs and homemade cookies are bestowed upon new acquaintances and old friends alike, and words such as "wonderful," "splendid," and "miraculous" double their syllable count as they fall from his lips and stretch across the world like rose-colored gossamer. Still, it's the beard that most people remember. Two waist-length tendrils wrapped in wire coil and around one another like embracing serpents, ending in an adornment of his choosing (sometimes smiley faces, sometimes rubber turds, but most often daisies). The tendrils, one thick, the other willowy, are called Preposteroand Imaginaria, respectively, and are generally regarded by Ra$pa as their own entities. The entire beard he describes as a candy-coated treat, "soft and hairy on the inside, hard and wiry on the outside, and only recommended for those with an iron deficiency."

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.

"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.

"It loves you, too," replies Ra$pa.

"You're dressed like a girl," accuses a young man.

"That's OK," replies Ra$pa. "With all this testosterone and facial hair, it's important to get in touch with my feminine side."

"Nice legs," shouts a man in a John Deere baseball cap.

"Thank you," calls Ra$pa.

And so it goes, all the way back to the Carson City capitol building, where Ra$pa takes third place for "longest beard" in the Nevada State Beard competition. He ties the ribbon to his fishnets, poses for photographs, exchanges business cards, and hustles me off to the community center where the international competition is to be held.

"I just want to see it before I have to leave," explains Ra$pa in a sinking voice as a fellow U.S. competitor approaches to say how glad he is Ra$pa is on their team. By the time we reach the community center, the word has spread that Ra$pa will not be participating in the international competition. No fewer than four people stop me between our table and the bathroom, to beg me to beg him to stay.

"But I have to go, don't I," says Ra$pa in a voice lacking all conviction. "First prize was just being here." We run to his shuttle, a car kindly driven by my childhood friend who now lives in Reno, so he doesn't change his mind.

"I could've been a contender," he says, pulling his silver-white cape into the car seat. As they pull out of the parking lot, he offers a wan smile and an elegant wave.

In the community center, the oompah band kicks up, the drunken beards embrace, and Ra$pa's dear friends from Beard-O lead the crowd in the universally beloved "chicken dance."

At the airport, in sequins, fishnets, and a majorette hat, Ra$pa tells the security guards, the ticket takers, the stewardesses, and his fellow passengers that he could have been a contender. They all agree. Someone asks him to do a magic trick for the children, and he happily complies, making up routines during the short flight home. Karl-Heinz Hille, 83-year-old Alf Jarrald of Manchester, England, and Dave Traver, take best of show and prepare to fly to Los Angeles to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ra$pa arrives at the Mystery Ball as Zee Baron von Daisy. And everybody wins. Most of all me.

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