Feline Finesse Purring All the Way to the Bank

It was only a matter of time before the current rulers of the Internet, cats, began to branch out into book deals and food endorsements. German designer Karl Lagerfeld and his furry friend Choupette are taking it to a high-fashion level.
Work it Choupette!


There is something unusual about German designer Karl Lagerfeld’s latest muse. She purrs like a supermodel, has the bewitching eyes of a magazine beauty, but also four legs and a serious excess hair issue.

Meet Choupette, Mr. Lagerfeld’s Birman cat and Internet marketing sensation.

The pet's first book, “Choupette: The Private Life of a High-flying Fashion Cat,” was published in September, the result of nine months of recording the cat’s every move and mood.

No self-respecting feline would neglect her social media, and fans can keep up with Choupette’s likes, dislikes, and maxims via her personal website, Instagram, Facebook, and a Twitter account with over 44,000 followers.

Her Instagram profile reads “I am Choupette Lagerfeld and I am a spoiled pussy.”

So far, so surreal. The cat’s talents have most recently been deployed on behalf of her first advertising client outside the Lagerfeld brand empire. She posed for German carmaker Opel’s 2015 calendar for the Corsa model, shot by Mr. Lagerfeld himself.

According to Tina Müller, chief marketing officer for Opel Germany, using the cat has been a resounding success.

“The calendar is aimed at the female target group, which is also the core consumer group for the new Corsa,” said Ms. Müller. “We wanted to take our annual calendar in a lifestyle-focused and original directon, because the old ‘supermodel on a car’ recipe has nothing new to offer, so we had the idea of asking Karl Lagerfeld if he would like to shoot his star-cat Choupette on a Corsa.”

The making-of video has already notched over 1.5 million clicks and growing, Ms. Müller said. Her marketers are planning an exhibition of the photos, which will be opened by Mr. Lagerfeld.

Leaping on the global cat craze has given Mr. Lagerfeld another lucrative income stream.  The German fashion designer, who was born Karl Otto Lagerfeldt in Hamburg in 1933, is the creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous label, which is owned by the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation.

According to Vermögen (Wealth) Magazine, he has an estimated net worth of €350 million. The magazine says he earned €43 million this year.

Mr. Lagerfeld is known for lending his name to a variety of fashion lines, including collaborations with Diesel in 2002 and Swedish retailer H&M in 2004. His Monster Choupette accessories line was launched in November.

He is not the first to monetize the family cat, or moggy, as they're called in Britain.

The “cat economy” has been steadily gaining ground and is generating millions for a few fortunate animal owners.

One notable celebrity, Grumpy Cat, is reportedly worth around $100 million, according to recent press reports. Although her owner said that sum was inaccurate, the talent manager behind the cat’s phenomenal success, Ben Lashes, told Hollywood Reporter in July, "This is a seven-figure cat, for sure."

The cat, which suffers from dwarfism, resulting in its permanently annoyed expression, is famous for moody memes such as, "There are two kinds of people in this world. And I don't like them."

It now has book deals, endorsement contracts for Friskies cat food, a movie, and a range of merchandise.

Less grumpy, but filled with existential ennui, Henri, le Chat Noir (the black cat), makes enough money to more than support his owner, Will Braden, in Seattle. Mr. Braden set up a YouTube channel for Henri in 2012. The short films attract millions of viewers, and the huge CPM rate (cost per mille – the amount advertisers pay for every thousand YouTube impressions) means advertisers are paying royally to be on the channel.

Henri’s philosophical, French musings attract a unique demographic, usually women between 49 and 65 – a “college professor crowd,” according to the owner.

          Video: Henri Le Chat Noir at his existential best.

While it is hard to establish precise figures for how much money the most popular cats can make, the top-earner circle includes Grumpy Cat, Maru, Tara the hero Cat, piano-playing cat, and Lil’ Bub.

“Only the handful of cats that get a ton of notoriety and fame end up making most of the money,” said Ben Huh, founder and chief executive of the multimillion-dollar media company, the Cheezeburger Network. “It’s one of those cases where the Internet serves as a promotional tool for cat owners.”

Mr. Huh was one of the first people to spot and develop the public’s love of felines, when he acquired and began expanding the meme-based website, I Can Has Cheezburger in 2007.  The “memeconomy” of cats was born.

Cats have become more and more ubiquitous, and kind of the lingua franca of the Internet.” Ben Huh, CEO, Cheezburger Network

“It was amazing timing – people wanted to participate in the content creation process, and that lent itself to them expressing their sense of humour,” said Mr. Huh. “Because of the explosion of this self-expression, we came to know what Internet memes were. We didn’t say, ‘Look , there are these things called memes, let’s make them popular.’''

In 2010, Mr. Huh was listed in Fast Company magazine’s most creative people in business, and, in 2011, was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

With their combination of cuteness and snootiness, cats lend themselves naturally to humorous memes. The online obsession also reflects changes in society.

“You’re talking about a world where people are having fewer children, people are living longer, and those who do have kids end up having them later, and with that additional time in our lives, we end up adopting more pets along the way,” said Mr. Huh. “Pets have become these childlike characters in our lives that allow us to use them as a communication tool.”

While Mr. Huh would certainly not recommend pet owners trying to make a career out of their cats – something he said seems like borderline animal abuse –he said the public thirst for cute online kitties has shown no signs of abating in the seven years he has been running his entertainment platform.

“I asked myself that question early on,” said Mr. Huh. “But cats have become more and more ubiquitous, and kind of the lingua franca of the Internet. It does take more interesting and more surprising content to catch our attention, but it has become this background radiation of the universe of the Internet.”

Random House published the humorous How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom in April.

I never thought I would fall in love like this with a cat. Karl Lagerfeld

Mr. Huh believes that sharing a cat’s antics online is a work of love for most cat owners, rather than a hard-nosed business plan. In the case of Mr. Lagerfeld’s pride and joy, he said, “I think Choupette has more to do with Karl than it does with the cat. It’s very interesting to see such a driven, and such a vocal, personality.”

While Mr. Lagerfeld is clearly marketing the blue-eyed beauty for all she is worth, he is nothing if not vocal about his feelings for her, telling CNN in 2013, “I never thought I would fall in love like this with a cat.”

She came into his life by accident, when he offered to babysit her for model Baptiste Giabiconi over Christmas 2011. “I refused to give her back,” Lagerfeld told Women’s Wear Daily in June 2012. And so, like orphans adopted by celebrities, life changed dramatically for Choupette.

“She has two maids, and the driver takes care of her too. She doesn't like to eat on the floor, so I have to put the food on the table,” Mr. Lagerfeld said in a Harpers Bazaar interview in August 2012.

Now, thanks to Mr. Lagerfeld, crazy cat people have all the validation they need – if the merciless taste-maker himself can lose his marbles over a moggy, it is officially okay for the rest of the world.



Jill Petzinger is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]