‘Whisker Wars’: A reality face-off returns

As if there aren't enough wars popping up in the world, here's one for your chin.

"Whisker Wars" begins a new season on IFC, celebrating the little-known world of beard competitions.

Like other TV investigations into American subcultures, "Whisker Wars" - from the producers of manly shows such as "The Deadliest Catch" and "Ice Road Truckers" - follows its subjects as they train for a competition. In this case, instead of toddler beauty pageant contestants or tattoo artists, the show's stars are facial hair enthusiasts.

"Whisker Wars" tracks the activities of competitive growers, following members of outfits such as the Austin Facial Hair Club and New York's Gotham City Beard Alliance, and individual competitors who band together (in Beard Team USA) for international competitions.

The most exotic contests deal with long beards that are sprayed and sculpted into surprising geometric swirls and zigzags. But most of those featured on "Whisker Wars" participate in the most popular category - full natural beards - and seem to be in it as much for the camaraderie and post-contest socializing as they are for the glory.

"People down in Austin are always looking for a reason to party," says Miletus Callahan-Barile, 35, one of the more gregarious members of the Texas group that was started seven years ago as a commentary on all the hipsters who seemed to have discarded their razors. "I always wanted to have facial hair and tried many different styles over the years," he says. "It wasn't until I went with a straight mustache that I realized that facial hair had power: Girls came up to say how disturbing my mustache was."

From there he tried many different variations before he settled into his current look, an around-the-chin, no-mustache style called the Donegal.

"A lot of people don't rock the Donegal," Callahan-Barile says. "It's the black sheep of the bearding world."

Still, that means less direct competition, although he often faces the hodgepodge of contestants in "partial beard" categories. "There you get mutton chops to goatees," he says. "All kinds of shenanigans."

The Donegal, named after its Irish place of origin, has had its U.S. advocates, particularly among the Amish and Quakers, who felt that the attached mustache was too much a sign of royal privilege and military rank. For Callahan-Barile, it fit his occasional occupation as riverboat captain, although it regularly earns catcalls at competitions of "not a beard!"

Today, he feels there might be imminent vindication for the chin-strap style because of Daniel Day-Lewis sporting the look in "Lincoln."

The 16th president was the first to have a beard - which was grown only after he was elected and before he was inaugurated. But between 1860 and 1913, all but two presidents had beards or mustaches. From then on, clean-shaven was the style among presidents and heads of industry, although beards have roared back among postseason baseball and hockey players, indie rockers and just about all of the actors in "Hatfields & McCoys."

But few of those looks can compete with the ones seen on "Whisker Wars," where some fearsome strands go well beyond Rip Van Winkle lengths, dragging to the ground.

As with any reality series with recurring characters, this one has a villain - Jack Passion, a young man who came out of the blue to become two-time world champion in the full natural beard category. His ego and the fact that he has cashed in with a "Facial Hair Handbook" engendered some bad feelings among his peers.

But at the end of the inaugural season of "Whisker Wars," Passion suffered a defeat at the 2011 world championships in Norway and was weighing his future options. As the second season begins, Passion is considering whether to retire or get back in the game, as others travel to compete in the Ohio championships.

"With any show you have, you want that big polarizing character everyone has to pivot and react off of," says Jeff Conroy, a producer of "Whisker Wars." "It doesn't have to be negative thing, but that works too. Across our shows there's a lot of those. A handful of Jack Passions: that one person that stirs the pot."

One difference between "Whisker Wars" and other shows Conroy works on is that filming is significantly less risky than, say, "Deadliest Catch."

"Although certainly there could be a hair-drying accident, or they could get hair spray in their eyes," he adds. "You never know."

Myk O'Connor, 29, of the Gotham City Beard Alliance knows that his hobby can be dangerous, having had his 26-inch beard stuck in a subway door between stations one time.

"When you have a beard as large as I have, you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. You're aware of zippers. I personally smoke, but I don't allow anyone to light my cigarette for me; I do it myself," O'Connor says. "Eating is a big pain. I either put in clips or I make everything into a small bite-sized piece so I'm not making a mess all over my face."

And then there is all the attention it attracts. "It happens a lot," he says. "Someone has a comment about ZZ Top or whatever. You've got to take it in stride. A lot of the time it's mostly positive. Or they ask how long it's taken to get it to where it's at. If I'm going to grow something like this on my face, I have to be ready for such things."

"Whisker Wars" airs on Fridays at 9 p.m. on IFC


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