I first met Michael “MJ” Johnson in a sea of hair.
It is at the 2011 Minnesota Beard-Off, the second year for the beard and mustache contest I organize, when MJ shouts at me, “This is great! We’ve got to get a club started for Minneapolis!” I can only hear one of every three words he shouts at me, on account of the ocean of whiskers that ebb and flow between us.
Plenty of fire codes are broken that night at the Turf Club, along with the spirit of one dazed bartender who expected a crowd one-tenth the size. I am more interested at that moment in celebrating a second Beard-Off well done with a cold beer. Beard clubs could be started tomorrow.
MJ ended up winning Best Mustache that evening. He was brought onstage for the unveiling of the grand champion: the 2011 Minnesota Beardsman. On the stage with him was the defending winner, Corrie Zoll. Neither of them won. Chris Simmons, who had a soft, white beard, was the victor. Neither Corrie nor MJ cared. Maybe they were comforted by the fact that they would each win one of the next two years; MJ had his first win in 2012 and Corrie claimed the title a second time in 2013. More likely, they were simply elated to be appreciated with such enthusiasm.
That was March 2011. It wasn’t until October that the three of us met at Grumpy’s Bar in downtown Minneapolis to discuss putting together a beard and mustache club. And then on December 2, we held the first meeting of the Minneapolis Beard and Moustache Club.
MJ tells me later, “I went to the Austin show in 2011, and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had traveling anywhere. I’ve been to Hawaii and Alaska, and I suppose it’s all different, but it was just so much fun. And I thought, ‘We need this in our city.’” He came to the Minnesota Beard-Off that year, as Corrie had the year before, looking more for the community than for a title.
But hold up. It’s not about the beards at all.
As plain as the hair on your face
Bearding is something that happens even when the men doing the bearding don’t realize it. Corrie shares a story that is common to every man with more-than-casual facial hair.
The great thing…is just eye contact when you pass somebody with a beard. That’s great. You almost don’t want to stop somebody and say hello, because that moment is so great. It’s just a nod and you just go on about your business and no one else in the room needs to know that situation happened.
It’s a marker. It says to every man who has grown a beard or tried to grow a beard: Yes! I! Can! And any man who has tried to grow a beard knows that a man with a beard like Corrie’s (a natural full beard, about two feet long, salt and pepper, and wavy at the bottom) did not just happen upon it. This is a commitment.
“That was my first sense that there might be a bearding community,” Corrie tells me. And that’s true for me, too. I only decided to organize the contest after I won a flask of whiskey for having the best beard at my friends’ wedding and started reading about other contests — contests I could not afford to attend. And when that first Beard-Off blew up in interest, I thought, “People must really love beards.” I did not fully realize the community that was there, and that could be built, until we had our first club meeting.
It should have been obvious. Minnesota has a rich tradition of facial hair, and Minneapolis a keen interest: think Prince; Paul Bunyan; Ragnar, the mascot of the Minnesota Vikings football team; and Governor Jesse “The Mind” Ventura. The first Minnesota Beard-Off stumbled upon a community by accident; the Minneapolis Beard and Moustache Club gave the community a structure and a way to grow luxuriantly.
Beard as a badge, whether present or not
The first meeting was better attended than I expected; not because I doubted MJ (only a fool would), but because I didn’t realize the passion others had for their facial hair. I figured what drew people to a contest was the competition. Nope. It’s the sense of identity.
And the strange thing is that bearding doesn’t even require a beard! Club meetings are full of women: women who love beards and women who wear fake beards. There is even a national organization of women bearders called the Whiskerinas. Even clean-shaven men can be bearders.
Corrie had a revelation during a shaving event, a stunt hosted by the Minnesota Wild hockey team:
There was one gentleman, he had a year’s worth of beard. And he usually shaves it once a year, so he said he figured this would be a great occasion to do it. I didn’t say this out loud, but I thought, “Oh, he was part of this whole bearding community and now he’s not.”
But then I saw something I got from just the look on his face that told me he doesn’t see himself as any less part of the bearding community now that he’s clean-shaven, because he’s not going to shave for a year. He saw bearding as something that identifies him whether he has it on or not.
At that first Minneapolis Beard and Moustache Club meeting were more than 20 men with truly the nicest facial hair I had ever seen. My once-whiskey-winning beard felt like a rounding error compared to the volume and precision on display. At the contest, everyone was there for spectacle; men were shirtless and sometimes even came with their chests shaved into intricate designs. At the club meeting, the men were more…conservative. These were not affectations; the facial hair was integrated into the men.
Fine mustaches and full, long beards are Minneapolis’s style. But when I talk to a member of the Boston Beard Bureau, Brad Petrinec, he emphasizes three things. The first is how much he enjoys being a part of the community, which surprises no one. The second is not as obvious. He says he really loves “being able to design my beard, turn it into a work of art, a way to express myself.”
This is indicative of his city’s club: when I hosted a Beard-Off in Boston, the overwhelming presence was the freestyle beard, sometimes known as the Weird Beard. These beards are contorted into unusual and often hilarious shapes, each unique and seemingly impossible.
The third thing Petrinec notes is also true for every club: wanting to give back. Many of the Boston Beard Bureau’s activities are charity-focused. It’s the first and third things Petrinec cites — building community and giving back — that drive MJ.
MJ (far right) and a host of bearders at the National Beard and Moustache Championships in Las Vegas.
Growing a community of growers
In early spring of this year, MJ announced the Border Battle. Clubs from Minneapolis, Hastings, Madison, Chicago, Des Moines, and Manitoba came to Grumpy’s to compete against each other and raise money for the Villalobos Rescue Center. These cities range from 45 minutes away (Hastings) to 7 1/2 hours away (Manitoba, across an international border). This was commitment.
There were delightful hockey-stick trophies to win. Hundreds of dollars were raised to help rescue adorable pit-bull doggies. There were sundry prizes from enthusiastic sponsors. What wasn’t at the contest? Any way to recoup the cost of traveling to Minneapolis and back.
So. Bleeding. What. Look at all the beards!
The closest analogue for this kinship is what happens at a science-fiction convention. You live your life dedicated in part to something that, on the positive end of the spectrum, the larger culture doesn’t care about, and that on the other, sadder tip it can aggressively disdain.
But you show up to a convention in your Monster Maroon Starfleet uniform, and there are aliens and lieutenants from every planet and franchise. Not only do people enjoy your uniform, but they recognize and compliment its craftsmanship. Being at a beard club meeting or a big contest like the Border Battle is so similar. The sense of social safety, acceptance, and belonging is overwhelming. It’s not a religion, but it is fellowship — for men and women, beards or not.
The night of the Border Battle I find MJ in a sea of hair, shake his hand, and congratulate him, while three other people are trying to do the same. All around us are more than 200 men and women from half a dozen beard and mustache clubs slapping each other on the back, trading tips, taking photos, and winning some bragging rights. The bearded outnumber the clean-shaven 50 to one. The bearded women outnumber the baldfaced women 30 to one.
The contest wasn’t much more than an excuse to get together, drink, and be bearded with each other. And no one can wait for the next one.
Four beard photo by Joseph D.R. OLeary. Las Vegas photo courtesy Michael “MJ” Johnson.
Art Allen is a writer and producer in Minneapolis. He seeks out the non-boring and, when he can't find it, tries to create it.