The hardcore cat-lovers gathered at Columbus’s Bartholomew County Public Library are practically purring with excitement.
About 150 members of the scratching-post crowd have paid $10 each to glimpse Lil Bub, a Bloomington-based mackerel tabby whose diminutive size (four-and-a-half pounds) belies her heavyweight celebrity status. Since she first charmed the Internet in 2011, the so-called “perma-kitten,” whose gigantic green eyes and poked-out tongue make her look like something made by Photoshop rather than by biology, has racked up more than 1.6 million Facebook friends, 50,300 Twitter and 664,000 Instagram followers, and more than 23 million views on her personal YouTube channel. She even offers a free app where you can “Bubify” a photo of yourself.
Bub’s appearance at such a modest venue is a rarity —like an arena rockstar playing an intimate club. Over the last couple of years she’s been the main attraction at gatherings from Los Angeles to New York, starred in her own Animal Planet special, and schmoozed with Robert De Niro at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival while promoting her biopic, Lil BUB & Friendz. It’s a safe bet De Niro won’t punch in at this decidedly low-key affair. Bub’s owner, roadie, and soulmate, Bloomington resident Mike Bridavsky, lugs in boxes of Bub-mugged merchandise with his wife, Stacy. Thirty percent of whatever they sell will go to area animal-welfare groups. The crowd—90 percent female and 100 percent stoked—snaps up stickers, socks, and coffee mugs. There’s even a lookalike plush toy with saucer-sized green eyes, lips curled into a curious smile, and a tiny pink tongue jutting out of its mouth.
Most celebrity profiles start with a description of what the young starlet is eating, and this one will be no different. At the “Caturday Night Fever” event, the guest of honor—wearing the same fanciful expression as her fiber-filled alter ego—perches on a library table, calmly tucking into a bowl of cat food while her audience gapes.
“I wonder if they’ll let us pet her,” says a middle-aged woman wearing a Lil Bub T-shirt.
“If they do, she won’t have any hair left by the time this is over,” her companion responds.
No one’s petting Bub tonight—too many guests. But everyone gets to stare. Her fans stand three rows deep, taking pictures with their phones and spontaneously oohing and ahhing. A couple of red-faced teenage girls frantically fan themselves. “She’s so cute, she doesn’t even have to do anything,” one gasps. “This is the best cat ever.” Another young woman slowly, silently goes to pieces.
Through all this adulation, the little feline continues dining placidly, the innocent focus of a new kind of fame. The Internet was practically built out of cat videos, and Lil Bub, though only 3-and-a-half years old, is one of its most enduring stars, padding down the road to celebrity before most people had heard of Grumpy Cat.
But all that attention hasn’t just changed the tiny feline’s life—fame actually saved it.
Mike Bridavsky looks exactly the way you’d expect an indie rocker and recording-studio owner to look: early 30s, stubble, T-shirt, arms full of tattoos. But there’s a big difference. Several of those tats are of stray cats he’s taken in over the years—three of which currently live at his studio. He reserved his biggest ink, though, for his most precocious puss. Down his right side is a larger-than-life Lil Bub, holding a lantern in one paw and a sword in the other. Bridavsky (and Bub, he asserts) is a big Tolkien fan; the sword is Gandalf’s personal weapon, Glamdring. The lantern is inspired by the Led Zeppelin IV album’s cover art.
The tattoo is quite a display of devotion for a cat (not to mention a lavish commitment of dermal acreage)—proof their bond is more fierce than fluff. That devotion began in the summer of 2011, when Bridavsky discovered his ingenue not at a soda fountain like Lana Turner but nestled among a litter of feral kittens found in a toolshed in an acquaintance’s backyard. Bub, a tennis ball–sized runt, weighed just six ounces at 8 weeks of age. Bridavsky’s veterinarian summed up her prospects in the starkest terms, calling her “the weirdest cat I’ve ever seen” and giving her just months to live.
None of which stopped Bridavsky from immediately falling in love with and adopting this most special of special-needs kittens. He’s always had a soft spot for foundlings: His four other cats, Josie, Vivian, Oskar, and Special Agent Dale Cooper (he and his wife are big Twin Peaks fans), are all rescues. Special Agent Dale Cooper won his spot in the lineup simply by sidling up to Bridavsky in a parking lot, following him to his car, and jumping in.
And Lil Bub—Bridavsky called her “Bub” the first time he picked her up—wasn’t your typical stray. Bridavsky puts a humorous spin on her anomalies by describing her as a space alien sent to Earth to serve as an ambassador to humanity. Since the aliens possess an imperfect understanding of felines, their emissary carried a few glitches. “They created what they thought was a cat,” Bridavsky says. “They got a couple of details off, but she’s close enough to pass.”
Actually, those notional aliens missed quite a bit.
Bub is what’s called a “perma-kitten”—an adult feline who retains the physical characteristics of an infant cat. She also suffers from a pronounced form of dwarfism that forces her to get around on short, curved legs. Her underdeveloped lower jaw gives her a severe overbite, and her teeth never grew in. Her tongue sticks out because there’s nothing to hold it back. She’s also got an extra toe on each paw. All of which combine, oddly enough, to make one adorable cat. But she’s more than just a pretty face, Bridavsky maintains. She’s got a certain air about her. An energy. “I noticed it the second I met her,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is a completely phenomenal creature. I have to take her home.’”
Soon Bridavsky’s friends became as enamored with her as he was. To keep them informed, he posted Bub photos on his Facebook page, and in November 2011 launched a blog about her on Tumblr. Soon complete strangers—hundreds of them—started visiting it.
“My friends shared the blog with their friends, and they shared it with their friends,” Bridavsky says. “She had 300 people following her blog that I didn’t even know about.”
Lil Bub’s emerging fame snuck up on Bridavsky, who at the time was distracted by other struggles. He’d recently started his own studio, Russian Recording, in a nondescript Bloomington house, taking out a $60,000 bank loan and quitting his day job at Indiana University to run the business. But things weren’t going well, and he was in the hole for more than $100,000. A romantic breakup and car trouble added to his woes.
Then, out of the blue, a picture of Bub from her blog landed on Reddit—a crazy-popular, user-generated news site where viral memes are often created—and quickly made it to the front page. Bridavsky’s phone started ringing. Bub got a mention on Buzzfeed and was asked to appear on Good Morning America and The View. A tiny, pink-tongued star was born.
That Lil Bub could strike a chord so quickly with so many people comes as no surprise to Alan Beck, director of the Center of the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. He says that evolution endowed the typical domestic cat with everything it needs to pluck at human heartstrings: We’re genetically programmed to nurture helpless-looking creatures with big heads, flat faces, prominent eyes, and small noses and mouths. Regular cats push all those buttons, but Lil Bub, with her striking features, smashes them right through the control panel.
“She’s almost like a Hallmark card,” Beck says. “This cat doubles down on both cuteness and need.”
Bub was about to get very needy indeed. When she was about a year old, Bridavsky reviewed some videos from her kittenhood and realized she’d lost a great deal of mobility. As a baby, she’d jumped around effortlessly, but now she could only manage a sluggish walk/crawl. Then one day, he came home to his apartment to find her lying on the floor, shaking and in pain—so much pain that she was hissing and recoiled when he approached her. Just after her first birthday, she was diagnosed with a bizarre bone condition called osteopetrosis. Basically the opposite of osteoporosis, the disease causes bones to become so dense that its victims have difficulty moving.
Bub is the only cat known to have been born with this rare disorder. By the age of 18 months, it rendered her almost completely immobile. The veterinarian who diagnosed the problem told Bridavsky it was incurable and prescribed pain medication to make her comfortable.
Just when things were at their darkest, the Internet stepped in to save Bub’s life. Bridavsky chronicled her ordeal online, and in return received an avalanche of advice from fans and medical professionals. The responses led him to a device called the Assisi Loop, which uses pulsed electromagnetic field energy to treat various human and animal bone disorders. A couple of weeks after Bridavsky started administering the FDA-approved technique, Bub began moving more freely. Today she can walk, run, and even jump up onto the family couch. Without that cyberspace celebrity, Bub might not be alive today.
“My theory is that Bub made herself famous,” Bridavsky says. “That was her survival strategy because she’s not able to survive in the wild. She could only survive in the age of the Internet.”
The entire ordeal was chronicled in Lil Bub’s documentary, Lil BUB & Friendz. The film came about when the editor of Vice magazine, who had worked with Bridavsky on a previous project, asked him to participate in a film about cat people. The movie (which, fittingly, won Best Feature Film from online voters at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival) captures her lens appeal as well as the medical disaster that almost ended her life.
The film also covered her August 2012 appearance at the Walker Art Center’s inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival in Minneapolis—a momentous gathering in more ways than one. There, Bridavsky met his future wife, Stacy, then a recently hired Walker employee. “We have a picture she took that day with Bub,” says Bridavsky. “So we have a picture of the moment we met.” And another fateful encounter occurred as well—the first puss-to-puss meeting between Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat, who was just beginning her transformation from a pouty feline in Arizona into all-conquering Internet meme.
“It was a bit surreal,” recalls Scott Stulen, who created and produced Walker’s kitty-centric festival before taking a curatorial job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art last year. To avoid startling Bub and Grumpy, he says, the 10,000-strong audience was asked to remain silent while they were onstage. “They were dead quiet as they came out,” he says, “and then there was just a collective ‘aww’ when they finally met.”
Seeing pictures of them together that day, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons. Grumpy Cat is also afflicted with dwarfism and owes her distinctive look to a developmental issue with her jaw. But that’s where the similarities end. Fate has forever locked Grumpy Cat’s mug into a disdainful sourpuss, while Lil Bub’s expression fairly chirps innocence and enthusiasm. Bridavsky pictures Bub as the do-the-right-thing champion of undercats everywhere. He sees Grumpy Cat, on the other hand, as a cautionary tale of what happens when you stop seeing your cat as a pet and start treating it as a meme—or worse, a cash cow.
If Bridavsky had chosen another path, that fate could have been Bub’s. A couple of years ago, he was approached by former musician–turned–“meme manager” Ben Lashes, who was on his way to becoming the Colonel Tom Parker of Internet cat managers. His portfolio already included Keyboard Cat (who’s earned 38 million YouTube views for a video in which she bangs away at a piano) and Nyan Cat, a computer-generated video of a feline head attached to a Pop Tart body flying through space that’s racked up around 116 million YouTube clicks. Lashes wanted to add Bub to his burgeoning cattery. “He came for Bub before Grumpy Cat,” Bridavsky recalls. “I said, ‘That’s not what I want to do.’”
Instead, Lashes moved on to Grumpy Cat, who then became the Paris Hilton of felines, schmoozing with Jennifer Lopez on the American Idol set, getting passed around at a WWE wrestling event, even shilling her own line of iced coffee, Grumpy Cat’s Grumppuccino. She’s also signed as spokescat for Friskies, appeared in a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial and a Christmas special, and “authored” a New York Times bestselling book. Lashes crowed to The Hollywood Reporter that Grumpy has brought in $100 million in revenue. (Grumpy’s owner, a former Red Lobster waitress, later disavowed that claim.)
Bridavsky, eschewing both professional management and industrial-scale exploitation of Lil Bub’s fame, has raked in quite a bit less. (Though he’s loath to talk actual finances, that first burst of fame did help him put together enough scratch to pay his debts and save Russian Recording.) Most of Lil Bub’s appearances these days are meet-and-greets—personal appearances around the country where fans, for a fee, can enjoy a moment of face time with their idol. They each shell out anywhere from $20 to a couple of Benjamins for the privilege—more than the Columbus library appearance. Bridavsky doesn’t feel bad about charging top dollar because all the money goes to charity. The steep cover charge also weeds out casual gawkers, leaving only the people who are deeply invested in (and therefore respectful of) his cat. Lots of folks seem willing to pay the price. A year ago this month, Bub and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced the formation of Lil BUB’s Big FUND, which provides grants to shelters with special-needs animals. Meet-and-greet fees, along with a cut from her merchandise sales, have brought in more than $200,000. Bridavsky, however, has turned down opportunities that didn’t seem like good fits, including offers to do commercials and promotions for Friskies. He nixed the deal because he wouldn’t get the final say on how Bub would be portrayed—and because she doesn’t eat the company’s food.
In that manner, Bridavsky keeps creative control of all Bub-related projects. Much of her prodigious merchandise is designed by Bridavsky’s friends, and her book, Lil BUB’s Lil Book, features fanciful shots propped, staged, and shot right in Bloomington. He also closely monitors how Bub’s events are run, only participating at all because she seems to enjoy traveling. She sits placidly on his lap or shoulder during trips, and is incredibly blase about crowds. But she can tucker out and simply shut down. Once he canceled an L.A. trip because Bub seemed too tired for the journey. And have no doubt, public appearances can be taxing. If 150 people pay a hefty donation to get just one minute each with Bub, you’re looking at a two-hour, 30-minute slog for a creature that looks about as resilient as an origami crane.
In exchange for calling the shots, Bridavsky must handle all the business-related stuff, from writing checks for product suppliers to dealing with attorneys to haggling with manufacturers over the details of various Bub products. He says he pays his wife and himself “a modest Midwestern salary,” but 80 percent of Bub’s income goes to either animal-related charities or overhead. Bridavsky asserts he’s always been ambivalent about cashing in. Or in his view, selling out—like certain other cats he knows. Bridavsky says he’s not jealous of Grumpy Cat’s success, though, but troubled by what it implies. Lil Bub gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity, but it was the feline with the slickest marketing who got to be America’s frowny, furry sweetheart. “What’s funny is that Bub was on a one-way track to being the most famous cat,” he says. “Then Grumpy Cat comes along and instantly takes over that spot.”
Bridavsky feels uncomfortable calling himself Bub’s manager. He thinks it cheapens their highly nuanced, symbiotic relationship. He prefers the term “facilitator.” He also thinks describing her as an “Internet sensation” reduces his beloved pet to a mere meme. She’s much more than that, he asserts. The IMA’s Stulen concurs: “What makes Bub special in my mind is that she transcends being a brand or a meme and is a real cat first. She connects to people in a way that I’ve rarely seen. People adore her both online and in person.”
A fairly low-profile guy, Bridavsky—who splits his time between his studio and his cat, both of which are full-time jobs—says he offers Bub to the world mostly because of fan response.
“I get messages every day from people who’ve been close to killing themselves, or from parents with chronically ill children whom Bub has helped,” he says. About five percent of the people who see her in person dissolve into cathartic tears, he claims. And her powers border on the mystical. On a recent San Francisco trip, he found himself stuck with Bub on a crowded elevator with a claustrophobic woman careening toward full meltdown. Bridavsky brought out Lil Bub, and the woman immediately smiled, calmed herself, and kept it together until help came. “She’s a therapeutic source of happiness to people,” he says.
Bub has even inspired a small group of hardcore aficionados called The Super Fans. Located around the country, they regularly show up at Bub’s appearances, like Phish groupies following the band. They’re so devoted, Bridavsky allowed them an almost unheard-of privilege last fall—the chance to come to Bloomington and chill with Bub at the Russian Recording studios.
In exchange for a charitable donation, Florida resident Heather DiPaola-Maranto and six of her Super Fans BFFs (who came from as far as Colorado and New Jersey) flew to Indianapolis last October and drove to Bloomington to spend about three hours with Lil Bub. DiPaola-Maranto describes the encounter in terms befitting an audience with the Dalai Lama. “She just radiates calmness,” she says. “You feel calm around her. You just can’t help being happy around her.”
That sort of devotion makes it hard for Bridavsky to feel bitter about Bub not attaining Grumpy Cat levels of fame. After all, their oddball collaboration has given them things money can’t buy: Lil Bub got a family and a life. Bridavsky got a buddy, a wife, and a chance to save his business. Even so, the Bub hubbub shows no signs of letting up. Bridavsky and his friends are producing a pilot for a Lil Bub talk show, to be filmed in front of a live audience. She’ll also headline CatConLA and the Everything is Terrible Festival in Portland, and work on a new, secret-for-now project for Animal Planet.
No matter how big she gets, though, when Bub is home, any ego (and who wouldn’t have one, when Bridavsky knows of at least 50 other people who have Bub tattoos) gets deflated quickly. She doesn’t get along with most cats, but she shares her house with Trudy, a pit-bull mix, and Spooky, Stacy’s Russian Blue feline. Bub tolerates them both, barely. Out of necessity the three have reached a brittle detente—but all bets are off come April, when the Bridavskys’ first child is due.
In the meantime, Bub will rest on her laurels—or rather, the piles of blankets and quilts her fans have created for her. “She can tell when something’s made for her with love,” Bridavsky says.
That might just be the secret of her fame. While other cats (and dogs and people, for that matter) “earn” their Internet notoriety by doing the same thing over and over, Bub’s famous for being herself. She’s not a meme that gets stamped with snappy catchphrases, but a living, breathing cat. Her entire life is performance art.
“She’s not remarkable for being famous,” Bridavsky says. “She’s famous for being remarkable.”