Tabatha, a single mom who was waitressing at Red Lobster, also welcomed Lashes. Her boyfriend had recently passed away, and she was working nine shifts a week at the restaurant and praying to The Secret for a better situation. “My ship was sinking financially. I’d be like, ‘All this is making me physically ill. You guys have to leave me out of it. I’ll bring the cat, but I can’t have my phone blowing up constantly.’ ”
The overwhelming response to Grumpy Cat seems the apotheosis of Internet culture—and not just its well-established love of cats. Her permanently cranky face is pure snark. Technically a birth defect, it somehow seems fashionable: permanently judgmental and perpetually unimpressed. She’s the Louis C.K. of cats.
“Grumpy Cat has more expressive potential than some of the other options do for that kind of sarcastic response to the universe,” says Henry Jenkins, the co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. “If the culture is going to be snarky, you need images that communicate snarkiness.”
The more attention the Bundesens got from hard-core fans, the more streams of revenue became available. The Reddit community, for example, asked for T-shirts, while Facebook commenters wanted a plush toy. But everything else, the mugs, magnets, key chains, stickers, calendar, books, belts, trading cards, earbuds, iPhone cases, postage stamps, and note cards, just made sense.
“Look, the point isn’t that we’re whores and we’ll do whatever,” Lashes’s lawyer Kamran says. “The point is this is a fucking meme. So we’re not too precious. If somebody wants a koozie with Grumpy Cat on it, mazel tov.”
A sharp legal team is crucial, because Grumpy Cat’s ability to make money depends on protecting her likeness, a problem meme-based celebrities are especially vulnerable to. “The difference between products that are pushed onto people versus things that grow organically is that people think because the crowd made it famous, without any effort from the creator, then the creator has somehow forfeited his ownership rights,” Kamran says. The forces that are pirating Grumpy Cat’s image are not just kids selling sweatshirts on Etsy—though that happens. Major companies are also attempting to trade on the popularity of the meme. Kamran recently settled a suit with Warner Bros. on behalf of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat for copyright and trademark infringement.
And in an industry where royalties are typically between 6 and 10 percent of an item’s wholesale price, those copyright battles are worth the fight. (“No one’s a chump,” Lashes says. “We’ve got a saying over here in team meme: ‘Respect the cat.’ ”) The Bundesens own a stake in the new coffee company and will ask for a share of profits on the movie. In advertising, Lashes demands fees that would make union bosses proud. “I wouldn’t pick up the phone for a couple hundred bucks a day on a commercial,” he says of Grumpy Cat’s day rate.
If Lashes’s other clients are any measure, the Bundesens may have lucked into the meme-makers version of the American Dream. Charlie Schmidt has reportedly made more than $300,000 between a television commercial and basic merchandise. Nyan Cat’s Christopher Torres lives off the income from his meme and even donates portions of his earnings to charity. The Grumpy Cat royalties are still too sporadic for Bryan to leave his job, but the Bundesens’ new company has allowed Tabatha to leave the restaurant.
The limo glides up to a red carpet (another Lashes idea) outside of Kitson, a California tchotchke shop popular with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. A crowd of about 800 waits to take a picture with Grumpy Cat. Tabatha climbs out of the limo and holds Grumpy Cat before the gaggle of squealing fans. A middle-aged Navy sailor from San Diego dressed in full fatigues waits alongside a tanned, sinewy 50-year-old woman with cat ears and a white tank top that reads crazy cat lady. I ask Bryan if Grumpy Cat is insured. He tells me they haven’t found anyone in Ohio to write the policy yet, but the IP lawyer is on it.
Back at The Standard, team meme orders cocktails from the hotel bar. Pauly Shore slides into a nearby booth. Lashes encourages Chyrstal to talk to Shore, although she doesn’t seem to know who he is. “I’m just thinking photo op,” Lashes says. “I’ll give you ten bucks.”
The manager and client approach Shore’s table with a Grumpy Cat book.
“This is Chyrstal, and she’s a huge fan,” Lashes says to Shore. “And she owns the most famous cat in the world.”
As they return to the table, Shore tweets his 53,700 followers, “Who the hell is grumpy cat??” Fifteen minutes later, Chyrstal and Tabatha return to Shore’s table, handing him Grumpy Cat, who has been woken from a nap for the occasion. The world’s worst good sport poses with the actor, as smartphone cameras pop up across the restaurant like a game of whack-a-mole where nobody’s whacking.
Bryan posts the photo on Twitter. (Grumpy Cat has more than 113,000 followers.)
“Later, dudes,” Shore says when leaving the Standard, seeming confused by what just happened. An hour later, Shore retweets his photo with Grumpy Cat and picks up 116 followers in the next three days.