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.”
Lashes’s efforts with feline fame began in 2009, when he paired with his family friend and professional artist Charlie Schmidt, creator of Keyboard Cat. Originally recorded in 1984, the video shows Schmidt’s cat Fatso wearing a small blue T-shirt and playing a keyboard. Schmidt posted the video on YouTube in 2007, but it didn’t go viral until 2009, when 22-year-old Brad O’Farrell created a Keyboard Cat mash-up with a guy falling down an escalator in a wheelchair. Unsure how to handle the attention, Schmidt approached Lashes.
“I saw it as a musician,” Lashes says. “Of course Keyboard Cat needs a manager, the same way any band needs a manager. Keyboard Cat can’t be his own hype man.” Lashes looked at the video and immediately saw merchandising and advertising opportunities. Together Schmidt and Lashes developed a long list of things they could do for Keyboard Cat, like setting up the song for publishing, arranging ads on YouTube, negotiating legitimate T-shirt and merchandise deals, creating new videos, and keeping the channel updated with new content. Their efforts were successful. Keyboard Cat boasts an animatronic toy, appears in a Starburst commercial, and is rumored to be making an appearance in Grumpy Cat’s movie, and the video played at the VMAs. But their greatest feat is Keyboard Cat’s Wonderful Pistachios television commercial, which ran nationally for the past three years.
Over time, Lashes met other people who had pop-culture phenomena fall in their laps. As he began working with new clients, protecting them from accidentally signing over their rights to shysters offering bad deals with cheap T-shirt companies became an increasingly important part of his job.
“These people are all getting fucked all the time,” says Kia Kamran, an intellectual-property lawyer who works with Lashes. “When these things go viral, all these people start flocking, and it’s so funny to hear the same song and dance from people trying to offer us what they believe is a good deal. But it’s the same exact thing that happened 30 years ago; they want to acquire the rights and go do what they want.”
Lashes set himself up as a fiduciary, meaning he’s legally bound to work in his clients’ best interests, and he takes a rate comparable to that of music managers, about 20 percent of earnings. After Keyboard Cat, he picked up Nyan Cat, a cartoon graphic by artist Christopher Torres, and together they got products into Toys ’R’ Us and opened a pop-up store in New York. Soon after Nyan Cat, Lashes quit his day job.
Now he offers a one-stop shop for A-list memes. He strategizes careers, brainstorms content, and offers access to Kamran, whose other clients include Mike Tyson. To negotiate Grumpy Cat’s movie deal, Lashes linked with Al Hassas, a manager and producer who specializes in music and entertainment deals, and brought in one of Peter Jackson’s lawyers.
Lashes says he talks to new clients all the time, but he insists he doesn’t really scout. “I just naturally live in this space,” he explains. He looks for memes that he enjoys in the same way he enjoys his favorite brands—Star Wars, the Muppets, Pee-wee Herman, properties that feel original, classic, and cool. “I never wanted to be an ambulance chaser calling everyone with a million hits. I wanted to be really focused on the ones that I thought had a timeless quality to them,” he says. “The merchandise is part of getting closer to the brands, but they are a brand because their No. 1 thing before making money is making people happy.”
Later that afternoon, as we creep down Santa Monica Boulevard in a white stretch limo—Lashes’s idea—to the book tour’s next stop, it becomes clear that credit for Grumpy Cat’s success is also due largely to the efforts of the Bundesens themselves, particularly Bryan Bundesen, Tabatha’s brother. A technician for Time Warner Cable from Galion, Ohio, Bryan first posted the picture of his sister’s cat on Reddit when he was visiting her in Arizona in September 2012. It featured what would become her signature look—heavy lids and a downturned mouth that seems to call bullshit on anything put in front of it. The photo racked up a million and a half views within the first 36 hours. Accused of Photoshopping the image, Bryan posted a video that was equally explosive.
He soon started talking to T-shirt and apparel producers. A nationally syndicated article on Tardar Sauce followed, then the first of several morning-show appearances. By December, the Bundesens had linked up with Lashes, who contacted them through YouTube.
“It was a lot to absorb all at once,” Bryan remembers. “But Ben is good at networking, and he’s been able to help us in those areas that I was unfamiliar with.”
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.