Leslie Hughes Kennedy is the Founder & Director of the Barking Beauty Pageant – “The original beauty pageant for dogs since 2006.” Having adopted 3 dogs in her adult life, she became aware of the “puppy mill” industry and not only the abuse associated with them but also the resulting overpopulation. Her involvement in beauty pageants as a young person inspired her to combine the two interests in a way that would raise needed funds for the people on the front lines combatting this problem through pet rescue, no-kill animal shelters.
Leslie and her side-kick Salli-Sue (a sweet little Yorkie), host Barking Beauty Pageants all over the country. 2020 will mark her 15th pageant overall and the 3rd Annual Hamptons Barking Beauty Pageant. Thanks to Leslie’s leadership, Barking Beauty Pageants are coming soon to Denver, Minneapolis, San Antonio & Tampa!
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Hey, Leslie. Thanks for coming on today. Thank you. Chris. I’m happy to be here. I’m really excited to talk to you because I think what you’re doing is so unique. So I want you to start off and kind of give us the story about how you started to create these. I have always been into entertainment, and when I was young, I entered beauty pageants in my very small town. That was the only way I could work into the entertainment world and eventually ended up in New York. And I was with a theater company. They were looking for fundraising ideas, and I just threw out the idea of a dog pageant kind of idea. It had not been formed in my brain at all. I just have an idea. Just combining my experience with pageants, my love of being on stage, and my love of animals and raising money for the theater. When they decided they didn’t want to do that, I said, Well, we need to also raise money for an animal charity or we won’t get anybody because people are all about the animals, not theater. So they said, OK, we can get after that. Split our proceeds. Yeah, right. So anyway, they did. And it was. It took off. It really did take off. Eventually, the theater group disbanded, and I just kept the pageant going. And it really does combine my three favorite loves, entertaining, pageants and dogs. Yeah, so now this was back in 2006 that you started, right? It was. It was with my little girl who was two years old. She’s 16 now. Wow, she’s been doing it for 14 years. Yeah, this will be my 15th pageant this year. Amazing.
So now tell us a little bit more about how this works? Something you started this, I’m sure it’s kind of morphed, evolved from the first pageant. But how does it work today? Today it’s pretty involved. We give away 11 official awards. This year, we’re expanding that to 13 official awards and 4 unofficial awards or optional awards, plus 12 other honorable mention type of awards. My goal is for every single contestant to walk away with an award for what makes that puff special. I love every single one of them, and I am a little hesitant to be comparing them and having a contest and having one name better than anybody else. There is no dog on that stage better than any other dog. It just depends on the judge’s view of the moment and how the scoring works out. Every single dog up there is special and beautiful and perfect in its own way, and I want every single dog acknowledged for that. However, there is the photogenic competition, the activewear competition, glamour wear competition and talent, that go into the naming of the Barking Beauty Pageant winner. If you were to imagine Miss America and replace the human contestants with dogs, you got it. That’s it. Nice. I love that. So it does follow a standard pageant like format except for no swimsuit edition in this one. No, we replace that with activewear, although one did have a little pup in a bikini. It was the cutest thing! That was her activewear. She was fabulous. Nice.
Now, how many contestants do you have every year in one of these contests? I’ve had as few as nine in New Jersey when I did a New Jersey pageant, one of my two that I did in New Jersey. But we’ve had as many as 30 and 30 is about as many as I can have in any one pageant. I don’t want the pageant to run for more than two hours. An hour and 1/2 is really premium. That’s really the best, and that I could do that with 30 contestants. Very cool. Now I know you’re in New York. So you mentioned, though, you’ve been doing these in New Jersey and other places as well. Oh, yes, we started in New York City. I did six in New York City and consecutive years. We did four in Philly, and we did two in New Jersey. And I’m ready for my third in the Hamptons, this year. And I live here in the Hamptons, New York, West Hampton Beach, and we’re going to continue to have the pageants here in West Hampton Beach as long as I’m here. Hopefully forever. We are looking to, working on pageants in Denver, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Tampa and San Diego right now. We’re closest to having the Denver pageant going. Minneapolis, then San Antonio. It’s a process as you can get involved because I do require the participation of the charities that we contribute to. And some charities just feel like they’re spread too thin as it is. And I totally understand that. But we really can’t be successful unless they take the reins, so to speak, on some of the promotion aspects of getting the word out in their own communities, that we’re having a pageant there.
Now tell me a little bit more about your background. I mean, how do you know how to do this? I know you said you did pageants, and then obviously we’re working for a theater. I mean, tell me a little bit more about you. Well, I started competing in pageants when I was 16. I’ve held 13 pageant titles and straight from competing in pageants, when I was younger, I went right into in seeing a national pageant system called the National American Miss Pageant, and it’s one of their Queens, in Denver, who is taking the reins there and who we’re going to be working with, in Denver. National American Miss Pageant is what’s called a Natural System for kids and the kind of system that I really like to be involved with. When it comes to children because they don’t allow their contestants to wear makeup under the age of 13. So it’s very community service-oriented and grades, you know, their school grades oriented. It really is all about celebrating the best in the young lady and helping her be prepared for life in the real world. How to present herself and how to compete in the real world. So I’m very happy to be involved with that young lady, because, of course, I was with that system and seeing for 20 years. So, all told, probably 30 or 40 years involved in the pageant systems. Yes, I’m quite a bit older than I look, and so I do know the ins and outs after that long. Even though maybe I wasn’t directing pageants for children. I learned the ins and outs, and I just applied what I’ve learned through the years, to designing the Barking Beauty Pageant for dogs. I wanted to keep the community service aspect of it. I contribute to ST Jude’s and the Shriners, but I also want to be involved in my own community and give to local no-kill animal shelters and rescue organizations and Kids Arts Scholarship opportunities and the Barking Beauty Pageant is the way to do it. It’s been so successful, and it’s just from my heart. I’m just so excited to be doing it. Yeah, I love that. And I love the fact you’ve got all this background in it. And then your love for animals is now, Hey, we need to do this for animals, right? Just like we do for humans.
Yes, exactly. You know, it’s really funny. You asked, how did I know how to do all this? It does pull from my background, but I think the universe just kind of downloaded into my brain. When I first got started with the pageants, I had a partner and she handled all of the administrative part of it. And then she got married and had a child and had to back out because that really demanded more of her time. And for six years I didn’t do the pageants. I was like, I don’t know what to do. She did it all. I got on stage. I promoted it and I talked to people about being in the pageant, and I gave her guidance. But I don’t know what she did. I don’t know what to do. So I’m talking to my husband about it. And he’s wanting to get it going again And why we’re talking, all of a sudden, it was like the universe was just downloading. He was talking and I’m like, wait, something’s happening. Be quiet now. Okay. Don’t talk. Just something’s happening. And then all of a sudden said, I’ve got it, I’ve got it. I don’t know what all is in there yet, but I will take the first step that’s been laid out for me. And I know that the next step is gonna be. And he was like, you know, the guy if you look and research, I don’t even know the doctor’s name. The gentleman who found the cure for Polio. Before there were computers, he was downloaded very similarly, and he zoned in and didn’t let anybody deter him from finding that cure because he knew what it was. He just had to do it. And that’s exactly what happened with me. It was the weirdest thing. Nice. I love the fact that you weren’t gonna let that stop you, right? You said no, We need to keep doing this. And you enjoy this.
So I know in the pet fashion industry, which seems to be a newer thing these days, right, there’s lots of upcoming designers. Is that who you guys go to to get your judges for these pageants? No, actually, no. I reached back into my history in pageants, my history in just my love of dogs, and going to Westminster. I reached back into, you know, I guess, a little bit. Yes, I do. But I pulled from people that are not in the immediate locale where the pageant is going to be, because I want those judges to be completely impartial. There’s enough of pulling from the local talent pool for judges, in these fashion kinds of contests. In every community that does this in America, I want to reach beyond that and have those judges be completely impartial. They don’t know a single person on that stage. And before they come in and judge for me, I need to make sure that they don’t know any of the contestants. And if they do know the contestants, they bow out of judging, and I find somebody to replace them. Simple as that.
Now, how many pageants do you have going right now? I know you said there’s some up and coming once in some of these cities. How many go on annually right now? Right now, we just have the one in the Hamptons. We will be having the one in Denver in October at some point, but that has not been nailed down yet. Just to be clear. Minneapolis, we’re still finding the right charities for that. But I do have my local contact in that area, and I have my local contacts in Tampa and in San Antonio, lined up. So that’s the first step. It’s just a matter of taking each step as it comes, so those will come through. But I don’t think they’ll be coming through for 2020 and they may all fall into place in 2021. I may have a very busy year next year, right?
Well, I was going to say I mean, do you consult if organizations want to do this, should they reach out to you and say, Hey, we’d love to do this. Can you help us? Absolutely, Absolutely. Now, just to let your listeners know, who might be interested in doing this kind of thing. I take on all of the responsibility. I take on all of the financials, all of the promotional material development, and everything. I just ask for leads from my contacts in any specific locale. I also ask for help in promotions, sharing my Facebook announcements, my Instagram announcements, going to local pet stores and businesses and vets, and this and that and the other. And putting up posters. Asking for sponsors and that sort of thing. It sounds like a lot. It’s really not. A lot of it is on my lap alone. I want to do this to raise money for the charity. I don’t want the charity to foot any of the bill whatsoever. I can do that. I’ve got that down. I know how to get that done. I know how to make sure that nobody goes into the red. I have never been in the red doing this, and I won’t be because this was given to me by the universe and the universe loves us all. Exactly, right? And I love that. It’s such a selfless approach towards this, and you’re using your experience and your professional background and doing this to help these organizations. It sounds like a great deal, right? Just reach out. Leslie does everything, right? All we gotta do is promote and get some people to come and have a great time. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
So what does an average week look like for you when you’re trying to plan one of these events? I mean, you must be doing 1,000,000 different things. I am. I do work full time. So I have my full-time job and my evenings are spent promoting pageants. Each pageant takes about four months to really promote. The first month is spent getting the sponsors, the people, the businesses who fund the event in that area. The next month is primarily getting the contestants lined up. And then the contestants then themselves do a measure of promoting on their own, to get votes for a People’s Pup Award, which is the online People’s Choice Award. So those are all three ways that we not only raise money to put the event on but also raise money for the charities. And each of those tiers, you know, take time to develop. But it’s a four-month process, no matter what locale we go to. Now, of course, this year, with the quarantine and everything, I may have to end up condensing that into one month, but it’s doable. It’s doable. We can do it in less time. It’s just the optimum is to have as much time as possible to get the press releases out, to get the media there and that sort of thing.
So now what’s your vision for this? Where do you see this going? One day, I would like to have at least 10 to 20 pageants across the country, if not more, and end up with a big National Barking Beauty Pageant one day. It’s hard to have that was just one pageant year or 2 locales or 3 locales or even 5 locales. But once we get above 5, 6, 7, 10, 20 locales, then we can have one big extravaganza. And I would love to do that. I would love to dump my full-time job and do nothing but the Barking Beauty Pageant. Yeah, it definitely sounds like it’s a passion for you.
So do you have any stories or favorite parts of doing these pageants that you want to share? My favorite part of doing the pageant is getting to know the contestants. The little dogs. Yes, I love the dogs. Every single dog has its own little personality, and they’re my friends, too. But getting to know the moms and the dads of these little contestants and all the people and just sharing their passion and their love for their child. Getting to know the people at the charities and the different ways that they’re going about their rescue mission. It just warms my heart to see all the love out there for these little babies because it’s mandated that we take care of them because of what we’ve done in breeding and inbreeding and mutating them into what we see today, which in some ways is very, very good. Most ways are very good, but in some ways, they are not. And certainly, when you ‘re talking about puppy mills, it’s just a horrible thing that we need to fight against. And I think most of the rescues and no-kill animal shelters, we’re all on the same page with that. And we’re all driving that message home that there are too many dogs out there that don’t have homes. We don’t need to be creating more. As an industry, you end up with more dogs without homes that way, and they become a commodity that way. And there’s no passion or love given to these individuals. And they are individual spirits and souls, and they deserve individual love and attention, and they’re not getting it in these puppy mill situations. So I guess we worked around what my true passion is, the fight against the puppy mill industry, and this is just part of my way of doing it.
Yeah, I can definitely feel the passion that you understand what the problem is and you want to be a part of the solution. And you want people to understand the individual dogs, right? I really love the fact that you go out of your way to make sure that each dog is recognized for their uniqueness, for their talent, for their personality, whatever it might be, you make sure that every single one of them is recognized. I try to do that. It hasn’t happened yet. Actually, it hasn’t happened that every single dog has walked away with an award. I’m still working on trying to make sure that happens because I think they all deserve it. They definitely do. But one day, one day every single one will have an award for what makes them special, as an individual. And I’m so excited for that day, I can’t wait.
Yeah, now, obviously. I mean, you’ve been doing this for so many years and you’ve learned a lot. I’m curious, Leslie, what have you learned about yourself throughout this process? I have learned that my passion for animals and for children runs so deep that you’re gonna make me cry right now thinking about and talking about it. I wish there was more that I could do. Yeah, I told the rescue organization that I work with, here in the Hamptons, that they’re a unique group. You know, we don’t have an ASPCA in our area out here. We have different organizations that try to work like the ASPCA. They may have a loose association with the ASPCA. But they’re not government authorized to go into fighting situations and rescue dogs and arrest people. They can’t do that. So they do their best and they go into dangerous situations and not having those credentials, puts them in mortal danger in some cases. And the group that I work with here in the Hamptons is very aggressive and they do everything they can and they have put themselves in some very dangerous situations.
And I have told them many times that I wish I could go out there and help them. I wish I could go into shelters and help more hands-on. But as you see right now, with me tearing up, I don’t have the makeup to see the misery that those animals are put in and be able to keep my composure. The animals need me to keep my composure. The people that I would be working with, need me to keep my composure, as I assist them in their situations. But since I can’t do that, I’m doing everything I can by being involved and creating the Barking Beauty Pageant. so I can raise money so these people can continue to do their very, very important work. And all I can say with that and with this passion that you’re hearing and seeing right now is that you may not be made up of the kind of person that can go out there and aggressively save these animals or heal these animals or see them in their plight. But you certainly can help me raise money. You can certainly help me by sending mail. You can certainly help me by promoting our events in your locale, by sharing a Facebook post or an Instagram post. You are doing your part because the more people that know about what’s going on out there, the more they want to be involved and help. If they are an animal lover and all they need to know is that there’s so many different ways that they can help. They don’t have to be in the trenches. They don’t have to stay home wishing they could do something because they can. They can do something. Yeah, I absolutely love that. I think you are so right. Everybody’s got a place and every little bit helps, right? And I love the fact that you took something from your past, something that’s so unique and you’re trying to help organizations across the country, to make the successful programs because you know you’re offering your services as a professional that knows this industry, knows how to make these things work, and I just think that’s such a tremendous thing for you to do. And it can have such a lasting impact for organizations for years to come.
So, Leslie, how can people reach out to you if they are interested? If they’re going, “Yes, we’d love to do this.” What’s the best place for them to start? My website is BarkingBeautyPageant.org. That’s B a r k i n g b e a u t y p a g e a n t.org. That website is really full of information. Or they can call me. Just call me direct 917-797-4331. That’s my direct line. I probably won’t pick up when you call, but leave a detailed message and I will call you right back as soon as I can because if I’m working, I won’t be able to pick up, and I usually don’t pick up numbers that I don’t recognize. But please leave a message. I will call you back as quickly as I can, and I’ll answer all of your questions. Yeah, and we’ll be sure to link this in our show notes that people can find your website and it’s really fascinating everything you’ve done. And I’m really glad you came on today. Leslie, Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? Well, Facebook would be TheBarkingBeauty, Facebook at The Barking Beauty. Or you could just do the little ampersand (@) and do Barking Beauty Pageant. And it’ll come right up. And on Instagram, it’s that little ampersand thing @ and BarkingBeautyPageant and you’ll find us and see what we’re doing and see what all we’re doing for the Hamptons Barking Beauty Pageant. And as soon as we get Denver rolling, you’ll see that too. Awesome. Well, this has been great, and I’m really super excited you came on Leslie to talk to us. Thanks so much. Thank you, Chris. I appreciate it so much. Have a great day.
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