It's the Sunday afternoon of the early May Bank Holiday, I'm mildly hungover and the pungent smell of cat piss wafting through east London's Tobacco Docks is absolutely not helping me out.
I'm here for the first ever London International Cat Expo, a two-day "extravaganza" consisting of 150 cats and kittens being judged in four different categories, various cat-themed talks and dozens of vendors peddling cat accessories ranging from novelty socks and greeting cards to luxury cat food and a self-cleaning litter tray that can be controlled by Alexa and costs nearly half a grand. There's even a meet-and-greet with author James Bowen and his famous cat, Bob.
James adopted Bob after finding him on the streets of Tottenham when he was living in supported housing after a period of homelessness, and credits the cat with saving him from heroin addiction and life on the streets. His heartwarming memoir A Street Cat Named Bob became a New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2012, and has since been translated into 30 different languages, as well as being turned into a film. Bob has over 50,000 followers on Instagram, so it's fairly likely that you know somebody who follows him, even if it's just your mum.
In fact, you probably follow a couple of Instafamous cats yourself, don't you? Be honest. Maybe you're a fan of Lil Bub or the late Grumpy Cat (RIP to the GOAT). Maybe you follow Smoothie or Venus the Two Face Cat. Maybe, like me, you’re a little obsessed with Wilfred Warrior. Or perhaps you don’t follow any of them because you’re trying to cultivate a ~cool~ online persona instead of that of a menopausal woman who still lives with her parents, or because you find it vaguely depressing to follow an animal that has literally 10,000 times the number of followers you have.
Either way, it’s hard not to be fascinated with the phenomenon of the celebrity cat. What is it about felines that makes so many people want to keep up with their cutesy social media updates? How come Nala, an ostensibly quite average Siamese/tabby cross, has 4 million followers on Instagram? And with so many lucrative pet food and catnip #sponcon deals up for grabs, how can I get in on this trend so that my own furry pal can start paying her way?
Having decided that the Cat Expo would be a great place to get some answers, I haul myself out of bed upsettingly early for a Bank Holiday and head down to Tobacco Docks in the hope that I’ll be rewarded for my efforts with some insider knowledge on how to monetise my pet – or, at the very least, that I’ll be able to cuddle a few kittens.
Upon arrival, I head straight into the chaotic fray surrounding the cat judging "arena", where the cat contest is in full swing. The place is rammed with spectators, walking between the aisles to get a closer look at the competing cats hanging out in their (incredibly plush) travel carriers, or gathering around the various podiums where cats are called up by their numbers to be judged.
As these cats are sexy enough to be entered into shows, I figure at least one or two of them will have garnered impressive social media followings. Asking around, though, while some owners have Facebook pages for their breeding businesses, only a fraction of today's competitors even know what Instagram is. This probably won't surprise you if you’ve seen the Netflix documentary Catwalk: in the nicest possible way, most people involved in the cat show circuit don’t exactly seem like the types to be too concerned with cultivating an online presence for their pets.
Once I've had a chance to say hello to all the kitties, and gotten used to the aggressive smell of soiled cat litter, I talk to the man behind today’s expo, Steven Meserve. Steven has been going to cat shows since the age of 18, when he got involved with breeding and showing Bengal cats in the US. This is his 11th show in the UK, while he's done over 30 in America. I gather that he’s kind of a big deal on the international cat show circuit, so figure he'll be the perfect person to ask for some advice on how to cash out on my cat.
"I think, with Instagram and Facebook, it’s getting more difficult, and you have to really devote a lot of time to it and be posting every day. It’s almost like a full time job," Steve tells me. "And I think the more popular ones that reach more people more quickly obviously have professional photography and really good shots, but they’re also quite clever. You kind of have to have an interesting angle."
"For example, my favourite Insta cat is Pompous Albert. He's a Selkirk Rex and he’s got a really squinty, condescending look," Steven continues. "In the show circuit that’s not a good thing because the breed is known for having big expressive eyes, but that’s kind of his shtick. He has this kind of grumpy pompous 'personality' that goes with his look and is kind of funny."
Journalist and author Nick Harding agrees with Steve’s assessment. Nick has just given a talk about his memoir, A Tale of Two Kitties, accompanied by his Bengal, Barry. Barry favours Twitter over Instagram, though he has a very modest following and doesn’t really tweet all that much. Nick’s theory is that handsome cats like Barry don’t necessarily do as well on social media as cats with "a weird look about them", because Instagram especially is saturated with pretty pets, so they don’t stand out as much. "They’ve got to have some kind of personality," he says, "and I think that translates better in static images if they’re a bit odd looking, rather than just another pretty cat."
But it isn’t just the freaky-looking pets that get attention: a good story also helps, as I hear from James and Bob when I finally get to speak to them during their lunch break. “It’s difficult to give you any advice, to be honest," James tells me, "because we didn’t really set out to make Bob famous or anything. It’s not like a Grumpy Cat situation – we just wrote the book and it all sort of took off from there."
"I didn’t even realise when he was first garnering attention on the internet, so it was a bit of a surprise when we did our first book signing in 2012 that there were hundreds of people queueing up to meet him," James continues. "I guess people just connected with our story, but that’s not really something we did on purpose!"
So: a good story and an interesting look are key. But it also helps if your cat is a born starlet, which is what I learn from Starina and her owner, Saz. Starina is an "up-and-coming" Insta cat who is signed to the leading animal modelling agency, PetLondon, and has been featured in Vogue and Tatler, and in campaigns for ASOS, Stella McCartney and Paul Smith.
It’s clear that Starina is a natural in front of the camera, staring right at it as soon as photographer Bekky starts clicking away. "She’s gone everywhere with me since she was 14 weeks old," explains Saz, "and on one of our trips out we met somebody who happened to be an agent, and they took one look at her and signed her on the spot. She’s just a superstar – her temperament lends itself to it because she just settles so easily. And I've been putting her in a harness since when she was a baby, so she’s perfectly happy being dressed up in something too."
Aside from finding a cat who’s a born natural, Saz also has practical tips for owners looking to turn their own kitty into the next big thing.
"We had a few videos that went viral, which really helped with building her Instagram," she says. "But I’d recommend using the hashtags, especially #whiskerwednesday and #caturday. Try to have a theme or a niche, and then try to get yourself featured on some of the big accounts, like Cats of Instagram. Don’t overload people, but just post consistently and make sure you interact with other similar accounts. And hopefully it will just snowball from there."
So there you have it: a comprehensive guide to turning your cat into an influencer. Send my commission in the post, thanks.