My Cats Are Cute. But Can I Make Them Famous?

These guys need to start pulling their own weight around here.

(Stephanie Tormey.)

It was probably around the time I came home to find my wife putting together a giant kitty playland that I knew we'd crossed a threshold.

We're weird cat people now. And there's no going back.

It occurred so gradually I hardly even registered it was happening. Five years ago, we got Louis, a stubby-legged tuxedo cat who I've often described as looking like a baby otter that had its genes spliced with a cartoon skunk.

It was sort of a default pet option for us: We wanted a dog, but Portland apartment life isn't really conducive to owning a puppy. With Lou, though, a puppy is effectively what we got. He watches us from the window when we get home and greets us at the door. Whenever we stand up, he immediately races us to the next room. If you're in his vicinity for more than 30 seconds, he'll end up on your shoulder. When Caitlin and I got married last year, he turned up in both of our vows.

We've doted on the little weirdo so much it's become our defining trait as a couple. Cat-branded stuff is now our friends' default gift for us. My buddy commissioned a local sculptor to make a small bust of Louis for my birthday. A decorative dish that reads "Kitten" sits on our coffee table. Caitlin even has two-piece cat pajamas. And yes, we've got one of those elaborate, four-level cat apartments, with a cubby hole, rope swing, sleeping basket and a perch for ideal bird watching.

A month after our wedding, on a total whim, we decided Lou needed a brother. We tried to be pragmatic, weighing the pros and cons of introducing another animal into our already tight living situation. But once we relented to visiting the impossibly tiny 3-month-old tabby on the Multnomah County Animal Shelter website, it was over. We named him Greg, which everyone finds hilarious for some reason.

So now, we've got two whole cats in our apartment. It's been a very rewarding experience so far. Within hours, they were wrestling and grooming each other. By the second day, we came home to find them snuggling on the couch. It's a daily whirlwind of almost painful cuteness.

But obviously, having two pets means our expenses have doubled. Double the litter. Double the food. Double the toys.

It's getting pricey. And frankly, these guys need to start pulling their own weight around here.

We've always insisted Louis is special, and now we've got a kitten at the height of his adorableness. The time seems right to assume my natural role as a cat-dad Kris Jenner and squeeze some cash out of my starter kids while they're still young and pretty.

But where to begin?

The most common way, of course, is the internet. Start an Instagram account, throw some bow ties on them, watch the likes and book deals pour in. But I'd like to think my guys are better than cheap meme fodder.

Instead, I contacted Pamela Barrett, manager of the annual International Cat Show Portland, to see if my youngest and prettiest has what it takes to be a star of the pageant circuit.

We arranged to bring Greg to meet her at Pets on Broadway, the aptly named pet store on Northeast Broadway, for a professional evaluation. If he's got any potential, Barrett would know:  In addition to bringing cat-show judges from around the world to Portland, she's also traveled to Australia and Russia as a judge herself.

As she explained, show cats are judged against the written standard for their breed, with four main criteria: health, condition, balance and presentation. In the middle of the store, Barrett pulled Greg from his crate, gently stretching him out like hand-pulled ramen noodles, and went into a spiel for the few customers milling about on Saturday morning.

Pamela Barrett and Greg at Pets on Broadway. (Stephanie Tormey)

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Greg," she announced. "Greg is a brown spotted tabby in white. He's a household pet—that means he doesn't have a pedigreed ancestry, but as a cat, he has a rich ancestry of being a companion to humans."

She placed Greg on a table and began to massage his head. She complimented his proportions, his round paws, his "nice, straight legs" and his "boning," meaning his skeletal structure, which suggests he'll grow to be average size. If nothing else, everything is apparently in its right place. I asked about his spotting, which strikes me as particularly attractive. She called it "fairly standard."

She then presented us with an official International Cat Show blue ribbon, and pronounced Greg, "Best Household Pet on Pets on Broadway."

A nice gesture, but it felt a bit conciliatory. By the end of our meeting, I could sense that might be the only ribbon he's ever likely to win. When it comes to feline beauty, Greg's pretty basic.

Well, whatever. Maybe my boys are meant to be famous for something other than their looks.

To figure out just what that might be, I invited Paula Ratoza, owner of Portland's only animal talent agency, Feathers and Fur, to our apartment to see them in their natural habitat. She's been placing animals in movies, commercials and print ads since the early '90s. Most of her clients are dogs, but there are a few cats on her résumé, the most impressive being one in the shlock-horror classic Dr. Giggles. Impressive to me, anyway.

"I need personality, first of all," she said as Lou and Greg chased each other around the living room. "Are they willing to interact with people? They need to be user-friendly. Everything else after that is fixable."

That sounded promising. Lou, in particular, is nothing if not user-friendly.

The problem, though, is that he might be too special for his own good. Directors will sometimes work with dozens of interchangeable cats in the span of a single shoot. With his weird little sausage legs and easily identifiable markings, it'd be too easy for the audience to notice he'd been swapped out.

Greg, she said, would have a head start on making it in Hollywood, simply because of his "fairly standard" coloration. The only matter would be some basic training.

Cats are harder to manipulate than dogs, but they can be conned into doing what you want. Ratoza suggested we start by teaching Greg to sit. You hold a spoon of food above his head, she said, which naturally forces him into a seated position, then use a clicker to reinforce his response.

After she left, we gave it a shot. In lieu of a clicker, I grabbed a retractable pen, while Caitlin pulled the "here comes the airplane" trick with a spoonful of his turkey-gravy-cheese gruel. He stared at it intently, but his butt never touched the floor. We tried to force it down manually, but it didn't take. About 90 seconds in, Lou bit Greg's tail. That was enough to permanently distract him.

He's cute, but he sure ain't disciplined.

And so, it's come to this.

If our cats were ever going to start paying for themselves, we'd have to do it the new-fashioned way: by making them go viral.

I don't really have the time or patience to wait for it to happen naturally. So for tips on expediting the process, I went to Andrew Knapp, a Canadian photographer who blew up on Instagram by posting pictures of his border collie, Momo, in various states of disguise. He now has 630,000 followers, and his Find Momo book series is on its fourth installment, Find Momo Across Europe.

He had three main points of advice: Find your brand, and stick to it. Be consistent but surprising. Finally, be utterly shameless.

"Reach out to every single dog and cat account," he said. "It's a terrible part of the internet, but let yourself be seen. You need to lose sleep over it."

The first step was coming up with a concept. Caitlin is a connoisseur of celebrity social media, so we went with a cutesy lifestyle brand. We called it At Home With Lou & Greg. Our first post was a Boomerang video of them wrestling on our rug.

"Start your with morning calisthenics and sweat the stress away!" read the caption, followed by a string of hashtags: #cats, #catsofinstagram, #catyoga, etc.

We gained 100-plus followers in two days. Per Knapp's suggestion, we kept up with a two-posts-per-day schedule. We posed Lou next to our Dolly Parton wine glass on the singer's birthday. We put them in drawers and tagged hyper-relevant professional tidier Marie Kondo. We did the "10 Year Challenge" with twin photos of Lou caught with his tongue out.

I sent the page to Knapp to see if we were on the right track.

"Love the life advice angle!" he responded. "Keep it up!"

Quickly, though, things slowed. Our follower count stalled. I couldn't summon the energy to stay up all night begging random pet accounts for a follow, but I did go through and follow every account Instagram suggested for me—until I was blocked for overusing the feature.

I knew it was time to bring out the big guns. And by that, I mean bow ties.

I went back to Pets on Broadway and bought two cat-specific bow ties by local company Business Catual. They cost $13 each, which seemed exorbitant, but we were desperate. We strung them around the cats' necks and had a photo shoot on the chair we refer to as their "throne." We captioned it: "Lookin' good means feelin' good, even if you've got nowhere to go."

It's got 24 likes, and two comments: one from a Vienna-based lifestyle blogger, the other from an account for a bottle opener manufacturer.

"Love this," the latter wrote, accompanied by a purple heart emoji.

It's a start.

Pet Issue 2019 | Oregon's Pageant-Animal Parents | Can I Make My Cats Famous? | What Alt-Pet Is Right For You? | Five Awesome Portland Pet Companies | Portland's Bougie Pet Hotels | How To Live As a Professional Dog Walker | Pet Pageant Winners

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