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Many taking it on the chin, sporting beards as a form of self-expression

“Hef” (left), who works at Fogtown Barber Shop in downtown St. John’s, has groomed and shaved countless beards over the years, but said he wouldn’t think of shaving his. At right are Hef's colleague, Robbie Ryan, and patron Matthew Brown.
“Hef” (left), who works at Fogtown Barber Shop in downtown St. John’s, has groomed and shaved countless beards over the years, but said he wouldn’t think of shaving his. At right are Hef's colleague, Robbie Ryan, and patron Matthew Brown. - Rosie Mullaley
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Eating barbecue wings is a complicated affair when you’ve got a foot-long beard.

“It’s a pain in the ass. It gets real messy,” says a St. John’s barber who prefers to be known simply as “Hef.” 

“I’ll be the first one to tell you having a beard is foolish.”

But despite the challenges of eating — not to mention his mother’s pleas — the 39-year-old wouldn’t think of shaving it.

“I just couldn’t be bothered, to be honest. I’m stubborn, I guess,” he said, stroking his whiskers, which are mostly brown, with hints of red and a few strands of grey. 

“I just hated shaving and it made life a whole lot easier when I stopped. I never have to worry about it anymore.”

There’s a real focus on facial hair these days, to the point that it has developed into a subculture. From clubs and social media groups, it seems beards are a growing trend and a form of self-expression.

In his seven years working at Fogtown Barber Shop on Water Street in downtown St. John’s, Hef has groomed and trimmed more beards than he can count.

“Globally, it became a thing,” he said during an interview earlier this week at the shop, where he had just finished with a customer and was cleaning his combs and scissors.

“Having a beard is a bit of a fashion statement, too, I guess. It probably wasn’t when I started growing mine (in 2007). Nobody really had one back then, around here anyway, not young people.

“But to me, it’s no different than growing hair or fingernails.”

Fogtown owner Chris Evans said beards made a resurgence “in a really big way” about five years ago, and while the trend has slowed slightly, they’re still popular.

“It got out of hand for a while. It literally got competitive, with beard clubs and talk about how to grow them longer,” said Evans, who added beards can be used to exude masculinity, appear more attractive — even hide a double chin.

“How you care for your beard will make a difference in how it looks, but when it comes to growing one, it’s all about genetics. There’s no magic.”

Some of the best known men in history and popular culture had beards, from Leonardo da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Fidel Castro and Alexander Graham Bell to musicians like the members of ZZ Top, Barry Gibb, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. There were also TV and movie characters with signature facial hair, like Chewbacca, Grizzly

Adams, Mr. T, Albus Dumbledore and Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies, and athletes such as NBA player James Harden, NHLer Joe Thornton and Newfoundland Growlers player Justin Pender. In fact, many athletes grow beards during playoff seasons as a superstitious practice, to bring them luck. 

Beards have also become synonymous with heavy metal musicians and motorcycle clubs.

How beards look has evolved over the years. 

In an effort to attract more recruits, in 2018 the Canadian military approved soldiers having beards as long as they are neatly trimmed, well-kept and not shaggy, hipster style.

Gone are the days of the 1940s and ’50s, when clean-cut appearances were favoured and facial hair was considered a sign of poor hygiene and laziness.

The popularity of beards has grown so much, a St. John’s man is capitalizing on it.

Kyle Sampson — also known as Skipper Sammy — said he’s on par to make $50,000 in revenue this year, his third year of operation for his business NewFound Beards, which offers beard grooming products that he developed. 

Not bad for a side project for the 36-year-old, who works full time with Eastern Health.

“The business has really taken off,” said Sampson, whose products are sold in 20 local stores, with his biggest sales coming from The Bee’s Knees on Water Street.

Sampson realized the importance of beard care when he first grew one in 2015 for the annual Movember fundraising event for men’s health.

“It got a bit gnarly,” he said, describing the unruliness of his coarse chin hair.

Sampson was a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Beard and Moustache Club and an original member of the Merb’ys, a group of bearded men who dress like mermaids and pose in scenic locations for a hugely popular calendar that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.

“(Those groups) really put a spotlight on beards,” he said. “I guess social media really glorifies it.”

Sampson said it’s difficult to explain the allure of a beard, but his gave him a sense of security.

“When I first grew a beard, I shaved it off after one year and I was absolutely shocked. I never felt the same,” he said, adding he wasn’t able to grow a full beard until he was 30.

“I went to Sobeys the next day and I felt afraid. It was like phantom-limb sensation. I was trying to stroke it, but it wasn’t there. I’m not the same person without it.”

Chris Andrews said he certainly doesn’t feel the same without one, either.

As someone with one of the most famous beards in the province, when the traditional music group Shanneyganock frontman shaved his beard in January for charity, he looked like a different person.

“I remember going out one night to Erin’s Pub after I shaved it off and no one knew it was me,” he said, laughing. “I find that pretty funny. As soon as I spoke, they knew, but couldn’t believe it. … But Mom was happy.”

It was only the second time Andrews had shaved his beard in almost 30 years. The first was for dental surgery about five years ago.

“Both times it made national news. Hilarious!” he said. “But it feels different. I remember frightening myself one morning, waking up and looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Holy Jesus,’ forgetting I didn’t have a beard.”

Andrews started growing his beard in his early 20s to emulate his traditional musical heroes.

“I wanted to be just like Ralph O’Brien, Dermot O’Reilly, Chris Hennessey … Ronnie Drew and Dennis Ryan,” said Andrews, adding he was also influenced by his father’s beard.

“Everyone I liked in music years ago, everyone I wanted to be, had a big beard. … It’s a trad musician beard ... and I don’t give two shits about what people say about it.”
Twitter: TelyRosie

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