No one wants to talk about Grumpy Cat at Cat Con. Actually, everyone wants to talk about Grumpy Cat, but no one will do so on the record. The feline celebrity community is small and tight and, regardless of how they might feel, none of the people I speak to wants to be the one to bring Grumpy (or her owners) down. Plus, as one person notes, Grumpy Cat isn’t here to defend herself. That’s because Grumpy (née Tardar Sauce) wasn’t even invited to the world’s first and largest Cat Conference.
Ironically, it’s Grumpy Cat who brought me here. Last November, when I met Grumpy, I experienced an existential pain so acute that I can confidently tell you that hell isn’t other people—hell is interviewing cats about their upcoming holiday movie. In response to my piece, Susan Michals, the creator of CatCon LA emailed to see if I’d be interested in how the real cat community parties. The event wasn’t for months and seemed like it’d be small-time (who would go to a cat convention???) so I penciled it into my calendar, expecting to have another painful experience. Then two things happened.
- I became friendly with Michals, who’s a journalist as well as a cat-lover. Like me, she graduated from San Francisco State University and her enthusiasm for all things cat is infectious bordering on overwhelming. She’s also the only person who gave me an on-the-record statement about Grumpy Cat. “She wasn’t invited,” Michals told me when we spoke on the telephone a few days after the conference. Then she directed me to a New York Times article where she’d been much less restrained, explaining that Grumpy wasn’t welcome because Michals “didn’t want cats being held up like pieces of meat.” Those are fighting words, but as Grumpy appears incredibly sedated at all times (a fact confirmed both by my own experience by two other con-goers I spoke to), they’re also not wrong.
- The conference grew from what was, in my mind, a niche event with a lot of empty space to fill (I demanded and was refused my own panel), into what can only be described as a small phenomenon. Animal Planet was going to be there, Mayim Bialik was going to speak, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Jack McBrayer would be there to support Lil’ Bub in a nonstop spectacular to close out the event. Rachael Ray, while not present, confidently named her new cat food, Nutrish, as a sponsor.
In recent years, specific conventions aimed at earnest enthusiasts have become tired fodder for bloggers hoping to gawk condescendingly at nerds, but here, it’s impossible to not have a good time. Scott Stulen, founder of the world’s largest cinema event about internet cats, says that’s because surrounding oneself with genuine enthusiasm tends to blunt cynicism. And it’s not untrue. We’re in the VIP room of the convention hall and only feet away people are wearing cat ears, cat masks, and cat costumes. One enterprising fan has come to the event dressed in a giant sandwich board which reads “I just met you and this is crazy, but my name’s Goldie so friend me, maybe?” over a picture of a sleepy-looking cat who doesn’t really seem to care about whether she becomes the next internet sensation. It’s hard to fault her owner, though. With people waiting hours to meet cats they’ve seen on YouTube, there are bound to be people who are certain their cat is the next big thing.
My interviews at CatCon LA range from serious to zany. Keith Bowers, senior editor at Catster, speaks with me for 15 minutes about the fact that it’s cool to be a cat guy, something I’ve always taken for granted, but that just may be because I consider myself a rodent guy and have never had an issue. It’s never occurred to me that being a dude into cats is at all a problem.
“Is there really a stigma attached to being a man who owns cats?” I ask. “Don’t most people just assume you like animals?” Apparently not. In fact, according to Bowers, some people might see men who like cats as being un-masculine—or possibly creepy. Bowers embraces his own style, which includes a Kangol and a loud bow tie, and he’s here to spread the message that you can and should be who you are without fear of repercussions. If you want to wear suspenders, go for it; if you want to express your style by only wearing black shirts and jeans (as I do), that’s okay too.
“I ask the question of what defines cool,” he says. “Is it about money, is it about fashion, is it about fame? Or is there some sense of responsibility involved? So I’ve created a kind of formula which I call my quadruple of cool, which are all things that start with a C: clothing, confidence, compassion and comedy. And underlying all that is cats. And it also takes another C: courage.”
Diane Lovejoy, author of Cat Lady Chic, is here to dispel the rumors that someone who owns more cats than god can’t have a life. Her book compiles photos of celebrities and classical figures posing with cats, to show that being in love with felines doesn’t mean you’re a dowdy mess.
Lovejoy herself is tiny and fashionable and has ten cats, here to shatter the stereotype that cat ladies are smelly, lonely wretches outfitted in t-shirts that read “Paws leave footprints on the heart.” (Although they can if they want, Lovejoy stresses. Anyone can be a cat lady.) The cat ladies of today are upwardly mobile businesswomen, people in successful relationships, and emotionally healthy adults. As I hear over and over again all day, “Cat people are awesome.”
I wander around the convention floor, taking selfies with a life-size Pusheen as teenage girls and grown men alike squeal at her cuteness. For some reason, I find myself terrified that I won’t be able to tell the difference between a human snack and a cat snack if one is offered to me to sample. What if I accidentally eat some catnip? What if, during the course of the day, my blood sugar dips and I grab a handful of nuts to stick in my mouth only to find that it’s tuna-flavored giblets?
Around me, the hall is bustling. There are thousands of people here (Susan confirms that between ten and twelve thousand people attended the event) and they’re very loud. You can’t have a cat convention without a lot of squealing and human meowing. At one booth, advertising a monthly box for cat ladies, a tattoo is slapped onto my bicep, proudly declaring me a cat lady, even though I don’t even have one.
While some CatCon attendees have always been fans of cats in general, others cite a more specific catalyst for their feline obsession. At a booth devoted to pet silhouettes, I meet Marcia, Lil’ Bub’s biggest fan. For Marcia, meeting the cat—who’s beloved for her personality as well as the fact that she’s overcome a mountain of medical conditions to become a published author and animal advocate—is a spiritual experience. She’s met the cat several times and is unembarrassed to talk about much she cries when they meet. One of Marcia’s proudest moments was winning a competition and meeting Bub in private.
“Did you hold her?” I ask.
“I even kissed her,” she says. This is particularly impressive. When I met Grumpy Cat I wasn’t even allowed to touch, but Bub, a cat who’s also fairly fragile, is letting people kiss and hold her. Marcia hung out with Lil Bub on the first day of the conference and she’s going back today. She knows that it’s unlikely she’ll be holding the cat this weekend, but just meeting Bub is a spiritual experience for her. Later, she sends me pictures of her previous times with Bub as well as an impressive collection of merchandise she owns. After our conversation, she’s going to get in line for Lil Bub’s show, three hours early.
I like cats, but I can’t imagine that there’s one out there that will give me the same kind of high that it’s given Marcia. Still, she insists that Lil Bub is more than just a cat. Bub and her owner Mike Bridavsky aren’t at the con for fame and fortune. The money from Bub’s meet-and-greets ($150 including a two-day convention pass) will be going to animal charities. Bridavsky may be paid a fee for his appearance but, Marcia says, most of the money goes to helping other cats. Meeting such good beings, she enthuses, is a spiritual experience. She brings Bridavsky gift cards every time she sees him so that he knows exactly how much she appreciates what he’s doing. When I ask Bridavsky about Marcia later, he says he’s equally appreciative of fans like her and is grateful that she’s so devoted.
Cats, Marcia says, have changed her life. In fact, her own cat—Professor Motorcycle—has helped Marcia stop drinking. That’s because, Marcia says, she set the adoption process in motion while she was blacked out. “I woke up to an email that said, ‘We’ll be over at 9:30,’ and I had no idea what it was about. I had to assemble it from my browsing history,” she says. But then the cat showed up and by the end of the day it was living with her. Since then she’s expanded her household with a snail and guinea pigs, and has become a hardcore cat enthusiast. On a recent trip to Europe, she even went to a cat cafe though it wasn’t on her itinerary.
Ben Huh, the genius behind I Can Haz Cheezburger, is also here to talk about how cats have changed the internet (and to share his favorite memes before a rapt audience). He’s the man many credit for covering the internet wall-to-wall with cats and he tells me that he’s focused on turning the Cheezburger network towards social media, making the internet cat experience more interactive and creating a community for the fans.
This doesn’t seem to square with Huh killing off verticals that happened to be fan favorites, like Emails from Crazy People and Graph Jam, but he points out that while it looks like it’s all fun and games from the user’s point of view, expanding the Cheezburger network is a lot of trial and error. Some websites gather a lot of interest and then fizzle out, and it’s impossible to keep them going for just a vocal minority of fans. Cats just seem to resonate with more people than some of the other things Huh’s tried (Picture Is Unrelated, for instance, or a website he loved involving pandas).
There’s just something about cats that people love. But what that particular something is, isn’t completely clear. It could be that cats are mysterious, or that they don’t really act like they need humans. It could also be, as Will Braden observes, that we’re always wondering what cats are thinking.
“It’s about the story,” Braden says. Most people don’t realize that what they find charming and potentially famous in their own cats, might not translate to a wider audience. Owners can’t just post a picture and then write an essay explaining why their cat is funny. They have to capture people with an image, and then hit them with a backstory. People love Henri, Braden says, because you understand exactly what’s going on right away. People love Lil’ Bub for how she looks and her story of triumph. People loved Grumpy Cat because she wasn’t something they’d seen before. The cat you have at home may be the cutest one that you’ve ever seen, but why should other people care?
Plus it’s becoming a glutted market. While Bub is a cat most people have heard of, there’s a cat here named Pudge who seems to be getting a lot less attention.
Bub is a prime example of a cat that people care about. Aside from millions of adoring fans and a healthy collection of retail items, she’s also got some famous admirers in her camp. Michelle Obama appeared on Lil Bub’s Big Show, Jack McBrayer and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog love her, and even Amy Sedaris filmed a special with her. Bub’s also the most popular cat at the conference, so busy that I don’t snag a position in her schedule until the afternoon.
Bub’s owner Mike Bridavsky is overwhelmed by how much people love his cat, and what an impact she has on others. He begins describing a British fan who’s come to the conference with a poem for Bub, but Bridavsky has to stop his story before he starts crying. Reading this may make you think he’s being melodramatic, but he’s actually genuine. Bridavsky loves Bub so much that it’s hard to imagine any of the emotions he feels about her fans are exaggerated for interviews. He says that he’d considered asking the fan to come on stage to read her poem, but thinks it might make him cry too much.
Bridavsky’s recently married and has just become a dad. He says that Bub and his son are fast friends and that while he loves coming out to meet the fans—and Bub apparently loves to travel—Bridavsky also wants to spend as much time with his family as possible. He’s hoping they’ll come to Lil Bub’s Big Show later today, but he doesn’t know if they’re going to make it. In the end, though, he says it’s worth it, because Bub (and he takes almost no credit) is bringing people together and helping raise awareness for other animals in need. “It’s not about fame,” he says of Bub’s internet superstardom. “It’s about spreading her message.” Her message is that it’s okay to be different. The fame is just a byproduct. Bridavsky appears never to commit Bub to anything that’s not in her best interest or that might stress her out.
Marcia, the Bub superfan, is not wrong; meeting Bub is a spiritual experience, but I couldn’t tell you if it’s the cat provoking all this emotion or if it’s how genuine Bridavsky is about her. He truly believes in Lil Bub’s mission and it’s hard not to go along with it in the moment. A few days after the conference, Susan Michals says that her brother met a girl with disabilities at the conference who said what she wanted most was to meet Lil Bub. Michals and Bridvasky made it happen, giving another fan an opportunity to have a spiritual experience and an excellent story to tell.
I’d expected to spend a maximum of three hours at the convention, but I emerge from the building six hours later, my head buzzing with what could be described as unadulterated joy. On my way out, I stop at the adoption corner, which proves to be the most popular attraction at the con with a line stretching out the door and people waiting for up to an hour to shuffle past the eligible cats up for adoption.
Volunteers are helping convention-goers fill out adoption forms (many will be taking a cat home today) and a woman named Heather says that by the time they’d lost count, more than 20 cats had been adopted. They’re hoping that the people who don’t adopt a cat at the convention will get one from the Best Friends Animal Society, but there’s definitely something exciting about getting a cat at Cat Con. It’s a good story. One woman’s adopting a cat named Winter (whose name she immediately changes to Eleanor). “I wanted a black cat,” she says about why she’s chosen to adopt. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.”
I immediately fall in love with a cat named Poppy and text my partner a picture, asking if he’d mind if I brought her back home to San Francisco. “I can haz cat?” I ask, and when he responds in the negative, I am heartbroken. Even though I know that it isn’t logical for me to adopt a cat right now, it feels so right to leave Cat Con with one. By the time most people exit, I imagine, they’re cat fans even if they weren’t before.
Why is Cat Con such a huge success? Michals certainly didn’t expect it to be one. She was just hoping for the best, she says, but then ticket sales skyrocketed. From what I see at the con, it’s not just about the cats, it’s about the community. While, yes, people are excited to meet Lil Bub and Pudge, they’re also discussing their favorite cats with each other for the first time, fighting over the last Maine coon t-shirt at a booth and charging their phones together while watching cat videos in the center of the convention floor.
And they’re doing so openly and without judgment. It’s not taboo to like cats in general, of course, but there’s something about the convention that makes people a little freer and looser about their cat fandom. It’s one thing to watch cat videos for hours in your bedroom without telling anyone. It’s quite another to be proclaiming it loudly by wearing a Cheezburger outfit and getting a kitten manicure (a thing that was actually happening). A woman passes by the Pusheen booth and loudly proclaims that “this is the baddest bitch here” as she looks admiringly at a giant plush. A person standing near her vehemently agrees and they high-five. Three hours later, when the convention is over, people on the outside may not understand their excitement, but inside, where fans are buying portraits autographed by Lil Bub and t-shirts created especially to commemorate the con, there may be no one who understands them better.
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Top Image via Susan Michals, additional photos courtesy of Phoenix Tso and Marcia Neumeier