Butler University’s beauty queens and kings lick the runway, sniff purses for cookies, and do more slobbering than Snapchatting.
But these bulldogs are no pampered pets, though some of them have the (three-dresser!) wardrobes of international pop stars.
They’re there to win.
More than 100 bulldogs are expected to compete for accolades such as “Most Beautiful” and “Best Mean Mug” at Butler’s 18th annual Bulldog Beauty Contest on Saturday, Sept. 29. The competition kicks off at 9:30 A.M. in the west end of the Hinkle Fieldhouse parking lot, and is expected to last around an hour. Admission is free for both spectators and competitors.
The contestants come from all over the country, Butler University Director of External Relations Michael Kaltenmark, who’s emceed the contest for the past 18 years, said, as Butler alumni return to their alma mater for the Homecoming Week kickoff event.
The contest has ballooned from the 50 to 100 people who attended the first event — most, Kaltenmark said, who were tailgating in the Hinkle parking lot and “happened to see us making a bunch of noise and holding bulldog puppies in the air” — to the nearly 2,500 spectators who turned up last year.
A panel of five judges — which in the past has included local celebrities such as Indianapolis Star Butler beat writer David Woods and Fox 59 chief meteorologist Brian Wilkes — selects the top dog in each category.
This year’s event features seven categories, though each dog can only enter two: “Most Beautiful Bulldog,” “Best Mean Mug,” “Best Dressed Bulldog,” “Best Bulldog/Human Tandem,” “Best Bulldog Trick,” “Most Butler Spirit,” and “Mr. & Mrs. Bulldog Congeniality.” A winner and runner-up trophy are awarded in each division.
The category champs will then vie for the top prize, “Best in Show,” which earns the winning dog bragging rights, a trophy, and a year’s supply of dog food from City Dogs Grocery in Broad Ripple.
To impress the crowd — whose “huge laughs” and “big cheers” wield an outsized influence on the judges — a dog must have not only looks, but personality, Kaltenmark said.
Kurt Phillips, the official veterinarian of the Butler Blue Live Mascot Program and longtime judge of the Bulldog Beauty Contest, said judging isn’t a science.
“It’s whatever makes us smile, or makes us laugh, or makes the audience go crazy,” he said.
So if you’ve got a French, American, or English bulldog raring to roll over, don a French Fry costume, or strut the runway, you can show up on Saturday and throw your dog’s hat into the ring.
Just don’t try to backdoor your beagle in.
“We used to have a ‘Wannabe Bulldog’ category,” Kaltenmark said. “But we had to do away with it when the contest got so big. Now it’s bulldogs only.”
Step 1: Choose a Costume
Things you might see this weekend outside Hinkle Fieldhouse: Minnie Mouse licking a Chipotle burrito. A peacock sniffing a bulldozer.
You never know what’ll turn up, Kaltenmark said. It seems like people get more creative every year.
People have dressed their bulldogs in lobster suits — then donned a matching hat and claws. They’ve affixed a lion’s mane to their dog’s neck and hoisted the dog-cub over their head like Simba. Wrestled them into a shark suit. Made them up like Cleopatra.
Kaltenmark’s favorite? One man donned a red hoodie, placed his bulldog in a milk crate attached to the handlebars of a BMX bike, and covered him in a towel so he looked like E.T.
One entrant, Jodi Madaj, who owns Butler Blue III’s sister Phoebe, even roped Kaltenmark’s sons, Miles, 3, and Everett, 7, into participating in the “Best Bulldog-Human Tandem” category.
“My sons would walk these dogs up on stage in their Han Solo and Chewbacca costumes with Trip’s sister Phoebe dressed as Princess Leia, and it was too much for the judges to handle,” Kaltenmark said.
Madaj, who’s now taken home three category trophies, doesn’t shirk from enlisting strangers in her schemes, either.
When she was walking through the Butler bookstore in 2011, one employee was “getting a little cranky” about one of her bulldogs, Daphne, she said. The logical next step?
“I talked him into being Prince Charming, complete with tux, pillow, and glass slipper, in that year’s contest,” Madaj said. “Phoebe was Cinderella, and they won ‘Best Human-Dog Tandem.’”
So where does one buy a bulldog costume?
Not at Party City or Walmart, Kaltenmark said.
“We know what costume is popular at Target each year because three to five dogs show up wearing it,” Kaltenmark said. “The best costumes are either handmade or pieced together. You can’t just run out, buy a Halloween costume, and slap it on your dog and expect to win.”
Step 2: Master the Mean Mug
A bulldog can be a winner without wide eyes, wrinkly fur, or floppy ears.
“The ‘Best Mean Mug’ category is for the ugliest bulldog at the contest,” Kaltenmark said. “Not all bulldogs are good looking.”
Doug Welks, an English Bulldog breeder who’s participated in the event for the past decade, once brought a green-mohawked puppy, Mojo, who took home the pugnacious prize.
“He was a real sweetheart,” Welks said. “He just looked mean, like a ferocious teddy bear.”
But some bulldogs really are, well, curmudgeonly canines.
Butler alums Kyle Schwipps, 30, and his wife Alicia, 29, entered their 4-year-old bulldog, Beauford, last year.
While Beauford’s snarfing and scowling weren’t affronting enough to take top prize, Kyle Schwipps said his peevish pooch really is a grumpy old man at heart.
“We treated him like an only child for three years — we took him everywhere with us,” he said. “Then we had our son, Grayson, and he got thrown on the back burner.”
“Now he’s mad all the time because he’s not the center of attention anymore.”
Step 3: Play the Cute Card
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the cutest bulldog of them all?
Bow in her hair, a doe-eyed, tan-and-white bulldog in a blue tutu peers at the crowd with quarter-sized, glistening eyes that put Fiona the hippo’s floppy folds of flesh, stubby arms, and slack-tongued grin to shame.
“The ‘Cutest’ category is hilarious because everybody throws their dog in,” Kaltenmark said. “It takes the longest to judge because everyone thinks their bulldog is cute.”
Puppies, unsurprisingly, have a leg up on their more mature competitors.
“The younger dogs are so stinkin’ cute that they’re literally showstoppers,” he said. “But it’s tough for them to repeat as champs.”
The best part? On Saturday morning, the Hinkle parking lot becomes a “quasi-Bulldog petting zoo” for spectators, Kaltenmark said.
“We’ve got around 100 bulldogs milling about behind the stage,” he said. “People who want to pet them can walk right up, snap a picture.”
A Loveable Loser
One dog, for the past nine years, has been neither ugly nor beautiful enough to get the judges’ attention. Like elevator music, he’s been lurking in the background, neither loved nor loathed.
Wilberforce, an English bulldog owned by 2004 Butler grads Daniel Pulliam and his wife, Noelle, entered every year until his death in February at age 9. But he never got so much as a “Best Mean Mug” title.
“They got all their kids involved, but they never took home the trophy,” Kaltenmark said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Daniel Pulliam said Wilberforce — Wilber for short —- enjoyed cheese, sunbathing on the couch, and playing with his buddy Butler Blue II.
“He was kind of like Brain on ‘Pinky and the Brain,’” Pulliam said. “He was pretty laid back, like ‘What are we gonna do today?’”
Daniel and Noelle had entered Wilber in the contest every year since 2009.
“He was a puppy then, so that year was our best chance,” Pulliam said. “But we didn’t win.”
But then the Pulliams’ children entered the equation, renewing their hopes. They entered their 6-month-old daughter alongside Wilber in 2011 in the “Best Bulldog-Human Tandem” category.
“Having a bulldog and a small child is a good way to impress the judges — or so we thought,” Pulliam said.
Alas, no dice. But the Pulliams really thought they had a chance in 2017, when they entered their four children alongside Wilber as characters from “PAW Patrol.”
“It wasn’t enough,” Pulliam said. “The competition was really tough.”
Kaltenmark is considering calling the Pulliams back up to the stage this year to present Wilber with a posthumous lifetime achievement award. Though they no longer own a bulldog, they’re still planning on attending, Pulliam said.
If you too want to watch but can’t make it in person, Butler will be live streaming the contest on Blue III’s Facebook page.
And if you do want to enter, Kaltenmark said those five seconds of fame are an equal opportunity — Butler’s never had a repeat “Best in Show” winner.
“A good costume, plus preparation, plus a good dog, plus kids the past few years is a formula that’s done really well,” he said.