Jack Passion leads with his beard

The dusty red Geo coasts into a parking spot and stops directly in front of a sign that reads "15-minute parking." The driver strokes his beard and waves his hand at the warning, like Merlin, trying to make it disappear from the Walnut Creek mini-mall. "That doesn't apply to Jack Passion," he says.

Jack Passion seems to be able to bypass other conventions as well. When he enters a coffeehouse in the mini-mall, part of a tour of local haunts, baristas gape in wonder and drinks are on the house. When he walks down the streets of his hometown, passersby greet him with smiles and slaps on the back.

It's all because the 25-year-old musician sports a cascading corn silk of red hair that tumbles to his belt and makes him look like Elijah Wood grafted to a ZZ Top beard.

In 2007, those majestic whiskers earned Passion a first place in the "full beard: natural" category of the World Beard and Moustache Championships (WBMC) in Brighton, England, and overnight celebrity in the insular subculture of competitive facial hair.

Since then he has incorporated, launching a line of organic cotton T-shirts silk-screened with the likeness of that full ginger beard. Last week he put the finishing touches on a self-published how-to tome called "The Facial Hair Handbook." In addition, Passion, a bass guitarist, is recording his first solo album, "At the Opera."

But there's one thing that stands in the way of Jack Passion's campaign to fully leverage his follicular fame. One simple thing that can swat away all the bragging rights, cut into book sales, endanger endorsement deals and maybe, just maybe, end all that free java. On Saturday, at the biennial battle of the bearded and mustachioed in Anchorage, the defending world champion will have to step in front of the judges and do it all over again.

"People are gunning for me," Passion says. "There are people talking . . . on the Internet. America doesn't love champions, America loves underdogs."

Though men have no doubt been engaged in low-level facial-hair competition since the first Neanderthal learned to scrape hair from his cheeks with a flinty arrowhead, the WBMC can be traced to the Verband Deutscher Bartclubs (Assn. of German Beard Clubs), which held the first contest in 1990 in the Black Forest village of Hofen-Enz. From 1995 on, the contest has taken place every two years, attracting clubs from around the world.

In 1999, when Phil Olsen, Passion's teammate and now captain of Beard Team USA, stumbled across the Eurocentric event, he was one of only two Americans at the competition. He decided, pretty much there and then, to build American awareness and participation. "It wasn't going to truly be a world competition unless America had adequate representation," said Olsen, a part-time judge from Lake Tahoe.

Eventually the Germans reached out to him about holding the face-off in the United States, which resulted in 2003's event in Carson City, Nev., where 60 Americans competed and claimed four victories (including Gary Hagen of Gilroy, Calif., who won for his Imperial -- a.k.a. handlebar -- mustache).

Media coverage from Carson City helped build interest in Beard Team USA (an umbrella organization of loosely affiliated clubs), and this year, 185 Americans (out of a total of 248 contestants) have registered to compete in Anchorage's Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. They will be judged by a panel of locals -- including dog mushers, hair-care professionals and a pro hockey player -- who will be looking for adherence to strict rules governing length and shape as well as subjective criteria such as presentation and confidence. Costumes are crucial, and contestants have been known to doff their hats, blow kisses and do somersaults on stage.

For all their trouble, the winners in the 18 categories will return home with trophies. (The contest sponsors are local businesses -- pubs, restaurants and hardware stores -- and proceeds go to charity.) But participants say the bragging rights for the next two years are all the reward they need.

With the competition back on American soil, a relatively young team, and who knows what kind of facial fur from the Alaskan wilderness, Olsen thinks this year is the tipping point. "If we could win 12 gold that would be spectacular," he said. And Jack Passion plays a big role in his plans.

Passion grew up in Walnut Creek and describes himself as "the son of aging San Francisco hippies," who, he says, blessed him with the middle name Passion, which he has adopted as his professional identity. He asked that his real surname not be published. Apparently, even the modest level of tonsorial distinction he's achieved to date has made him the target of cyber-harassment.

"Right now there's someone pretending to be me on Twitter," he said. "They're saying all kinds of things, sexual innuendo, things I'd never say."

Passion, who majored in philosophy and minored in electronic music at UC Santa Cruz, started growing his beard on a whim at the end of his freshman year.

"By the end of the summer I had a pretty decent beard for three months and everybody loved it," he recalled. "Everyone talked about it. It was like I was a hero because of my beard. After that I just kept growing." That was six years ago.

When the WBMC came to Carson City in 2003, Passion and a friend discovered the contest online and toyed with the idea of checking it out -- but they never followed through, a decision Passion says he regrets.

Two years later, in Berlin, he placed third in the "full beard: natural" category at age 22 -- while wearing a pirate costume. By the time he competed in Brighton, Passion had kicked things up a notch, taking to the stage in a white cutaway tailcoat and trousers with a light-blue pocket square and a white bowler hat. It helped him clinch the win, he said.

"It's like judging art -- there's no technical merit. . . . You're basically trying to get the best subjective impression from a judge. One painting might be technically superior, but it's the one that moves you that is better."

That's why he won't tip his hand about this year's outfit, saying only that he expects to see "a lot of white suits out there this year."

It's a marked departure from his everyday garb. On a recent Thursday, he's tooling around the Bay Area, clad in slightly faded 7 for All Mankind jeans, a red-and-white plaid shirt with the sleeves pushed up, and a pair of spotless white Clarks wallabees. When he puts on his tortoise-shell Ray-Ban sunglasses, he comes off more like a junior high student in a ZZ Top costume than a world champion beardsman gunning for his second helping of fleeting Warholian fame.

Because he's working on the album, he takes his lunch at a roaming taco truck in an industrial warehouse section of Oakland near his studio. His business card, which hangs in the truck window, includes a picture of him holding a guitar in all his bearded glory. Beneath his name is his WBMC title, and below that are the words: "bass guitarist, stage and studio" -- his "day job." He describes the music he composes as "Black Crowes meets Radiohead meets Jack Johnson."

Passion says he doesn't drink alcohol and makes sure to hydrate with plenty of water whenever he starts hitting the caffeine. "Once the hair is on the surface it's basically dead so you can't do anything about it. You need to treat it right before it's out." He cleans up with simple soap and occasionally employs a hot jojoba oil treatment.

If all goes according to plan, Passion will be able to leverage a second consecutive world title into exposure for his soon-to-be-published grooming book and debut album. (Competitors may dream of endorsements, but to date, the biggest perk anyone has acknowledged is a free supply of mustache wax.)

Not surprisingly, he clams up about the conditioner he uses to keep his chin mane so glossy. "I'm going to have to maintain that as a trade secret until somebody wants to sponsor me or endorse me," he said with a grin barely discernible beneath the beard.

'Jack Passion is the Tiger Woods of facial hair competition," Olsen said. "He is to bearding what the Octomom is to motherhood."

But Olsen, 60, acknowledges that Passion will have some stiff (and bristly) competition. "He's going to have his challengers."

The defending champion is "not concerned" about "the Germans," who have dominated the contest since it began in the Black Forest nearly two decades ago. What worries Passion is another Jack Passion: someone who comes out of nowhere, a blur of beard and bravado.

But there's nothing he can do about that. The book is done, he's hydrated and rested, the beard is full and groomed and glistens in the sunlight. So Passion has joined a couple dozen of his fellow competitors on a weeklong cruise from Vancouver to Alaska. The ship will deposit the boatload of beardsmen on dry land just in time for the festival of follicular frivolity.

A few days before boarding the ship, Jack Passion stroked his beard and waxed philosophical.

"Here's the thing: All the beards in my category are going to be judged against my beard. . . . You have to beat this beard at its own game to win."

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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