Louise Donovan hears how Movember started as a drunken pub conversation and turned into a multimillion-pound fundraising phenomenon
Think back to your last slurred bit of plotting in a bar. It probably involved a money-spinning idea for an app, a plan to start a shark diving company in South Africa (with pre-emptive expenses Googled) and a dead-cert Bitcoin investment. Genius at the time, no doubt, yet in the cold glow of the morning most of these we’re-totally-doing-this plans never escape the four walls of your local.
Somehow things turned out a little differently for Justin Coghlan, JC for short, the co-founder of Movember. Perhaps he wasn’t that plastered, or perhaps his idea was simply better than your get-rich-quick schemes. Either way, something clicked. One Sunday afternoon in a Melbourne pub, he and three friends – co-founders Travis Garone, Luke Slattery and CEO Adam Garone – came up with the simplest of concepts: grow a moustache for 30 days during November and see where it got you. A phenomenon was born and, with it, an army of affectionately named Mo Bros (and Sistas).
“I was living on the Gold Coast at the time,” explains JC, suitably sporting his own ginger-tinged ’tache. “We were chatting about the moustache trend over a fair few Stellas; the usual conversation that happens in pubs everywhere round the world. But then we thought, ‘Why don’t we bring it back?’ Magnum PI [star of the US TV series] had one we grew up with, Einstein had an epic moustache, so did Jimi Hendrix. When you look back in history, people who had moustaches were changing the world and we thought, well, why would you want that to vanish?”
Open up, man
It’s now in its 11th official year, but if you’re unfamiliar with the ‘Mo Movement’ there are a few rules. Firstly, you must start on 1 November with a clean-shaven face (“You can’t just have a beard and then rock a moustache,” JC points out), and continue to grow your nosefluff for the entire month. No beards, no goatees and no faking it. But most importantly, your new-found fuzz should be used to spark conversation about, and raise funds for, men’s health issues: “It’s that top bit of hair for the first five days that looks like you’ve missed that starts the conversation,” notes JC. “Missed a bit there… What are you doing? Why are you doing it?’”
The idea, and it’s worth reinforcing it, is to shake off the old, tight-lipped macho stigma and get men talking about real issues. In 2003, JC and co encouraged 30 men to grow a moustache and fundraise for the biggest killer of men in Australia at the time: prostate cancer. Now, more than a decade later, the campaign funds more than 800 programmes in 21 countries and focuses on ‘the whole man’, including fighting testicular cancer and pumping £2.5m into mental health. To date, they’ve raised more than £345m worldwide. “We’d seen breast cancer [awareness] do so well and people just weren’t talking about men’s health,” he says. “We wanted to get men on the agenda.”
But not everyone immediately took to the idea. They donated £11,550 to Prostate Cancer Foundation Of Australia (PCFA) in their first year, but the charity was somewhat apprehensive about this new approach. “It was the single largest cheque they’d ever received, but they were like, ‘You guys are a little bit too crazy and we’re a very conservative organisation beating cancer.’ To grow a mo for a serious cause was too disruptive for everyone. So they said no, they wouldn’t officially partner with us. But if we raised any money, they’d take it. Adam was in the meeting and he actually paid for everyone’s coffee that day. He rang me after and said, ‘JC it hasn’t gone as well as we thought it would, but we’re just going to roll with it.’ So we did, and we raised £506,308 in 2005. They were quite happy to partner with us from that point forward.”
Despite launching in the relative dark ages of the pre-Twitter world (“I’m pretty sure I still had a pager and a big brick mobile phone”), things quickly took off. In their third year, JC headed off to surf in Bali after wrapping up all his preliminary work. He received a phone call from Luke telling him to get back to Australia immediately. “It just popped,” he explains. “We had more than 50,000 people that year, when we thought we might have 10 or 15.” Realising it was time to take the charity seriously, they officially set up The Movember Foundation, drafted in staff and began to create boards across the globe. A wispy-lipped revolution was soon underway.
So can the annual act of daft moustache selfies and Tom Selleck worship really make a direct difference? JC, unsurprisingly, has been inundated with tales from men young and old.
“One of my most humbling moments was when a 20-year-old guy in the UK emailed us. He found Movember on Facebook, checked himself for lumps, found a lump, went to the doctor and [found out] he had advanced testicular cancer. It pretty much saved his life by a couple of weeks.”
He continues: “To see men talk about their health is incredible. You have no idea. When we first started, you could walk into a bar and be missing an arm and your mates would go, ‘Cool. Go get us another beer – use your other hand.’ You wouldn’t talk about it at all. But over the past decade, men have really started to open up, to the point where last year I was in Newcastle and a guy in a bar unzipped his jeans, pulled his pants down and asked me if I thought he had a lump. I was really happy he was prepared to have the conversation, but I obviously sent him to a doctor.”
And, of course, it’s hard to ignore the celebrities sprouting facial fuzz come November. From Damian Lewis urging you to find your inner spiv, to Stephen Fry relentlessly channelling his Blackadder alter-ego General Melchett on Twitter, and Ricky Gervais’s slightly alarming cross-eyed look, the support has been impressive. But JC is quick to point out that each man has done it off their own back. “We never ask celebrities to promote anything. We’ve actually said on many occasions the best thing they could do for Movember is to not do it. But Kylie [Minogue] rang us in 2008, and I had the privilege of being at Jesse Hughes’ sold-out Wembley concert with 100,000 people. He stopped and pointed me out in the crowd. That was a pretty special moment.”
So, as the movement saddles up for another autumn of creative facial topiary, JC is targeting all the men around the world rocking the lumberjack look [“Sacrifice the beard. Give it to us,”] and reflecting on how far that pub conversation has come.
“Movember has dragged the four of us into this thing and taken a life of its own. It’s pretty cool to be able to say you changed the world,” he says. And, with more than four million people primed to join in the fun in aid of men’s health next Saturday, he’s not wrong.
Movember runs from 1-30 November, sign up at uk.movember.com