PETS A tongue lolls fetchingly from on side of a mouth. Warty, crepey skin, accented with stray tufts of wiry white hair. Perhaps even an under bite ... to die for. These are the stars of the Petaluma Sonoma-Marin Fair's ugliest dog contest, and their owners care not a whit for hegemonic notions of beauty.
"None of us think our dogs are ugly," says Jon Adler, owner of a Chinese crested named Icky, both of whom are central characters in a new documentary on the world-famous ugly dog contest. "Although the first time I woke up and saw Icky on my pillow, he startled me. Looked like a bald rat or something."
"I think it's the classic car wreck phenomena — we all slow down to get a good look even though it makes us cringe," says John Beck, one of the makers of Worst in Show. "It's also a bit like those rate your teacher or Yelp sites — we love to assign a value and critique everything."
And all the world loves an ugly doggy. The winner of the Petaluma competition — which has spawned copycat events through 23 years of inspired unattractiveness — lands appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and worldwide exposure through the high-pitched yips of international news services. So there's more than just barking rights at stake here.
You've seen Best In Show, so you pretty much know the turf battles and growling that can occur en route to dog show trophies. Among owners, that is — the dogs always seem stoked to be there even if some are a wee bit trembly. Beck says ugly dog owners have more challenging roles — after all, their mission is not only to prove to international audiences (many contests are decided through online voting) that their dog is the most hideous, but the most lovable — after all, who is going to vote for an ugly dog without star power?
Beck and coproducer Don Lewis followed contest front-runners through their competition prep and show time jitters, including one Dane Andrews, the universally-spurned, fame-mongering gentleman who has been showing warty, bald Chinese cresteds (the ringers of this particular universe) since his teens. Andrews' arch rival is the earnestly tattooed and mohawked Adler, an AIDS housing worker who more recently entered into the world of ugly-dogging when he was on "one of these social networking sites."
"I saw this picture of a girl I went to high school with kissing [past Sonoma-Marin Fair champion] Ellwood and got really jealous," he explained. "I had to meet that dog!"
The film follows Adler as he's quickly sucked into the dog-eat-dog world of ugly. "I didn't realize the media circus that this thing is," he tells me. "I was eating my funnel cake and all of a sudden this tabloid reporter from England wants to do an interview." But by the end of the 90 minute movie, he's participating in an ethically gray contest situation — where he is joined by Andrews.
How did it all get so serious? "The only problem I had with Dane was that he wouldn't accept my friend request on Facebook," Adler says. "But it doesn't take much to egg me on, especially when we're dealing with a douchebag."
Think of the doggies, fellas! Not that viewers of the movie will need the reminder. "It's crazy how huge the global press coverage is every year. We're all attracted to the unattractive," Beck says. *
Check Worst n Show's website (www.worstinshowmovie.com) for upcoming Bay Area screenings