Mr. Winkle's world
An odd little stray is reborn as Hollywood's hottest dog
By Cynthia Hubert
LOS ANGELES -- It is a few minutes past midnight in a duskily lit artist's studio near downtown Los Angeles, and Hollywood's latest darling is drooping on the set.
"Winky! Winkydoo! Wiiiiiiiinkle," Lara Jo Regan coos, training her camera on a small ball of fluff in a sphinx suit.
"I think he's getting tired," she announces. "Just a few more and we're done."
Regan's assistant reaches for a cold but still pungent slice of pizza, and dangles it in the air above the fluff ball. The creature's eyes, struggling at half-mast, momentarily regain their sparkle.
Click! Click! Click!
"Perfect!" Regan murmurs, smiling gently and taking him into her arms.
The celebrity has earned his rest.
Remember his name.
He is Mr. Winkle, and he is a mysterious fluke of canine genetics. He is 5 pounds, 2 ounces, with the roundish ears of a teddy bear
and eyes like pennies in the sand. His tail is a crazy star burst. He walks stiffly and jerkily, like an ancient marionette, and his astonishingly bright tongue never fully retracts, hanging from his mouth like a limp bookmark. His bark is no more than a soft wheeze.
Some day, Mr. Winkle could be as familiar as Lassie or Winnie the Pooh.
Already, he is a major pop culture figure.
His Web site, www.mrwinkle.com, has received more than 20 million hits since October from places as far away as Croatia and Japan. On the sidewalks and streets of L.A., strangers stop to marvel and to touch his sheeplike fur. His 2001 calendar, featuring him masquerading as various characters, has been sold out for months, and thousands of orders have been placed for the 2002 version. Shirts imprinted with his image are vanishing almost as quickly as they can be produced. Four Mr. Winkle books are in the offing. Mattel is working on a line of Mr. Winkle stuffed toys, puzzles and puppets. A Mr. Winkle movie is in the planning stages.
"It's Winklemania!" declares Regan, who rescued the dog from near death nearly five years ago.
Amid all the fuss, Regan, a highly respected news photographer and social documentarian who lives modestly in the funky neighborhood of Los Feliz, is on the verge of becoming a very rich woman.
The story of how it happened is almost as alluring as Mr. Winkle himself.
Returning from Bakersfield one night in 1996 after photographing a story about women on welfare for Newsweek magazine, Regan was easing off the freeway for a cup of coffee and a fuel fill-up. "On the median strip, in this industrial area, I saw a tuft of fluff," she recalls.
She got out of the car to take a closer look. "This little creature was hobbling toward me in the light. I thought, 'Oh my God. What is that?' He was so heartbreakingly tattered and bedraggled. He had the most pleading eyes I had ever seen. How could anyone walk away?"
Regan lifted the quivering animal into her car and drove home.
The next day, her veterinarian examined the odd creature, calling him a "one in a million" freak of nature. He had infected ears and eyes, and a head fracture that suggested someone might have tossed him from a moving car. He was full grown, though thin and malnourished.
Regan named him Winky at first, then changed it to the more dignified Mr. Winkle. "He is a gentleman and a scholar," she explains. "It just seems to fit."
After months of nursing him back to health, Regan began taking Mr. Winkle out in public. Everywhere he went, he drew a small army of onlookers. "It was like he was the fifth Beatle or something," Regan says. "People were fascinated and enchanted. They stared and smiled and asked a million questions." Was he a stuffed animal? An alien creature? A hamster with a perm?
Between assignments for various news organizations, Regan started dressing Mr. Winkle in costumes from bumblebee to angel and posing him in front of her camera. "He loved it. He has this talent for assuming different identities," she says.
Regan's friends thought she had gone mad. "But I knew I had to share him with the rest of the world. I had this vision, and I was so damned sure it would work."
She poured half of her life savings into the Web site and the 2001 "What Is Mr. Winkle?" calendar. Feature stories in the Los Angeles Times and on CNN followed, and soon Mr. Winkle was the object of a full-fledged media frenzy. He has since been featured in dozens of publications from the New York Times to the National Enquirer, made an appearance on the "Rosie O'Donnell" show and hosted foreign news crews. Entertainment Weekly recently declared him "in," and the Taco Bell Chihuahua "out."
Regan has become a "conduit to the world" for Mr. Winkle, who is in constant demand for appearances at benefits, hospitals and schools. Her "Winkle hotline" hardly ever stops ringing, and her house has turned into a kind of Winkle prison, stacked with boxes and mailing envelopes, Winkle prints and teeny Winkle outfits.
The 30-something photographer has hired a stable of helpers and has set aside her documentary work for a while to focus on all things Winkle. "I can always go back to the other work," she says with a shrug. "I am dedicating this year to him."
Toy experts think Winkle will be a winner. "It's become very hard to predict which toys will be really hot," says Maria Weiskott, editor of Playthings magazine in New York. "But everyone loves animals, especially rescued animals. This dog's story will be compelling to young children, and probably to mothers and 'tween' girls, who really drive the market."
Will Winklemania turn Regan into a millionaire? "Maybe," she acknowledges reluctantly. "But money is not my motivation."
Regan, who races around L.A. in a battered black Ford Escort with a precariously loose back bumper, promises she will donate "a generous amount" of whatever Mr. Winkle earns to animal causes, which she has always supported.
"To me, money is just a form of energy," Regan says. "If you can somehow help the world with money, then it's a good thing. Mr. Winkle represents goodness and innocence and vulnerability. He has the opportunity to influence the minds of young kids in a profound way. What could be more important than that?"
Mr. Winkle's day typically begins at around 10 a.m., when he trots out of a miniature bed next to Regan's.
He is a reluctant eater, so Regan feeds him his special mix of doggie "health food," generously supplemented with vitamins, by hand. At least a third of the food cascades out of his mouth and onto his "I Love Mommy" bib and Regan's blue jeans. Regan, delighted by his every move, laughs uproariously during the entire process, which takes 45 minutes.
While Regan deals with book editors, costume designers, reporters, calendar packers and the like, Mr. Winkle waits patiently for his daily walk in a nearby park.
He travels, quiet as a mouse, in a small nylon carrier that Regan slings over her shoulder.
At the park, Regan unzips the bag and plops Mr. Winkle onto the grass. He sniffs and sprays and sprays and sniffs. People stare quizzically.
Afterward the two visit a neighborhood coffeehouse, where a customer spots the dog in his carrying case. "Oh my God, oh my God, it's Mr. Winkle!" Shelley Kanos shrieks. "He's the cutest dog in the world! He's famous! He's like a movie star!" She reaches for her cellphone and starts calling friends. "Guess who's here?"
The ruckus catches the attention of the store manager, who is not amused.
"Just to let you know," she whispers to Regan, "there are no pets allowed in here."
Regan tucks her treasure back into his pouch.
"Obviously," she confides, "that woman has yet to be inducted into the Church of Winkle."
In the evening they head for the studio, a hip, cluttered artist's enclave inhabited by several tough neighborhood cats and Regan's boyfriend, who is a painter. Mr. Winkle dons a sphinx helmet and settles in on the set, which is piled with sand and decorated with foam pyramids.
Regan, working on the 2003 calendar, allows Mr. Winkle to relax while she puts the finishing touches on the Egyptian scene. She is a lighting perfectionist and spends two hours making adjustments before she snaps a single photograph.
Mr. Winkle is the consummate professional, sitting quietly in the sand, assuming poses with nary a protest and toddling over to Regan's lap only when the camera is at rest. Regan frequently offers him sips of water from a Bugs Bunny mug.
She is convinced he loves his work, and bristles at any notion that she might be exploiting him.
"I would never do it if he hated it," she insists. "It saddens me that people are so cynical that they can't see when someone is doing something out of love."
But as Mattel prepares to roll out its Winkle merchandise, Regan concedes, she cannot help but worry a bit about the potential downside of fame.
"I don't want him to be cheapened," she says. "He represents certain things to me. I want to keep that pure." As owner of the Winkle trademark and copyright, she will approve every commercial image. She spurned a major movie company's advances and plans to make an independent film about him, tentatively titled "Big Top Winkle."
"The challenge is capturing his spirit, his soul," Regan says. "Who knows? I might not have him that much longer. I want him to be a Winnie the Pooh type, a mystical creature that will live on forever and make the world a better place well after he's gone. I want kids 20 years from now to be captivated by Mr. Winkle. I think he has that kind of power."
The Bee's Cynthia Hubert can be reached at (916) 321-1082 or firstname.lastname@example.org.