In which I find myself, at this station in life, sitting in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel petting something called “Grumpy Cat” while her owner tells me they are here at the because one of the teams has a cat for a mascot…
I scratch Grumpy Cat’s head. She sniffs my finger. She licks her nose. And I pray this morning that the geological fault far beneath my feet does not shudder, that the earth does not shake and the Fairmont’s walls will not collapse for that means the final act of my career’s work is to ask an elfin cat with a pouty face if she even knows what a Carolina Panther is.
Grumpy Cat’s manager, a man dressed all in black and handing out businesses cards that identify him as Ben Lashes, scrolls through his phone to show me a picture of Grumpy Cat throwing out the first pitch at an Arizona Diamondbacks game.
“They won that night,” Grumpy Cat’s owner Tabatha Bundesen gushes. “I think they should have us throw out the first pitch every night.”
Until this week I had not heard of Grumpy Cat. I did not know that she is a thing. That she has 8.4m likes on Facebook and 1.2m followers on Instagram. That she goes, every March, to the South By Southwest festival and is considered the star of the week. That she has her own plush toy. That she has her own doll. That she spent four weeks in Vancouver shooting her own full-length feature movie called Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever and that the comedian Aubrey Plaza did her grumpy kitty cat voice.
All of this changed when my phone rang early on Tuesday morning.
“I’m calling on behalf of Grumpy Cat,” a public relations woman chirped, adding that she was offering me a special one-on-one interview “with the official spokescat of Friskies!”.
“What’s Grumpy Cat?” I asked.
When I recounted this conversation to the editors at the Guardian’s office they squealed.
“You never heard of Grumpy Cat!” they shouted all at once.
“Grumpy Cat is huge,” one said. The three editors shook their heads solemnly.
Their expressions said that Grumpy Cat had a much bigger impact on their lives than Peyton Manning. This was confirmed by my friend, Clif, whose life actually is impacted greatly by Peyton Manning.
“Uh yeah, she’s probably the biggest superstar in social media,” he texted. “She’s the Michael Jordan of memes.”
Now, two days later, I am in the lobby of the hotel that was the setting for the 1980s TV series Hotel, looking at a cat the size of my palm and trying not to laugh as Tabatha tells me her cat’s real name is “Tartar Sauce.”
Tartar Sauce was born on 4 April 2012 with feline dwarfism that made her the runt of a litter that included other cats named “Soy Sauce” and “Ketchup”.
Bundesen worked at in a restaurant and would occasionally being home condiments; it seems clear which cat liked which seasoning. Tartar Sauce probably would have lived a long and anonymous life dodging Honey and the other dogs in Bundesen’s suburban Phoenix home had her brother, Bryan Bundesen, not come to visit that September from his home in Oho. Bryan snapped a photo of Tartar Sauce and posted it on Reddit. He called her “Grumpy Cat”... and the internet melted.
Soon Grumpy Cat was everywhere. The local television stations in Phoenix raced to Tabatha’s home to get exclusives with their hometown celebrity. Then the Today show called and Grumpy Cat was being led on a media tour of New York. Lashes called Bryan, a deal was struck – and Grumpy Cat quickly had her own manager and Friskies endorsement. Her wide blue eyes, shrunken nose and downturned mouth were everywhere, and somewhere along the way Tabatha realized she had ceased to be Grumpy Cat’s owner.
“She owns me,” Tabatha says.
Tabatha quit her job at Red Lobster and Bryan left his as a technician for a cable company, and together they made Grumpy Cat their full-time employment. This was necessary. There’s so much to do with twice-monthly appearances, meetings with Lashes and managing as many as four support staff at every events.
“The reason we are here is because Grumpy Cat got to meet the Carolina Panthers’ mascot, Sir Purr,” Bryan says, hitting his corporate talking points perfectly.
I ask him if he can really say this with a straight face.
It turns out that it’s tough having a famous cat around the house. Though Tabatha insists that Tartar Sauce is “just a normal cat” most of the time when they are home, you have to be careful when that normal cat is also the golden goose. Tartar Sauce is tiny – not much bigger than a large kitten – and she is forever getting lost. The other day she disappeared for an hour and Tabatha panicked, frantically scouring the house for Grumpy Cat only to find her curled up at the bottom of a big shipping box of cat food sent by the Friskies people.
Sitting nearby, Ben Lashes smiles as Tabatha tells this story. Grumpy Cat’s manager says his job is to work with “viral celebrities”. He helps them to market their viralness. His first great celebrity was Keyboard Cat. But as big as Keyboard Cat was, nothing is quite like Grumpy Cat. She has left every other internet cat sensation in the dust.
“There is only one Grumpy Cat,” he explains. “She’s changed everything for the internet cat culture. She is like the Mother Teresa of memes.”
Then someone mentions the emails and letters. These come by the hundreds, pouring in from around the country, mostly from sick people – many of them elderly women – telling Tabatha and Bryan about the joy Grumpy Cat brings them. They send photos of themselves lying in hospital beds, holding photos of Grumpy Cat. Their hair is gone. Their bodies are frail. But they are smiling.
Tabatha tells the story of a little girl, suffering from cancer, who desperately loved Grumpy Cat. They sent her plush toys and photos and would get letters in return. The little girl was getting better. The cancer was going away. She wanted them to know how much she loved looking at Grumpy Cat.
“I finished my bachelors degree,” Tabatha says. “It’s in psychology. At the time I wanted to help people but I think Grumpy Cat does that. She helps people get through things.”
I look at the sofa where Grump Cat/Tartar Sauce lies curled peacefully on Tabatha’s lap. Her face is serene. She isn’t grumpy at all. And while this had started as the most ridiculous assignment of my career – Grumpy Cat meets Sir Purr – there was something powerful in that ball of fur.
If a cat’s face can brighten days, cure cancer and provide a sustainable income for a handful of people maybe this won’t be the worst story I will do all year.
“Would you like to take a selfie with her?” Tabatha asks. “Get one smiling and one grumpy. Everyone does.”
“Why, yes,” I say. I think I will.