I have never had such an informative, enjoyable and dare I say smart conversation about facial hair. My usual conversations goes something like this, ” Uhh, you got something in your beard.”… ” Thanks!” Nick Burns co-author of The Bearded Gentlemen: The Style Guide to Shaving is loaded with helpful information to care for and tame that overgrown bush on your face or perhaps just your upper lip. His extensive back round as a journalist, has covered skin care, fashion, and health for leading magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Details, Elle Accessories, Out, and Zink, and he pens the popular men’s style blog, HommeGrooming.com., makes him over qualified for me to ask him about how to best trim my unruly nose hairs (But I ask anyhow). Nick’s writing is witty and sharp as well as his answers to my questions I brainstormed for him.
Q & A:
Interview by Mike Enders
Nick Burns: Allan wrote a book called 1000 Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair and I interviewed him for a piece I wrote for the New York Times about the return of the mustache–a bunch of hipsters in Williamsburg started sprouting whiskers above their lips in 2008. We worked together on a few other articles after that and when his publisher asked him to write the follow up to 1000 Beards, he asked me to help out.
A B: I would love to call you King of whiskers. What has been the fire under you that make you want to write about the topic?
Nick: I think “King of Whiskers” is too lofty of a title for little old me. Maybe Prince of Whiskers? Well, when your name contains “Nick” and “Burns”, writing about shaving is kind of like your birthright… sort of like being born into the royal family.
When I was in college, I worked part time as a receptionist at a hair salon in Santa Cruz and learned a lot from the stylists and estheticians there. I had really bad skin back then and tried everything under the sun to clear up my acne. I guess that’s really what inspired me to explore writing about grooming and skin care. I was trying to solve my own issues!
A B: Were there any figures in your life while you were growing up that wore a beard or other facial hair designs?
Nick: My Dad had a mustache in the 70s and 80s but I didn’t really appreciate it until I started writing more about it as an adult. Every once in a while, I’ll see an old photo of him and think, “Damn, that mustache was amazeballs!”
A B: Women’s lifestyle, health and beauty magazines dominate the press. Is there a men’s magazine that you would be content grabbing at the corner store and spending at the day in the park reading?
Nick: I’m a big fan of Esquire, Men’s Journal and Out. I’m a little biased because I write for them from time to time but I think they all feature great writing, and very different points of view — and I appreciate that. Esquire is very sophisticated for a more buttoned down gentleman without being stuffy. Men’s Journal is for the outdoorsy, adventurous and rugged man and Out is obviously for the fashionable gay. Aaron Hicklin and his team have done such an amazing job at Out. I don’t think they get enough credit for the great work they do.
A B: Are gay men better off than straight men with their knowledge of what to do with the mops on their faces, or are they tragically uninformed?
Nick: I think gay men are still the early adopters of trends—for better or for worse—especially when it comes to grooming and personal care. Us homos tend to put more time into caring for our appearance and whiskers–even though we might work hard to get that “just-woke-up” beard look. All men are vain. The difference between gay and straight guys is that gay men are less shy about it.
A B: If you were on a first date, and met at their place, while in the bathroom you noticed that they had a cup of old disposables razors in the shower. Would it be over already or would you stage an intervention for them?
Nick: Definitely stage an intervention. Disposable razors are a form of cruel and unusual punishment. I might casually bring up the book as some helpful reading material without mentioning that I actually wrote it, or just leave a copy behind “accidentally” with a Gillette Fusion.
A B: One thing I have noticed when I get my hair cute, granted I get $16.50 cuts, is that the nice ladies at Nice Cuts never know what to do with sideburns when you have a beard. Is there some kind of dialogue I should be having with them that I am unaware of?
Nick: Yes. You should break up with her and start seeing a real barber like my friend Shorty Maniace at Mystic Hair in San Francisco. He’s featured in the book and recently moved to SF to save the West Coast from bad cuts and worse shaves. Or go see Joe at Joe’s Barbershop in the Castro. Tell them I sent you! I’m not anti-salon but when it comes to facial hair—and I know I’ll probably get some hate mail for saying this but— you’re better off at seeing a barber instead of a cosmetologist. It’s a different license and a little bit different in its teachings.
A B: I have been so happy about the explosion of beard trends in the last year (Fear the Beard). I am scared the next trend maybe a clean-shaven face (gasp). Can you for see what’s next in the facial hair trend?
Nick: People always say that fashion trends are cyclical and with the internet, those cycles just seem to be speeding up! After a few years of dabbling with 80s neon and Burt Reynolds-style ‘staches, I think we’re quickly moving toward the 90s. By my calculation, we’re somewhere between 1990 and 1991. Stay tuned for more circle beards and goatees a la Kurt Cobain.
A B: When I say man-scaping, what is your first reaction?
Nick: The first image that pops into my head is a metrosexual plucked chicken. Do I win a prize?
A B: I got lost on your Rate My Whiskers site earlier while admiring your bio. I like the idea of straight men on there rating their buddies whiskers. ( In my mind they are in their boxers while doing this)
Nick: You’re too kind! Flattery will get you everywhere with me. Wait, what was the question? 🙂
A B: Do you believe there are stigmas still attached to men with facial hair?
Nick: Certainly the mustache is still the most misunderstood and stigmatized style. People have all sorts of associations (some good, many bad) with a furry lip. And let’s be honest, you have to have some amount of swagger to carry off the look. Luckily, beards have become much more acceptable in the workplace so pogonophobia is definitely on the decline. (Can I get a Hallelujah?)
A B: Are you personally attracted to men with a modern facial design or an old-time classic?
Nick: Hmm… I like a neat and trimmed beard, personally. One that’s long enough so it’s soft to the touch and short enough that it doesn’t look like a mask–and is easy to clean if you get crumbs in it.
A B: What are some other topics that tickle your fancy and we may find you writing about in the future?
Nick: I’m working on a book about skin care with a dermatologist but it’s an ongoing project. Please cross your fingers that an agent or publisher share my love for the topic and believe in the project.
A B: Are you trained at all to be hands on in the grooming process or just the man behind the curtain will all the valuable wisdom?
Nick: I’m really just a journalist who has been lucky enough to learn a ton from experts in the grooming industry. I don’t have any formal training in the cosmetological arts myself.
A B: Bearded ladies? Treasure or tragedy?
Nick: Ouch. That’s a tough one. I’m a big fan of drag kings but if you’re not sporting a beard as an art form or because you’re transitioning, it might be time to book an appointment with your friendly, no-mercy esthetician.
A B: If you and a man of your choice were stranded on an island, is there a product found in nature that works as a perfect shaving cream or aftershave just as it is?
Nick: If you’re stranded on a deserted island, you have more important things to worry about than shaving. 🙂 Do they have razors on deserted islands?
A B: Is SF your permanent home or are there other destinations you would like to conquer and make it work (Thank you Tim Gunn)?
Nick: I grew up in the Bay Area but spent five years in NYC. In a perfect world, I’d split my time between both great cities. I fantasize about moving back to NYC from time to time.
A B: Have you ever been a consultant for any theatrical performances or TV shows?
Nick: Only the private films I make in my bedroom from time to time. Okay, just kidding. I haven’t yet, but would be flattered to consult on a tv show, movie, red carpet commentary or makeover reality show! Have their people call my people, please.
Nick: My most proud moment (other than publishing the book, of course) was writing a front page story for the Wall Street Journal last Fall. My mom has a framed copy of the plate that was used to print the front page of the newspaper that day.
A B: I saw that you attended the Hunky Jesus contest in the SF on Easter. Do you think it’s possible that “Jesus” was a ginger?
Nick: As far as I know, redheads aren’t native to the Middle East. Besides, redheads are known for being soulless children of the devil–that is, if you consider South Park to be a reputable source for scientific information.
A B: What is your take on masculinity in the gay community? There are so many “masks” and on “costumes” the gay community wears as defense mechanisms. Is it all for show?
Nick: Oh, now you’re getting all psychological on me. Well, the beard is often seen as a kind of mask. It is commonly used to hide imperfections (a weak chin, a second chin, scars, etc.). Growing a beard is also the easiest way to change your face in a major way.
Following the Stonewall Riots,, the whole lumberjack clone look that dominated the 70s was considered a backlash against the media’s portrayal of the gay community as a bunch of sissies. The community adopted a hyper masculine look. Who knows what we’re rebelling against today? Maybe the idea that we’re not worthy of marriage or (at least until recently) of military service?
There are a lot of costumes in the gay community, but I think we try on different costumes in an attempt to belong and find what fits us best. It’s all just a process of learning about yourself and finding your own identity. If people feel more like themselves or find a sense of belonging because of their beard, I fully support that.
A B: I see that you are lucky to have a full head of awesome red hair. Are there any extra challenged that red heads have than their fellow blondes or brunettes?
Nick: We tend to get teased a lot as kids. And I get sunburned when i open the fridge. Flash photography can also be dangerous for anyone in the immediate vicinity. Luckily, it seems that red heads (especially in San Francisco) are becoming more celebrated. There’s even a new monthly party here that is entirely devoted to redheads and their fans. It’s called Red Meat and the first party is on May 14th (facbook.com/redmeatsf).
A B: I have to ask about you being a national spokesperson for Wahl Home Products. What has that entailed? Is that like Ellen being the face of CoverGirl?
Nick: My collaboration with Wahl Home Products was a lot of fun! I made a few instructional videos for beard trimming and shaving, wrote blog posts for WahlNation.com, and responded to reader questions. Do you think Ellen could get me a gig with CoverGirl even though it won’t CoverBoy?
A B: What is the next step in taking over this hairy world of ours?
Nick: I’m working with Shorty Maniace here in SF to offer a monthly straight razor shaving classes at Mystic Hair. The first class is on June 19th–Father’s Day! I’ll be there to sign books and help out, but Shorty is really the brains behind the operation. . The class is $70 (or $175 if you want a super special Fathers Day gift set)! If you’re interested in attending email email@example.com for details!
A B: Give us hopeless hairy guys one piece of advice to live by.
Nick: Never apologize. Never explain.
Writer | Editor | Author | Multimedia Producer | San Francisco