Manager Ben Lashes will never forget the first time he met his most famous client, Grumpy Cat. Though he’d seen photos of the mixed breed cat, he thought her iconic frown must be Photoshopped. Then he arrived in New York City’s Times Square to meet with Grumpy Cat before she was to appear on the Today show and had a realization.
“It’s like the first time you see the Mona Lisa or read Shakespeare or something—you know it’s a classic the minute you see it,” Lashes says.
While discussions of Grumpy Cat’s fame may be tongue-in-cheek, the feline’s success is no joke: Grumpy Cat is a million dollar brand. The little kitty with feline dwarfism and a perma-frown from an underbite shot to stardom after the brother of her owner posted a photo on the social news website Reddit in September 2012. The meme went viral on the Internet, particularly after someone added the caption: “I had fun once. It was awful.”
Now Grumpy Cat has a bestselling book, a line of “Grumppuccino” coffee drinks, an odour eliminator spray, a role as a “spokescat” for Friskies, a slew of t-shirts, plush dolls, and other merchandise, and a movie deal in the works. In 2013, Grumpy Cat appeared on the cover of the Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine, and received the “Golden Kitty” (Best in Show) at the second annual Internet Cat Video Festival in Minnesota, which drew over 10,000 attendees. She has over 2.6 million “likes” on Facebook and has appeared on Good Morning America, Today, CNN and VH1, among others. She has flown to Disneyland to meet Grumpy the Dwarf, and to New York to meet Oscar the Grouch.
Lashes says the Internet has changed the way anyone gets famous, not just cats. For example, a YouTube video can be one’s ticket to fame and fortune.
“Justin Bieber and Grumpy Cat have a lot in common with how they got famous and how they stayed famous,” Lashes says. “The Internet has just changed how we get our culture.”
Grumpy Cat’s owner Tabatha Bundesen, a 28-year-old from a small town in Arizona, says she “never could have imagined” her cat would become so famous. She says Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tardar Sauce (Bundesen’s young daughter spelled her name), isn’t actually grumpy. She’s a sweet cat who never scratches the furniture, loves to be petted between her eyes, and lives happily with her feline family, including her mother, Callie, and feline roommates Pokey, Soy Sauce, and Katchup.
“It’s really awesome just knowing that Grumpy Cat brings smiles to so many faces all around the world,” Bundesen says.
Her cat’s fame has changed her life; though she still lives in the same home and has the same friends, she no longer has to work as a waitress, gets to travel with her cat, and sees her brother much more often. She was amazed by the public’s response when Grumpy Cat attended the 2013 South by Southwest arts festival in Texas.
“It was insane! People would stand in line for three hours in the rain just to lean in and get a picture with her,” she says.
Bundesen says it has been particularly rewarding to help make a difference in people’s lives. She and Grumpy Cat have visited animal shelters and met with patients at a cancer center. She was excited when Grumpy starred last December in the charity video “Hard To Be a Cat at Christmas,” along with fellow celebricats Colonel Meow, Oskar the Blind Cat, Nala Cat, and Hamilton the Hipster Cat, for which Friskies donated 600,000 cans of cat food to animal shelters.
“Grumpy Cat definitely supports adoption,” she says. “Anyone that loves Grumpy Cat and doesn’t have a cat of their own should just go adopt any cat because they’re all amazing.”
Manager Lashes says some of his other clients helped pave the way for the meteoric success of Grumpy Cat. The original Keyboard Cat video dates back to 1984, when Washington State resident Charlie Schmidt recorded his orange tabby Fatso “playing” a song on an electronic keyboard.
He digitized the video and posted it on YouTube, and in 2009, it went viral. Within a week, he was approached by major companies like Sony and Microsoft with business offers. Schmidt just happened to be best friends with the father of Ben Lashes, so Lashes offered to manage the meme by negotiating deals. Because Fatso had passed away years before, Lashes suggested Schmidt adopt a new orange tabby and make more videos. Soon Schmidt’s new tabby, Bento, was making videos—and loving it since he gets a treat before each performance.
“He sleeps on the keyboard,” Schmidt says. “Fatso, we only did it one time—two takes, one day, that was it. But Bento is a working cat. We just finished three weeks of shooting for Animal Planet.”
Schmidt has been able to stop designing logos for a living and devote his time to Keyboard Cat projects and says it’s rewarding to “make people’s lives a little better, even if just for a few seconds.”
“Money totally aside, it’s why I did it in the first place: to try to make people feel better that day, and then to just help my friends a little. That’s why I still do it … do what you love to do every day full blast and hope for the best.”
Chris Torres, the graphic designer who created Nyan Cat, made the original image during a charity event for the 2011 Tohuku earthquake in Japan—people could watch him draw their suggestions during a video chat and make a donation for his efforts. Inspired by several requests and his “affectionate, playful” Blue Russian, Marty, he designed a cat with a Pop Tart body flying through space, leaving a rainbow trail in its wake. He spent about six hours animating it and posted it on YouTube on April 1, 2011. On April 5, another user mixed it with a popular Japanese song so it sounds like the cat is singing “Nyan,” which is the Japanese equivalent of “Meow.” Five days later, it went viral and the business offers started pouring in. “Nyan Cat” was the fifth most-viewed YouTube video of 2011, and has over 104 million views.
Torres no longer works as a secretary at an insurance company and can promote the Nyan Cat brand full time. He said when Marty suddenly died in 2012, the support from the Internet community was tremendous, with thousands of people tweeting their condolences. He’s happy that Marty’s legend will live on and recently rescued another cat, named Seven of Nyan.
“One of my hobbies is going to cat shelters and just playing with cats because I love cats so much,” he says.
He thinks the Internet celebricat phenomenon will continue to grow because people seem to be increasingly “fanatic” about it.
Emily Huh, director of business development at Cheezburger.com, agrees that the trend will continue. Cheezburger’s network of Internet humor sites launched in 2007 and featured “LOLcats” (photos of cats with captions that make viewers want to laugh out loud—a British Shorthair with the caption “I can has cheezburger?” inspired the name). It continued to grow despite the recession and now has 50 employees. In 2012, Bravo aired a reality show about Cheezburger, which featured employees comically working to provide people with “five minutes of happiness a day.” The Seattle-based company now receives 8000 to 10,000 photo and meme submissions each day, about half of which showcase animals.
Huh says there are several reasons why cats have generated greater Internet fame than dogs.
“There are no cat parks; you don’t necessarily bring your cat outside. The Internet is the world’s cat park that allows people to be able to share their cats,” she says. “Secondly, not to be putting down our dogs, but definitely cats are more expressive. They tend to have the range of emotions from really sweet, like ‘I want you to pet me,’ to ‘I’m going to take over the world and you are my minion’ type of thing.”
She says people often want to know how to make their cat famous, but trying too hard can make a photo look doctored or seem inauthentic. It helps to have quality photos and videos that are consistently uploaded, something that worked for one of the most famous celebricats, Lil Bub, this issue’s adorable cover cat.
Mike Bridavsky, Lil Bub’s “Dude,” started posting photos of the perma-kitten whose tongue curls out to a Tumblr blog (named “bublog,” of course) in November 2011 at a friend’s suggestion—he thought it would be funny. A photo made the front page of Reddit in April 2012, went viral, and then BuzzFeed wrote an article about her that July.
“That’s when Good Morning America called. That’s when it started getting crazy,” Bridavsky says.
Bridavsky was overwhelmed with Lil Bub’s sudden fame, and even considered abandoning the limelight. But the heartfelt messages Lil Bub received from people who said she’d inspired them to struggle through hard times—even suicidal thoughts—changed his mind.
“Her whole thing about being positive and proving that being different is good—this came from her,” he says. “So I just kind of see myself as a facilitator of that.”
Now the Indiana-based recording studio owner/engineer spends 60 to 80 hours a week managing Lil Bub’s brand, which includes a book with a testimonial from Whoopi Goldberg (who she met on The View), calendars, plushies, apps, an Internet talk show (guests include an Air Guitar World Champion), and the documentary Lil Bub and Friendz, which won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival (where she met Robert De Niro).
Bridavsky donates a portion of proceeds from all Lil Bub merchandising to animal charities like Best Friends Animal Society and the ASPCA [Lil Bub’s Big Fund for the ASPCA was just recently announced. Check it out at lilbub.com/bigfund.] and often insists licensees and business partners do as well.
“Over $60,000 direct from us, but as far as total money raised because of Bub, it’s well over $100,000,” he says.
Lil Bub’s fame has helped herself as well. She was born with several health issues, including the short lower jaw and lack of teeth that make her tongue stick out, and has a rare disease called osteopetrosis, in which her bones become denser as she ages. It affected her ability to walk, and she became dependent on Bridavsky to carry her everywhere. Then an expert reached out to Bridavsky and suggested an alternative therapy involving electromagnetic pulses. As soon as she started using it, Bub started twitching—and then stood up.
“If she never got famous, I never would have found this unique treatment that has basically changed her life,” Bridavsky says.
He says Lil Bub loves to be scratched under the chin, meditates, and is highly intelligent despite the fact that some people look at her protruding tongue and assume she’s stupid.
“That’s part of her thing: you can’t judge someone just because they look different,” he says. “There’s something about her that really defines her more than her looks.”
He summed up his feelings for Lil Bub with a sentiment shared by anyone who’s ever loved a special cat—famous or not.
“I think I’m pretty lucky that I got to be the caretaker for her.”