One by one, the dogs take the stage at Pasadena Convention Center. Right now, they look like the canine equivalents of teens who went a little crazy with jars of Manic Panic. Each is covered in thick, frizzy fur and splotches of multicolored hair dye, that forms abstract patterns across their bodies. Over the next few hours, though, they will act as canvases for groomer-artists who cut, shear and spray the hair to turn them into imaginative artworks.
At Groom West Expo, pup-toting patrons could check out the latest in pet-friendly beauty supplies at booths stocked with everything from tiny straightening irons to dog-friendly false eyelashes (they stick to the brows, not the eyelids). No doubt, the crowd here loves to pamper their pooches; it was hard to turn your head without spotting at least one well-coiffed dog. However, the most outrageous pets — all poodles — were part of this year's “Groomer to Groomer Creative Styling Challenge.”
The contestants spent weeks, sometimes months, prepping their dogs for the big event. Nichole Peeples, who owns her own grooming business, Paradise Pet Salon, in Santa Cruz, likes to work with a lot of hair. She'll typically spend between 10 months and a year growing out her poodle Makena's coat. Like the other competitors, she took on the dye job before the competition. Makena's fur popped from the stage in shades of purple, green and Slurpee blue, with a few other hues mixed into the coat. Peeples says that it can take 30 hours, sometimes more, to dye Makena. Poodles are hairy and the dye needs to sit for long periods of time for the colors to reach such vibrancy.
Cat Opson, owner of Estrella Pet Grooming in San Juan Capistrano and a miniature poodle named Kobe, starts with a sketch. A month before the competition, she started cutting a few lines into Kobe's coat so that she knew where to apply the dye. It took a month to do the job, one color at a time, two days a week.
Dog grooming isn't an action-packed spectator sport: We're watching people cut hair. The dogs are more patient than the folks in the crowd. Conversations overlap. Someone is playing a video game with the sound turned up. People come and go during the groom-off. Meanwhile, the stylists shear tufts of colored hair around the paws and faces. They comb out patches of fur and whip out scissors to snip off the ends. One canine contestant had a brief bout of restlessness that brought a look of frustration to the owner's face. Otherwise, these were all dogs who knew how to remain still.
“You need a dog that's going to be patient,” Peeples says. Makena is a patient poodle. The 6½-year-old dog has been through several contests now. Peeples says patience has less to do with maturity than it does with the dog's general temperament. She also has worked on Makena's puppy, who, she says, also knows how to remain calm during the process.
While grooming is a slow process, it's filled with a series of reveals that astonish the crowd. There's the moment when it's obvious that Opson is snipping Scooby-Doo into her dog's hair and the realization that another contestant is turning her dog into a car. Near the end of the competition, Peeples twists and sprays Makena's hair into shape, forming multiple characters from the movie Monsters University.
More than three hours later, the competitors are told to put down their scissors. For judging, they too must get into costume and do a presentation. Some of the final displays are over-the-top.The dog that became a car is part of a tribute to Grease, complete with performers imitating Danny and Sandy's final scene and a group of little girls dressed as Rydell High cheerleaders.
Opson dresses as Daphne and has pals take on the rest of the characters who fill the Mystery Machine. They throw Scooby Snacks into the crowd. The finished project is called “Scooby-Doo and the Monster House Plant.” With dye and cutting tools, she was able to create two scenes. On one side of Kobe, Scooby-Doo sniffs a plant. On the other side, the fictional dog is frightened and runs away from it.
Peeples' clever take on Monsters University draws applause but doesn't win a prize. Opson's Scooby-Doo places third. This year's winner is Sandy Hartness and her poodle, Crush. The Yucca Valley–based groomer turned her dog into a carousel lion with hair cut into 3-D floral shapes that spill from a furry saddle. Hartness has been grooming for around 21 years and competing for 16. She says projects such as these help bring excitement to her work. “I really love my job,” she says, adding that it does get “a little boring” when you spend days giving a string of dogs the same haircut. It's also, she adds, a good way to bond with her dog.
Liz Ohanesian on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: