John Ainley officially sports the best beard in Canberra.
Technically, he lives in Sydney but frequently commutes up and down the Federal Highway for work. He decided to pop into the King O’Malley’s Irish Pub in Civic on Thursday night last week for the annual Beard Competition, with no inkling he would come away triumphant.
“There were so many good beards,” he says.
“When they announced my name, the slow walk up to the front of the room was not in any way a wind-up. You always think your own beard is good, but looking around at all the other beards, I thought I had no chance at all.”
The competition kicked off in 2012, inspired by the pub’s namesake – early 20th-century parliamentarian King O’Malley.
In his two stints as Minister for Home Affairs from 1910 and 1915, the American-born Australian played a big part in the development of Canberra and was the one to sign off on Walter Burley Griffin as the winner of the international design competition for the capital’s design.
He was also known for his thick, bushy beard.
King O’Malley’s managing director Peter Barclay says there are different categories in the competition for the sharpest, fullest and longest beards, and yes, each winner is confirmed by tape measure.
For the first time, there was also ‘Best Beard on the Hill’, which went to Dan Repacholi, Labor member for Hunter and a five-time Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist.
“The judges believed Dan has one of the best beards in Parliament since Federation,” Peter says.
There was a serious side, too. Entrants were welcome to have their skin checked for cancer signs by Australian charity Skin Check Champions, who set up in a private room at the pub. Peter says more than 25 Canberrans came through.
“The doctor was able to recommend some people for further treatment, and gave a heads up to others that they better start looking after their skin better.”
But the main purpose was bringing together the “bearded brothers”. And no one has them like Canberra.
“I’ve travelled to other cities in Australia and overseas, and I reckon Canberra has some of the best beards,” Peter says.
“I don’t know whether it’s just the cooler climate or just people inspired by our competition.”
For the ultimate win of best all-round beard, the judges were wooed by the “spectacular length” and “very thick moustache” of John Ainley.
It all started when John left his previous job in February 2017 and decided to give up on shaving.
“I woke up, didn’t have to shave, woke up the next morning, didn’t shave, and now it’s at the length and volume where it would be almost criminal to shave.”
He says there was, and remains, no real intent. You might be tempted to think growing a beard is about saving time and money, but keeping a beard is like keeping a golf course – there’s an awful lot of maintenance.
“People who think you’re saving money by having a longer beard because you’re not shaving have no idea. I’m probably spending three times the amount of money.”
There are balms and butters and oil and shampoos, all designed to not only keep it clean and tidy, but also work with the natural chemicals and oils secreted by the body.
A simple meal is also an event.
“I tend to carry a hand towel with me or have a pile of napkins sitting next to me, so I can constantly pat the beard down,” John says.
And this is before we get to the ultimate cost: “I’ve never had a bacon and egg roll in 10 years.
“There are many pros, but probably more cons than pros. It’s one of those things where it’s more of an emotional decision than a practical one.”
But there are no plans to go back to his pre-beard days. And even if he did change from his office job to working around machinery, for instance, “it would still be longer than normal”.
His message for everyone else?
“If your man wants to grow a beard, encourage them and let them do that. It’s not an easy thing.”