On a fleece-lined bed in an Arizona bookstore, a four-pound cat had fallen asleep. She was flanked by her manager, her owner and a graying bodyguard, who protected the dozing kitten from the adoring mob that had come to get a look at her. Behind me, the line of cat-fanciers grew restless, bordering on hysterical.
“I can’t see her grumpy li’l face!” one woman complained.
Grumpy Cat was on book tour, though she hadn’t written a book, and her name isn’t even Grumpy Cat. She is Tardar Sauce, a year-old kitten with feline dwarfism, a genetic defect that scrunched her features into a face too small to hold a smile. A tiny kitten with an old man’s scowl, she has a face made for YouTube, and a video of her stubborn resistance to her owner’s tickles has garnered more than sixteen million views since it was first posted in September 2012. A thousand fans showed up at the Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, hoping to be one of the two hundred chosen to meet the cat and pose for an unbeatable Instagram shot. I had driven three hours to be one of them.
This was more than a cat. It was Grumpy Cat, whose adorable frown had become shorthand at my office, a perfect reaction to an email complaining about a psychopathic coworker or an unfair policy change. After months of being passed around the office, Tardar Sauce felt like family, and a photo with her would make everyone I knew seethe with jealousy.
For the cat behind the meme, the book tour was a new level of fame. She had professional representation by Ben Lashes, the world’s first self-appointed “meme manager,” who watched the bookstore proceedings in requisite indoor sunglasses. He had just secured a lucrative deal for Grumpy to represent Friskies cat food and was closing in on a Lifetime original movie. “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” which will air this Thanksgiving, tells the story of an unloved cat who is finally adopted on Christmas Eve by a twelve-year-old girl with a heart of gold, who can hear the animal talk — naturally — in the voice of “Parks & Recreation’s” ever-grumpy Aubrey Plaza.
While waiting for Grumpy Cat at Changing Hands, the crowd fought over who loved the stranger’s cat more. A Grumpy Cat tattoo beat a Grumpy Cat T-shirt. My drive from Tucson (three hours) trumped another woman’s commute from Casa Grande (sixty minutes). Whatever sacrifices we had made, however great the pledges and allegiances, we were all variants of the same insanity. We were drawn to this store by our shared entitlement to a stranger’s pet. A belief that somehow, she belonged to us.
Now that she’s taken over the world, the Grumpy machine seems unstoppable. A year after the book tour, her face has been licensed on everything from leggings to bottled cappuccinos. Her talk show circuit rounds rival Hilary Clinton’s. We all know she’s a celebrity. But as I struggled to get to the front of the line, to get the picture that would make the long drive worth it, I was struck by how small the animal looked on her little fleece bed. How on earth does a cat become famous, I wondered, and what does it do to her?
* * *
Before Changing Hands, before Grumpy Cat, before there was even an Internet, there was Charlie Schmidt, who lived with his cat in Spokane, Washington, in the 1980s.
“Not a hell of a lot happening in Spokane in 1984,” Schmidt says. He was a digital artist in a pre-digital world, churning out bizarre video clips from his home studio. He got together with friends, other artists and musicians, who would “share videos and drinks and memories and strangeness.” During these get-togethers, there was one standby favorite clip — fifty-four seconds of footage starring an orange cat named Fatso, who would become known to the world as Keyboard Cat.
On Fatso’s fateful night, Schmidt was messing around with a Casio and a VHS tripod, and Fatso ended up in a baby’s blue t-shirt, curled up next to the keyboard. As Charlie’s newest song played in the background, he massaged the cat’s belly and arms, and she tapped along like a marionette with the music. Her head rolled back on her shoulders in ecstasy, as if to say, “Oh hells yeah. That’s my jam.”
Although the tape made the rounds in Spokane, there was no way to show it off to the cat people of the world, aside from the prehistoric viral video outlet of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Friends moved on and away from Spokane, and postage was expensive. Fatso and her keyboard sat in a studio drawer for two decades, a forgotten time capsule.
When he made those videos, Schmidt was tapping into a tradition that stretches back to the Victorian era. From the primordial days of photography, people have been herding cats in front of the lens, risking scratches and bites to tuck pets into tiny clothes, and orchestrating elaborate tableaus with the mysterious, intoxicating cat factor. Recently the British Library stumbled across a trove of ephemera shot in nineteenth-century Canada, which included a host of cat photos originally intended for postcards. Postcards were the Tumblr of the turn of the century, a medium through which people shared what was funny, novel or relevant for a fleeting moment with scattered friends and family.
“Middle and upper classes sent huge volumes of postcards to each other, not just as mementos of holidays but as part of daily communication and the sharing of news and day-to-day life,” says Phil Hatfield, the library collection’s curator. “There was a desire to find quirky images and communicate in novel and interesting ways.”
Alongside pictures of men wrestling bears, tipped-over trains, teepees and hockey teams, there are all manner of cats: cats in baskets, cats sticking their heads in phonographs, cats in dresses around miniature tables waiting for dinner. There are several of a proud tabby puffing his chest like Mufasa on Pride Rock, identified by a nameplate as Fritz. The sliver of surviving work shows that our impulse to haz cheezburger has less to do with the Internet’s existence and more to do with what lies in the timeless ticking of an animal lover’s heart. An obsession, an art, just waiting for the right medium.
In 2007, as high-speed Internet found its way into every cranny of American life, YouTube began to take hold. Artists like Schmidt combed through their archives, converting a lifetime’s worth of clips into work they could actually share. It was a gold rush, where anyone could rise out of obscurity to viral superstardom. All things offbeat and cute were up for grabs.
The drawer in Charlie Schmidt’s basement opened. Fatso was reborn on YouTube in slightly grainy glory, much to the delight of the scattered Spokane gang. One friend who’d ended up in New York shot over an email: “I saw your cat thing and if you’ll give me permission to use it, I think your video could get famous.” With Schmidt’s consent, Keyboard Cat was intercut with a series of “fails,” giving the hook to teens crying on webcams, a clumsy Spider-Man, and a gawky contestant on “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” The cat caught on fast. Thousands of Keyboard Cat fail videos were uploaded within a matter of days.
“There was no guarantee any of this was going to happen,” Schmidt says. “I’m an artist, I try lots of stuff out, there’s no guarantee it’s ever going to work.”
Within the first few days of Keyboard Cat’s millions of views, he received a call from CNN. “Do you know why I’m calling?” the producer asked.
“Is it my cat?”
“It’s your meme!”
“I didn’t even know what a meme was,” Schmidt says.
As offers for interviews, products and schemes began rolling in, there was one problem: The video was thirty years old, and Fatso had long since passed over the rainbow bridge into kitty heaven. Enter Ben Lashes, the future Internet cat super-agent who today represents Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat (the 8-bit animated cat that looks like a Pop Tart and hurdles through space) and Scumbag Steve, the freeloading (human) asshole.
Like Schmidt, Lashes’ roots are in music. He is the former lead singer for Seattle power pop band The Lashes, which released a few LPs in the early aughts. In 2007, Lashes was working in the distribution and marketing innards of the music industry a few degrees removed from Schmidt. It was Lashes who convinced Schmidt to find a “reincarnation” for Fatso. (Lashes did not reply to requests to comment for this article.)
“Ben said, ‘You should go get another cat and another keyboard and make another video,’” said Schmidt. “I said, ‘God, I never thought about that!’ I went straight to the pound, got a cat. I still had the keyboard.”
An orange tabby named Bento was found at a local animal shelter, to serve as the second coming of the legendary cat. Fatso would never have put up with the life of a celebrity cat — when Schmidt moved houses in the ’80s, she took revenge by turning his pants into a litterbox — but Bento is at ease. He doesn’t mind being stuffed into a cat carrier for a long flight, on his way to gigs like the Puppy Bowl Halftime Show or a commercial for pistachios. When it comes time to film a new video, he’s always ready to work.
“When the keyboard comes out, he gets right up into the chair,” says Schmidt. Bento keeps posing, and he keeps posting. “People love something cute. People hook onto that.”
In the running for the Internet’s cutest cat is Lil BUB, whose permanent grin is the exact opposite of Grumpy Cat’s scowl. She has giant green anime eyes, and a shortened lower jaw that forces her tongue to stick out, making her look something like a real-life “Hello Kitty” character. Like Grumpy Cat, her big break came from an Instagram photo posted on Reddit. The picture rocketed to the front page, catching the attention of cat-obsessed new media outlets like Buzzfeed, Gawker and Vice.
“That’s when I realized, ‘This is kinda nuts,’” says Mike Bridavsky, the cat’s owner.
Bridavsky was approached by Lashes after BUB’s appearance on “Good Morning America.” The idea of having an agent for his cat made him uncomfortable.
“It was completely against what I wanted to do,” he says. “BUB is the creative muse, and she’s my cat. I wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do, the way I want to do it.” Like Schmidt, Bridavsky was an artist with a circle of creative friends, and BUB became a community art project. Friends designed T-shirts, socks and calendars, and the proceeds could go where he wanted — in BUB’s case, to the ASPCA and animal shelters around the country.
There are no mass meet-and-greets, no book tours, no Lifetime movies. She appears only at animal shelters, surrounded by staff who understand her needs. There’s a contractual cap on how many people can attend, a guaranteed separate quiet space, and a hefty shelter donation for each BUB fanatic who wants to say hello.
“For five dollars or free, you get people that don’t really care,” Bridavsky says. “The people that attend look to BUB for being more than just a famous cat. These fans, the type of people who fall in love with BUB, are the nicest, sweetest, kindest people. She exudes positivity and acceptance, and she attracts that back.”
With the $75,000 raised by BUB lovers in 2014, research into cat deformities and birth defects resulted in the best windfall a cat-lover could wish for: a revolutionary, far more effective treatment for the bone disease plaguing BUB’s mobility and comfort. Now she’s learning to run and jump, reaching laps and couch cushions like any normal cat.
“She’s a unique pet,” says Bridavsky, “but she’s still a pet.”
* * *
I wondered, while watching owner Tabatha Bundeson standing a few feet back from her Tardar Sauce, if there was any hope of normal for Grumpy. Was this still her cat? What if, one day, she got sick of the millions of eyeballs on YouTube? The movie sets and hashtag contests? Could they go back, or was the meme machine too far gone?
My moment with Grumpy Cat was brief. My friend Katie and I leaned over the fleece bed, made the grumpy faces we’d been practicing to each other for an hour, complied as we were instantly waved away. I paused a moment in front of Tabatha, whose gaze had fallen away from the napping cat, onto the bookshelves and lines and madness beyond.
“Tabatha,” I said, “thanks for letting us meet your cat.”
Her expression woke up, her eyes meeting mine, an unbridled smile brighter than all the room’s flashes. “Oh, thanks so much for coming!” she said. “It’s really sweet of you.”
For a moment, we were just two cat owners chatting about the animals we love. Tardar Sauce doesn’t know she’s famous, but when the event was over, she and Tabatha went home, just a cat and her owner. For Grumpy, for Bento, for BUB, there can be no better fate. They have what any pet could ever want — an unconditional forever home. The jackpot has been hit. All of the licensing contracts and talk show slots could vanish overnight, and these titans would remain as happy as the day they took over Reddit. A hundred million likes have nothing on love.
* * *
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program living in Portland, Oregon. Her essays have been featured in journals including Barrelhouse, Hobart, December and Brevity. Her most famous cat is Max, whose image was posted on the Instagram of Powell’s Books. For more of her work and blog, visit her website.