NEW YORK - In a competition dominated by pooches with rock-star hairdos, little Coal sticks out at New York's Westminster Dog Show like a sore thumb from a fur glove. He's bald.
Coal, a four-year-old Chinese Crested, barks, wags his tail, and trots like a dog. But unlike dogs from the other 178 breeds vying for Tuesday's Best in Show prize, Coal and his fellow Chinese Cresteds have almost no hair.
Hair tufts adorn his paws, the top of his head, and along the tail, but there's nothing between, creating the impression of something that put on a hat and boots, but forgot to get dressed.
Coal's owners cooed as a handler paraded the tiny, naked and trembling creature around the ring in Madison Square Garden.
"He looks like a pony. He shows like a pony," said Dwight Eubanks, making his own fashion statement with a flamboyant orange coat and out-sized costume jewelry.
A professional hairdresser -- "I've been attracted to hair since the day I left my mother's womb" -- Eubanks says he loves a dog that dares to go bare.
"They're unique, they're more exotic," he said.
The Westminster Show, which started in 1877, is an event full of traditions, among them the appreciation for beautiful hair.
From the flowing, hirsute splendor of the Afghan hound to the mammoth cotton wool ball of the Old English Sheepdog, hair and the care of hair have been an obsession among owners and handlers.
If the Chinese Crested cracked that stylistic wall, the Xoloitzcuintli, an entirely hairless dog from Mexico, is expected to leap through next year.
Xoloitzcuintlis only gained official recognition as a pure breed from the American Kennel Club about a month ago so it won't be until the 2012 show that they can compete in Madison Square Garden.
Smooth-skinned, bat-faced, and described by The New York Times as resembling a hot-water bottle, the Xoloitzcuintli is unlikely to upset a Labrador or Beagle in glamour contests.
But bald can be beautiful -- not to mention hypoallergenic, enthusiasts say.
"My boyfriend has allergies and I travel a lot, so I wanted a dog that's small and he fits under the seat of a plane," Mercedes Vila said as Butters, her Chinese Crested, nestled in her arms.
Butters had marbled skin of brown with pink streaks that felt something like a wet suit.
Vila said that hair-free look didn't mean maintenance free: "You have to care for the skin. You have to put on lotion and give him a bath."
Indeed, not all hairless dogs are even really hairless. Experts divide them into "true hairless" and "hairy hairless" -- the latter needing a frequent shave to achieve that ultra-sleek look.
For most competitors at America's biggest dog show, those nuances sound like useless hair-splitting.
Busily prepping a Great Pyrenees, a massive dog with a shag-pile coat, Joanne Thibault said she prefers something that she can really get her comb into -- a pug with a rug.
"I like grooming," Thibault, 17, said.
Trying to picture herself handling one of the Westminster show's fleshy rebels, Thibault grimaced.
"That whole texture. I think it would be awkward."
Image: audrey_sel / via Flickr