An interview with mustache expert Allan Peterkin
November is here: a time that separates the boys from the boys who have gone through puberty. As you know, many folks are sprouting new follicles this month to raise money for prostate cancer research in a charity event known as Movember. Enter Allan Peterkin, an expert in all things facially hairy. In 2002, he wrote One Thousand Beards before going north of the pucker in his new book, One Thousand Mustaches. Just last week, Peterkin was a judge at the National Beard and Mustache Championship in Las Vegas.
Why was it important for you to write about this subject?
When I wrote One Thousand Beards, I really did it for fun, but then I got a media inquiry one or two times a month from places like the New York Times, Esquire, and the Wall Street Journal. I’ve become what I call a reluctant pogonologist. Even though it started out as a light, fun thing, what I realized is that it really shines a lamp on masculinity over time. I think a mustache is a performance of masculinity. It’s a way to say, “I’m not a corporate slave, I’m having fun.”
How come mustaches have so many different personalities? In your book, you list about 69 cultural references like the porn star, the dictator, the perpetual virgin…
Yes! In England, for example, there was what they called the three Fs. If you had a mustache you were a fop, an effeminate guy. Or you were a foreigner because Mediterreneans always wore mustaches. Or you were a fiend because cartoon villains always had a mustache. So you were a fop, foreigner, or a fiend. And then there came World War II and Hitler, and mustaches made you a fascist. Then in the ’60s you had the hippies. In the ’70s, gay men and swingers sexualized the ‘stache. But since the ’90s, most western cultures have grown really favourable towards facial hair.
Was the comeback sparked by any particular group or individual?
Everybody in the ’90s had a goatee. That really paved the way for men to be more playful with their facial hair. You could actually keep your job if you had facial hair, whereas our fathers couldn’t.
You were interviewed by Morgan Spurlock for his Mansome documentary on male vanity.
Men are much more conscious of their bodies than they used to be. Men are using facial hair cosmetically. Men use facial hair to look older, to look younger. If they start getting a double chin they can grow a beard and hide it. You can do sideburns that kind of lengthen the face or a big mustache to broaden the face.
The fact that there is even a Movember, that mustaches are somehow out of the ordinary, doesn’t that mean there’s still a stigma there?
This is what I think is so interesting. There’s a young guy I met, he and his buddy decided to grow a mustache just to see what the reaction would be and did a documentary on it called The Glorious Mustache Challenge. And what he’ll tell you is it’s always a conversation starter. You gotta be a little brave to wear a mustache because people are going say things like, “What? You wanna be a porn star?” or “Hey Saddam Hussein!” You gotta have guts to carry it off because you are going to stand out.
If I have facial hair, you’re going to be reading my face based on your associations. I said in my first book that with facial hair, you’re either Santa or Satan depending on who’s looking at you. There’s all this baggage with facial hair. The reason politicians and bankers will never have facial hair is they don’t want to take the chance that 50% of the population will think they’re Satan. Jack Layton had his trademark mustache, but in general, you just don’t see it.
So true. We had a photo shoot for WORN that used stick-on mustaches and we opted not to use the Hitler one because of its negative connotations.
Which is too bad because it was also Charlie Chaplin’s mustache. Same thing with John Galliano and John Waters. They both have this trademark mustache, but since Galliano was labeled an anti-Semite, people think of that now when they think of the pencil mustache.
That kind of sucks.
But you can kind of turn things on their head. I think John Waters evokes the elegant days of Hollywood. His movies are about tearing everything apart and putting it upside down. His early movies were totally counter culture so you can send mixed messages with your mustache.
Well that leads me to a really important question. Whose ‘stache would win in a fight: Waters’s or Galliano’s?
Oh, John Waters.
If you could grow any kind of mustache, what would it be?
There’s a baseball guy called Rollie Fingers. It’s like a really curly, really waxy handlebar. Really waxy.
Who are your favourite mustachioed men?
Martin Luther King, the political mustache.
Einstein, the intellectual mustache.
Clark Gable, the sophisticated mustached.
Freddie Mercury, the rockin’ queer ‘stache.
Edgar Allan Poe, the sad little mustache.
Salvador Dali, the creative mustache. He used to say that when he was a poor art student he actually dipped it as a brush.