Before heading to the premiere party for IFC’s new reality TV show, Whisker Wars, I looked at my five o’clock shadow, then at the razor on my sink. Disrespectful? Two minutes later I looked prepubescent. It seemed best not to appear like I was trying.
When I arrived at The Blind Barber, on East 10th Street and Avenue B, the small, industrial barbershop was in full swing, Gogy and A.J. styling away, mustachioed men lined up against the whitewashed brick. In the back, owner Adam Kirsch stood next to the shop’s not-so-secret secret: a rusted door leading to a speakeasy. Inside, IFC stars sat in leather booths and bartenders served craft beers on tap. Miletus Callahan- Barile, member of Beard Team USA and the Austin Facial Hair Club, stood on an impromptu stage holding a microphone.
"The birth of man and the birth of beard are one and the same. Beardsmen have walked among us ever since Egyptians wore the goatee and the Sumerians sported the Donegal. Our ranks are filled with famous men like Abraham Lincoln, Salvador Dali—" "Stalin! Hitler!" "And those who have stolen beard power for evil. But the beard has since fallen in decline. May we start its resurgence!" That’s how every speech went—with a knowing wink. When a show is about the "unknown sport of bearding," you hope its characters will be unintentionally funny, too serious about the utterly ridiculous. Baby-faced fathers living vicariously through bearish sons. Growth hormone applied to the chin. But as president Myk O’Connor made clear while explaining the focus of his promisingly named club, the Gotham City Beard Alliance, facial hair enthusiasts are generally self-aware.
"It’s social. We mostly get together and drink beer." Another member agreed. "I wouldn’t call it a real sport. What are our injuries? Not getting jobs, not getting girls. They’re not typical for athletes."
"Getting girlfriends to accept it can be hard," said beardsman Aaron Kelly. "You first have to be honest and tell her you want to grow a beard, and then the two of you—well, you just work through it." His tone could be used to describe any number of troublesome but resolvable problems in an early relationship. Toenail fungus. Genital herpes. "What’s important is that you’re in love."
In the speakeasy’s center, the main event was about to start: a New York beard-off judged by the show’s stars.
Karolina, O’Connor’s girlfriend, stood wearing what looked like a drape next to IFC employee Josh Bark, whose only qualification seemed to be general attractiveness and a slight shadow. His face unshaven for months, Michael Postel was poised to win. The judges deliberated and then announced the winner was…Bark?
"In private, Josh told us that if he wins he will grow his beard for a year, so that’s why we’re giving him the trophy: to encourage him," said Callahan-Barile. "And you will grow it, won’t you, Josh? I will personally check up on you next time I’m in New York."
At the bar, the lonely Postel nursed his loss with a pint. Was this finally the competitor whose excessive drive would provide some unintended comedy? I approached and he slammed down his beer. Yes! Rage, Mike. Rage at the injustice.
"Upset? Not at all. It was perfect. The first year is the hardest—by giving it to Josh, they’re recognizing that. They’re raising awareness. It’s a victory for beard culture," he told me.
Well, not exactly. But not bad.