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Leslie Waldrep with Secret. “I loved the Disney movie when I was younger, and my children love it now too … I picked out my favorite elements of the movie, and sketched them out onto paper. I then began to shape the hair into these characters,” Waldrep explains. “I only work on Secret in short sessions—about the time of a standard poodle groom.” Poodles abounded at Groom Expo West, often recast as surreal, living sculptures. (Unlike many breeds, poodles do require a level of regular grooming—they have hair, not fur, which matts and obscures their eyes and privates, causing discomfort.) They were impossibly fluffy and very polite, trotting around like four-legged Fauvist paintings. Poodles wore sheer ribbons, glitter collars and jeweled hair clips. They posed obediently for new admirers, disguised as characters from Sailor Moon or Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. One sported a patchwork coat of interlacing color, another plodded around with Yves Klein Blue feet. Twin hot pink poodles were chaperoned around in a stroller like precious newborns. Rows of bichon frises were combed into puffy white clouds.“Our dogs’ personality and shape do influence the groom it gets,” says Matthew Starke, who owns four standard poodles—Karma, Taboo, Chaos, and Pandora—as well as a toy poodle, Zen, with his girlfriend Lori Craig, a creative groomer of two decades. “Chaos is currently a giraffe—he’s very leggy and has a long face, so it only seemed fitting. Taboo is a little on the shorter, thicker side, so Lori once turned him into a bear. Karma [named after the phrase, ‘Karma’s a Bitch’], loves being the center of attention everywhere she goes.”
Starke runs a grooming business full-time, like many creative groomers who gathered in Pasadena, though serious hobbyists were welcomed too. Programming on site catered to their professional development, and upskilled them for future competitions—which bring with them the promise of clout, cash prizes and sponsorships. Attendees took classes in canine massage, brushed up on the anatomy of shears, and learned how to ensure a Springer Spaniel’s coat gleams. On the penultimate evening, they rubbed shoulders with royalty: the human cast of ABC’s Pooch Perfect, a Rebel Wilson-hosted pup-pageantry show that PETA claims makes dogs props for “human amusement.”The photographs you see here, captured by Skyler Dahan, are odes to pleasure, camp, and unabashed kitsch—and to attentive, careful preening, which is its own kind of love. They’re also fraught with ethical questions inherent to their subject matter, largely concerning the (im)balance of power between domestic pets and those who purchase and home them—particularly relevant now, amid a reported dog ownership boom. Do dogs, even breeds for whom regular maintenance is a great comfort, genuinely like being groomed to this level? Is their affability and patience merely a performance of their “duty,” an attempt to please their masters, even at their own discomfort? It’s hard to know what’s authentic versus learned—and dogs can’t exactly tell us, which is part of the problem. The creative groomers we spoke to love their pets, and are certain they enjoy the process, a chance for extensive bonding. They plump up pillows on grooming beds, offer little massages, and ensure there’s time for pee breaks. They perceive their dogs as active collaborators.
“I came into this with a neutral approach, and tried not to think about [the ethics of dog grooming],” says Dahan. “It was when I was at the expo that I started feeling sympathy for the dogs, due to their stark obedience and poised posture. I’m pretty sure they don’t understand what is going on—that this is entirely for the owner’s excitement. But ultimately, being an observer in this space I could see that the owners really showed affection and love for their dogs.”The creation of Creative Styling entrant 175, Morgan Castleman.An audience member admires an entrant to the creative grooming competition: Mikhail Williams’s patchworked pet. Right after 9/11, I looked around and had a realization: The rest of the world was as scared to fly as I was. Yes, I am a person who has suffered for decades with a crippling fear of flying. It’s a delicious irony to some—my mother is most famous for writing Fear of Flying—but to me, it’s mostly annoying.
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