In a takeoff on Rocky, Jack Ferguson of Mechanicsville poses as Travis Oliver's "beard trainer." Chris Smith photo
Nothing separates the men from the boys like the thrill of physical competition — a grim test of muscle and sinew pushed to the brink in the interest of victory and bragging rights. And with the exception of sport, there's no truer reckoning of manliness than facial hair. Which Travis Oliver has in spades. In fact, he'll be competing on tax day for the true measure of bearded glory: Richmond's own "World's Most Important Beard Grow-off Championship Ever."
"It's a test of endurance and willpower more than anything," says Oliver, a media buyer at Richmond's Madison + Main advertising and public-relations firm. His 12 or so inches of grizzled growth leave little doubt that he's reached full adulthood. Besides, notes the 30-something Oliver, as he strokes his potentially world-class whiskers, "I certainly don't have any other talents."
He's on a pre-competition trip to Hooters to scope out April's arena of competition — and to down a few pitchers served up by patient women in tiny shorts. "Really, I'm just excited because it's going to be my first beard competition," Oliver adds.
Not that his beard, which he hasn't trimmed since September 2009, hasn't been worthy of facing off against rivals for a while. But taking the step into the competitive sphere, Oliver says, required a steeling of nerves. "But now, I want to get out there and see what the competition is like."
He's certainly going to have his chance. After the April local competition, Oliver plans to take his beard on the road.
A really tolerant boss, Madison + Main is sponsoring him as he travels to Lancaster, Pa., for the 2011 National Beard and Moustache Championships. The event, according to the organizers' website, "will be either Sept 24 or Oct. 1 and will be determined soon." Last year's event was held in Bend, Ore., with more than 200 contestants in four categories: length, style, originality and "crazy-man look."
"When I hired him, he was clean- shaven," says Dave Saunders, owner of Madison + Main, calling Oliver "a very handsome young man" — once. "I have watched him turn into Grizzly Adams over the last couple of years. It's been quite an odyssey."
That odyssey has included an intra-office beard-off last fall. The winner? "It was Mr. Oliver by a hair," reports Saunders, who is after his employee to set his whiskers on fire a la Blackbeard. Supposedly the pirate applied wax to his beard, creating what amounted to hair candles.
But the very thought makes Oliver's whiskers curl: "I don't like fire near my beard at all," he says with what looks like a grimace behind the fur.
Instead, Oliver has since taken to a bit of hirsute cross-training.
"My new thing is growing my moustache out," he says, unaware, evidently, that stray beads of wing sauce cling to his lip bristles. "I feel like that's going to add an edge to my competition."
Tess Simms, who started waiting tables at Hooters last September, drops by the table with another pitcher and regards Oliver with a brief quizzical expression — apparently trying to sort sauce from facial hair. Finally, she leans in a bit, points vaguely and in a lowered voice says, "You've got something in your beard."
Oliver looks pained. "It looks like I'm spitting all the time," he says, brushing away debris. "Or you can use the word rabid — that's fine."
The beard championship takes place April 15 at 6 p.m. at Hooters, 7912 W. Broad St.