An 8-pound celebrity cat occupies a lot of space in Kady Lone’s Uptown apartment.
But Pudge doesn’t let the sensation go to her head — even if that furry face is printed on hundreds of T-shirts, mugs, buttons and smartphone cases stuffed in Lone’s drawers and closet.
The life of Lone, 26, is so tethered to her Internet-famous feline that the two are practically intertwined. What began as social media posts meant to preserve Pudge’s kittenhood soon fur-balled into Lone quitting her full-time design job.
She’s now a jet-setting, cat-centric entrepreneur based out of her Minneapolis home. (Lone also helps curate the ultra-popular @cats_of_instagram account, which has 3.8 million followers.)
Lone and five-year-old Pudge, called “Queen P” by her 433,000 Instagram followers, aren’t too fazed. Pudge isn’t “some uptight cat,” as Lone puts it, and behaves more like a dog.
But Pudge, whose fluffy coat looks like it was dipped in a chocolate-and-caramel fondue, is a far cry from your average domestic pet — no matter how casually Lone speaks about her cat’s celebrity. Yes, Pudge spends most of an average day sleeping, but on another she might be doing a photo shoot decked out in Moschino bling for Lucky Magazine. Pudge also has her own accounts on Twitter, Vine, YouTube and Facebook (where she has 371,000 page likes).
“I treat Pudge the same as I would if she wasn’t Internet-famous,” said Lone, who still giggles at Pudge’s “flat face” and clumsiness.
Pudge’s ability to drive the Web bananas, though, is in large part owed to Lone’s creative prowess. She belongs to a community of celebrity cat “parents,” who develop a voice for creatures who can’t even speak.
Adored cats — Garfield, Hello Kitty, the Cat in the Hat — have long had a stake in popular culture. But the breed of real and famous cats has only been scratching at consumer culture for about five years (think: Grumpy Cat). Of course, Minnesota is home to one of the world’s most famous celebrations of cat culture: The fourth annual Internet Cat Video Festival takes over the St. Paul Saints’ CHS Field on Wednesday evening.
And the pet-parazzi has shown no signs of slowing down. The first ever CatCon was held this summer in Los Angeles (which Lone and Pudge attended). There are books with titles like Patricia Carlin’s “How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom.” And if virality seems like all that and a bag of catnip, know that it isn’t just a stroke of luck.
“The tricky thing is really how much effort are you going to put into this?” said Andrew Cunningham, social marketing lead at digital agency Huge. “Social media never stops, and you definitely need to commit to go above and beyond.”
It’s all about creating a digital footprint. Among the kibbles and bits of success are snappy writing, high-quality photography, savvy social networking and promotional deals. “If you’re not a particularly creative person, it will probably be almost impossible to break through the noise,” Cunningham said.
Grooming Pudge’s brand
Lone realized Pudge’s star potential after meeting other famous cats in 2012 at the first Internet Cat Fest at the Walker Art Center, which was attended by 10,000 people. There, Pudge hobnobbed with A-lister Lil Bub, and even appeared in Vice Film’s award-winning “Lil Bub & Friendz.”
Lone originally began posting photos of Pudge on her personal Instagram account. But after realizing how many people would paw for photos of her pet, she renamed the account @pudgethecat. Soon she was racking up thousands of followers, and now is in striking distance of half a million. For context, Hillary Clinton has about 216,000 Instagram followers, and Mark Zuckerberg (whose own social juggernaut Facebook owns the platform) clocks in at 145,000.
Now, Pudge’s fans line up to pose for photos with her at meet-and-greets, and companies send Lone boxes of kitty swag free of charge.
But at what point can your cat’s notoriety pay the bills?
The relationship between Pudge and Lone caught the eye of Zeus Jones, a Minneapolis branding company that works with Purina Inc. The duo appeared in a Web series on “aspirational influencers in the pet ownership space,” said creative Becky Lang. Lang would not disclose how much Lone was compensated, though Lone has said she doesn’t make a profit from Pudge. Lone still does freelance graphic design and profits from sponsored content on @cats_of_instagram (an account that aggregates other people’s cat photos).
“[Kady] is super-creative, and it’s clear that Pudge is her muse,” Lang said. “[Their connection] really broadened people’s eyes for what can happen when a pet brings something into your life.”
A house paw-ty
Keeping up with Pudge’s online life is nonstop. The notifications from Pudge’s social media accounts dinged so frequently on Lone’s iPhone that she bought a tablet so she could oversee the traffic on one device. She calls it the “Pudge Pad.”
A recent photo of Pudge perched on a windowsill amassed 14,000 “likes” and more than 100 comments.
“I try to read everything, but you can’t get to all of it,” Lone said. She’s considered hiring an intern for secretarial tasks like checking e-mails, which may suggest that Pudge’s profits are growing.
As Pudge’s popularity has soared, Lone has picked up amateur photography skills and also feels compelled to keep a clean, orderly home.
“You can see my house in the photos. If it was messy, people would notice,” she said.
Lone’s white apartment walls are completely bare. On a shelf in her bedroom are two ceramic Siamese cats, a bottle of Chanel perfume and a vintage camera. The computer desk in her living room stores scissors and combs for Pudge’s exotic shorthair. A cup of pens sits beside spools of string and a framed painting of Pudge at a Canadian cat festival.
An introvert by nature, Lone sometimes talks about Pudge’s online personality as if she isn’t the one pulling the strings. “Pudge has developed certain things,” she said of her cat’s character traits. Once, Lone posted a photo of Pudge with doughnuts, and now “doughnuts are Pudge’s thing.”
A catty couture
In press interviews, Lone is often asked “so, are you really a crazy cat lady?” It’s a stereotype (single, kooky, with more felines than friends) she’d like to debunk.
So, Lone and Jamie Somphanthabansouk, another designer and Internet pal, are developing a brand called Cat Nouveau for modern cat ladies.
“It would be really cool to take this whole crazy cat lady concept and spin it on its head,” Somphanthabansouk said.
Cat owners, both male and female, can submit their photos to appear on the brand’s Instagram page. The founders have considered merchandise, like T-shirts or jewelry, depending on the response.
Lone also is planning to publish a book in 2016 about the @cats_of_instagram account with its founder, Eli Omidi.
Since becoming a jet-setter, Pudge hasn’t clawed up all the fame. Lone’s mother, Dawn, cat-sits a few times a year and wore a Pudge T-shirt once to a convenience store in Minneapolis. A group of young girls spotted Pudge’s smug mug and professed a level of devotion usually reserved for boy bands.
“Well, I’m her grandmother,” Dawn informed them, to a gleeful explosion.
“Anything could be on the horizon for [Kady],” Dawn said. “Who knows? Maybe she will appear on a late-night talk show with Jimmy Fallon, or whoever, at some point in time.”
Pudge’s grandma added: “I think the sky’s the limit on something like that, as long as she has a backup plan.”
But for now, Pudge’s appeal is larger than nine lives.