Twenty minutes before the show, the aerosol hair spray hisses furiously. Brushes glide through hair conditioned with Suave. A few stray hairs are trimmed, noses are wiped.
Occasionally, a contestant bellows, but in this show, congeniality doesn't matter.
This is a beauty contest for cows.
The 4-H/FFA beef fitting and showing contest, held yesterday at the Maryland State Fair, is also a test of the strength, stamina and gutsiness of more than 90 youngsters and teens ranging in age from 8 to 18.
The goal is to primp a 1,000-pound calf so it looks its best, then enter a show ring where contestants must walk, smile, watch the judge, and answer questions -- all while wrestling with an animal that would rather be someplace else.
Christian Mecham's steer bolts for the door, dragging the 10-year-old youngster to his knees. But the 60-pound boy holds on to the 1,200-pound steer, named Achilles, and goes on to win second place in his class.
"The judge told me I should be in a rodeo," Christian says after the show. His white shirt is smudged and his face sweaty, but the Frederick County boy beams.
"Sometimes you've got to eat a little dirt," observes his mother, Theresa LaCrois.
Preparations for the show begin before dawn, when youths arrive at the Cow Palace, the barn where the event is held, to feed and water their animals. The calves are taken outside, hosed down and bathed -- most with a dish-washing detergent and a human hair conditioner to make the hair look soft and shiny. Then it's time for blow-drying -- with hair dryers resembling vacuum cleaners.
The serious primping, however, is left for the contest. Working under the eye of the judge, the youngsters get 20 minutes to prepare their animals while anxious relatives watch from the bleachers.
"Grandparents get more nervous than the kids," says Ted Robinett, a farmer from Flintstone who came to watch his grandson Jacob.
The fitting portion of the competition is part cosmetic, part practical.
It's nice to use baby powder to hide the stains on white knees. Lacquer and spray paint can make hoofs shine. And fluffy tails are an option.
But the most important trick is knowing how to brush hair so a calf looks like prime steaks on four legs.
Because meat packers prefer muscular cattle, the calves' hair is brushed forward to make the animals look long; leg hairs are brushed up to make them look tall. Hair at the top of the tail stands straight up, resembling a Mohawk. Hairs on top of the head are combed to a point, looking like a soft-ice cream cone.
Holding all the hair in place is an aerosol adhesive and a liquid called "Zoombloom," which the youngsters apply so liberally that judge Scott Shaacke jokes, "What a great day to be in the paint supply business."
Inside the show ring, the pressure intensifies. The youngsters lead the calves in a circle, keeping their eyes on the judge -- no easy feat when you're 4 feet tall and can't see over the back of your calf. At the judge's direction, contestants stop and pose their calves -- heads up, feet square. Everyone waits anxiously until the judge lines them up from first to last place.
Most youngsters in yesterday's competition bought their cattle in October or November and tended them throughout the year, feeding them before they went to school and when they came home at night.
At the time her Howard County classmates are getting on school buses for the first day of school, 9-year-old Laura Mihm is getting her heifer, Penny, ready to show.
Laura's mother, Robin Mihm, is sorry her daughter is missing school, but says she is learning valuable lessons at the fair. "I think this teaches them a lot of responsibility," she says.
Missy Willard, a 16-year-old Frederick student, already has earned enough raising calves to buy a used car and now is saving for college.
Christian Mecham enjoys the camaraderie of the other youngsters, and says raising a calf builds muscles. "I used to be real skinny. Now I'm really big."
And Jessica Stevens, a 13-year-old from Frederick, says she shows because she likes working with animals.
But for many youths, the joys of raising the animal are tempered by the pain of selling them for slaughter. "My first year I was really upset, but I got used to it," Jessica says.
Mr. Robinett recalls that he tried to soothe his grandson's hurt the first year by spending $20 on fair rides. "He said, 'Pap, that helped, but that didn't cure it.' "