Beauty Queens 

At the Southern Dixie Cat Club's annual show, there's no such thing as a plain old cat.

Again he flicks the feathers, to little effect. He tries another toy. Then he makes a trilling sound like a bird, and bingo — the black British shorthair on the table before him snaps to attention. Click.

Larry Johnson is the master of the 60-second feline glamour shot. A slight man wearing a rumpled suit and a gold chain, he travels the world photographing cats at their finest. It's a delicate art. If a tabby Persian comes out looking like a Maine coon, "they'd shoot me," he says in all seriousness.

In the world of cat shows, looking good is the only thing that matters. That, and not biting the judge. On a recent weekend in October, hundreds of cats have descended on the Showplace Annex on Mechanicsville Turnpike for Katoberfest, the Southern Dixie Cat Club's annual Cat Fanciers' Association-licensed show.

The air smells of perfume and powder, with a hint of canned fish. Rows of tables bearing cat cages fill the place, along with more feathers, ribbons and glitter than a drag queen's dressing room.

Between bouts in the judging rings, cats rest in these cages, called the benching area, guarded carefully by their owners. For some breeds, the grooming process is as simple as a little brushing and wiping. Others require more touching up than Wayne Newton.

Anti-static spray, dry shampoo powder, makeup brushes to dust powder under the eyes, a toothbrush, blow-dryer, combs and lastly, a paper ruff to prevent licking are only some of the tools required to puff a Persian to perfection.

The CFA recognizes 37 breeds that may compete in shows. Persians, the most popular, boast luxuriant coats and snub-nosed faces that appear to have been flattened with a brick — faces the CFA calls "pansylike."

Many cat fanciers here are devoted to much rarer breeds. The Devon rex, for example, is a skinny, curly haired creature that looks as if someone had grabbed it around the neck and squeezed hard. Its wide head, turned-up nose, and big eyes inspired the features of both Yoda and E.T., a fact every Devon fancier takes pains to mention to the uninitiated.

There are the tailless Manx cats, the smushed-ear Scottish folds and strangest of all, the naked, wrinkled, potbellied Sphynx. Sphynxes have no fur except on their noses and ears. The light down that covers the body of a Sphynx makes it feel like a peach or chamois cloth. It's the ideal cat in the eyes of Dalton and Pat Sales, a retired couple from Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Dalton Sales says his wife first wanted a Sphynx 20 years ago when she saw one on TV, but at the time they cost close to $30,000 apiece. A few years ago the couple acquired one for $6,000 and were so delighted they began to breed them. They now have 14.

The cats like to cling to their owners' necks like monkeys, Dalton Sales says, and kiss them on the face. "Freaked me out, I'll tell you," he confides.

Former dog breeders and showers, the Saleses quit the canine realm when Dalton had a heart attack. Cat shows required little running around, so they started showing their Sphynxes. One named Empress Dreamcatcher of Dalpat is a champion on the rise. (Show cat names are usually elaborate constructions of cattery and family names — i.e. Bojangles Little Egypt Eatalot or Purrden Me Glimmer Girl of Seacrets).

Little Dreamcatcher does quite well at the SDCC show, making his proud papa beam. "I love competition," Dalton Sales says.

Yet it seems that few here started out with the intention to buy and breed cats for shows. The reasoning goes: If you already own a pet purebred cat, why not show your baby off?

SDCC President Melanie Morgan specializes in the Egyptian Mau, an ancient breed distinguished by its silver fur and black leopard spots. A show cat in this breed must possess a "dense, resilient coat," light green eyes, a brick-red nose, "vest buttons" and a "broken necklace" pattern of spots around the throat — but no white locket spot. That's a disqualification.

The CFA sets the scoring standards, which vary for each breed. Cats must collect ribbons at local cat shows like this one before they can compete for the title of Grand Champion.

This morning, Judge Gary Veach is examining the Abyssinians that are long, thin and muscular. He feels their undersides, runs a finger through their fur, lifts them aloft and looks at their muscle structure. "Cats are athletes," Morgan whispers, "so you want to see them in motion."

Many contestants obligingly place their front paws on a hemp-wrapped pole and stretch, while a few leap two feet up and cling to the pole like firemen.

Owners of ordinary cats would be amazed by the competitors' calm. Cats sit composed in their cages, occasionally batting at the ribbons pinned to the bars. They submit serenely to the judges' prodding, unfazed by the buzzing crowd around them.

To an outsider, the Katoberfest show seems laid-back all around. Spectators watching the Allbreed Premiership Final all clap warmly and say "Yay!" for every cat receiving a ribbon. Competitors chat with each other, asking, "Is that your baby?" or "How did she do?"

But hackles do rise among cat owners hoping for a grand champion. "It gets catty," Morgan says. "Sometimes you can cut it with a knife." Her own face grows a little tight as she watches a judge examine one of her beloved Egyptian Maus.

"She was third of three," Morgan says after the judge hands out the rosettes. "But you're gorgeous," she says to the little spotted cat nestled in her arms, as she carries it back to the bench. "There's no shame in that." S

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