Denise Gutnisky loves Carnival. She loves dogs even more.
And for the past 24 years, she’s merged the two passions into an event that puts a unique twist on the Carnival celebration here on the north shore.
Her Mystic Krewe of Mardi Paws began a quarter century ago as a small parade for canines and their human friends. It was held in the Beau Chene subdivision near Mandeville, where Gutnisky once lived, until the event outgrew its “paw print” in 1999 and moved to the Mandeville Lakefront.
Mardi Paws will be held again Feb. 18, and it’s a decidedly bigger deal than it was way back when. More than 350 dogs and their humans are expected to participate in the event as locals (some of them known metrowide and others even worldwide) turn out for a “doggone” good time.
But the “pawty” grows this year with the addition of the “Mutts to Models Ball” — a fundraiser that will take place at the Fleur de Lis Event Center on Jan. 20. Some 50 pooches and their well-known human companions will model hot fashions as part of a fundraiser for a pair of nonprofits that are near and dear to Gutnisky and the entire Mardi Paws gang.
“Mutts to Models will benefit kids, canines and more,” said Gutnisky, who is president of Scott’s Wish, a local 501(c)3 that provides aid for people with life-threatening illnesses. “Proceeds will benefit Scott’s Wish, but we’re also involved with the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, which is working hard to protect the environment and its animals.”
Somerhalder, an actor and activist who was raised in Covington, is world renowned for his work on television hits “The Vampire Diaries” and “Lost,” and he lends extraordinary cachet to Mardi Paws (he’s been involved with the parade for years.)
Somerhalder and his wife, Nikki Reed, (known for her work in the "Twilight" movies) have more than 35 million followers on social media and they are president and vice president of the foundation, which owns 100 acres of land in Lacombe. Seventy of those acres are set aside to preserve the scenic bayou vista, while 30 acres will support pet projects that serve the needs of animals, youth and the St. Tammany Parish community at large.
The celebrity couple’s attendance at the Mardi Paws parade makes it a can’t-miss event for many, but there will be even more star power at Mutts to Models, including Somerhalder and Reed.
Also modeling will be several former football stars, including past LSU quarterback Herb Tyler, former Tulane and NFL tight end Rodney Holman and former NFL quarterback Bubby Brister. A couple of other actors and actresses will take part in the show with their dogs, as will several military veterans who will be honored along with service animals.
Some local television media personalities will take part, too, including WWL-TV north shore bureau chief Ashley Rodrigue and her pup Tater Tot, as well as WWL meteorologist Dave Nussbaum and his dog Doppler.
“It really shows the bond between people and their pets,” Gutnisky said. “They just love their dogs, and that’s what Mardi Paws and now Mutts to Models is all about.”
Ten professional models will showcase fashions from the private collection of Louisiana’s own Raoul Blanco Couture. Blanco is renowned for dressing a who’s who in society around the globe.
The lucky dogs on the 2018 Mardi Paws court will be decked out in fetching king and queen robes designed by Mary Viveiros, of the House of Privilege Canine Couture. Penelope Frances, co-founder and creative director of her former brand Fifi and Romeo, will produce the runway show.
Mutts to Models will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a VIP cocktail reception, followed by the runway show and after-party. And with proceeds benefiting Scott’s Wish and the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, the event is well worth the while.