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    Keith Brown was walking to his job at a downtown Louisville law firm in 2015 when a man stopped him on the street. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Brown had been sporting a handlebar mustache for about a year and was used to getting attention from strangers. “For some reason, I have people call it a beard all the time too,” he told me. “They walk up to me at Kroger and say, ‘Nice beard.’”

    The guy talked to Brown about mustaches, but instead of compliments, he gave him a flier for the inaugural Whiskermania, a beard and mustache contest sponsored by the Derby City Whisker Club, which has been promoting the “culture of facial hair” since 2011. Brown entered and won a prize. He’d found his tribe.


    Keith Brown, styled mustache

    Brown, 50, shared this story with me in early November as we sat in the back of a blue Chrysler Pacifica minivan surrounded by other members of the Derby City Whisker Club, including Brown’s husband, Eric Simpson. We were headed to Chicago for the 2019 National Beard and Moustache Championships, one of the largest bearding contests in the country.

    Eric Simpson, full beard

    Brown has had some form of facial hair since he was able to grow it. It’s basically the same story with the rest of the club. Simpson decided to grow his beard because of the attention Brown was getting. “I started growing my beard for No-Shave November, and I liked not having to shave,” Simpson said. “I kept it for a while, but I kept it close.” After watching the PBS series Mr. Selfridge, which takes place in early-1900s London, he said,  “I decided that was the look I wanted.”

    Brown and I have known each other since the early 1990s, when we both worked as waiters at the gourmet-to-go restaurant La Peche in Holiday Manor. Last summer, I attended a barbecue at his home in the Portland neighborhood, and he told me about a trip he and Simpson had just taken to Antwerp, Belgium, for the World Beard and Moustache Championships, where Simpson’s striking black-and-white beard won third place in the “natural” category.

    In the back of the van, I sat next to Josh Druin, a plumber who competes in the “partial beard” category. “When Whisker Wars was on, I thought that show was cool, and I wanted to start a club in Louisville,” Druin said. “But I found out there was already one, so I was like, ‘I’ll just go meet them.’” (The DCWC has about 35 registered members.) The nationals would be Druin’s first beard competition in some time, because he is also part of a group that attends Renaissance fairs, where he dresses as a Viking. A large segment of the competitive bearding community is made up of people into cosplay, women who like bearded men, and military veterans who enjoy being able to grow facial hair, which they can’t do while serving.

    The van that was carrying us to Chicago belonged to Patrick Fette, a true star in the bearding world as the winner of four world championships and three national awards in the “English mustache” category. The English is a slender mustache, with the hairs extending outward from the middle of the upper lip. Think of the banker in Monopoly. Fette’s mustache is a foot long, and when it’s not styled with wax, the ends droop down the side of his mouth like a Fu Manchu, which is actually another competition category. When we stopped for breakfast at a Greek diner in northern Indiana, Fette had to lift the sides of his mustache with one hand and feed himself his omelet with the other hand.

    The last member of our travelling crew, DCWC president Ryan Gore, made sure everybody had cards advertising the Whiskermania 5 event, at the Diamond Pub & Billiards on Barret Avenue in January, to hand out to the members of other clubs.


    Ryan Gore, full beard with styled mustache

    Our destination was 350 Brewing’s Insanity Factory in Tinley Park, Illinois, a 24,000-square-foot industrial space. The only refreshment options were a makeshift bar and a food truck in the back parking lot, which was also the de facto smoking area. I always knew I could find Simpson there chain-smoking American Spirit Golds. He and Brown were popular because they both carried flasks of bourbon.

    Each competitor paid a $30 entry fee and got their facial hair measured to verify eligibility for any of the 51 categories. Some of the most popular categories were the “craft” or “creative” contests, in which women could make facial hair out of anything. One winner had a mustache cut from a Brillo pad. At one point, I sat backstage, talking to a pretty woman from Austin, Texas, in a flowered dress. She had a full beard, which looked so real it had to be human hair.

    The DCWC members greeted people they recognized from other events. I had underestimated the popularity of the competition. The rest of the group stayed near the venue at a La Quinta, which was completely booked by the time I tried to get a room. At my hotel, when I told the woman at the front desk I was in town for the beard and mustache competition, she quipped, “That explains why I’ve checked in 19 people today that look like Grizzly Adams.”


    Josh Druin, partial beard freestyle

    On Saturday, I opened the minivan door to find everybody dressed like pirates. When we got to the Insanity Factory, it seemed the only people who weren’t in costume were me and the people from Remington Beard Boss, a name-brand grooming kit and the event’s main sponsor. One man wore a robe and G-string. He had a “censored” sign hanging in front of his private area. (It’s worth noting that Charles Darwin believed beards to be a secondary sexual characteristic used to attract mates, akin to horns and feathers in certain animal species.)

    Beard Team USA and various vendors selling beard and mustache products had set up tables around the brewing and canning equipment that loomed over everything. Remington had set up a couple of barber chairs on one side of the factory, where people could get a shape up.

    Brown was the first DCWC member to compete, and he was nervous. Every morning, he combs his mustache in the shower, applying Clubman Pinaud Moustache Wax, and curling each end of the mustache to achieve the distinctive bike handlebar appearance that gives the style its name. But he turns the grooming up in the weeks leading up to a big competition. Instead of shaving the part in his mustache, he plucks out individual hairs with a pair of tweezers. It is so painful he has to spread it out over a few days. Despite his attention to detail, the morning we were leaving for Chicago he lost a chunk of hair while combing through a knot in the shower. Brown kept the missing clump of mustache as a keepsake, like it was a lock of a lover’s hair.

    He registered for the Dalí contest (yes, named for the Spanish painter’s iconic facial hair) rather than the handlebar category. One by one, the 12 contestants went onstage and answered questions about their grooming habits. Ultimately, the judges awarded him third place. Instead of a trophy, he received a mug declaring him a national champion. (Each competition gives away a different prize. One of Fette’s favorite possessions is a belt buckle he received for one of his championships.) When I met Brown in the crowd, he was cradling the mug like it was an Oscar. Gore won third place in the 12-to-18-inch beard category.

    All the DCWC members gathered for the English mustache category. Fette had changed into a black suit with tails and a top hat. Most of his competitors wore similar outfits. Despite all of his success in the world championships, he had not won the nationals since 2012.


    Patrick Fette, English mustache

    It came down to Fette and Eddie Kimmerling, a UPS worker from Long Island. The two waited onstage for the host to tell them who was in second place. Finally, the host handed a mug to Kimmerling, and we knew Fette had won again. It was Kimmerling’s fourth time losing to Fette. “I really worked hard on the mustache and costume this year, because I knew he was going to be here,” Kimmerling said. “You really can’t complain when you lose to a guy that has dominated the category for years.”

    In the back parking lot, Fette told me the secret to his success — genetics. “My mustache grows very straight, which is perfect for the English style, so I have that advantage,” he said. “For competitions, I use lots of wax and work really hard on the part in the middle. I get real close with scissors, and then take a razor and kind of scrape that little divot.”

    Fette drove me back to my hotel at 11:30 p.m. I’d watched 12 hours of contests. The next morning, on the way back to Louisville, we stopped at Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette, Indiana. Everybody dissected the weekend, discussing elements to incorporate into Whiskermania or tips to get past certain competitors.

    After breakfast, we had to wait in the parking lot for Gore. He’d ordered a hamburger with peanut butter on it, and debris had gotten all into his beard. He walked out still dabbing his face with napkins. “That’s an occupational hazard,” he said, jumping into the passenger seat.

     

    This originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Mania.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Portraits by Greg Anderson, gregandersonphoto.com

    Cover photo by Flamingo Dreams // stock.adobe.com

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