First video: September 2012
Official T-shirts sold: 100,000
Estimated value of Grumpy Cat, Ltd.: $1 million
Lesson: Invest in cats.
One Wednesday afternoon this summer, Ben Lashes is standing on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood sucking on an electronic cigarette. He’s in tight jeans, a black fedora, dark Ray-Bans, and Air Jordan 1s. His client, Grumpy Cat, waits in a shiny black Escalade for the TMZ Hollywood tour bus. Lashes has arranged an encounter outside the club the Comedy Store that he hopes will spur a segment on the TMZ site. “I want to be outside and see you when the car is coming,” he tells the cat’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, 28. “Then I’ll start acting like a fan.”
Tabatha’s daughter, Chyrstal Bundesen, 11, sits outside the Comedy Store with a Frappuccino. She takes credit for Grumpy Cat’s real name—Tardar Sauce—and its misspelling. (“She started off a whitish-orange color and then turned black,” Chyrstal says. “And I don’t think I knew how to spell tartar.”)
Today’s stop is part of a multicity publicity tour for Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book, for which Chyrstal is part hype machine, part PR girl, part sidekick. Their last trip was to New York for Book Expo America. Lashes is hoping to one day get Grumpy Cat on Saturday Night Live. I tell him that seems possible. “Anything is possible,” he assures me.
And Lashes, 35, born Benjamin Clark in Spokane, Washington, would know. Once a front man for the Columbia Records–signed power-pop band the Lashes, he’s now a Los Angeles–based meme manager, responsible for taking Grumpy Cat, one of the Internet’s most popular viral characters, from a single web link to a seven-figure franchise.
The TMZ tour bus pulls in front of the Comedy Store. “Oh my God! It’s Grumpy Cat!” a fan shouts, as Tabatha boards the bus holding the dwarf Siamese like a ventriloquist holding her doll. Grumpy Cat looks at her owner. Her sky-blue eyes (trademark pending) blink widely as if saying, “I woke up for this? No.” Half of the passengers seem confused by the celebrity they’ve just spotted but take pictures anyway.
When the bus drives away, Grumpy Cat, Tabatha, Lashes, and Chyrstal climb into the SUV, ordered from Uber. Next stop is the Standard hotel, a block and a half up Sunset. “We could have walked,” Tabatha points out.
“Grumpy Cat doesn’t slum it walking up and down Sunset. Grumpy Cat pimps it,” Lashes explains. “And this way Grumpy Cat is getting out of an Escalade.”
Lashes sips a Corona at the Standard’s bar, his fedora cocked slightly. In the ten months since the Bundesens signed with Lashes, rights have been optioned for a live-action cat movie, Grumpy Cat became a spokescat for Friskies, her book made the New York Times best-seller list, and she sold over 100,000 T-shirts and 35,000 Christmas cards. Grumppuccino coffee will be available in grocery stores next month, and around 100,000 orders have already been placed for the three plush toys that will drop in time for Christmas. All of these ideas were executed by Lashes, who was able to see before the rest of us that Grumpy Cat wasn’t any different from an arena rock star or Mickey Mouse. She’s just another pop-culture personality to be branded and marketed.
To become a superstar cultural icon, a band and a cat both need the same thing: a die-hard fan base able to transform niche celebrity into mainstream acceptance. “Take Van Halen,” he says. “If they didn’t have a fan base that went nuts and stood on people’s shoulders and drank beer in the parking lot and made something bigger out of it, they would just be four dudes playing to an empty room.” The manager’s job in this equation is to keep the base happy while constantly seeking out new avenues of promotion. It’s an approach that combines the foresight of an A&R guy, the market savvy of a McKinsey suit, the voraciousness of a fanboy, and the moxie of a Chinatown hustler.
In addition to Grumpy Cat, Lashes’s current portfolio includes Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat, Scumbag Steve, Success Kid, Chuck Testa, and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. He’s also started working with America’s Funniest Home Videos to help promote and manage their catalogue.
“My goal always has been to help get these things treated the same as any other entertainment property,” Lashes says, just convincingly enough that you almost forget the absurdity of what he’s selling.
“I’m not aware of anyone else out there that is doing what he is doing,” says Martin Brochstein, a senior vice-president at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. “There are lots of marketing specialists and professionals who include licensing among their services and know how to do it, but I don’t know of anyone else who is working specifically in the digital realm with animals.”