Celebri-cats: Fans sound off on phenomenon of Internet feline megastars

Celebri-cats: Fans sound off on phenomenon of Internet feline megastars

September 30th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Grumpy Cat, the frown-faced internet sensation, whose real name is Tardar Sauce, is now the "spokescat" for a Friskies brand of cat food.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Stacey Newman sits with her cat Norman Goldstein. On the computer screen is Colonel Meow, an internet celebri-cat.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

IN-FUR-MOUS

Some cats online have attracted thousands of admirers through social networking sites. The following are some of the Internet's most popular celebri-cats:

[Note: Numbers current as of Sept. 25, 2013]

1. Nala

Followers: 873,714 (Instagram), 3,680 (Twitter), 80,374 (Facebook). Website: Nalacat.com

2. Hamilton the Hipster Cat

Followers: 290,382 (Instagram), 2,052 (Twitter), 42,388 (Facebook). Website: Facebook.com/HamiltonTheHipsterCat

3. Lil Bub

Followers: 218,919 (Instagram), 22,977 (Twitter), 226,000 (Facebook). Website: goodjob.lilbub.com

4. Snoopy

Followers: 191,202 (Instagram), N/A (Twitter), 10,787 (Facebook - unofficial fanclub). Website: snoopy409.tumblr.com

5. Wheat (Tomochunba)

Followers: 138,638 (Instagram), N/A (Twitter), N/A (Facebook). Website: N/A

6. P-Chan

Profile: @Ryotukoro. Followers: 132,939 (Instagram), 168 (Twitter), N/A (Facebook). Website: N/A

7. Tardar Sauce (Grumpy Cat)

Profile: @RealGrumpyCat. Followers: 107,368 (Instagram), 113,610 (Twitter), 1.4 million (Facebook). Website: GrumpyCats.com

8. Sam (Sam Has Eyebrows)

Followers: 101,141 (Instagram), 1,500 (Twitter), 16,526 (Facebook). Website: SamHasEyebrows.com

9. Pudge Followers: 95,954 (Instagram), 1,894 (Twitter), 20,425 (Facebook). Website: PudgetheCat.com

10. Colonel Meow

Followers: 86,235

(Instagram), 4,897

(Twitter),

213,000 (Facebook).

Website: Colonel-Meow.com

Forget sneezing panda cubs, dancing hamsters or dramatic gophers. If Internet pop culture has a top dog, some argue that it is - ironically - the cat.

Felines run riot online. They pose for Instagram portraits wearing fake (or real) mustaches, get stuck in various household objects on YouTube videos and clog up Twitter feeds with updates by their owners about their every meow. Some cats - Grumpy Cat and Maru, to name a couple - have become international celebrities.

"I'm on the Internet too much for my own good, and I love kitty cats, so it's the perfect place to find them," laughs self-described Internet cat "expert" Stacy Newman, 29, of Chattanooga.

Like many cat owners since the advent of social networking, Newman posts pictures of her two cats, Norman Goldstein and Zack Morris, online several times a week. Afterward, she says, she keeps track of how they are being received by viewers, secretly hoping that they will be "discovered."

"I mean, they [famous cats' owners] make so much money off those YouTube videos," she explains. "That's a dream job. I would love it if one of my cats got super kitty cat famous."

Some do.

A few felines have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of online followers who react with fanatic glee to posts of seemingly mundane activities such as playing with bags, wearing funny hats or even sleeping. The craze for cats may have started online but, in some cases, Internet fame has translated into offline celebrity as well. Unlike famous pets, such as Cee Lo Green's cat Purrfect or Katy Perry's Kitty Purry, however, Internet cats are famous in their own right.

Maru - a Japanese, cardboard box-loving Scottish Fold cat - has book and product endorsement deals, has made media appearances and has lines of merchandise emblazoned with her likeness.

At only 18 months old, Grumpy Cat - real name, Tardar Sauce - has almost 1.5 million Facebook fans. Her nickname and dour likeness have been trademarked and lent to a line of iced coffee beverages: Grumpuccinos. "Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book," was was released July 23 and is the best-selling product in Amazon's cat, dog and animal humor books category.

On May 21, Grumpy Cat won Meme of the Year at the 17th annual Webby Awards, which celebrate "excellence on the Internet." Less than two weeks later, she was featured in the May 30 edition of the Wall Street Journal, in which it was revealed that her agent, Ben Lashes, had negotiated a film option for her with Broken Road Productions ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice," "Jack and Jill").

In short, the Internet is just one big digital scratching post; cats merely tolerate humans presence there, yet we love them, nonetheless.

"These [Internet cats] are like the new pop culture characters that everyone cares about," says Lashes in a clip from "Lil Bub & Friendz," a recent documentary film about the trend of Internet cat celebrity and one such feline's rise to fame.

A self-described "meme manager," Lashes helps Internet stars (or their owners) to capitalize on their celebrity. His roster of clients includes human celebs such as Scumbag Steve, The Ridiculously Photogenic Guy and - previously - teen Internet music sensation Rebecca Black.

Cats, however, are the real online megastars, he says.

"Hello Kitty? Bart Simpson? Micky Mouse? No one cares about those old characters anymore," Lashes says. "The cats - that's what the future is."

'RAGS TO RICHES'

For some celebri-cats, their rise to fame has been a feline rags-to-riches story. Many are shelter rescues, have some kind of medical condition or both.

The distinctive frown that earned Grumpy Cat her nickname is actually the result of feline dwarfism and an underbite. The expression is so pronounced that when her owner's brother, Bryan Bundesen of Morristown, Ariz., posted the first picture of her online on Sept. 22, 2012, people thought the image had been edited. Bundesen subsequently posted videos to prove that Grumpy Cat actually looked that way, and once they realized the black look was genuine, her popularity skyrocketed.

The Bundesens have declined to list specific figures for the amount of money earned from licensing Grumpy Cat's likeness but told the Wall Street Journal that it was a "low-six-figure sum."

Lil Bub, another super celebrity and the subject of the "Lil Bub & Friendz" documentary, is a feral kitten who was rescued from a rural Indiana tool shed. The big eyes, stubby limbs and permanently protruding tongue that earned her the unofficial distinction as "cutest cat in the world" are the result of a number of genetic anomalies, including "extreme" feline dwarfism, a shortened lower jaw and polydactylism (extra toes on each paw).

Lil Bub's self-described "dude" (owner) Mike Bridavsky has four other cats, all rescues. He calls Lil Bub "one of nature's happiest accidents" and "probably the most amazing creature on the planet."

"This cat always looks amazing; she's the most photogenic cat in the world," Bridavsky says, in the documentary. "I took a picture and put it on Tumblr and people started responding to it.

"She looks so different, but she's still cute, so she's challenging the standard for cuteness and showing that it's OK to be different and still be appreciated."

In the intro to Lil Bub's book, "Lil Book: The Most Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet," Bridavsky writes that her rise to stardom was thanks to a social media savvy friend, who suggested that he share her pictures on a blog. Two years later, Lil Bub has fans worldwide (a quarter of a million on Facebook alone) and has made her own media appearances, including on "Good Morning America," "Today" and "The View."

Lil Bub's documentary, which features a Grumpy Cat cameo, premiered April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won $10,000 as the festival's best online feature film. While there, she was introduced to actor and festival co-head Robert De Niro. On June 21, in a video celebrating Lil Bub's second birthday, Bridavsky announced that she would star in a online talk show, "Lil Bub's Big Show." The show debuted Sept. 3. Her first guest? Whoopi Goldberg.

Like human celebrities, many famous Internet cats - through their owners - use their fame to raise awareness about various causes.

Lil Bub's owner founded a second Facebook page, Lil Bub's Bubuddies, to share info about pet rescues and shelters, charities and specific animals in need. To date, her bio says, Lil Bub has raised more than $60,000 for various charities through merchandise sales and meet-and-greets at animal shelters.

Nala, Instagram's most-followed cat, was rescued as a kitten in 2010 from a Los Angeles shelter. With more than 870,000 fans online, her owners are using her celebrity and some of the money she receives to promote causes such as L.A.-based Kitten Rescue and Focus On Ferals, a Western Michigan-based trap-neuter-return program.

WHY CATS?

Chattanooga Rusty Higdon, 29, says he's "all about Lil Bub" and her fellow celebri-cat, Colonel Meow, whose 9-inch coat recently earned him the Guinness World Records title for "cat with the longest fur."

Higdon says he became aware of the Internet cat phenomenon through the humorously captioned cat pictures on ICanHasCheezeburger.com, but he says he thinks the explosion of cats' online popularity in the last few years is due to the emergence of celebrity felines people can follow consistently like furry stars and starlets.

Unlike some cat owners, however, he says it's love, not the off-chance of them becoming famous, that compels him to share pictures and stories of his cats, Angel Panties and Celine Dion, on Facebook.

"It's like sharing pictures of your kids," he explains. "My cats are my kids. This is me documenting their lives and, if anything happens to them, I'll have ... stuff to look back at."

There are plenty of dogs that are online-famous - Mishka the talking husky, Boo "the world's cutest dog" - but some suggest cat owners have turned to the Internet in greater numbers because cats aren't as naturally showy as other animals.

"Cats are mysterious creatures and pretty private. They don't share their charms," writes Patricia Carlin, author of the quasi-tongue-in-cheek book "How to Make Your Cat An Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom," which is set to publish next spring.

"The Web allows us to observe cats in their natural environments, without their consent," Carlin continues in an email. "Dogs, on the other hand, are easy. If you want to interact with a dog, just walk outside. Within a few minutes, you'll be privy to every trick the dog knows."

Dog owners also have access to dog parks in which they can socialize and meet other like-minded people. Cat owners, however, tend to agree that a similar meeting ground for cats is an idea that is as bad in concept as it would be in execution.

Thanks to social networks, however, cats owners can show off their pets' charms to others without fear of a hissing squabble, says Jeffrey Bussolini, a feline sociologist and director of the Center for Feline Studies at the Avenue B Multi-Studies Center in New York City.

"Cats mix differently [than dogs], so the Internet provides a site, a kind of 'virtual cat park,' for cat lovers," Bussolini writes in an email.

Besides, he adds, reiterating a statement he made in the Lil Bub documentary: "Cats are cute, and people enjoy looking at them."

According to 2009 Scientific American article "The Evolution of House Cats," there are about 600 million pet cats worldwide, yet only a handful end up in the spotlight. That doesn't stop some owners from dreaming of "making it."

Carlin's book will offer tips on how to maximize a cat's chances of stardom, but she warns the process of building and maintaining a fan base can be both expensive and time-consuming. Plus, she says, some cats benefit from an undefinable quality - an X-factor - which can't be acquired through any amount of training or grooming.

"Maru has it in spades," she says. "[Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat] coast a bit on their physical deformities, in my opinion. That's just luck of the draw."

Most of the Internet's most famous cats have only been on their pedestals for the last four years, but Higdon says he doesn't see online love for cats as a fad.

"As long as there are people, I think people will love cats," he says. "As long as the Internet exists, cats will have a huge place on the Internet, though there may be some other power animal that pops up along the way.

"I mean, sloths are getting kind of big."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.