The cat’s a bigger deal than I am, and don’t think she lets me forget it.
Back in my compulsively-photographing-and-videoing-everything-so-I-won’t-have-to-participate phase, I noticed that I had two clips of family cats making odd noises. The first was my brother’s cat asking to be let outside. The other was my Mom’s cat, Stella, making a kind of chirping sound as she stared out the window at some birds. On a whim, I spent twenty minutes editing the short clips together into a “cat sounds” video that showed a few seconds of each, then added a remix (with slow-motion chirping) at the end. The finished video ran about 30 seconds. I posted it on YouTube so that my Mom, brothers, and other family members could have a quick chuckle.
Seven years later, that YouTube video has been viewed more than 2 million times.
One of the first signs that the video would attract a large and lasting international audience was a sudden spike in view counts I noticed some months after the upload. Digging into the statistical insights that were then a new feature on YouTube, I traced the spike back to a particular German website that had included the video in a blog post. This was surprising to me since Stella did not even speak German. “Stella’s famous in Germany!” I called out to Mom, showing her the charts. We both got a good laugh out of the idea that this cat who never even left the house would have fans in a foreign country. In hindsight, I realize that Stella probably heard all of this.
Even though the first influx of viewers only amounted to 50,000 people or so – more of a modest German town than a bustling German metropolis, I thought – the cat’s manner immediately began to change. Most of the comments on the video concerned her chirping sound, with the few about my brother’s cat focused on his ear condition. Stella was the star, and seemed to know it. It wasn’t haughtiness, exactly – she wasn’t acting out just yet – but I detected in her eyes an extra glint of self-regard that foreshadowed trouble if this fame went any further. The attention would go to her head.
After the German spike, daily view counts never returned to their previous levels. No longer something accidentally happened upon after hours of searching, her video was now one of the top two results for anyone entering “cat sounds.” Traffic grew steadily day after day. Hundreds, then thousands. Not just Germany, but everywhere else too. I could pull up a world map of everywhere Stella was being seen.
I could also access other demographic data about her audience. It turns out a lot of the people watching cat videos on YouTube are women between the ages of 45 and 54.
I couldn’t fault anyone for whiling away lonely hours with cat videos on YouTube, but the people who actually took time to comment always struck me as a special sort. I admired anyone who could exhibit so little shame at adding her name to a public roster of people who had watched a cat video on YouTube and then top that by throwing in a nonsensical comment she hadn’t bothered to spell-check because who cares what you think, anyway. These women were years ahead of me in their self-confidence.
Speaking of confidence, Stella’s got a boost right around the 200,000 view mark, when an email from YouTube about a new revenue-sharing program appeared in my inbox. They had previously offered revenue-sharing to some wildly popular YouTube channels with loads of subscribers, but were now rolling it out on a per-video basis for clips with lots of views by channels without many subscribers. I signed Stella up. She was now getting a cut of the money brought in by ads shown alongside her clip. If people managed to watch the video and click one of the ads during those 30 seconds, she made even more. Her earnings started at just a couple dollars and climbed to somewhere in the range of $10 to $20 per month, where they have remained for years now.
That’s a tidy little stipend for a cat who naps 16 hours per day and doesn’t venture outdoors, but a stipend incapable of covering her increasingly exotic tastes. Sending us out for cat food and litter so she wouldn’t have to get them herself was an eccentricity we’d long endured without complaint. But now her simple fascination with curls of ribbon and rogue flies gave way to demands for fizzling Airborne tablets and mizithra cheese. She still enjoyed dipping her paw into empty coffee cups for the flavor, but now preferred Starbucks House Blend to Yuban. “Take it out of my expense account,” she’d purr. She demanded ice cubes to stir around in her filtered water like a Bond villain.
Her begging, too, became more brazen. Where she might previously have contented herself with waiting for an empty cereal bowl with traces of milk in it to be placed on the floor, she now sprawled across the tabletop as you sat down, acting desperate to be pet, and then casually rolled her head sideways into your full bowl for a sniff. If it was a cereal she didn’t prefer, she’d waste no time waiting around for a turn. “Better things to do, dearie,” she’d intone while sauntering off for a midday cleaning. “Time is money.”
Notwithstanding the surprise success of “cat sounds,” all was not well at Stella Productions. For one thing, a projected sequel did not screen well with test audiences and was unceremoniously axed.
Like generations of frustrated stars before her, Stella coped with being a one-hit wonder by lording what fame she still had over others. She slept more, in ever-comfier places. She lured humans out of queen-sized beds at 6 a.m. under the pretense of needing food on the other side of the house, then quietly slipped back to cement herself in the warm spots they’d left behind. En route to brunch several hours later, coming upon the body she’d displaced teetering on the edge of the narrow, uncomfortable living room couch, she’d feign cheery innocence: “Top of the morning to you!”
We let her get away with it. Celebrity is a heavy burden, even for a cat.