NEW YORK - As a stylist daubs lipstick on Dovile Virsilaite's bee-stung lips, you notice they're the only plump thing on her. The 17-year-old model from Lithuania is a leggy beauty, but volatile. Left unattended, she barks into her cell phone.
Maestro is a 3-year-old champion bichon frise from Pennsylvania. Her pink tongue hangs coquettishly over her lower teeth as her handler blow dries her luxuriant white fur. She's beautiful, but not too choosy. Left unattended, she licks the hand of any stranger who comes near her.
In recent days, both these pedigreed types were put through their paces in their respective milieu: New York's Fashion Week, held in Bryant Park, and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Though the two locales are separated by a scant few blocks, at first glance, they appear to encompass entirely different worlds. Beast vs. Beauty. Fur vs. Skin. Claws vs. ... claws?
But on closer inspection, the similarities emerge. Both show models and show dogs are bred, trained and groomed to attract attention to themselves, but their success at doing so is up to the viewer. One person's mannequin is another's mutt, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whether it walks on two legs or four.
Consider the scrappy scene backstage two hours before the show of Alice Roi, a 28-year-old fashion designer. Teams of dressers, hair stylists and make-up experts scurried around 18 models, who sat impassively at two long tables, staring at their reflections in mirrors harshly illuminated by aluminum lamps. Time was short, the atmosphere tense, as directions were offered at high volume. ("Her lips are too caramel!") Soon, the room was a veritable Tower of Babel, with Russian, Japanese, French, German and other languages too obscure to readily discern crackling through the air.
When asked about the models' ultimate appearance, Roi said, "I want their cheeks to be hollowed out, like they are a classic W.A.S.P. b----," a word commonly used without turning a head at the other show.
Backstage at Madison Square Garden, the ambiance was equally chaotic. Aisles and passageways were clogged with collapsible tables where dogs of all varieties - Afghan hounds, Welsh Springer Spaniels, Shih Tzus and German Shorthaired Pointers, among them - were feverishly being readied for their walk on the runway.
"Dog people are famously huggy-kissy," said Jan Smith, who breeds Smooth Fox Terriers in Elkland, Mo. So, above the whine of blow dryers and the snip-snipping of scissors could be heard emotional greetings between old friends and rivals.
Sure, it was chummy now, but that's because the competition hadn't begun. Think Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief at Vogue, can get snippy about a skirt? That's nothing compared to the critical gaze of a Westminster judge. With no clothes as camouflage, dogs rise or fall based on such minutely calibrated attributes as "fur feel," teeth color and even the malleability of their rib cages.
"Her calves need to be clipped!" someone yells. "Where's the tongue brush?" hollers another. A terrier is dusted with a cinnamon-colored powder to add luster to his coat. A poodle is doused with hair- spray. Some owners go so far as to daub pigment on their dog's noses and foot pads.
Such dubious techniques of canine cosmetology are delicately referred to as "enhancements." A recent article in Dog World magazine titled "The Ethics of Show Grooming" explained that while foreign substances - such as hair dye or hairspray - are strictly forbidden at Westminster, judges often turn a blind eye to their presence.
"It's a real problem," said Lydia Coleman Hutchinson, a Baltimore-area breeder and judge of Cairn Terriers. Hutchinson explained that Great Britain's dog shows have taken a firm stand on enhancements and even instituted random fur testing to detect any additives. While no such strictures are imminent at Westminster, there are clearly strong feelings on the issue.
Which explains why Wendy Kellerman, who was giving a final primp to Maestro, the bichon frise, called out to anyone who would listen, "this dog has no hairspray, no chalk, and no pigment. She's all natural."
Needless to say, bragging about a lack of artifice doesn't cut it at the tents of Bryant Park. The open secret here is not that models wear makeup; rather it's how badly some need it - and how much they wear. Faces are rubbed with tinted moisturizer, a "cover-up" stick, under-eye concealer, three types of "shimmering" eye mousse, mascara, lipstick and blush. Finally, fake hair pieces are clipped in to give models long, pre-Raphaelite tresses.
While watching Dovile Virsilaite being made up, you wonder how she made her way to New York, where she will appear in 15 shows over the next few days. Somehow she was discovered, as was this season's busiest male model, Will Chalker, first spotted pouring concrete at a building site outside London.
"This doesn't happen in the dog world," said Smith. "If you buy a dog from someone down the street, chances are excellent you haven't discovered Marilyn Monroe. Show dogs usually have parents that were show dogs."
What sets a winning dog apart is that the animal will "ask" for the prize once out on the green-carpeted floor. Keeping the animal focused on the judge is key. Dogs can easily be distracted by an unexpected noise, so their handlers work hard to keep the animal's attention, and make sure the dog's ears are high, tail erect. Many handlers keep a "treat," such as a piece of raw beef liver, tucked between their own lips, to coax their dog into compliance.
Things aren't all that different on the catwalk, minus the beef liver. Models thrive on over-amplified techno music and the electric bolts of camera flash. Keeping them focused on photographers is key. Hips thrust forward, they toss their feet one over the other in a nearly comical exaggeration of walking. True, these women don't exactly "ask" for anything. They don't even smile. Yet, as they traipse by, wagging their tails, it's clear each thinks she's best in show.