University of Melbourne Magazine

Movember man

  • Compared with the great literary and public moustaches of history – Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ unruly brush, Henry Lawson’s thatch, and lawman Wyatt Earp’s famous flowing whiskers – this one is a mere shadow.

    Arrow-straight across its top, with the merest glimpse of skin beneath the nostrils, close-cropped and flaring narrowly at the side of the mouth; the one on Adam Garone’s face is less a modified Fu Manchu than a pair of matchsticks. By Gerard Wright.

    Adam Garone, founder of Movember, poses for a portrait in his office in Los Angeles, California. Picture: Dan Tuffs

    Adam Garone, founder of Movember, poses for a portrait in his office in Los Angeles, California. Picture: Dan Tuffs

    It’s superficial, of course, to judge a man by his ’stache, especially when it belongs to a former captain in the Australian Army’s crack Special Forces, but as the eleventh month of the year approaches, that is the world that Garone and his brother Travis, and their mates, have created.

    The humble beginnings of Movember – and a month dedicated to liberating the hair on the upper lip in support of initiatives to improve men’s health – dates to a few beers being shared in a Brunswick Street pub between Travis and schoolfriend Luke Slattery, back in 2003. Adam and another friend, Justin Coghlan, quickly came on board. As health awareness campaigns go, theirs was atypical, relying on humour – rather than fear or tragedy – as its galvanising force.

    “We decided to create a brand that’s hopeful and fun and inspirational, and creates a new level of thinking,” says Garone, who is a global ambassador for the Movember Foundation, a charity that now operates in 21 countries and has raised almost $1 billion for research and awareness campaigns focused on prostate and testicular cancer, and male suicide. “We never used fear-based tactics.”

    But the seed of a worthy and critical cause was planted much earlier. The Movember co-founders were students at Whitefriars, a Catholic boys’ school in Donvale, in Melbourne’s outer-east.

    The friends had gone their separate ways after school – Adam Garone to the Australian Defence Force Academy – but stayed in touch. At gatherings they shared a sense that something was not quite right for a few of their Whitefriars cohort. There had been suicides,for example, that were little understood. That uneasiness proved a catalyst for their later campaign.

    The formative years of Garone’s life were spent in institutions that were almost exclusively male. Whitefriars was run by the Carmelite order of fathers and brothers; they made up a quarter of the teaching staff. The army, from officer training to the sharp end of the spear, was no less male. Both institutions expected their charges to learn by example.

    “They taught me about service,” Garone says of the Carmelites. “They were so dedicated to the church, and to education.”

    The military, too, was about service and dedication – first to the mission but, ultimately, to the nation. In Garone, it also fostered ambition – to graduate as an officer, then qualify for the commandos.

    By the time he arrived at the University of Melbourne, he had a Bachelor of Science and Graduate Diploma from the University of NSW to go with his graduation from the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

    Initially, he had set his sights on a Master of Business Administration, but it was the marketing classes that gripped him. “It opened up a different way of thinking for me,” he says.

    “It sparked this entrepreneurial ire in me to create something, which ultimately was Movember.”

    Garone graduated with a Master of Marketing, and started hunting for “a good corporate job”. He was soon disillusioned.

    “Coming from the military, there was what I thought was poor leadership,” he says of his new white-collar world. “It felt really flat and an anti-climax. I thought I would like the corporate world and climbing the corporate ladder, but I wasn’t fulfilled. I wasn’t happy.

    “We were all around 30, and wanting to do something for our community, and personally, I was a little bit lost.”

    But Movember, and its mission to improve health outcomes for men, “felt absolutely right,” he says. It amounted to the right sort of collision between his sense of service and his knowledge of marketing.

    The world that Movember entered in those early days was one where prostate and testicular cancer were known, but rarely spoken of beyond close friends and family. Suicide statistics were their own ghastly indicator of an epidemic of despair – three-quarters of those who took their own lives were male. Men were more than twice as likely to die by their own hand as they were in a car accident.

    Adam Garone, founder of Movember, poses for a portrait in his office in Los Angeles, California. Picture: Dan Tuffs

    Adam Garone, founder of Movember, poses for a portrait in his office in Los Angeles, California. Picture: Dan Tuffs.

    Now, years later, with Movember gaining worldwide momentum, Garone’s contrary experiences as a soldier and as a leader in a different sort of campaign are striking. The commandos were stoic and self-reliant, trained never to reveal any weakness, physical or mental. The Movember mission sits at the opposite end to this definition of masculinity, teaching that trust, vulnerability and honesty, about every aspect of a person’s life, is the new essential of ‘guyness’.

    “Movember is as much a personal journey as a professional one,” Garone says. “I was 31 when I started. The early 30s came up and, at that point, I had spent all bar a couple of years [of adult life] in the military, starting out of secondary school, and you come to realise it’s important to have really good friends around you and have the confidence to show your vulnerabilities to them.

    “You have this feeling of ‘I don’t want to burden my mates’, but they’re there for me, as I am for them. We need to break down the stigma of men talking to each other.”

    Six years ago, when giving a TED Talk in Toronto, Garone introduced himself to audience laughter as “… essentially, a moustache farmer. And my season is November.”

    He believes that he and his mates have re-defined the notion of a charity. Established charities, he says, were too often tired and more focused on self-preservation. Their message was depressing.

    Movember, which encourages men to grow a ‘mo’ and have a laugh, while raising millions through sponsorship, strikes a refreshing note. The result is more than $850 million so far raised worldwide since Movember’s inception, with a new campaign called Farmstrong, tested in New Zealand since 2015 and aimed at curbing rural suicides, to be piloted next year in Australia.

    Garone moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and stepped down as Movember’s chief executive last year. He returns to Australia several times a year for Movember-related business. But home is now a three-minute mountain bike ride from the end of Mulholland Drive, and thestarting point for trails through the Santa Monica Mountains.

    He has the native Melburnian’s deep appreciation for the fabled LA weather, an American wife who works in the entertainment industry, and a two-year-old daughter. He works from home a couple of days a week, managing a dip in the swimming pool at lunchtime.

    Unlike the idea that grew out of a yack with mates over a few beers in Melbourne to become a global re-think of how men might be and might interact, Adam Garone is not going anywhere.