Photography by Andrew Goldie
Like many great ideas, the concept behind Beard Season was brainstormed around a pub table – but this wasn’t your average drinking session. Scott Maggs and his mates had gathered at the wake of their university friend, Wes Bonny, who had died of a malignant melanoma. He was 26 years old when skin cancer took his life. “At Wes’ wake we sat around a table in shock,” recalls Scott.
“We were all talking about how we had no idea that malignant melanoma was such an aggressive disease, especially to happen to someone so young. We did a little Google search and found out that most people who die from melanoma are aged between 18 and 45 and the majority are men.”
According to the Cancer Council of Australia, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they’re 70 – but it is treatable if caught early enough. The five-year relative survival rate for melanoma is 90 per cent for Australian men and 94 per cent for women. However once it has spread, the odds of surviving fall dramatically.
“Sitting around the table we were, quite literally, the most at-risk group of people,” says Scott. “I suppose a lot of blokes think we’re bulletproof. We started thinking, ‘How could we get men to get a regular skin check?’”
This conversation took place in 2010 and since then Scott has become the face of a skin cancer campaign – or at least the chin of it. You may recognise the 33-year-old as his alter ego ‘Jimmy Niggles’, whose signature bushy beard has become a social media star in its own right, appearing in fashion campaigns and an international exhibition.
These days it’s hard to imagine Scott with a clean-shaven complexion, but at Wes’ wake the Sydneysider, an advertising creative, didn’t even have a five o’clock shadow.
“When we were sitting in the pub we saw this group of old guys with the most amazing beards,” says Scott. “We said, ‘Wow, those are great beards. Why don’t blokes our age have good beards?’ They’re such a good conversation starter.”
This was five years ago, just before the hipster facial hair trend kicked off, before beards became the perfect accessory for drainpipe jeans and man buns. Scott and his friends decided they’d all put a ban on shaving that winter. Whenever anyone asked about their beards, they’d talk about Wes and encourage that person to get a skin check.
Since then Beard Season has become an annual occasion with tens of thousands of ‘ambassadors’ around the world signing up to the challenge – a concept reminiscent of Movember.
The difference is Beard Season isn’t about raising funds for research. The campaign has no monetary component, instead it’s all about spreading a message.
On the Beard Season website, any Australian worried about a blemish can type their postcode into a search engine and be directed to their nearest accredited skin cancer clinic. This tool is vital to ensure people are easily able to access clinics with specialists trained to accurately identify malignant melanoma.
Wes had visited a clinic when he first noticed a worrying mole, but it was misdiagnosed as benign. By the time he went for a second opinion it was too late.
Scott admits he never expected Beard Season to grow into something so big (no pun intended).
“It just started as a project between friends,” he says.“But it happened to coincide with this huge resurgence in beard popularity and our photos began to go viral. I started to get messages from friends around the world saying, ‘I just saw your beard in a fashion magazine or in a shop window.’”
Last Christmas, UK advertising agency Grey London even launched a range of ‘Beard Baubles’ and asked buyers to tweet a picture of their face foliage decorated like a Christmas tree (profits from the product’s sales went to Beard Season to aid their raising awareness of melanoma).
But Scott and his follicles reached a new level of fame in March this year, when the Beard Exhibition opened at one of London’s most prestigious venues, Somerset House. The exhibition, which was shot and curated by iconic British photographer Brock Elbank (aka Mr Elbank), consisted of a series of portraits of some of the world’s most impressive beards.
“The collaboration was huge,” says Scott. “For over 18 months Mr Elbank, bless him, dedicated so much time and energy into going through thousands of applicants and photographing people.”
The final line-up included British ‘bearded woman’ Harnaam Kaur, who has been growing a beard since the age of 16 after being diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome.
Over 37,000 people came through the exhibition and Scott estimates it generated the equivalent of more than £2 million of free media for Beard Season.
The group’s latest campaign, #BeardSeasonPoint, asks people to take a selfie with their doctor when they get a skin check and share it with their friends.
“The biggest challenge is reminding people there’s a real cause behind the cool images,” says Scott. “At least once a week I get a message from someone, either over Instagram or email, who sends me a picture of their scar [where they’ve had a suspicious mole removed].”
One person who is thankful for Beard Season is social entrepreneur Avis Mulhall, the creator of Think Act Change, who met Scott when they were both speaking on stage at TEDxSydney in 2013.
“Jimmy asked me straight up if I had gone for a skin check recently,” says Avis. “I hadn’t but, like most people, I put it off until later that year [when] I met Jimmy again. When I went to get a check the doctor took one look at a mole on my leg and said he wanted to do a biopsy immediately.”
A few days later, when Avis got a call from her doctor, the first person she messaged was Scott (aka Jimmy).
“I remember even now,” she says, “I just typed, ‘F**k dude. I have melanoma. You just saved my life.’” Avis was lucky; her cancer was stage one and she is now in remission.
“The crazy thing is I found out about my cancer on Wes’ birthday,” she says, “If that’s not positive affirmation that Jimmy is doing the right thing with his life, I don’t know what is.”
Although Scott is undoubtedly the poster boy for Beard Season, he doesn’t want to wear the logo on his skin forever. In 2016, his mission is to sell his beard for AU$1 million, to enable Beard Season to employ staff and scale the not-for-profit further.
“Ideally I’d want it to go to someone like Richard Branson, who is arguably the biggest beard in the business,” says Scott. “We want to prove it’s worth that much first, by getting it blessed by the Pope, dipped in gold and insured like Jennifer Lopez’s arse or Keith Richards’ middle finger. We’ve even had interest from television producers who might film our mission.”
So what does he think Wes would make of the movement?
“At college every year we’d have this weird event called ‘Wig Off’ that Wes loved,” recalls Scott. “It would take place at exam time when everyone was really stressed out. You had to wear a crazy, ridiculous wig everywhere you went for as long as possible. You could only take it off in the shower. It was just a break from the norm. I think Beard Season is a bit like that in a way.”