There are many things that save lives, but none are quite as eccentric or legendary as Jimmy Niggles’ beard. That’s right – a rugged, Ned Kelly-style bushranger beard. And it’s being sold for A$1 million.
The bristly chin whiskers have been growing for the past 11 years, creating a global phenomenon along the way. From meeting Chris Hemsworth, lifting a full-grown man and being reproduced as tattoos to co-hosting an exhibition in London and getting its only trim from Sir Richard Branson, Jimmy’s beard has had a wild ride.
Although it’s not simply for the sake of an amusing escapade. Dubbed the million-dollar beard, Jimmy and his hairy asset have been saving people’s lives from one of the deadliest cancers in Australia – melanoma.
Not only is the million-dollar beard raising awareness through the charity Beard Season, it continues the legacy of Jimmy’s best friend Wes Bonny, who passed away from the disease at just 26 years old.
"Melanoma was really unusual to us," Jimmy tells The CEO Magazine. "It was something we associated with old people who lie on the beach all day.
"We did a little research after the wake and found that 69 per cent of melanoma deaths are men. Young men."
In Australia, roughly one person is diagnosed with melanoma every 30 minutes, and those most affected are men aged between 18 and 45.
As a way to spark awareness, Jimmy and his friends decided to grow beards.
"We needed something that would embody commitment because it’s a fair bit of effort to go and get checked," he explains. "There were these old farmers in the corner at the bar who had amazing beards and we thought no-one was doing that our age, so let’s do that."
After their first bearded winter was spent encouraging people to get skin checks, seven people found a lesion that could have killed them.
"We realised the idea actually worked," Jimmy says. "I kept growing my beard as a way to keep the idea alive."
Fast-forward 11 years since Jimmy started growing his beard and Wes’s death, and it’s now time to celebrate the exceptional feat. The triumph will be held in true Beard Season style with a festive Million Dollar Beard Ball.
"Skin cancer kills five people a day on average." – Jimmy Niggles
Hosted by Merivale’s Justin Hemmes and Jimmy, along with masters of ceremonies Hamish Blake and Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli, the ball could also be the night Jimmy shaves off the beard – if fundraising reaches the golden A$1 million mark.
"It’s bittersweet," Jimmy says. "It started as something really horrible. It’ll never bring Wes back.
"I just hope the people we do encourage to get checked and they find something, that it saves a lot of people from the heartache we had to go through after losing Wes.
"The ball is basically just a celebration of the journey of the beard."
And what a journey it’s been.
From its first monumental attraction at Somerset House in London, UK, which showcased an exhibition called Beards and attracted 35,000 visitors in 2015, to meeting Sir Richard Branson ("the best beard in business") and potentially saving the Virgin founder’s life, the power of the beard is truly remarkable.
"At Necker Island, Sir Richard told me he got a skin check because of the beard and he found a couple of concerns on his shoulder that he might not have otherwise found," Jimmy shares.
While the rugged beard has never been cut in the past 11 years, it has been trimmed, but only once by none other than Sir Richard himself.
"I asked him to be the first person to take a trim off the ends," Jimmy recalls. "It was a bit like getting a limb cut off.
"We turned [the trimmings] into a paintbrush and we’re doing an artwork series by handing the brush around to some really nice Australian artists.
"Every time the paintbrush is passed around it’s a bit less full."
The first painting was premiered at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with other pieces to follow as the series is built.
Those who attend the Million Dollar Beard Ball could be leaving with an artwork of their own – one of a slightly different kind and something extra sentimental.
If the charity raises A$1 million on the night, a hair specialist will be shaving off Jimmy’s beard in a way for it to remain intact. Captured in a glass dome and golden plinth, the highest bidder will be given the honour as the new custodian of the million-dollar beard.
"Wes and I always used to do random challenges at college together and he was always really into bringing people together and doing fun stuff together," Jimmy shares. "He’d think it’s quite hilarious and he would not have expected all of this. We try and keep him at the centre of everything we do."
Within just a matter of days since launching the event, half of the Million Dollar Beard Ball tickets were sold with the ball expected to completely sell out.
In addition to auctioning off the beard, Moët & Chandon, La Roche-Posay, Hublot, Hamilton Island and Paspaley have all come on board donating exceptional items for the skin cancer cause.
Described as being a historic dinner, show and shave, the black-tie event (which was meant to take place in 2020 but was postponed during COVID-19) is ultimately raising funds for the world’s first targeted national skin check program, which endeavours to bring pop-up skin check clinics that use artificial intelligence to regional areas.
"Hopefully, we can catch the attention of good people who want to do good things because this thing isn’t going away unless we work together," Jimmy tells The CEO Magazine.
The next chapter of the million-dollar beard
As Jimmy prepares for his new look sans his Ned-Kelly-esque beard, the advertiser turned Beard Season Founder and CEO is working towards saving more lives in a new way.
"We have this new model for our national skin check program," he says. "It’s only becoming viable this year.
"The idea for a national screening program has been around for decades but it’s never proved viable, but with AI coming into play this year it will be a viable option and we want to be at the forefront of that."
Essentially, the charity’s model proposes to use specially trained nurses to perform the screening. From there, the AI analyses the images of suspect legions and compares it to thousands of similar images to make the initial clinical diagnosis. Then a panel of about six dermatologists will assess the lesion based on all the information before coming to a final diagnosis.
"There’s three layers of assessment compared to just one," Jimmy explains. "The dermatologist’s time is much more efficiently used because they don’t have to sit and wait for patients, so everyone’s time is a lot more efficiently used. And the AI gets smarter every single time you do a screening.
"It’s a really good example of how technology can be put to work to help improve the overall performance of the program."
Through the skin check program (called Project Check Mate), Jimmy believes they can perform 10,000 screenings – the biggest sample size in the world using this type of technology.
Having already assessed about 5,000 skin concerns, the charity says it can finish 10,000 screenings within three years.
"The health economist from the University of South Australia estimates that we’d need to find 30 early stage melanomas for the program to have paid for itself," he says. "According to our previous few thousand skin checks at previous clinics, we should achieve that within 10 days conservatively of activation.
"The remaining 90 days of screenings will provide an economic saving to the economy and health care system of A$28 million. That’s pretty compelling."
With two out of three Australians expected to get some form of skin cancer before they turn 70, the mission to reduce the rate of melanoma is vital. Especially since the rate of Australians with skin cancer is 12 times more per capita than any other country.
"We do Hamilton Island Race Week every year and the first year we did it, we checked 750 people and found 75 confirmed cases of melanoma," Jimmy shares. "That’s after doing biopsies and everything.
"The figures are mind blowing. We’re literally saving lives."
Although the team is small, it’s a powerful army striving to continue Wes’s legacy while stopping others being added to the fatal melanoma toll.
"It kills five people a day on average," Jimmy says. "Everyone should be getting checked, especially in Australia."
The Million Dollar Beard Ball will be hosted at the Ivy Ballroom, Sydney, on 13 May 2021. The event is sold out but you can still make a pledge or participate in the auction by visiting the event page. Or, visit Skin Check Champions to learn more about the charity and Project Check Mate to get involved in their national skin check program.
Feature image: Jimmy Niggles by Mr Brock Elbank