From cookie duster to Fu Manchu, weekend’s festival has hairy faces covered

Tom Selleck, Charlie Chaplin, Abraham Lincoln, ZZ Top, Yosemite Sam — all are American cultural icons defined, at least in part, by their impressive displays of facial hair.

And all would certainly be welcome this weekend as downtown New Orleans hosts the finest parade of lip sweaters, cookie dusters, Fu Manchus and whimsical whiskers in the nation at the Just For Men National Beard and Mustache Championships on Sept. 6-7.

“It’s essentially a beauty pageant for men,” said Phil Olsen, president of Beard Team USA, the organizer of the event. “It’s a great, family-friendly event where I promise you’re going to be treated to some of the most amazing, outlandish facial hair you’ve ever seen.”

This is the fourth annual championships and the first time the event has been hosted in the Crescent City, kicking off Friday with opening ceremonies and quarter- and semi-final judging at the Sheraton New Orleans.

On Saturday, all participants will return to parade proudly from the Sheraton to the House of Blues. From there, only the top 15 most masterfully manscaped creations in each category will compete for gold, silver and bronze medals. The judging panel of five is set to include Miss New Orleans.

The competition is open to anyone who shuns a clean shave. Participants pay an entry fee of $55 to enter one of 18 categories — spanning everything from the elegantly curled imperial mustache, to show-stopping sideburns to the common crowd favorite, the “anything goes” full-beard freestyle.

Anthony Francolino, of South Jersey, is one of the veteran competitors heading south for the championships. His Jersey Devil Beard and Mustache Club has been operating since 2008 as part of Beard Team USA.

A bill collector by day, Francolino said he loves how events like the facial hair festival allow him to meet people from every walk of life.

“This is going to be my first visit to New Orleans, and I’m going to be hitting Bourbon Street and partying at the House of Blues,” Francolino said. “How could it get any better than that?”

Olsen shares Francolino’s excitement about the move to New Orleans.

“We get bids from all over the country to host this event,” he said. “New Orleans has a unique culture where I thought we’d really fit in. We consider ourselves unique, or unusual at least.”

In this sport, Olsen is like the Godfather (another famous mustache). He is single-handedly responsible for bringing an American presence to what had always been a European-dominated sport.

Originating in Germany in 1990, the World Beard and Mustache Championships have been held every two years since 1995.

In 1999, a proudly bearded Olsen happened to be visiting Sweden during a competition.

“I realized that America was sadly underrepresented,” he said.

This wouldn’t do for Olsen, who proceeded to organize the first-ever World Championships on American soil in Carson City, Nev., in 2003.

“All the Americans that competed that year, we just started calling ourselves Beard Team USA,” he said.

Ten years later, the organization boasts more than 9,000 members and chapters spanning the country, including two in New Orleans. Beard Team USA welcomes anyone and charges no dues.

But why even have a national beard and mustache competition, you may ask?

“That’s like saying, ‘Why have an Olympics?’” Olsen said. “The reason is the same: To represent America. Some may do the pole vault or breast stroke for their country. We choose to show our patriotism through our facial hair.”

And, more simply, he conceded, “It also just goes to prove that men will compete over anything.”