OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) – Burke Kenny said it’s not unusual to notice people staring at his chest.
“I have to say, `I’m up here,”‘ he said, pointing to his face. “Just like a girl.”
Of course, they’re probably not really staring at his chest so much as they’re looking at what’s covering it: An amazingly full and curly brunet beard with auburn undertones that contrast against the straight black hair on his head.
The 26-year-old Olympia resident recently returned from the World Beard and Mustache Championships in Trondheim, Norway, where he took first place in the full beard with styled mustache category. He won the same title four years ago in England, when he became the youngest international facial hair champion.
Film crews followed contestants as they were preparing for the world competition for the reality show “Whisker Wars,” which premiers at 11 p.m. Aug. 5 on IFC. Even though he won a title, Kenny wasn’t cast as a main character on the show. But the show follows the saga of his best friend and Beard Team USA teammate, 27-year-old Jack Passion of the Bay Area in California.
The international competition featured about 20 categories. The Americans brought home six gold medals, and four of those were grown by men from Washington state, Kenny said. Besides Kenny, they were Bruce Roe of Bremerton, who won for Hungarian mustache; Craig “Rooty” Lundvall of the Everett area, who won for full beard natural; and Keith “Ghandi Jones” Haubrich of Seattle, who won the freestyle mustache category.
From the episodes he’s previewed, Kenny said “Whisker Wars” portrays bearding as a cut-throat competition. But for him, it’s more about traveling the world, drinking beer with friends and having a good time.
“I don’t take it extremely seriously,” said Kenny, who often dons a top hat and vintage jacket for competitions. “I like to be an honorable gentleman and present myself honorably.”
Of course, that’s his approach. What about his competitors?
“They’re out to get me, for sure,” Kenny said. “A lot of people take it really seriously. There’s a lot of drama and a lot of big egos.”
Kenny grew up in Olympia and began shaving at age 13. He experimented with facial hair in high school, although nothing extreme. He began growing a mustache at 19 and a beard about a year later, while attending The Evergreen State College.
“My dad is definitely my No. 1 inspiration,” Kenny said. “He’s had a mustache for 30 years.”
When he’s not competing for beard titles, Kenny works part time playing bass guitar for the blues/rock band Hitchkick. He also works as a cook at the Urban Onion in downtown Olympia. (He braids his beard and rolls it to keep it from getting in the way at work.)
The mustachioed Mark Kenny, 59, of Olympia describes his son’s facial hair as “pretty impressive.” He said he’s glad his son does such a great job representing the United States.
“He’s cultivated this whole natural gift for it to be a competitive endeavor,” the Washington State Parks worker said. “He played football in junior high and he was on soccer teams and basketball teams, and so it almost seems like a natural evolution for this.”
Logistics-wise, a long beard can present some challenges. Kenny said teenagers tease him to the point he wouldn’t go to the mall even if he wanted to, prospective employers make snap judgments about him, drunk people can’t keep their hands off his beard, and just about every day somebody comes up to him with the not-so-original greeting of “Hey, ZZ Top.”
“There’s a lot of clichDes,” Kenny said. “There’s a lot of dealing with adversity.”
A long mustache and full beard have eating limitations, too.
“I tend to stay away from things that are very saucy and messy,” Kenny said. “I like to use a straw instead of a cup.”
Kissing also gets a little, er, hairy, although that’s something Kenny would gladly try to work out if he finds the right woman.
And living in the Northwest, let’s face it, means there are plenty of bad facial hair days.
“Wind is my worst enemy,” Kenny said.
In 2009, he was featured in the Allen & Ginter’s World’s Champions set of Topps trading cards. One of the regular cards goes for about a dollar on eBay, but the limited relic series – which includes a piece of his beard hair, taken from a hairbrush that he grooms with – often fetch $30 or $40.
If there were more ways to make money off his beard, Kenny said, he’d probably try it. He doesn’t seem to mind the celebrity status; he’s been interviewed on the “Live With Regis and Kelly” show and written about in several publications.
“I get fan mail all the time,” he said.
Has he ever thought about shaving it?
“Almost every day,” he said. “At this point, it would be strange if I didn’t have a beard.”
Shaving is a topic Kenny has discussed many times with other members of Beard Team USA.
“We call it the million-dollar shave,” he said. “That seems to be the amount of money it would take for one of us to shave.”
Kenny attributes his substantial facial hair to both sides of his family: His dad has Irish and Eastern European roots, his mom has Middle Eastern ancestry. He styles his beard with a blow dryer and hair spray for competition.
“I trim it myself every couple of months,” Kenny said.
Passion, who has won world titles in the full beard natural category, describes Kenny’s beard as “perfectly groomed” and symmetrical. But he thinks Kenny stands out from the competition because of his stage presence and rapport with the judges.
“He has the most sportsman-like conduct in these things, and he holds the sport to a very high standard,” Passion said. “. There are a lot of people who don’t want it to be a gentlemen’s sport; they want it to be a barnyard brawl.”
Kenny jokes that now he’s a two-time champion, beard competitions are no longer about winning, they’re about domination.
But the truth is, full beards, especially long ones, get a bad rap, so Kenny said he’s trying to use his to promote understanding and acceptance for people who are gifted with fruitful facial follicles.
“I encourage men to grow quality facial hair, if they can,” Kenny said. “And wear it humbly.” – Katu