In the world of competitive facial hair, Bryan Nelson — with his red 30-inch beard — is kind of a rock star. He’s the founder of the Austin Facial Hair Club. In 2013, he placed second in the “Natural Full Beard” category at the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Germany.
And he starred on the short-lived IFC television show “Whisker Wars.”
But on Saturday night, he sat at Diamonds Pub on Barrett Avenue, Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” blaring in the background, while waiting to serve as a judge for Whiskermania, an annual competition hosted by the Derby City Whisker Club.
Nelson said he’s watched American facial hair clubs grow in popularity over the last decade; he estimated there are probably about 100 across the United States now.
“There are so many beard clubs in America and so many people are into it,” Nelson said. “It’s more of a younger culture here than it is in Europe.”
And it was definitely a younger crowd at Diamonds. There were 183 individual competitors and 17 different categories, ranging from the Dali moustache — which is curled up at the ends using wax —- to the Fu Manchu to the “whaler.”
“Which is a beard from temple to temple with no moustache and it’s also sometimes called ‘Amish,’” said Jason Hall, as he ran his hand through his own whaler.”
Hall is the vice president of the Derby City Whisker club. He explained there are also freestyle categories (that’s where you see the loops and spikes held up with hairspray), tag teams and the “whiskerinas.”
“We have two women’s categories,” Hall said. “It’s realistic and creative. Realistic is self-explanatory; they try to make a beard that looks as real as they can. And then creative can be literally anything.”
Margo Sharp is a whiskerina from Cincinnati, Ohio. She explained her beard creation.
“I’m embodying a Viking priestess,” Sharp said. “So what I’m wearing right now is probably the bones of about 20 chickens. I know that sounds very strange, but took bones and antlers and made a headdress that replicates a beard.”
As you can probably tell, the vibe at these competitions is pretty silly and relaxed. Most people wear over-the-top costumes or create characters to go with their facial hair.
Hall said anyone who takes it too seriously “doesn’t last in the bearding community very long.”
Plus, the majority of these events are for charity; the nearly $10,000 raised by Whiskermania will go to Active Heroes, a group dedicated to preventing veteran suicide.
And at the end of the day, Hall said there’s something nice about finding a community centered around something that is both so weird and so basic, so it doesn’t make sense to be too competitive.
“I know everyone in there on a first name basis now, even though I don’t know where half of them live because I travel and you see the same guys all the time,” he said.
“Especially within your category, each category has your own camaraderie. In my category, the whaler, these guys always chant things like ‘whaler nation’ and make t-shirts and signs and stuff. It’s kind of like a club within a club.”