The men who never shave
The facial hair flies at the Battle of the Beards
Last month, bewhiskered men across the nation paid tribute to their healthy follicles by putting down the razor and growing out their beards and mustaches. Through organizations like No-Shave November and the Movember Foundation, participants raised money and awareness of men's health issues. But for Mike Albanese, bearding is more than an annual effort; it's a lifestyle.
Albanese is the creator and host of Battle of the Beards, a competition to determine the hairiest, fullest, and most creative beards around. In three previous events, the competition has drawn folks from across the country and filled Smith's Olde Bar in Midtown to its 350-person capacity. This year, contestants will show off their assets in such categories as Best Grooming, Best Creative, Best Stache, Best Lady Beard, and, of course, Best Beard. There is also an award for Beardiest Business, which recognizes one local business for maintaining what Albanese calls a "beard-forward" attitude toward its employees and customers.
To choose the winner of each category, a panel of judges will follow a set of criteria. Or as Albanese says, "They look at the overall length, grooming, girth — things like that, not to over-sexualize it." Judges will also consider the presentation of the contestants, who have about a minute to demonstrate why their beard is the best in its category. For some contestants, this means coming in character, like Adam Consalvo, who dressed as a steampunk butcher and won for Best Stache last year. "It all plays into how the judges are going to see you," Albanese says. At the end of the night, the winner will take home $500 in cash and a medal to salute their chops.
When he's not evaluating facial hair, Albanese is a standup comic. He also runs Beard & Stache Bars, an Atlanta-based company that sells grooming products for men with beards and mustaches. Albanese started the company four years ago, expanding its presence in barbershops and Whole Foods Markets. As someone who spends a lot of his time around whiskers, Albanese saw an opportunity to bring a dedicated facial hair competition to the city, but Battle of the Beards also stands for the simple enjoyment of having a beard and/or mustache. "A lot of beard competitions are very strict about the rules and how the judging criteria go," he says. "But we're a serious facial hair contest that doesn't take itself too seriously. We're more about the idea of celebrating beards and having a good time with it."
In order to ensure that everyone enjoys himself or herself, Albanese has booked local rock 'n' roll band Swank Sinatra and sideshow performers Captain & Maybelle, the sword-swallowing couple from "America's Got Talent." The competition also features raffles, door prizes, and, since it's at a bar, plenty of drinks. Grooming products, including ones from Beard Bars, will make an appearance, too, leading Albanese to recognize the competition's cultural significance. "There's a definite beard culture that exists here," he says. "This is kind of like Atlanta's beard convention."
For Albanese, a part of this culture deals with the community, which is why he donates the proceeds of Battle of the Beards to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta. "When I was a young kid my family didn't have a lot of money, and I found out later as an adult that there were some times when we took donations for gifts for Christmas and things like that," he says. "It's important to me to be able to give something back to the community, and especially to the kids because they can't help ... the fact that they're in a certain situation, even if it's a small piece."
In 2013, the competition raised more than $1,000, as well as a heap of toys, for the nonprofit. In fact, last year's grand champion, Shane Sheriff, was so moved that he donated his winnings. Albanese, who is also a member of the Bearded Sinners, a local group that organizes various community-outreach projects, sees this activity as just a part of the bearded lifestyle. "The beard community in general is a very supportive community," he says.
For the future, Albanese says that there is always the possibility for an even bigger Battle of the Beards, which sold out last year. But, until then, he has other things that he wants to achieve, like seeing a woman win the competition with real facial hair. "We've never had an actual Lady Beard," he says. "But I have my fingers crossed every year that one shows up."
Perhaps this will be the year.