When photographer Naomi Harris was a child living in Toronto, she would visit her father’s law office and stare at the photographs he had on his wall of famous actors like Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich. These starkly lit studio shots were the work of George Hurrell, who captured nearly every star under contract with MGM during the 1930s as the studio’s photographer. His black-and-white portraits sculpted drama from light and shadow, and each celebrity’s image was generously smoothed and retouched with attention to detail. Harris now lives in Los Angeles, where the most famous celebrities she follows on a daily basis are the dogs and cats of Instagram, whose lives appear as perfectly put-together as any Hollywood starlet’s. Earlier this year, Harris embarked on a project to re-create the look of Hurrell’s iconic studio stage, but with animals.
Writer Seyward Darby has been following internet-famous dogs and cats since the early days (circa 2010) and has watched them grow into branded juggernauts. Below, she explains why she loves pets who will never love her back.
Once upon a time, pets became celebrities if the people who owned them were famously eccentric. Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, had his own talent agent. Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval walked Thibault, his pet lobster, around the Palais-Royal in Paris on a leash fashioned from a blue ribbon. Caligula allegedly tried to appoint his horse, Incitatus, as a consul of the Roman Empire.
Today, the most recognized animals on earth belong to people whose names you probably don’t know—owners who act as handlers and publicists, invisible to the all-seeing eye of social media. The Hollywood of these furry, fuzzy, or feathered icons is Instagram, where they’ve garnered millions of followers. In 2016, Time released a “Most Influential Animals” list alongside its annual human-populated one; most of the critters were “famous just for being on Instagram,” columnist Joel Stein wrote with more than a hint of disdain, because “that’s what being famous is now.” These animals have also won guest spots on TV shows, major book deals, and VIP status at nightclubs and festivals. They inhabit a realm of fame once reserved for a single species: Homo sapiens.
My gateway to the realm of celebrity pets has dwarfism, four extra toes, and no teeth. Lil Bub, a tiny mackerel tabby cat with 1.8 million followers on Instagram, has a pink tongue that protrudes from her malformed jaw, and her too-big eyes loom like green saucers over her puggish nose. The seven-year-old feline is, as my mother would say, so ugly she’s cute.
Lil Bub was found in 2011 as a kitten, the runt of a feral litter born inside a toolshed in rural Indiana. She had so many handicaps that she would have likely died without human intervention. The kind soul who took her in, a musician named Mike Bridavsky, needed help too. He was on the verge of bankruptcy and coping with a breakup. In the spring of 2012, Reddit took notice of his peculiar cat, whose photos Bridavsky had posted on Tumblr for friends to see. Strangers seemed to love Lil Bub as much as Bridavsky did. They wanted pictures, videos, meet and greets, and T-shirts. Bridavsky obliged; the fan base exploded. “She brings joy to hundreds of thousands of people,” Bridavsky once said. “That’s her mission.”
It’s a scientific fact that pets make people feel good. When we see animals, the neurons in our amygdalae go crazy. When we stroke animals, our brains release endorphins and dopamine. In his 2017 book The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human, anthrozoologist John Bradshaw notes, “We don’t simply feel the urge to keep pets; we seem to want to believe that they provide some kind of elixir that will allow us to lead more fulfilling lives.” Bradshaw suggests that our attraction to animals on the internet is rooted in the same impulse: if we spend much of our lives online, we want pets to be there too. “We surround ourselves with their pictures,” Bradshaw writes. “The internet, if not entirely made of cats, would certainly be a less salubrious place without them.”
But no amount of brain chemicals, I’d wager, could explain the phenomenon of animal fame. Each celebri-pet has its own special star quality. Shrampton, a seven-year-old Scottish fold cat with 50,000 Instagram followers, enjoys lounging on his orange bum with his legs splayed before him, human-style. Popeye, a once-stray dog “turned food connoisseur” with 314,000 followers, poses next to plates filled with tacos, hamburgers, and pasta. Bagel, also known as Sunglass Cat to her 117,000 followers, was born without eyelids, so her owner shares images of the gray-and-white feline wearing a pair of polarized, bejeweled shades. Gracie, a fluffy brown labradoodle with a white beard, dons flower crowns and bandannas and sits in front of brightly patterned street art for her 43,000 followers. Harlan, a corgi with 62,000 followers, enjoys posing casually outdoors, always with a big smile. Weston and Fira, French bulldogs who share the limelight of 112,000 followers as “WTFrenchie,” live a jet-setting lifestyle in which they snuggle on crisp white hotel bedsheets and pose next to glasses of rosé.
I put the question of why we love celebrity pets to some friends who, well, love celebrity pets. One of them, a civil-rights lawyer, told me that after stressful meetings, she fires up her iPhone and checks on Samson the Dood (203,000 followers), a goldendoodle once featured in a Town & Country slideshow, and Marnie (2.1 million followers), an 18-year-old Shih Tzu who’s been photographed with the likes of Taylor Swift and Questlove. “Few things in life are so pure and good and joyous and silly,” my friend said of cruising celebrity pets. “And it’s on demand.”
“Pure and good and joyous and silly” sounds a lot like “uncomplicated,” a quality we crave in a world that can feel like a chronic shitstorm, particularly for younger generations. “We’re checking on cute animals who keep us somewhat calm,” a 20-something family member told me. Relishing the appealing quirks and curated narratives of creature companions on Instagram can feel like an unadulterated escape from reality. I’m partial to Pumpkin the Raccoon (1.5 million followers), who lives in the Bahamas and thinks she’s a dog, and My Best Friend Hank (356,000 followers), a mini potbellied pig who rides around New Orleans in a green stroller.
There’s another angle here, however. Social media has made celebrity seem more democratic, immediate, and intimate than ever before. Much of this is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean that audiences are dupes. In a study of online celebrity, researchers Alice Marwick and danah boyd write, “Determining whether readers are watching an ‘authentic’ individual or a performed ‘celebrity’ persona is not entirely the point; it is the uncertainty that creates pleasure for the celebrity-watcher.”
We revel in the absurdist crucible that fame has become. We treat it as a game. Our embrace of celebrity pets casts this fact into sharp relief. If anyone can be famous, there’s no reason anything can’t—and so we coronate the Shramptons and Sunglass Cats and WTFrenchies of the internet. These animals bring meaning to our lives because we want them to and let them, and we follow them by the millions because we are rooting for them to succeed. “I don’t even mind when pets monetize,” a friend told me. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, you get yours!’”
“Few things in life are so pure and good and joyous and silly,” my friend said of cruising celebrity pets. “And it’s on demand.”
It’s hard not to wonder: Do we bolster the fame of happy, lovable pets because in them we see a reflection of the selves we want to be, more so than we do in many human celebrities? The same goes for their impact on the world. YouTube “influencer” Logan Paul accrued $12.5 million in 2017, and he only donated a chunk to charity after a viral video landed him in hot water. Lil Bub’s owner has donated more than $300,000 earned from his cat’s celebrity to animal-rescue organizations, just because.
These days, I follow more animals on Instagram than I can count. I even set up a profile for my dog when I adopted her, because why the hell not? Magnolia is a beagle-dachshund mix with a penchant for falling asleep in the sun and eating scraps off the streets of Brooklyn. She has a respectable fan base of 1,100 followers and counting. She isn’t a celebrity pet, and I doubt she ever will be; I’m certainly not interested in managing that situation. In the economy of animal cuteness, I’m just glad to pay it forward.