At VidCon, the buzzing begins with just one or two girls noticing someone they recognize from YouTube. Almost as a courtesy to those around them, they let out a high-pitched squeal. Other girls nearby hear it, decide something exciting must be happening, and start running, asking each other, “Who is it?” as they trample plants and evade security guards’ incessant “no running, no running” chant. Pretty soon it results in another screaming, chaotic beehive of tweens that the annual online video conference has become known for.
But there’s one extremely popular celebrity at the conference this year who manages to avoid most of this: Grumpy Cat, who travels to her appearance on the main stage and to her two-hour autograph signing session in the comfort of a designer bag with mesh windows inconspicuously built into its sides.
Tabatha Bundesen is the person who carries that bag. “I am Grumpy Cat’s human,” Bundesen says when I ask her if she owns the cat. “She owns me.”
Bundesen was a waitress at Red Lobster when her brother first posted a photo of her cat, Tarder Sauce, on Reddit. Soon the cat had become a meme. A couple of months later, she had an agent. Then she had a book deal, a beverage brand, a line of merchandise, and a Christmas movie on Lifetime.
Now Bundesen’s job is to manage her celebrity cat.
Last month, the pair was in Las Vegas for the Licensing Expo. Next up, they headed to VidCon to promote an annual cat video contest hosted by Friskies (Grumpy Cat is the “spokescat” for the brand and was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the contest).
Owning a celebrity, Bundesen says, is not a bad gig. It comes with many of the benefits of being a celebrity without some more horrific aspects of fame.
Bundesen, with Grumpy Cat, has, for instance, been given a front-row seat at the MTV music video awards. “You don’t expect this crazy celebrity, who you’d be lucky to even get an autograph from, stopping and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, can I have a picture of your cat?’” she says.
When it’s your cat that is actually famous, the pressure of fame is contained. There’s little gossip one can drum up around a cat. “The public eye isn’t on me so much,” Bundesen says, then nods toward the cat in her lap. “It’s what she does. And what she does is eat and catnap, basically. Eat, play, and catnap.”
Grumpy Cat is not going to say something politically insensitive or turn up at a heroin rehab clinic, and you’d need to work pretty hard to find fault in her cat activities. This might explain her universal likability (and thus, marketability). “No matter how you’re feeling–sad, mad, happy–seeing Grumpy’s face, you can kind of relate to it,” Bundesen says. “Grumpy Cat can make that expression for you, and you can kind of share the emotion. Misery loves company. So everyone looks at Grumpy, and they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s miserable, too, just like me.”
Of course, Grumpy Cat has her celebrity needs. Bundesen often carries a self-inking paw stamp to “sign” her cat’s name. Sometimes she just writes “Grumpy Cat.” Often, you can spot her in the background of fan photos taken while she’s holding the cat. It’s her responsibility to make sure the cat doesn’t get overwhelmed (she limits Grumpy Cat’s exposure by doing things like hiding her when screaming hordes of teenagers are on the prowl).
It seems like a small price to pay, and not just for the perks of fame. According to the Wall Street Journal, Grumpy Cat had pulled in more than six figures for her owners by this time last year. And that was before she had launched a line of coffee drinks, landed the endorsement deal with Friskies, or starred in a Cheerios commercial. The figure is surely much higher now.
“I don’t think it’s normal,” Bundesen says of cat’s sudden rise to fame and her resulting business. “I don’t think it’s anything I ever fathomed in my life. This doesn’t happen for very many people.”