It was when a Birmingham dog show judge said she should replace her beloved Basset hound Major Tom if she ever wanted to win anything that artist Victoria Melody decided to put her own body under scrutiny.

“It had taken me four hours to drive to Birming-ham,” says Brighton-based Melody. “It cost lots of money, I’d got up really early and I was only in the ring for a couple of minutes because of somebody else’s ideal image of what a dog should look like.

“I was driving back trying to think how I could balance this level of scrutiny. I felt guilty about putting Major Tom through it.”

Melody has spent the past few years infiltrating different interest groups in British society, including pigeon fanciers and Northern Soul enthusiasts.

Inspired by the reactions Major Tom used to get when she took him out for walks on the seafront, she decided the dog show world was her next project.

“It was the chance to join the exclusive members-only club of dog show people,” remembers Melody, who started out by entering Major Tom into amateur competitions.

“He won everything, which was a massive surprise. Basset hounds are completely unruly – they have a mind of their own and are very stubborn. He is the ideal dog to have as I’m the same.

“He makes me a laughing stock in public. If I take him to the shops a three-minute walk will take 20 minutes as he sniffs everything and will lay down on the floor anchoring me to the spot.

“But as soon as he gets in the show ring his tail and his head go up and he becomes this prima donna show dog. Apparently his grandfather, Pavarotti Daydreams, was a big show dog so maybe it comes through his breeding...”

When Melody took him to the professional circuit she found a very different, closed-off and competitive world – with Major Tom finishing last because he didn’t meet the stringent standards for his breed.

“It really wasn’t a welcoming group,” says Melody. “I forgot that I was in competition with these people. They take it very seriously.

“I took Major Tom to dog training and changed the way I looked, not wearing too much make-up and buying country attire, trying to learn the behaviour of the dog show people.”

It made no difference – Major Tom still came last.

And then Melody had the idea of putting herself through the competitive world of beauty pageants.

“The show went from a piece about group behaviour and little England to a show about the beauty myth and competition,” says Melody. “I’m a feminist – I never wanted to enter a beauty pageant or have that homogenised look of being skinny and tanned with long hair and big eyelashes.”

She threw herself into the role, getting hypnotised to help her lose weight, slapping on the fake tan and even investing in hair extensions.

“I went to a plastic surgeon who gave me a huge list of what I needed doing but I thought it was a step too far,” says Melody, who was named Mrs Brighton and entered into the national Mrs UK competition.

“I feel fairly dubious about Mrs Brighton. I’m not sure if anybody else entered! It was a postal application.”

Her experiences on the catwalk against beauty queens from across the country were a sharp contrast to being on stage, where audiences largely judge you on the quality of your material.

But she was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere backstage. “There was much more camaraderie in the beauty world,” says Melody. “I tried to go in with an open mind like an anthropologist, but I had preconceptions from US films and documentaries of backstabbing and ruining each other’s clothes.

“All the girls were really friendly and helped one another with their dresses. It only seemed like a competition when we were standing on stage.

“I don’t necessarily want to promote beauty pageants, but the comparison with dog shows is quite interesting. In dog shows you only judge dogs with a proven blood line. In beauty pageants anyone can enter – you can be any size or shape.”

The show, which uses documentary film and photographs to support Melody’s story, has been performed up and down the country 90 times so far.

Part of the attraction for audiences is the presence of Major Tom on stage, who makes each show different.

“You never know what he’s going to do,” says Melody, who has retained all her beauty garb for the tour. “He normally sabotages the best bits, which the audience loves. They always take his side over mine.

“His favourite part of the show is the start – we greet people coming in and he gets to sniff everyone.

“We did a performance in Hull recently where he wouldn’t get in his bed on stage. Instead he insisted on laying on this man’s feet. When I made him get up and lie in his bed, he took his bed off stage and laid it back over the man’s feet. It’s a constant battle with him.”

The beauty queen experience has also provided the inspiration for Melody’s next show – Hair Piece – which will see her trace the origins of her extensions back to the people who donated their locks.

“The last time there was such a demand for human hair was in the 18th century when everyone was wearing wigs,” says Melody.

“No one is asking where the hair has come from.”

Later this year Melody is off to southern India to find a Hindu temple where women shave their heads and the temple sells it for hair extensions.

And she is also heading to Russia to investigate the current blonde famine – where hair sold for £30 is eventually bought in the West as extensions for between £700 and £800.

“I can’t get rid of the hair extensions yet,” says Melody. “I don’t know when I’m ever going to be me again – I don’t know what me looks like any more!”