Inside the Mustached-American Movement

Aaron Perlut, founder of the American Mustache Institute, explains how through comedy, the internet, and some actual lobbying, a "joke" can influence the national dialog.

American Mustached Institute infographic

It's not entirely clear that the American Mustache Institute is a joke. To be sure, it's a put on. The Institute's founder, for example, claims a PhD in nuclear mustacheology. But it's not unknown for the group to advocate passionately and genuinely on behalf of facial-haired Americans. The 'Stache Act, legislation designed by AMI that would bestow a $250 tax credit upon the mustachioed class, sparked controversy late last month in a Maryland congressional race, an incident reported as straight news. Its presidential endorsements are covered by Politico -- with tongue in cheek, but covered still. The American Mustache Institute might be the perfect movement for our times: farcically earnest, digitally adroit, charity-minded and not afraid of commerce, with a hipster vibe that helps it all go down. The Atlantic's Chris Good has interviewed AMI founder Aaron Perlut before. I spoke with Perlut from St. Louis ("home of the world's largest mustache," a.k.a. The Gateway Arch) about what he's learned about selling causes -- even ridiculous ones -- online and off.

Can you give me the background of the American Mustache Institute?

Essentially, we're the greatest organization in the history of mankind behind only the U.S. military and the post-Jim Henson Muppets. [Pause.] We are a civil libertarian group. We are fighting against discrimination against people with facial hair, which happens far more often than you might think. Three for four years ago from a young man in Royse City, Texas, who was removed from his high school classes because he had a mustache. And he was made to shave it or be told that he couldn't go back to school. So we lobbied the superintendent and six months later they actually changed the school board policy. And about two years ago we were contacted by a student at the University of George in Athens who was a waiter at a sushi restaurant. He was told on a Tuesday that if he didn't shave he'd be out of a job on Saturday. We applied pressure to the restaurant and he was allowed to keep his facial hair.

I've talked to numerous CEOs who say that facial hair is frowned upon in their corporate ranks, who had been advised to remove it or they would have trouble elevating. If you look across the corporate spectrum it's rare to find a CEO with a mustache. Right now, Eric Holder is the first mustached-American attorney general since 1946 and Francis Biddle. There's not been a major party candidate with a mustache since Thomas Dewey in 1948.

The American Mustache Institute website celebrates people like George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers. Is that correlation or causation? Does a mustache make you a great American?

It's actually fascinating that you bring up black Americans. When white Americans in the 1980s largely became a clean-shaven culture, black Americans did not abandon the mustache. I've long believed that that's because the greatest civil rights leader of the last 50 years, Dr. King, was a mustached American.

Shouldn't it be "mustachioed Americans"?

You can use either. We've always used "mustached Americans" because mustached Americans struggle with syllables.

The 'Stache Act was drafted by Northeastern State University accounting professor Dr. John Yeutter. How did that come about?

Like many mustached Americans, Dr. Yeutter simply found out about the American Mustache Institute, and he came to an annual charity event we have called the 'Stache Bash. He and I started discussing creating a cogent argument for a tax refund based on the fact that we're improving good looks, providing environmental benefits, and investing in the economy by purchasing U.S. made accoutrements and other facets of the mustached-American lifestyle. He went back and created a proposed legislative base. We probably worked on it for a solid year or two.

What happened recently with the 'Stache Act that got Rep. Roscoe Bartlett [R-MD] in trouble?

It was very simple. As we were preparing to do a presser in DC we reached out to the congressman's office. We asked if we could interview him to get his perspective, whether for or against the proposed 'Stache Act. Most members were on break for Presidents Day, and his office informed us that he simply couldn't do it. I believe it was his press secretary who told the person on our staff who called, 'He can't do it, but we have passed your document onto the Ways and Means Committee.'

To us, it was a simple act of kindness. The congressman couldn't meet with us, and they were kind enough to throw us a bone and pass the document on. I've been disgusted by the vulturous nature of the political opponents who have been attacking him. [Bartlett opponent, state Delegate Kathy Afzali, said that the incident reflected an "out of control staff run amok."]

I'm going to sketch out a matrix. In the top left is Borat. In the bottom left, the Motion Picture Association of America. Top right, Stephen Colbert. Bottom right, the American Medical Association. Where does the American Mustache Institute fit?

We tend to leverage a tremendous amount of humor in delivering our message because we've found it is the most effective means of having people pay attention to what our subtle messages are. But we have two principle charters: promoting the mustached-American lifestyle and, with everything we do, we raising money for charity. We want to be good stewards of the communities we live in.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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