I am sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Midtown where Lil Bub, the world’s most well known celebrity cat, has given into her exhaustion. "When we're on these big trips, I'm like, 'Oh my god, I'm beat.'" Mike Bridavsky, the heavily tattooed, affable man better known to the Internet as "Bub's dude," tells me. "Bub's beat, too," he says, nodding to the small bundle of fur and knotted limbs he's holding in his arms. "But the thing is, Bub can crash like this. It would be awesome if in the middle of an interview, I could just…" Mike tilts his head sideways, nuzzling closer to Bub, and fakes a loud snore.
Andrew W.K. chuckles. He’s sitting next to the two of them in a chair, dressed in his signature outfit of ratty white jeans and a t-shirt. He's wearing black plastic sunglasses that he doesn't take off the entire time I'm in the hotel with them, so I assume he's also feeling spent. I'm supposed to be interviewing the three of them about Lil Bub and W.K.'s latest collaboration, which premieres this Saturday at 9PM as a special on Animal Planet. But I can't stop staring at Bub herself.
Famous people scare me. Not because of anything they do, necessarily. It's more the physicality of celebrity. I remember one night in the fall of 2012 standing outside of Jay Z's 40/40 club because I'd been invited to the launch party of a video game that he'd sort of helped produced. I was still across the street when the rapper made a brief appearance on the red carpet for the event, and the entire block around us swelled up to the point where I couldn't move. I wondered how someone like Jay Z could ever walk calmly down the street in a place like New York City to grab a slice of pizza or pick up a pack of cigarettes. He probably can't. Being in the presence of something like that is difficult to untangle, and I imagine that learning to keep your shit together in the face of it is an important rite of passage music journalists must go through.
By comparison, interviewing a cat should be a simple task. For many people, it probably is. But here's the thing: I'm a cat person. Growing up, my mom always owned a lot of pets. I made sure to pick out the cats, and would regularly fantasize about some of them evolving into a spirit animal in the vein of Calvin and Hobbes or The Golden Compass, to be the kind of childhood friend it was proving hard to make when changing schools so often.
Once I graduated college and moved to New York City, owning the flesh-and-blood-and-fur kind became too expensive and complicated, so my love of cats migrated to the Internet. I'm not the sort of "cat person" that occasionally peruses BuzzFeed Animals or the "AWW" subreddit, mind you. I have my own sources. People on Facebook regularly tell me that I'm "the cat guy" on their newsfeed. Cute animals (or pictures of them, at least) have been part of the emotional foreplay with many girlfriends. They've remained a toothless way we often inappropriately keep in touch after breaking up.
I know this is all compulsive and more than a little weird. But I still do it. I'd compare it to a drug, but that would be disrespectful to drugs. And to cats. This is all to explain why, when an editor calls me all of a sudden to ask if I can go interview Lil Bub, my first thought isn't "How the fuck does one interview a cat?" but "What should I wear to impress her?"
I spend the entire subway ride debating what the most polite way to introduce myself to a famous cat would be. Would she be nice? Human celebrities manage their own status with varying degrees of humility and self awareness. Do cats? Does Grumpy Cat understand what it means to be a media mogul? Does fame get to Lil Bub's head the same way it has for Justin Bieber, that other androgynous sprite with a vice-like grip on pop culture today?
By the time I step into the hotel, I feel out of breath. Walking up the stairs, something my friend had Gchatted comes to mind: "Are you going to be able to play with her? Can you give her a kiss on the head for me?"
I shake Andrew's hand. Mike stands up from the couch to greet me. He seems just as friendly and unfazed as he does in all the photos and YouTube videos.
And then, there's Bub.
The cat is small—smaller than I realized, about the size of my forearm. I notice her eyes, which beam outwards like massive marbles from the rest of her relatively diminutive stature. I become intensely focused on trying to establish and maintain contact with these two glimmering gems, but Bub's not having it. She consents to let me touch her head tentatively for a moment, then bumbles down off the table and underneath the chair that a PR guy was sitting in.
Mike leaps up to grab Bub, and the cat is comfortable in his arms. Any tension in the room disappears immediately, like it was just sucked out by a vacuum. A peaceful quiet reigns supreme. It's like being in a mausoleum, except I'm sitting with two guys and a cat. That's partly thanks to the hushed, reverential tones with which Mike and Andrew referred to Bub once I started to ask about their enduring partnership.
"It's a very pure joy that Lil Bub brings," Andrew W.K. said. "It's very pure, very direct." As far as musicians go, W.K. projects a pretty carefree message of inclusivity. But he admits that "not being a cat, it's not as easy" for him to radiate this kind of warmth.
"I'm inspired and I learn a lot from her, and how people react to her," he adds. "Beyond that, it's been a very organic, almost mystical partnership that's evolved through her rather than through any effort from me, or even Mike."
If Andrew W.K. sounds as if he's been seized by the spirit of Lil Bub that's even more the case with the Mike, which makes sense considering the man spends pretty much every waking hour with the cat. The only times he lets Bub out of his sight is when he goes to the bathroom, he tells me, and only then when his girlfriend is around.
An accomplished musician and producer with his own studio in Bloomington, Indiana, he began devoting more and more of his time to the cat after photos of Bub became increasingly popular online. That started in 2011. By the beginning of 2013, he was giving anywhere from 60 to 100 hours a week to Bub's various projects. He still plays music when he can, but he's also made sure to enlist all of his friends and colleagues into Bub's cause.
Devoting one's professional life to managing their pet might sound like an extreme personal compromise. But it was one he was happy to make. Mike describes himself as a "pretty unemotional person" with no real debt to religion. Once he starts talking about Bub, though, he sounds like he's been born again.
"Bub first blew up during worst week of my life," he says. "I was horribly broken hearted; I had a month and a half of studio time cancelled within two days, I was six months behind on rent, my radiator blew up, exhaust fell off, my tires got slashed."
"Jesus," Andrew W.K. says, shaking his head.
"The tax man came…I was a fucking mess, man," Mike continues. "I couldn't move, I was crying hysterically, my friends were taking care of me."
Then, one day he logged onto Facebook and saw that a friend had messaged him to say his cat was on the front page of Reddit. Shortly after that, his band Memory Map, which was about to break up, got a surprise invited to Japan.
"So on the same week, my cat got famous and my band got asked to tour Tokyo," he says.
Later in our conversation, Mike insists that he "loved his life" before Bub showed up to change it, but I can't help but notice the evangelical tones with which he talks about the cat turning his life around. W.K. marvels at the sheer presence of the animal, too—this "incredible entertainer" who, "like any great master of her field, is a master of herself."
"I just want to serve her vision, serve her cause, learn as much as I can from her," W.K. says. He's leaning forward when he says this, lifting his elbows off his knees and bending his head forward so his long brown hair conceals his face. It's not too much of a jump to imagine him chanting ritualistically over the beast, or praying. But to what, exactly? Much like Bub, W.K. wouldn't really exist without the Internet—at least in the way that we know him.
The thing is, W.K. is right about Bub. Whether its Bub herself or Mike's special genius in managing her, the cat has a staying power that many human celebrities can't match. For all his scruffy humility, Mike can't help but get a little cocky about this.
"People write me all the time asking: 'how do you get your cat famous?'" Mike says, cracking a smirk. "You don't get your cat famous. If she's a magical space cat, she'll make herself famous. And, well, that's only even happened twice."
"Tony the Tiger…" he adds once it's I don't know what he's referencing, "…and Bub!"
I look at Andrew W.K. again, and I realize that for all his reverence of Bub, he could just as well be bowing down to the murky chaos that birthed them and could just as easily take their fame away. We're all striving for something online, so I can understand his admiration and deference to Bub.
Once they start talking about actual worship, however, they lose me. When Mike mentions messages he gets from terminally ill and suicidal people thanking him for everything the cat has done for them, I finally have to stop him.
"It sounds like you’re describing someone like the Pope, walking through a crowd to administer his blessings to the sick and feeble," I say.
"It's even more than the Pope," Andrew W.K. interjects, "because there are people that don't like the Pope or don't believe in this particular religion or this or that. She's beyond all that—she's everything and more and nothing."
"I think the difference with the Pope is there's the placebo effect with him," Mike adds. "People who don't even know that she's a famous cat say that she's special. If you see the way that people meet her…we did a meet and greet yesterday, there were only 50 people there and two of them were crying hysterically."
Again, it's hard to take this all seriously once you remember that you're looking down a small, disabled cat who can barely move on her own. Really, she seems to spend most of her time alternating between what sounds like wheezing and drooling. But to Mike's credit, it all just feels incredibly genuine. He continually emphasizes his set of "rules" for all of Lil Bub's branding, the most important of which is the fact that he will "never seek out an opportunity" for the cat. "I never asked for a plushy, I never asked for a TV show, I never asked to have a book," he says. They just came to him, and they'd only let them in on Bub's terms. The one thing he seems hesitant to speak about is Ben Lashes, the celebrated "meme manager" who first approached Lil Bub before he'd even discovered Grumpy Cat.
"What he had in mind didn't fall in with what I wanted to do, and I was like: I think we've got this," Mike says. "There were no hard feelings—I didn't want to be mean to him. But then, you know, he went and got Grumpy Cat and just exploded it into this huge thing. But I've just stuck to my rules."
"I don't like to judge," he adds more diplomatically. "They're doing their thing. That's what they like to do with their cat. Whoever's influencing them to do it, that's their business. They agreed to it. And I just do what I want to do."
If there's a spiritual element to the explosion of Internet cats, there's just as much of a business angle at play here. You might prefer Lil Bub to Grumpy Cat, or Mike's management of the former over the latter, but you can't really deny that both of them have been transformed into commodities. Making a buck off something novel isn’t a new concept, obviously. But the Internet has accelerated the expansion of this new kind of celebrity—the adorable and infantilized one that barely knows how to speak for itself, if it's even able to. It's harmless and borderline pornographic at the same time.
"It's a weird thing to happen," Mike says of owning a famous cat, caressing the soft patch of light fur under Bub's neck while she gurgles happily. "So dealing with it, there's no rulebook."
The three of them have to leave for the next stop on their media tour, so I step back out into the chaos of midtown Manhattan, trying to understand what just happened. I start walking east, and duck into a nearby Starbucks to get coffee. While I'm waiting in line, my dad calls me.
"I just met Lil Bub," I say. Shout, really. I want people to notice me, to hear that I just met one of the biggest cats in the world.
"Who's Lil Bub?" he asks.
"He's a famous Internet cat."
"There are famous Internet cats?"
I'm still trying to make people listen. Nobody does, or at least, no one turns their head. They probably can hear me, but are just saying to themselves: "Wow, is this guy really trying to namedrop a famous cat in the line of a Starbucks on the Upper East Side? This is why I never go to Brooklyn."
An hour or so later, I walk into a friend's office. Before I can start to tell him about meeting Lil Bub, he drops a bombshell on me: Colonel Meow, one of Bub's colleagues and a guest of honor at her Google Hangout birthday party last year, just died. Twitter and Facebook fall into a state of muted shock.
Later that night, Mike offered some last words on behalf of himself and Bub in a statement to Mashable.
"Colonel is one of the most amazing cats I have ever had the honor of meeting," Mike said. "And I've met a lot of cats. Much like BUB, the only thing more amazing than his incredible looks are his truly wonderful demeanor and personality."
Meow's death seized the media briefly. Even TMZ reported on it. But for Bub and the rest of her peers, the show must go on.
Don't even get Yannick LeJacq started on Sushi Cat. He's on Twitter - @YannickLeJacq