Moustache-growing competition raises prostate cancer awareness, cash

A group of husky lumberjack-types were grooving to a dance-pop mix at the Rock & Roll Hotel on Friday night when a judge approached them. He was concerned about their appearance.

All the men were dressed in flannel, clutching bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer inside the club on H Street NE. Colorful suspenders pulled denim shorts high above their knees. But the judge was most interested in their thick mustaches.

The judge had been tasked with finding the best mustache, the best “mo,” in the region. Or at the least the best at this event marking the end of Movember,” a month dedicated to raising money for and awareness about prostate cancer.

“Three men in our family have cancer — two have survived,” one of the lumberjack-types, Rob Kelly, told the judge, strobe lights flickering on Kelly’s long lip-warmer. “You’re not going to find a group more passionate about this cause than we are.”

This year, more than 33,000 men in the United States will die from prostate cancer, a disease that afflicts one in every six men nationwide.

Over seven years, Movember, a growing international movement organized through a nonprofit group of the same name, has used the month of November to raise money in search of a cure. The “mo” is the male equivalent of the pink ribbon that is identified with breast-cancer awareness.

The Kelly family, which has its roots in Red Bank, N.J., fed off the contest’s ability to show both silliness and solidarity. When people would ask about their facial hair, they would ask for donations.

This year marked a banner growth in the movement, according to Mimi Sroka, a Movember spokeswoman. More than 142,000 men across the country have participated in fundraising, more than twice as many as last year. They raised $15 million.

Few places raised as much money as the District — which is why it was selected as one of 12 cities where the organization scheduled mustache-growing contests.

For Sroka, it’s a coup for such a silly look to catch on in the seat of the nation’s political power. If political fashions were to be a followed, a clean shave is a must. No president since William Howard Taft has sported facial hair.

But the cause outweighed such sartorial considerations. Shane Kelsey, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher from Baltimore, lost an uncle to prostate cancer. Women have done a great job raising awareness about breast cancer, he said. This was a chance to draw attention to another type. He got his students involved — they penciled in their mustaches.

On Friday night, judges scanned the crowd, looking for a mix of visual brilliance and originality.

There were tiny ones like Charlie Chaplin’s. Wiry ones like those of dastardly cartoon villains. Faint ones that were hardly visible. Black ones, blond ones, red ones. Thick mustaches sitting above thin lips. Long mustaches that cascaded down the face.

Many of the competitors came in costume, dressed as lumberjacks, gym teachers, video game characters, fighter pilots.

“I’m dressed as Daniel Plainview from ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ” one participant told a judge, eager to win.

“If you have to explain the costume, it’s not good enough,” the judge told him.

Around 10 p.m., the finalists gathered on the stage. The audience would determine the ultimate winner. The Kellys lost out to a group from Northern Virginia who came dressed in headbands, polo shirts and gym shorts. They called themselves the “Northern Virginia Gym Teachers.” (None is an actual gym teacher.)

But the best ’stache in the region went to a 46-year-old man from Alexandria with a neatly trimmed red-haired ’stache that extended just beyond his lips. He borrowed his brother’s old uniform from Virginia Military Institute and marched onto the stage, slowly turning the marshal steps into fluid dance moves.

The crowd went wild. After they declared Steve Beggs the winner, he made a confession.

“I’m actually a cancer survivor myself,” he said.

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.
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