The Internet loves cats. Fat cats, scaredy cats, cats in lime peel hats and these days, the king of them all is Grumpy Cat.
The 15-month-old puss with the sour pout—caused not by unhappiness but by feline dwarfism, according to owner Tabatha Bundesen—catapulted (so to speak) to online stardom last September. That was when Bundesen’s brother posted a photo of the cat on Reddit. Since then, hundreds of images of the frowning feline (real name Tardar Sauce) have cropped up, overlaid with sarcastic sayings like “I had fun once—it was awful” and “Of all the nine lives I’ve lived, this is the worst.”
The cat’s popularity earned her the somewhat dubious honor of Meme of the Year at the 2013 Webby Awards this May. With a new book out this week, a movie in the works, and an agent, Grumpy Cat is officially a celebrity. More than that, the kitty-turned-cultural-juggernaut is the latest emblem in the shifting relationship between Internet culture and mainstream media.
“When more people started using digital means to consume content and get their information and culture, it screwed with the system,” says Ben Lashes, Grumpy Cat's agent. “You don’t have to pay dues with a big company to get your idea out. You can put it up [online] and all of a sudden 10 million people love it.”
But how did 34-year-old Lashes, who often skates around his Hollywood neighborhood on a board decked out with a large Nyan Cat sticker, make that online buzz profitable enough to become the world's first full-time meme manager?
In 2010, the Spokane, Wash. native was managing bands for an independent record label. The work wasn’t so fun, he says, but it was necessary after his own band, The Lashes, got stuck in major-label turnaround hell. (Born Benjamin Clark, Lashes earned his pseudonym during his music days.) One day he got a call from his father's friend, Charlie Schmidt, asking for some help. Years before, Schmidt had posted a video from the ‘80s of his long-deceased cat, Fatso, “playing” the keyboard. The clip had gone viral and people were contacting him with questions and business offers.
“Charlie knew I had experience in the [entertainment] business but trusted that I wasn’t going to tell him anything other than what I really thought,” Lashes recalls.
Together, the pair transformed Keyboard Cat from a disposable Internet phenomenon (remember Cupcake Dog or Flea Market Montgomery?) into a profitable brand. Lashes launched social media marketing campaigns and negotiated licensing agreements so the “musically inclined” feline could appear in commercials and TV shows. He and Schmidt created Keyboard Cat T-shirts, and recently, a Keyboard Cat toy.
The unexpected success inspired Lashes to try his luck again. He reached out to Christopher Torres, the creator of Nyan Cat, and later the Bundesens, to help them protect and develop their feline phenoms in the same manner as Keyboard Cat.
What is it about these particular cats that makes the masses go crazy? Lashes, who owns a terrier-chihuahua mix named Cowboy and doesn’t consider himself much of a cat person, says he goes with his gut.
“I didn’t come up with Grumpy Cat before it happened,” Lashes explains. “I saw it online just like everyone else. Sometimes you see something and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is totally new.’ If I find myself becoming super obsessed [with a meme], that’s how I know.”
Lashes credits the organic nature of memes with their commercial viability.
“Getting people to pay attention is the hardest part in entertainment,” Lashes says. “But with memes, people are already fans. We didn’t have to go in and be like, ‘Here’s this character I’ve been developing for 10 years that hasn’t been tested in the market.’ The power of the crowd cuts through all the red tape.”
While most Internet memes tends to fizzle over time, Lashes insists that these bits of whimsy don't always have to be so ephemeral. Eager and optimistic, Lashes, a fan of comic books and Disney cartoons, is convinced the way we create pop culture symbols is changing.
“There’s a stigma that things on the Internet shouldn’t last or can’t be funny next week,” he says. “But there’s a spark, a story already building when a meme starts to spread. Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat—they don’t have to be stupid cats on the Internet. They can be timeless. They can be icons.”