Two big events happened in New York this week, both based on aesthetics and showmanship. AnOther invited British novelist and author Ned Beauman to attend the latter. Here we present his findings, alongside Barbara Anatascio's candid backstage snapshots.
Like many people, I love dogs a lot more than I love human beings. Frankly, I love dogs too much. I could be at a family funeral and if there were a Pomeranian within a hundred feet I would have no hope of maintaining my composure. So when I heard that I was going to be attending the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Gardens, I was so overwhelmed that I retired to a darkened room for several hours of dizziness, sweating and involuntary limb palpitations. In my mind, I was going to spend an evening as a VIP guest of America's most adorable dogs – not just some some dogs of moderate, semi-professional adorability, but dogs officially certified as the most adorable in the nation. To make the stakes even higher, I received the following email from a female person in my life (this is 100% real): 'Ned! If I don't get some cellphone pics of prize dogs today I will take it as a sign that you don't care for me at all, and will probably never be able to see you again.'
I cannot overstate what a crushing disappointment it turned out to be.
I never even got near any dogs. I found myself stuck so far up in the nosebleeds that it was basically only possible to follow the action on the giant GardenVision LED screens that hang from the roof. Of course, if I'd thought about it for a second, it should have been obvious that I wouldn't be permitted to frolic with the contestants. They have to be meticulously groomed for several hours before the show. But I hadn't thought about it for a second, because I'd been far too excited. So disconsolately I sat there, wishing, as the hymn goes, that I could be nearer, my dogs, to thee.
I tried to make the best of it but it wasn't easy. First-timers at fashion shows are always bemused that after all that jostling and queuing and waiting around, the show itself blips by so fast you can miss the whole thing in the time it takes to switch your phone camera mode from front to back. Well, no one is ever going to rebuke the Westminster dog show on grounds of brevity. It lasted three and a half grinding hours, about as long as the Super Bowl. I never thought there would ever come a moment in my life when I was bored of dogs.
And the Super Bowl might not be such an incongruous comparison. The dog show seems to be in a transitional phase with regard to exactly what sort of spectator sport it wants to be. There was a lot of reverent black tie in the better seats, but in my section I also I saw a suprising number of young, indifferently-dressed, heterosexual-looking guys with beers and hotdogs, and I overheard a steward remarking that the previous night – the night of the toy dog category, won by a miniature pinscher called Classy – a ticket-holder had been escorted out by security because he was so drunk. Throughout the show, people were yelling out the names of the breeds they supported, peaking with a hoarse battle-cry of 'TIBETAN MASTIFF!!!' that filled the entire arena. Personally, I was backing the Spinone Italiano, which I now realise is my spirit animal, not only because it sounds like a fizzy aperitif, but also because according to the announcer this breed 'is only for owners with a sense of humour and a tolerance for wet beards', which by coincidence is the exact phrasing of my defunct OKCupid profile.
"For the first time in my life I realised that, with the right pacing and stage management, adults can be persuaded to root for literally anything"
Sadly, the Spinone Italiano didn't make it through to the final eight. In general, I like really silly-looking little dogs, and none of those made it through either; the aforementioned female person observed by text message that really silly-looking little dogs never win dog shows, in the same way that comedies never beat dramas at the Oscars. So I didn't think I'd have any emotional investment in the contest. But for the first time in my life I realised that, with the right pacing and stage management, adults can be persuaded to root for literally anything. They could have put eight different brands of toilet brush up there and a crowd favourite would soon have emerged. (This, after all, is the principle on which Strictly Come Dancing operates.) In this case, the loudest cheers by far were a bloodhound called Nathan and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi called Coco. What raised their profiles above those of the other dogs, I have no idea, but once a consensus like that is established it feels like an inevitability.
The judges, however, were deaf to the implorations of the crowd. Each category had its own judge, and if we're comparing this to fashion week, I should note that the judge for the terrier category wore a cummerbund with an embroidered terrier detail that would not have felt entirely out of place at Thom Browne. And one could say the same of the tartan shawl-collar tuxedo jacket modelled by the young man assisting Betty Regina Leininger, the formidable judge of Best in Show. Terriers have won 46 times in the 138-year history of the Westminster Dog Show, more than double that of any other group, and wire fox terriers in particular have won an unmatched 14 times. So it felt a bit unthrilling that Ms. Leininger gave this year's prize to a 5-year-old wire fox terrier called Sky, handsome as she may have been.
Why wire fox terriers so dominate this competition I have not been able to ascertain, although there are presumably conspiracy theories about the Knights Templar-like political influence of the American Fox Terrier Club, est. 1885, at the highest levels of the hobby. The silver trophy was duly awarded and the crowd dispersed into the cold. On my subway home, there was some sort of mongrelish Yorkie dozing in the lap of the lady next to me; it may not have been the most refined specimen in the world, but she let me stroke its head for a little while, so that was my Best in Show.
Text by Ned Beauman