From Alien Cat Matilda and Venus the Two Face Cat to Grumpy Cat and the late-lamented Colonel Meow, since I began writing for Catster two years ago, I have learned more about Internet celebrity cats than I ever thought possible. Of all the cats in the online pantheon, none has made a greater impact on me than Lil Bub. Every time Bub pops up on my Instagram or Facebook feeds, her wide-set eyes and lolling tongue make me feel calm, peaceful, and happy.
When it was announced that Lil Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky, would be giving a talk in Raleigh as part of North Carolina State University Library’s Creativity and Technology Symposium (CATS), I claimed my ticket immediately. Even though the event itself was disappointing and poorly executed, I was more impressed than ever by the actual, practical outcomes of Bub’s mission.
I arrived at the James B. Hunt Library on NC State’s campus just after 5pm and was the first person in line. By 6:30, well over 100 people had already gathered in the building’s lobby. As a former academic and denizen of university libraries, I felt certain that the place hadn’t seen so many people milling about this late in the day since finals week of Spring semester. It amused me, as well as curious passersby I chatted with, that all these people were gathered to see a cat.
One woman I spoke with — a burlesque performer whose stage name is Melody Magpie — drove from Richmond, Virginia, just for the chance to see Lil Bub. Just so you appreciate the effort and dedication, that’s a 3-hour drive in traffic. She does a routine as Bub, and brought her custom-made papier-mâché Bub mask to the event, in addition to wearing a Bub t-shirt and sporting a freshly-inked Bub tattoo on her thigh. Without question, Lil Bub is an impactful cat who means a great deal to people, most of whom will only ever see her on their computers and mobile devices.
A haphazard program
The event page for “A Life-Changing Cat: Mike Bridavsky and Lil Bub” promised only that attendees would “hear from Mike and see Lil BUB in person.” The university setting, the CATS symposium’s themes, and the moderator’s role as a user-experience librarian raised some expectations for me in the month leading up to the talk. I imagined that what we’d hear would be some inside-baseball related to the Lil Bub phenomenon: “a business that is based on and requires a very detailed understanding of social media, archiving, and technology.”
While I hoped to learn something about these technical elements of Lil Bub as a viral celebrity, I’m sure most people just wanted to see the cat herself. What we got was very little of either. The presentation showcased a melange of poorly-sequenced slides and video clips, interspersed with rambling conversations about anything but Lil Bub, creativity, or technology.
Bridavsky and the moderator spent an inordinate amount of time discussing minutiae related to the Bloomington, Indiana, indie-rock scene of the late 1990s. For the most part, Bub herself was tucked away in Bridavsky’s lap, out of sight, both of the assembled audience and the cameras that livestreamed the event.
Internet celebrity cats and the illusion of intimacy
When we did see her, Lil Bub more than lived up to expectations, inasmuch as she is a small and adorable cat. Anyone who photographs their pets knows that you may have to take and then root through 50 photos to find even one worth posting. Over time, Bridavsky’s careful and painstaking cultivation of Bub’s online persona has had an effect on me. My experience of Lil Bub is a kind of mediated intimacy, the image of her face staring directly at me through countless photos and videos.
I thought that being in Bub’s presence would be a special, emotional experience. Sitting in the front row of the auditorium, not even 10 feet from Bub, though, I felt terribly distant. The audience was forewarned not to applaud, squee, or burst into tears to avoid startling the cat. Internet celebrity though she is, with the full gamut of meanings that people project onto her, Lil Bub is still a cat. A muted audience, a largely off-topic conversation, and a lap-sequestered cat put the entire audience at several awkward removes from a very public figure.
It was announced well ahead of time that the event would not include a meet-and-greet, which typically involves sizable financial investment from participants. This made perfect sense, since managing these personal interactions is a part of the Bub phenomenon that Bridavsky finds most taxing, both on the cat and on himself. He explained that, while he feels bad that not everyone can afford the donations, their relative expense limits the stress on Bub and maximizes charitable donations to Lil Bub’s Big Fund.
Lil Bub, charity, and practical outcomes
For most of the audience, the best part of the evening was certainly the end, when Bridavsky invited people to come down to the stage for a few minutes and take photos of Bub while she ate a snack. Let’s face it, 200 people did not come to a university library auditorium on a cold and wet late-October night to hear about the struggles of Midwestern indie-rock bands, nor to see Bub photos and videos that are readily available online. They came to see and be near a cat who has only ever existed for them on screens.
Perhaps the next public lecture or discussion might feature Bub on a dais or raised platform of her own, on full view for a respectful crowd. I don’t intend to come off as sour. It was not the cat that let me down, but the way she was presented. Make no mistake, as an example of the right way to handle, manage, and convert viral fame into positive communal action, Lil Bub is a true role model.
What truly redeemed the event for me, even more than the elation of the people standing in the line beforehand, was the practical outcome it had for shelter cats in the Raleigh-Durham metroplex. NC State Library and Lil Bub partnered with Raleigh’s Safe Haven Cat Shelter and Clinic to host a food and supply drive. Safe Haven — a non-profit, no-kill shelter — was one of the very first recipients of the ASPCA-managed Bub Fund grant money. Their volunteers and hand-cart were stationed right next to the Bub merchandise table.
Half an hour before the talk started, the cart was more than half filled with donations. As I sat outside the library afterward, trying to process what I’d observed, I saw the Safe Haven volunteers pushing the cart out into the night. For weeks in advance, I thought I’d start weeping uncontrollably at the first sight of Lil Bub in the flesh. It wasn’t until I saw those volunteers leaving with their cart, now stacked high with food and supplies for Safe Haven, that I became emotional.
Why is Lil Bub a “Life-changing cat”?
Ultimately, my disappointment in the talk was inconsequential. She was not there to satisfy my expectations. Lil Bub is not a “life-changing cat” because Bridavsky now has a hectic travel and appearance schedule. Lil Bub is a life-changing cat because her innocent visage inspires people to create and to give. Whether it’s fan works, body art, or burlesque routines, the joy that Lil Bub brings makes them eager to share that joy with others.
On a more practical and immediate level, as a lightning rod for donations — be they gifts of time, money, food, or supplies — Bub’s very existence is producing positive outcomes and making a substantive difference in the lives of animals from Massachusetts to Montana, and from Ringoes, New Jersey to right here in Raleigh, North Carolina.
GOOD JOB, BUB!