Some Honfest regulars plan to sit this one out

Not counting her seven custom-made beehive wigs, her cat's-eye glasses and her flamingo purse, Charlene Osborne holds little closer to her heart than the bedazzled rhinestone tiara that was fixed onto her lacquered bouffant as she was crowned Baltimore's Best Hon two years ago at Honfest.

But this year, Honfest will be at least one beehive short. Osborne is among those who have pledged to boycott the annual event to protest what they consider to be the co-opting of a Baltimore institution: the fabled hon.

"I consider myself a hon, raised by a real hon in Dundalk, which is hon territory," says Osborne, who's 49. "But I do not support the trademarking of the word and the strict handling of all things hon — it's very un-hon."

So the prize-winning hon, whose over-the-top visage smiles from the side of those hon-decorated city buses, will not be attending Honfest, which takes over Hampden this weekend.

"I'm making a statement by not being there," Osborne says. "I'm not going to go burn my beehive or anything, but … the whole festival has lost its charm for me."

Though it's unclear what kind of an impact they'll have — if any — others say they'll be joining her, turned off by the recent revelation that Honfest founder and Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting has trademarked the term of endearment and wanted control over what vendors at the event can sell and say.

If the boycott talk worries Whiting, she's not letting on.

"Everybody's entitled to do what it is they want to do. I think it's going to be a good weekend," she says. "I invite everybody to come, I encourage everybody to come. Not because it's Honfest, but because they would be coming to support all the other merchants."

Over the years, Whiting has trademarked the word "hon," and other variations on the word including "Cafe Hon" and "Honfest" and "Hon Bar" and "Hontown," the name of her newest Hampden shop. She owns the rights to using the three-letter word on everything from napkins, note cards and calendars to pens, shirts, hats, underwear, ties, shorts and even feather boas.

Incensed that someone could own something that seemed part of the city's lexicon, thousands of people joined Facebook pages with names like "No One Owns Hon, Hon" and spent a holiday weekend last year picketing along 36th Street, or The Avenue.

Though the flap seemed to quiet by spring, bad feelings flared once again last week after Hampden merchants received a list of things Honfest vendors couldn't sell or promote. No politics. No religion. Nothing bearing the Honfest logo. Nothing that would infringe on the various Hon trademarks.

Last week, her son Thomas Whiting said the rules, particularly those dictating what people can sell at Honfest, were meant for out-of-area vendors - not regular Hampden merchants.

But that was the last straw for many: no cat's-eye sunglasses.

Disgusted, Lynda Del Genis has taken to calling it "Hunfest."

The 41-year-old technical writer, who lives just off The Avenue, will be spending the weekend anywhere but at the festival, an event she found quite charming when she first moved to the neighborhood a decade ago.

"It's not a nice little neighborhood festival anymore. It's not about the neighborhood. It's not even about Baltimore. It's about her," Del Genis says. "The whole thing just leaves a really foul taste."

Honfest, now almost 20 years old, was born to celebrate the audacious hon of Baltimore, an archetypal gal with tall hair and thrift store fashion sense. A privately owned neighborhood festival, Honfest had become one of the city's best-known events, running two days and stretching the length of The Avenue, Hampden's main drag.

There attendees wrap themselves in feather boas, stop in the beehive tent to see how big they can build their hair and then cheer on contestants in the Best Hon pageant.

"It's really become part of the fabric of Baltimore, part of the fabric of Hampden," Whiting says. "It's how we celebrate our heritage and our culture, and it's just become part of Baltimore."

The protesters have so infuriated Elissa Strati, who owns the Avenue Antiques mall on The Avenue with her husband, that she has come up with a name for it: The Hontroversy.

As in, she's had it with The Hontroversy.

"For those who are planning to [boycott], I'm sorry for them; they are going to miss a wonderful time," she says. "I think Denise is an astute businesswoman. She was absolutely right to trademark. She has built that brand.

"I deplore that people are running around saying, 'Oh this is so wrong,' without thinking it through."

While some attempt to make a statement by sitting out the festival, others plan to attend — but in full protest mode.

Some of those who picketed last winter plan to walk the festival, if not with signs, then with shirts that say "Noh," which is "hon" backwards.

Angela Devoti and a friend are trying to spread the idea of the Noh Festival, which she describes as not so much an event as a state of mind. "It's taking place on T-shirts … and in the minds, hearts and mouths of anyone who is opposed to the trademarking of what should be public domain," the bartender says.

For Crystal Callahan, who grew up in Hampden, the festival once seemed like a family reunion.

"My Grandma Helen was pretty much a hon before I knew what a hon was," she says. "Bouffant. Slippers. On the front porch talking to the neighbors. After her passing, we started going to Honfest."

Callahan, who's 25 and a tattoo artist, would walk the festival with her father and two brothers, feeling like they shared something in common with fellow attendees. But not this year.

"After the whole commercialization of it, it feels like it cheapens the family memory," she says. "My grandma wasn't a mascot to be profited off of.

"[Denise Whiting] is trying to treat hon like it's her own invention. It's not. It's more of a community thing. It's our word. You just can't come in and steal our word."

As an award-winning hon, Osborne is sad to be missing what might be the biggest event on the calendar for hon-kind. The skirt made from a painted window screen will have to stay in the closet. None of the seven wigs will get any action.

But a hon's got principles to consider.

"I love that festival. Little girls looked up to me and asked me if I was a princess," she says. "But I'm not going because 'hon' should be free."

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.