For Phil Olsen, the question isn't why grow a beard. It's why shave one off.
"I can't think of any advantages to shaving," he says. "The natural result is that I have a beard."
Olsen founded the National Beard and Mustache Championships — to be held in New Orleans this year, complete with a parade down Bourbon Street — but he has never competed in the competition, even though he sports a "Garibaldi": a full, round beard that's one of 12 subcategories in the beard contest. Others include the Fu Manchu, the Musketeer, the Verdi and freestyle. There are also six classes for mustaches, and there's one simple rule: no artificial hair.
The art of bearding, says Olsen, is making a beard look its best. "It's setting an example for others and demonstrating for the world that facial hair is a good thing," he says. "Just like the Olympics' motto is 'higher, faster, farther,' symbolizing how competition improves the overall state of the human race, this competition can improve the quality of facial hair nationwide."
Olsen stumbled upon the World Beard and Moustache Championships in 1999, in Germany, where he was struck by the underrepresentation of the United States. He then undertook to make the U.S. a world power in the sport of bearding. The National Beard and Moustache Championships came 10 years later, in 2009.
At the competition Saturday, a panel of local judges will vote for the contestant in each category whose facial hair "best enhances his overall appearance, style and personality." Personality, though, may be based on looks alone. There are no interviews or explanations of facial hair; rather, contestants walk on stage and are judged.
Olsen encourages competitors to have fun, but he's quick to point out that the event is not a joke. "It's serious," he says. "Sometimes that's a problem, because people don't think it's for real. It's for real." The organizer's favorite historical beard? Abraham Lincoln.
"He was the great emancipator," he says, deadpan. "He emancipated men from daily shaving."
Interested participants can sign up on the organization's website. Spectators are welcome to join the parade on Bourbon Street, which departs from the Sheraton at 11 a.m. Saturday. — Jeanie Riess