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    Photo: Patrick Fette, by Lain Crockart.

    Ryan Gore holds his red mustache away from his lips, takes a swig of beer and eats a bite of pizza. Holding hair away from his mouth is second nature to the 33-year-old. His beard and mustache have been a permanent fixture on his face since his late 20s. A little hair in the mouth is a small price to pay for the adventures his facial hair has given him.

    Gore and five other bearded men stand in a circle, gripping beers in the back room of Za’s Pizza Pub on Bardstown Road. At first glance, the group looks as if they are about to summon a beer god of some sort. Gore is wearing a majestic horse T-shirt and trucker hat reading, “Don’t Shave.” This is not only a great motto for the group, but a fitting uniform for the Derby City Whisker Club’s president. (The club formed in 2011, and meets at local restaurants and bars monthly.)

    “I haven’t touched my beard in over a year,” Gore says, stroking his red mane. “Right now I’m just trying to grow it to see how long it gets.” His hairy masterpiece would not exist if it weren’t for a friend. “My buddy Catfish told me I should grow one because he was also doing it. Tried the No-Shave November, and it didn’t look too bad by the end of it, so I kept on going,” he says. A couple years later, Gore stumbled across the magical world of facial hair clubs. Now he travels the world competing against some of the most glorious beards and mustaches known to man.

    Standing to the left of Gore is a cheerful looking man sporting a wild, shaggy beard. His name is Mitch Conway, and his hair looks like it might one day grow out of control and consume his face. But underneath the brush is a reassuring smile. “I haven’t had a trim or hair cut in a long time, as you can tell,” he says. Most of the members share his and Gore’s method of no shaving. Occasionally they will get a fellow member who is a barber to give them a trim. “But I don’t let him touch my beard,” Druin says. The 33-year-old rocks a leather vest, full dark brown beard and a perfectly quaffed patch of thick hair resting atop his head. He too was president of the club about a year ago.

    Gore fusses with his mustache again before taking another sip of beer. Is that the only way to deal with this problem? There must be something to bring these hairy men some relief. Conway puts my mind at ease. “There is actually a device that attaches to your cup so when you go in for a drink it holds your mustache back,” he says. After a quick Google search, I confirm his statement. Mustache guards are a thing. We must spread the word. Bearded men can rejoice.

    And it doesn’t stop with mustache guards. There are so many products for facial hair: balms, combs, soaps, shampoos, hair nets, wipes, curlers, oils, dyes. Proper care will keep facial hair looking silky and shiny. It’s not just trimming and shaping. Gore offers his beard expertise: “It’s recommended that you put beard oil in your beard frequently to keep it healthy. The sun, wind and even shampoo can strip it of its natural oil. Then whenever I want to make sure my beard looks super nice, I’ll use a beard balm and mustache wax on my ’stache.” It may look effortless, but the members of Derby City Whisker Club put in work to get their beards looking dapper. Patrick Fette is proof that all that hard work pays off.

    The 31-year-old is a thin man with a long blonde mustache. It meets the beard on his chin, and together they drop down to his collarbone. He stands up straight, taking the stance of a teacher at the front of the class. “There are competitive bearding events that happen all over the world,” he says. “There are smaller competitions that happen locally, put on by local clubs. Then there are Worlds and Nationals. They happen every two years on alternating years. In September, there is Nationals this year, and in May 2019 is Worlds in Belgium.” He shrinks just a little. With a confident, yet humble look on his face, he says, “I’ve been to the last three Worlds. I’m the three-time English-Style World Champion.” He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture. In the photo, he is dressed in an old English gentleman’s suit — which he gets custom made for the occasion — and his mustache is twisted and pulled, forming two hairy spikes that stick out away from his face. Back in 2015, he told Louisville Magazine that his winning ’stache was 14 inches across, tip-to-tip, and that he used Clubman’s Moustache Wax and Firehouse wax before competing. The result: a hairy infrastructure that looked indestructible. A strong gust of wind wouldn’t knock that bad boy out of place.

    Competitors sign up for discrete categories based on the style and length of their facial hair. A man named Eric got third at Worlds in the shortest natural beard category, under four inches. He sports a dark brown mustache that melts into a full gray beard, forming a dark stipe down the middle of it. He swears it’s not dyed; it’s just a genetic masterpiece. Both Fette and Eric have giant Texas belt buckles to honor their accomplishments.

    The competition talk sparks something in Conway. He rejoins the conversation with energy and purpose. “One of the more important parts I would like to touch on with the competitions is our WhiskerMania goes to benefit a charity for veterans. Many of the competitions go to benefit charities. Different cities and different clubs have different charities they donate to. Ours happens to be Active Heroes.”

    The club hosts a wrestling-themed competition every year. All hairy individuals are welcome and encouraged to compete. The lucky few that place win handmade pro-wrestling belts. The event just finished its third year. The club has raised over $20,000 for Active Heroes, a nonprofit working to prevent veteran suicide. This money will help build a retreat for veterans in Bullitt County. Most facial hair competition proceeds go to a charity of the host’s choosing.

    Although there’s a lack of female representatives in the room, women are very much a part of the Derby City Whisker Club and competitions. Not for the leg hair category — which I initially thought was a thing — but for most creative and realistic facial hair. Women have the choice of creating a fun, whimsical beard lookalike or convincing the judges and crowd that they’re growing the real deal. Melissa Fette has several different creative beards. “She took a bunch of foam bananas that she formed into a beard,” Conway says, raising his hands to shape the imaginary banana beard. Patrick, Melissa’s husband, adds, “With that one she wore brown clothes to look like a tree and had stuffed monkeys climbing up her so she looked like a banana tree.” I check the Derby City Whisker Club Facebook to find an assortment of bearded women competing. There are women wearing everything from long, thick wizard beards to plastic twister board beards. Nothing is off limits — the more creative, the better.

    If all of this sounds exciting to you, becoming a member is super easy. Follow Derby City Whisker Club on Facebook, go to three meetings, buy a T-shirt and you’re in. After about a year you will have to start paying some dues, but this will allow you to go to the competitions and events all around the world.

    Gore’s facial hair and the club have changed his life. I ask him if he’d ever shave. “Growing my beard has given me the opportunity to travel around the country, meet a lot of great people and make a whole bunch of friends,” he says. “It would be hard to give up something that has given me so much.”

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