Voices: I tried to turn my cat into an influencer. Things got strange pretty fast

·7-min read
 (Rochelle Newman)
(Rochelle Newman)

On an uneventful day in 2021, during what was still a form of pandemic lockdown, my husband turned to me and said, “If you want a cat, get a cat.” I still have no idea where this impulse came from — particularly since he is allergic. We’d been a one-dog household for a while. But all of a sudden, the door to cat ownership had been opened. Who was I to argue?

Along came Brewskie, a rescue who was being rehomed by a couple who could no longer keep him. It didn’t take long to fall in love, even if the cat did pee on our bedding and the furniture. And even if the vet wanted me to spend $11,000 on an ear canal removal because of a genetic condition. The surgery was averted, but it became clear maintaining this cat wasn’t going to be cheap. The solution, I thought, was to let him loose on social media and turn him into a feline influencer: a catfluencer. How hard could that be?

Brewskie has some out-of-the-ordinary features which put him squarely in the social media category of exotic anomaly. He has, what his followers like to call “Shrek ears”, meaning they curl back instead of pointing up. He is a polydactyl cat with large thumbs. And he has a bobbed tail like a Manx, referred to online as a #bunnybutt. He is also a blue-eyed cat with unusually expressive facial features.

On top of all that, Brewskie has a signature move. When exiting or entering our backyard, Brewskie bursts through the mesh screen with a leap reminiscent of the best Olympic high-jumpers. It’s a bizarre and captivating sight and, no matter how many bursts I post, the feedback from fans is: “This never gets old.”

That’s where the social media journey started. I captured the #BrewskieBurst on video in slow motion and at regular speed, posting these circus-act moments on Facebook, much to the joy of friends. Then I expanded onto TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, to the delight of strangers. I had to turn off notifications as thousands of views rolled in and Brewskie’s follower count grew. A still photo of the cat on a piano keyboard with the caption “Meowzart” had 115,000 impressions and over 8,000 engagements. It was shared by Catsynth magazine, which featured Brewskie on the cover page. DM’s from pet accessory companies popped up with messages about free products and possible collaborations. It felt like Brewskie was on his way to stardom.

But it soon became clear that getting followers meant a never-ending need for fresh content. This meant hours of following my cat around with a camera, staying prepared to shoot video at a moment’s notice. It also meant giving other cats a virtual follow, which I happily did on Brewskie’s behalf.

At first, I paid little to no attention to who these cats were, what they stood for, or what conversations they were having. The simple act of increasing Brewskie’s follower count triggered an addictive sense of accomplishment, as if a slot machine landed on all cherries and the bells kept ringing as the payout amount kept growing. Who needed to waste time screening cats?

Followers started talking to Brewskie and so, in a strange Cyrano kind of way, Brewskie answered. I had gone from posting for Brewskie to posting as Brewskie. Thinking his Twitter account should, therefore, reflect, Brewskie’s birthdate and not mine, I got him banned from Twitter for being too young. Getting his account back took explaining to Twitter that, no, a two-year-old was not on Twitter, just a Boomer cat owner who didn’t realize the rules. The account was reinstated. By then, Brewskie had over 1,000 followers, some of whom had become Brewskie fans and friends. Concerned they would worry about Brewskie’s abrupt disappearance, I reached out to some of them from my own Twitter account to put their minds at ease. Brewskie had not gone missing. He had just been banned and would be back.

The first heated controversy I came across in this online cat world was a debate about cat-voice, which leans toward a form of baby-talk. The first successful catfluencers created words like meowmy, sisfur, and fwenz, for mommy, sister, and friends. This has been picked up by followers, creating an online cat lingo all of its own. Those who object to this approach to cat-voice question why cats would sound so undignified. Some of them can get pretty upset about it. One upset cat named Olly came to his friend Nacho’s defense during such a debate by saying, in peak cat-voice: “If dey not pollygize to nacho I gonna bwock dem.”

Then, there were incidents resulting from what could be categorized as cat-related hate speech. A Twitter account became notorious for shaming fat cats, also known as “chonks,” and accusing their owners of neglect. I was surprised to find myself triggered. This same account was also trolling owners whose outdoor cats had died tragic deaths. Indoor-only cat advocates piled on. I was certain Brewskie and I could become a target. Aside from flaunting my cat’s outdoor lifestyle with the #BrewskieBurst, I had Brewskie join an online outdoor cat group called #Hedgewatch. How could I not? Hedgewatch gave him a special welcome and Photoshopped the official membership hat on his head.

And then I realized Brewskie was being followed by proud MAGA loyalists and NRA members, like the all-in-caps “BIG KING MAGA”. My first impulse was to get this account to unfollow my cat or to just block the guy. Instead, after a lot of thought, I did nothing. My reasoning? This was Brewskie’s world and Brewskie wouldn’t want politics to stand in the way of a friendship. At least I didn’t follow “BIG KING MAGA” back. Still, I pondered as I logged off for the night, who have I become?

I’ll admit to being jealous of, but happy for, Stepan the Ukrainian cat. With over a million followers, he got a shout-out from Britney Spears and a contract with the luxury brand Valentino. Images and videos showcasing his chilled-out nature at his home in Kharkiv captivated the world, including the Russian internet — and when he found safety from the Ukrainian war in France, the news made The Washington Post.

I also admire Jorts and Jean, the pro-labor catfluencers whose activism on Twitter is central to their popularity. Attracting over 200,000 followers, they tweet about unionizing and farmworker issues. A single tweet reminding workers they have the right to share their salary information with co-workers got Jorts (and Jean) over 59,000 likes.

I want Brewskie to stand for something, too — but I’m also way too concerned about what followers think about him. What if he puts people off with his politics? My anxiety must be a byproduct of my need to people-please, because I’m quite sure feline-pleasing isn’t a thing. Even something as basic as the designated daily cat hashtags had me feeling inadequate at the beginning. Everyone seemed to know them but Brewskie, and that was on me. Today, I have them memorized: #kittyloafmonday, #tongueouttuesday, #whiskerwednesday, #throwbackthursday, #fluffyfriday, #caturday, and #catboxSunday.

I’ll be honest: The more obsessed with reaching catfluencer status I become, the less fun this online journey is getting. The cat won’t notice if I take a break, especially if I keep following him with a camera. And I’m sure Brewskie’s followers will survive. They’ll move on to the next purrfect cat and the behind-the-scenes purrson that posts on that cat’s behalf.

As Brewskie’s guardian, I need to put on my proverbial oxygen mask first. Is co-depawndency a word?