Meet The Man Who Wants To Beat Skin Cancer, One Beard At A Time
He goes by "Jimmy Niggles". He has a spectacular beard.
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Swaggering into Rueben Hills café in Sydney, Jimmy Niggles has already copped two curious looks from behind the counter and another from the street. He’s a tall guy, big blue eyes and a booming laugh that bounces around the room on entry, but he possesses one particular feature that has attracted him attention worldwide. He’s been recognised in the streets of L.A., immortalised on T-shirts and mugs — he’s even been painted on a mural in Spain.
And it all comes down to his infamous woolly beard, which today is hanging down and a little to the left of his rustic face. “I shit you not,” Jimmy opens, “we just got this photo from the side of a school or church or something in Madrid. It’s a stencil of one of the first images we created for Beard Season!”
Beard Season is a social media campaign that started last year, encouraging beard growth in order to promote the idea of guys getting a skin cancer check. The site connects you with local clinics and asks you to become an ambassador, sharing your furry chin and the story of your skin check with a picture of your beard. It’s also the reason Jimmy, who has a history in advertising, stepped in front of the camera in the first place. When a close friend of his passed away after finding a melanoma on his neck, Mr Niggles and his mates took it upon themselves to spread the message of an oft-avoidable cancer, and uphold the legacy of a loved one.
“Wes was 26 when he passed away, and we were blown away. We thought melanomas were just a thing that old people got. The truth is, it’s the most common type of cancer in Australians aged 15 to 44 — and the majority of people who die from it are men. You know, us young guys think we’re bomb proof — we’re also the last people to walk into a doctor and ask what the spot on our shoulder is. So it was about just starting that conversation.”
It’s also proven a pretty fun promotional venture; earlier this month, Beard Season teamed up with ad agency Grey London to create a fundraising campaign calling for people to buy a packet of small Christmas “beard baubles” to give to their bearded friends and loved ones. The campaign went viral, and sold out in just six days.
“I’m not really sure why we picked beards,” Niggles concedes. “I guess it’s just positive, fun way to remember Wes and his legacy, especially after the original commercial about Wes came out.”
The PSA he’s referring to, ‘The Dark Side of Tanning‘, is one you may have seen on television and cinemas. It features Wes’ actual family and friends discussing the cancer that killed him, with a particularly harrowing moment with his father, who holds back tears as he says, “He tried to cover up the best he could. Evidently not good enough.”
“The commercial was powerful, heartbreaking,” Jimmy says. “It was apparently one of the most effective Australian campaigns of all time. But it can be testing, you know? It’s for a good cause, but as you can imagine it was hard for his family — so it’s great to do something that makes people smile too.”
As his second coffee arrives, Mr Niggles happily allows a curious bystander to give his beard a gentle petting. I myself had to resist asking if I could touch it, too. “Oh, I don’t mind at all! As for the attention, look, I’m not the biggest fan of being of the limelight, but more eyes on the campaign means more awareness and might even help stop some Englishmen turning lobster red whenever the sun comes out.”
Jimmy and his beard certainly haven’t had any shortage of attention. His first ever photoshoot with English photographer Brock Elbank has topped 500,000 views on Reddit — and the images are soon to be displayed in the iconic London gallery Somerset House, as part of their new artistic collaboration, Project 60.
“Brock is my partner in crime. He came to me after a board meeting one day and said, ‘Mate, I’ve been shooting facial hair my entire life. You have to let me take your portrait.’ … He propped me up on a chair and said, ‘Right, I want you to imagine you’ve been out at sea, fishing for weeks, drunk on rum. You finally stumble in out of the rain and as you light up your pipe for a first puff, the door swings open and there is your wife in the arms of another man. Give me that look!’ And that’s where Project 60 started.
“It’s been wonderful watching Brock’s exhibition come together,” Niggles continues. “Everybody paid their own money to make the shoot in London, there was no funding for anything. One fella even flew from Texas, even though he’d never left his hometown before! And then of course there is Harnaam Kuar.” Jimmy directs me to one of the most striking images of the collection and one of only two females in Project 60, the other being Elbank’s daughter wearing a clip-on beard.
“It was Brock who spotted Harnaam in an article. She’s so striking, stunning, and such a lovely person. We knew immediately she had to be a part of the collection.”
After inviting Harnaam to their studio in Fenny Compton, London, her image help launch Project 60 and Beard Season around the globe, with coverage coming in from The Guardian, The Daily Mail UK and Huffington post. Kuar, born with a condition that causes excess hair growth and baptised Sikh (a religion that forbids the cutting of hair), has since spoken out about the project in the Daily Mail: “[It was] incredible to be the only bearded woman among all those men. It makes me feel really strong.”
With four years of growth under his chin you might think it was time for Jimmy put his feet up and get to a barber. But nope. “No rest yet. Next year I want to do twice as much. A few weeks ago we’ve gone from being an ideas-based campaign to gaining ‘Charity’ status,” he says — meaning that Beard Season has been officially recognised as an organisation registered to raise money for skin cancer research and skin checks. “I really believe we can help shift thinking on skin checks and engage with philanthropists to create huge ideas.
“As much as I appreciate it, I’m not looking to be standing in a koala costume in the street with my bucket out when I can knock on a corporate door and tell them, then and there, they can save lives. That’s why I am doing this. And you know I laugh sometimes because it’s so clear that Wes is up their helping pull the strings, helping make things happen. He’s been with us whole way.”
Brendan Maclean is a musician, actor, writer and occasional triple j presenter. He tweets from @macleanbrendan