Austin Buchanan sat still, eyes closed, as his fiancée rolled 14 inches of his wiry, auburn beard into a curling iron.
"Don't move," she said softly, misting his face with hair spray.
On Wednesday, bottles of jojoba oil, shine serum, heat protector and thickening cream littered the couple's kitchen table, which often doubles as a styling station.
It was the last dry run before they compete in the USA National Beard and Moustache Championships in Las Vegas on Sunday — the last chance to nail a corkscrew look they call "Cthulhu," named for a fictional creature with a tentacled head.
Austin, 25, a self-described "beardsman," has prepared more than a year for the event, which attracts the world's hairiest competitors for categories like "Best Groomed" and "Best Freestyle."
He has stashed paychecks from his day job at Walmart and bouncer gig at Dunedin's Blur Nightclub to fund two plane tickets and a king-sized room in the Circus Circus hotel.
He takes two vitamins and a fish oil capsule each morning, regularly trims split ends and slathers deep conditioner across his chin.
His dream beard — his life goal — will cascade to his knees, exuding what he believes is "the essence of man."
He's not worried about the Vegas stage, typically dominated by German men shaping facial hair into motorcycles and walruses and curse words.
He's got a secret weapon: his personal stylist, the love of his life, Meredith McNeil.
The love story started at Einstein Bros Bagels in Clearwater.
She was a manager seeking new help when Austin, wearing combat boots and a long goatee, handed her an application.
"Okay," she said. "But you have to cut that goatee a bit."
He was hired and immediately fell hard for the boss. He'd spread cream cheese on bagels and watch her, the perfect woman, the new standard for everyone he'd date.
But Meredith, who was seven years older, ignored his affection and kept dating "that loser," as Austin mentally dubbed her then-boyfriend.
Fast-forward five years. Each had left the bagel shop for other jobs, but they met again at a bar. This time, she was single, laughing at his jokes, screaming along to his favorite metal songs.
Oh God, Austin thought. I will marry this woman.
They started talking daily, shared their closest secrets and eventually moved into a cozy duplex in Clearwater. He taught her to love craft beer and brew pubs. She nuzzled his beard when they hugged.
After an hour of dry-run styling Wednesday, Meredith turned off her curling iron and stood behind Austin, who examined his reflection in a mirror.
Seven beard tentacles, curling at the ends, sprouted from his chin. His sideburns and mustache feathered out. His cheeks felt sticky with hair spray.
He cocked an eyebrow.
"I look epic," he said, laughing. "And completely insane."
They weren't sure if the Cthulhu would be the best choice for Vegas. Maybe something bigger.
Meredith will decide hours before the judging begins, when adrenaline blends with creativity. She'll bring her arsenal of luxury hair products for the occasion and go crazy.
With his whiskers and her talent, Austin has crushed local competition from Dunedin to Riverview, collecting plastic trophies and wooden medallions that now decorate his living room walls. After a recent online contest, he won a giant mustache to strap to the grill of his 1989 GMC Jimmy.
He competes to send a message to his family, his former classmates at Palm Harbor University High School and anyone, like him, who has ever felt like a misfit: I am different and I am happy.
Last month, heart pounding, Austin came home with a six-pack of Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale and a gas station pizza.
He took Meredith's hand, stared into her blue eyes and said, "We're getting married in Vegas."
After the competition, where Austin will chug a beer and pound his chest onstage, he and Meredith will make it official, surrounded by other beardsmen they met and invited on Facebook, at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.
Danielle Paquette can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4224.