$1,013,970, to be exact.
That’s how much Jimmy Niggles’ beard was worth when it was shaved off last month, after 11 years of love and nurture.
But none of the money will go to him. Instead, the cash will go to the charity that Niggles set up more than a decade ago, Beard Season (now known as Skin Check Champions), which urges people to get their skin checked for cancer before it’s too late.
For Niggles, the push to discover skin cancer through early detection is deeply personal. In 2010, his friend Wes Bonny was killed by a suss looking spot on his neck he didn’t know was cancerous until it was too late.
Tragically, it had spread into his system and turned into a brain tumour. Then at the tender age of 26, Wes lost his battle with skin cancer.
In the wake of Wes’ death, Jimmy and his friends did some research and found that there was very little public messaging urging people to get their skin checked.
This was at odds with the gravity of the issue. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world; in fact, two in three Aussies will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.
On top of that, 69 per cent of people who are killed by melanoma are men. Coming from an advertising background, Niggles wanted to find a creative way to spark action amongst the male demographic.
“It’s really hard to convince them to visit a doctor,” he said. “The beards were a way of starting those conversations.”
Beard Season is born
The winter after Wes’ death became the first ‘Beard Season’. Every winter, more and more people would jump on board. Beards were the perfect conversation pieces for early detection; within three years, Niggles’ own had grown, in his own words, “real bushranger-y”.
However, his name wasn’t really Jimmy Niggles – it was his pseudonym, a character that was invented to become synonymous with the charity.
“I was being the ‘beard’ – or the ‘face’ of the charity. And for a lot of startups, it’s handy to have that face – you can do the media, it costs you nothing – it’s an advertisement, and mine was literally a massive billboard.”
“At the end of the day I don’t want this to be about me. I want it to be about the reason, and the purpose of it all.”
The initial target audience was men, but has since been broadened to include the general public. But Niggles wasn’t satisfied at the growing momentum – the positive reception and feedback only made him more ambitious.
“Six years ago, we were all about telling people to get checked. But the only way we could measure our performance was by people writing in saying, ‘Hey I got checked, I found something – you guys might have saved my life’,” he said.
“But it required people to write in. We were getting heaps of those messages every month… But this wasn't an accurate and sustainable measure for our impact.”
Turning awareness into action
So in 2014, the first pop-up skin check clinic was set up at the Australian Open of Surfing at Manly Beach. Not only were there finally some hard numbers to go off, but the results were astonishing: of the 250 people who were checked, 25 had skin cancer and 10 had melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.
Pop-up clinics have been regularly set up ever since, and Beard Season has hit milestone after milestone, including being endorsed by Marvel’s Thor actor Chris Hemsworth.
In 2015, an art exhibition featuring portraits of bearded individuals was hosted in London’s Somerset House attracting more than 35,000 visitors, and the Million-Dollar Beard got its first trim by none other than Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson himself. The trimmings were later turned into a paintbrush that is currently being passed around by some of Australia’s finest artists.
Niggles then launched a national skin check program, Skin Check Champions, to bring together medical specialists and governments together to streamline the skin check process. The program also works with employers, too, to get everyone in the office checked for skin cancer.
Evolving from Beard Season’s initial aim to encourage awareness about skin cancer, the goal of Skin Check Champions is to overhaul the skin check process, which in Australia is a complicated, expensive and rather ancient system, according to Niggles.
Australia has never had a proper national skin cancer screening, because all the evidence – which he believes is now outdated – says that the cost-per-check is too high to justify federal funding.
“It’s super outdated in terms of tech. And the [current] method is a bit s**t,” Niggles said.
Skin Check Champion set out to to streamline the pop-up skin check process in something called ‘Project Check Mate’, which aims to make it more efficient, accurate and sustainable.
“The existing models which have been researched and proposed to the Government have proved to be too expensive.” Niggles said.
“What we’re aiming to do in partnership with the University of South Australia and our tech partner DermEngine, is to utilise a new mix of technology, talent and community – bringing world class artificial intelligence and skin specialists to communities most at risk.
“It’s an evolution of our current system. Training nurses from regional areas, utilising AI to assess and compare the skin concern with thousands of other examples, before sending these images to a panel of dermatologists for a final assessment.”
“There are three layers of analysis, and everyone’s time is more efficiently utilised.”
After more than a decade, Niggles’ beard was finally shaved at a glamorous charity ball co-hosted by Merivale kingpin Justin Hemmes in Sydney’s Ivy Ballroom. The ball had a star-studded VIP list, MC’d by comedian Hamish Blake and radio personality Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli and attended by The Voice host Darren McMullen, TV presenter Danny Clayton, Home and Away star Lincoln Younes, and more.
Niggles’ target of $1 million was met – and then some. It was shaved off to thunderous applause, by Hollywood hair designer Luca Vannella no less.
But behind the glitz and the glamour of the black-tie party lies a lofty goal of overhauling a non-existent government model that aims to save both lives and money – such as the $400 million that skin cancer costs the health system.
The $1 million raised last month from the beard Niggles spent 11 years growing will go towards funding 10,000 check-ups.
“Basically, we’re going to conduct 10,000 screenings using our new model, present that evidence to Parliament and say: ‘listen, this is how much it costs per check, this is how many lives we’re saving per 100 people, and this is why you need to help us scale this [model] all around the country’.”
Niggles has already sat down with the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, Niggles says – all the Minister needs to see now is that the model is proven safe and viable.
And with the beard off, what’s next for Niggles himself? Will he start from scratch, regrow his beard?
“Now that the beard’s gone, I’m back to being Scott Maggs and I can be in the background a little bit more.”
This Beard Season, also known as winter, the hunt will begin for the “next Jimmy Niggles”.
“The end of winter, the best performing ambassador will take on the mantle of Jimmy Niggles the Second, and can keep their beard until winter next year, and do another shave-off.”
“This way our movement can stay fresh and get new perspectives, ideas and blood. I think that will be a cool way to keep current.
“Plus, we’re working on a more female focused campaign to launch this coming summer – but don’t worry, it has nothing to do with growing hair.”