A Winkle just in time
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES Mr. Winkle is, to be frank, a strange
dog. Strange how? Using pop music oddities as a yardstick, less like the bewildering
Michael Jackson and more like the bizarre Bjork. And things have just gotten
more bizarro. Before Sept. 11, Mr. Winkle had quietly made a name for himself
as a Web-based favorite, with poster and calendar images of him dressed up in
various guises selling by the thousands. He even found time to pose for his
own children's book, What Is Mr. Winkle? (not an unreasonable question,
given that at first glance he seems 100% stuffed), which recently hit stores.
In short, just your average celebrity hound.
But in recent weeks, he has moved into the guru realm.
People have begun e-mailing in droves e-mailing the dog, mind
you, not his owner (she prefers "Mom"), photographer Lara Jo Regan. It seems
somewhere in this elfin canine is a soothing force capable of lifting folks
out of a national funk.
"People are going to the Web site to get cheered up. He's
an angel to a lot of folks," says Regan, 39, snuggling with the wingless wonder
in her comfortably disheveled apartment in Los Feliz, just east of Hollywood.
"I think people see him as so precious and innocent that
perhaps they're seeing their own fragility," she says. "But don't believe me.
Read the e-mails."
Mr. Winkle's fan mail sometimes does sound as if it were
meant for a four-legged Backstreet Boy. As in: "It's been hard to smile after
all the horrific events of Sept. 11, but when I saw your Web site, I could do
nothing but smile. Thank you so much, you adorable dog! Love, Alus."
Alus also requested pictures of a "Patriotic Mr. Winkle."
Many fans have asked for that.
There's also Betsy, a depressed dog lover who washed away
images of Sept. 11 by watching Mr. Winkle flash-videos on his site. ("Kiss him
on the nose for me!" she implored Regan.) Even Yuri, a trucker from Moscow,
wrote to say thanks for his Mr. Winkle posters, which he will use to "cheer
up my little friends."
Mr. Winkle's appeal to a nation under siege isn't hard
to decipher. War can be wearying. Some dogs pump up the volume think
German shepherd and you get visions of a brave canine racing after terrorists,
Saint Bernard and you picture a gallant rescue dog.
But war and Mr. Winkle don't mix. He's Prozac with paws.
Eyes as big as moons. A lolling tongue that rolls out like a red carpet. A Leaning
Tower of Pisa stance that is eerily Chaplinesque.
You stare ... and he has you. Like a fluffy, amber-colored
eraser, Mr. Winkle has wiped your mind clean of any adult concerns and replaced
them with pressing questions, circa second grade.
Is he for real? He's so small, I wonder if he could
fit into a Starbucks Venti-size cup? Is that Afro-style fur-do natural or a
stylist's creation? Why does he trot like those Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale stallions?
How come I can't stop looking at him?
Mr. Winkle's odd hold on humans didn't apply to his first
owner. Regan rescued the dog five years ago from an alley in Bakersfield, Calif.,
"a tiny ball of fur hobbling toward me in the glow of my headlights." The 2-year-old
mutt (he's Pomeranian and who knows what else, she says) was cut and bruised.
After tending to Mr. Winkle (a friend made up the silly
name) for a few years, Regan began taking photos of her surreal new pal and
posted them on www.mrwinkle.com.
The ensuing avalanche of hits (averaging 2 million a month)
eventually translated to 10,000-plus sales of a homemade calendar that featured
the dog in different fantasy sequences. (Is he "A Hamster with a Perm"? or "An
Random House bit last fall, contracting for three children's
books. Mr. Winkle is now on a fall tour for the first installment (the next,
Winkle's World, is due in spring). He'll chat up Matt and Katie on Today
on Dec. 14, and perhaps pop in on Oprah.
Winkle's magic works in weird ways. Consider his takeover
of Random House.
When an assistant kept mentioning Mr. Winkle's Web site
to Kate Klimo, vice president in charge of the publisher's children's division,
she treated the tip as she would an annoying fly. "Where I come from," she says,
"we call little dogs lunch."
Now she's calling one of them a star. "He's got this ineffable
quality that's riveting," she says. "When he first came to visit us here in
New York, everyone in the building got soft and squishy."
Ditto the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, a group you might think would have a problem with a dog being dressed
up like a Barbie doll. "Most dogs would be lucky to get this much love and attention,"
says Lisa Lange, PETA's director of policy.
She dismisses suggestions that profiting from a dog is
unethical. "I wish more people would make money being kind to animals," Lange
Cynics could well say that Regan's motivation for making
Mr. Winkle a star is to bask in his spotlight. But her photography career wasn't
in need of a boost. Regan just won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for
a standout shot from a series on rural poverty for Life magazine.
And what money she has made from her dog's popularity hasn't
altered her lifestyle.
"I still drive the same 1990 Ford Escort, and I still live
in this cramped house, and I love it," Regan says.
"I get great joy out of sharing Mr. Winkle with the world.
I'm just a conduit for his cuteness."
Today we are visiting Mr. Winkle at work. Which is to say
at home, because the "sets" for his shoots are so small that they can be assembled
in Regan's den.
For the record, a dry Mr. Winkle is about the size of a
Cornish game hen. Wet, he just might disappear. He weighs 5 pounds, 1 ounce,
"and 5 pounds, 2 ounces after a meal," his mom says.
Despite his stature, Mr. Winkle does not slink into a room.
He struts in like a Marine, head and knees high, eyes alert. He usually doesn't
bark, but someone has rung the doorbell. A breathless ankle-high yip fills the
air. In walks Dara Folkert, his stylist.
For his next shoot, Mr. Winkle is to be dressed as a garden
gnome. Folkert has brought in a real garden gnome. Let's listen in on the professionals
Lara Jo: "I love the curl in the real gnome's hair. Can
we get that effect?"
Dara: "We can definitely try. How about the hat? I thought
the material looked just like ceramic."
Lara Jo: "It does. Let's put the jacket on him."
Mr. Winkle is passive as they wrestle him into his costume.
Dara: "He's just like a little doll."
Lara Jo: "So perfect."
Purrrrrrrr. Clark Cat, Regan's orange tabby, has
padded into view. Clark has not taken kindly to his canine roommate's celebrity
status, mutilating a few sets and relieving himself on a stack of Mr. Winkle
"There's an active sabotage campaign going on," sighs Regan.
Which has generated an idea: Clark Cat may co-star in an upcoming Mr. Winkle
book, if their human wrangler can get them to pose together.
As Clark Cat stares down from an armchair at the dog-turned-gnome
on the floor, you can almost hear him cackle, Hah! What a dork! The absurdity
of the scene isn't lost on Regan.
"Only in America," she says with a burst of giggles, something
never more needed in America than now.