How a college dropout made a killing as the world’s leading (and only) manager of Internet memes
Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Morten Morland
Ben Lashes isn’t a cat person. Still, he was quick to pounce when, in 2009, he saw an Internet video of a blissed-out puss banging away on an electric piano. Lashes called the guy who’d posted the clip—a friend of his named Charlie Schmidt—and told him that he’d like to be Keyboard Cat’s manager. When Schmidt pointed out that the cat, videotaped years earlier, was dead, Lashes replied: “Find another one.”
In the coming weeks, Schmidt trawled every shelter in Spokane, Wash., until he came across a sweet-tempered orange tabby that he figured could be trained to bat at piano keys. Keyboard Cat’s second coming was huge, generating epic page hits, endorsement deals and windup dolls. Out of nowhere, Lashes had established himself as the world’s leading—and only—manager of Internet memes.
A college dropout, the man behind Keyboard Cat’s commercial success had previously been lead singer for the Seattle band The Lashes. They did OK, signing a record deal with Columbia, but there wasn’t much money in it. In the late 2000s, after about nine years as a band, they went on hiatus, and Lashes moved into music distribution, where he worked until stumbling across the cat who launched 33.9 million LOLs.
Dressed in a leather jacket, Ray-Bans and Air Jordans, the 35-year-old still has a rock star air about him, and in his field that’s kind of what he is. “If Ben told me to paint my butt purple,” says Schmidt, by way of describing his friend’s marketing skills, “I would get out the roller.”
There’s no doubting that Lashes has hit on a novel, possibly inspired, twist to online marketing. Traditionally, marketers have used the Internet to promote real-world stuff—posting a video of, say, wisecracking dairy cows to sell cheese, then waiting for the clip to hit the V-spot. Lashes turned that model on its head, approaching the makers of viral videos and offering them real-world promotion.
Since he signed Keyboard Cat, Lashes has acquired a stable of online oddities, including a cat with feline dwarfism, an under-bite and a congenitally sour expression. Grumpy Cat (real name: Tardar Sauce) is the big headliner on Lashes’ books, with a Friskies endorsement, a Grumppuccino coffee line, a bestselling book, a movie option and endorsement deals exceeding $1 million (of which Lashes takes 20 percent).
Catching a cat on its way up, however, isn’t as easy as it looks. You can’t just teach your pet a trick, post the footage on YouTube and wait for Purina to call. And even if you do know a meme when you see one, you’ll need to start thinking about things like copyright protection—which, when your primary medium is the Internet, is like trying to carry water in a sock. With this in mind, Lashes enlisted L.A. entertainment lawyer Kia Kamran, whose other clients include Mike Tyson and who has helped his cats settle a number of high-profile infringement cases.
Then there’s the question of exposure. With so many advertisers eager to use Grumpy Cat’s sour puss, Lashes has to weigh his options carefully. He recently turned down a lucrative offer for a commercial that would have ended with the animal smiling. “There are fun ways to do it,” he says, “and then there is lame, sell-your-soul stuff.”
And, as with all public figures, Lashes’ clients occasionally fall victim to media snipers. In December, the gossip site TMZ ran a takedown of Grumpy Cat titled “Not the Sharpest Claw on the Paw,” which claimed the animal might have mental health issues. The cat’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, a single mother who quit her waitressing job after Grumpy became a star, shrugs off such attention. “You can’t be a celebrity without haters,” she says.
Mostly, the life of a celebrity meme is a happy one. “She is respected,” Bundesen says, pointing out that her cat travels in Escalades and “is always in a nice, soft, cushy bed.” Meanwhile, Grumpy Cat’s star continues to rise: “The Original Grumpy Cat” picked up a People’s Choice Award at the 2013 Internet Cat Video Festival, which is a big deal in her line of work.
Lashes recalls sitting in the stands during the awards ceremony, weeping with pride. “There’s never been a cat celebrity like her,” he says. “Grumpy Cat is the Michael Jackson of Internet cats.”
Cristina Rouvalis, a Pittsburgh-based writer, sent out so many LOL emails while researching this article that she alienated approximately two-thirds of her friends.