A year immersed in the visually-stunning and humorous world of competitive creative dog groomers reveals that, no matter where or how, an innate passion for imaginative expression is universal.
The decorated dogs in Well Groomed are like those Magic Eye pictures that were so popular 20 years ago. At first glance they are simply big poodles covered in splurges of primary colours. Stare for long enough though and you realise you’re actually looking at Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, but on the side of a dog.
“Creative dog grooming” takes canine haircuts well beyond neat clipping and a couple of beribboned pigtails. These women are the Laurence Llewellyn-Bowens of dog decoration, taking a plain canvas and turning it into a riot of exuberant colour, with – always – a theme, even if sometimes it isn’t instantly apparent.
An increasingly high-profile pastime – 30 minutes into Rebecca Stern’s thoroughly engaging and often eye-popping documentary we get a montage of chat show appearances by groomers and their pets – creative grooming now supports a thriving industry of dog dyes, glittery jewellery and competitions. Prize money is in the low thousands though costs can be much, much higher. This is not something most do for money, though it’s telling that Angela Krumpe, its most skilled proponent, has an astute business brain.
The biggest of these shows is the Hershey, and Well Groomed follows three women as they work their way along the circuit in preparation. The winner of its major creative prize gets to call themselves world champion, though it’s not clear how far the appeal of creative grooming spreads internationally or indeed into different US demographics. (It does feel a bit like Miss Universe, a beauty competition made up entirely of earthlings.)
All the women Well Groomed follows are white, though they’re different ages and come from across the US – South Carolina, California and New York State. I didn’t notice any male competitors or judges; husbands and partners seem content to be a supportive background presence, dressing up as furry animals or taking rainbow-hued pets for a walk.
Adrienne Pope, Cat Opson and Nicole Beckman are at different stages in their artistic sophistication and ability to take an idea and replicate it on a dog.
For young, guileless Nicole, new proprietor of her own dog salon and just starting out as a creative groomer, it turns out to be as much about facing her fears of putting herself forward as painting the dog. Well Groomed delivers a sympathetic portrayal of all the women, but it’s Nicole’s initial optimism, inevitable knock-backs and eventual improvement that add emotional depth.
The more experienced Adriene has a husband, many animals, a boarding kennels, a grooming business and one teenage daughter, Haley. For Adriene creative grooming is a break from a humdrum, busy life, and something just for her. I wondered if for Adriene it’s about a woman hitting the age of invisibility and wanting to literally be seen, in the brightest, most in-your-face way.
Cat is eternally searching for a creative outlet that gives her real fulfilment. Starting out as a dog groomer at 16, she swapped to human hairdressing but was bored.
Their homes are muted; their dogs, and those of the other competitors we see, colourful and detailed: A ram; ET the extra-terrestrial; a chicken with an egg hatching on its tail; and, yes, the Mad Hatter, the white rabbit and the pink and purple Cheshire Cat, all on one dog. All are worked into the fur of an obliging canine, blowdried, trimmed, and dyed. Still, while some of the ideas dreamt up are extraordinary (for one show, Cat recreates Jurassic Park on her dog Kobe) there’s still room for amateurs, where their artistic dreams somehow don’t make it onto the actual dog.
Even if you’re not a dog-primping fan there are elements that may resonate. Any woman who has given birth will understand worries about pooping on the table in front of a bunch of strangers. As a dog owner I sympathised with Adriene over the hair getting everywhere though I feel blessed that I’ve never had to deal with a (dog’s) ingrowing hair on a (human) nipple.
Always in the background is Angela Krumpe, portrayed here as both their nemesis and their saviour. She seems to win everything but it’s thanks to her that the industry is enjoying its current success. When Angela’s not turning her dog into an astonishingly realistic yet deeply weird 3D ram-lion hybrid, she’s sharing her secrets, giving demonstrations in both grooming and upselling dog decoration accessories. She’s always the one to beat, and is clearly responsible for the increasing professionalism and creativity in the sector. Angela is a pacesetter and, until the others catch up with her, the champion.
Creative grooming, we discover, is illegal is some US states, though the film never explores the morality of it in terms of animal welfare (and we don’t find out why it’s illegal – was it banned in response to this growing trend or does it simply fall under existing animal legislation?) The women are robust in their defence of what they do, and that the dogs they work on enjoy it. Their main argument is that if a dog doesn’t want to do it they won’t. (Cat even appears on This Morning, in a segment titled Furjazzling: has anyone asked the dogs? Increasingly stern-faced as she realises she’s being criticised by another guest, she leaves even Eamonn Holmes unable to get a word in edgeways.)
The blurb sent with my screener asks if this is art, though nowadays that seems to be less in the eye of the beholder and more in the mind of the creator. These walking, barking tableaux are more carefully put-together, and more disruptive in terms of people’s reactions, than many of the flat paintings going for large sums on my high street, pictures I can’t ever see creating an emotional response beyond the calm of looking at something pretty in a frame. Well Groomed doesn’t really try to answer that question anyway, or look into the temporary nature of the art on these dogs’ backs. Like an elaborate chalk drawing on a pavement, they’re created in full knowledge that soon they’ll be gone.
Well Groomed‘s trajectory is familiar and at times the women’s stories feel overly-curated to fit. It follows a well-worn documentary formula though maybe one we don’t see as often as we did – Stern is an unheard and unseen presence, letting the outlandish creations and the women who bring them to life speak for themselves.
It’s when they are less guarded that truths emerge. Out with their dogs for a walk, Cat’s husband mentions having a baby but her ambivalence is clear. Haley is resigned that her mum is going to be away for her Prom (“if it was her Senior Prom I would not be going to the dog show” Adriene reasures herself and us).
Of the three women, Nicole is the most open and Cat the one with the clearest boundaries, though Adriene seems the most straightforward to me – though that could be because I too am a middle-aged woman with a jealously-guarded yet unprofitable creative outlet.
Watch the Well Groomed trailer:
Well Groomed is available on VOD and DVD in the US on 21 July 2020