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The Cat with 166,000 Friends

Behind the grassroots viral sensation that is Lil Bub, it’s just a cat and her dude

By Jac Kern · July 24th, 2013 · Cover Story
coverlead_lilbubPhoto: Jesse Fox
Seeing Lil Bub in person is just as magical as you’d expect. The Internet sensation, referred to online as a “perma-kitten” due to her cartoonlike baby cat appearance, is as unusual and hypnotically adorable as she appears on her daily Facebook photos that reel in an average of 10,000 likes each. She’s tiny, only about four pounds, has a perpetually visible tongue and makes odd, nasally snorts as opposed to typical “meows.” And she is very much a real cat.

Lil Bub reigns from nearby Bloomington, Ind., but her true origins may be much further away.

“I made up this story that she’s from space, but it’s kind of the only explanation I have for her,” says 33-year-old Mike Bridavsky, the cat’s owner, or “Bub’s dude,” as he is so affectionately dubbed on the Internet. Bridavsky is almost always by Bub’s side, carrying her around, petting her and, as depicted online, feeding her “fishes.” Occasionally he’ll snap a few photos and videos of her to post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vine, Tumblr — you get the idea. She’s a very in-demand kitty. But, for the most part, when he’s not working at his music studio, Bloomington’s Russian Records, and she’s not making appearances or posing for photos, Bub and Bridavsky are just a cat and her dude. There’s no showbiz-y pageantry, though it’s hard to deny there’s something very special about their relationship.

If Bub’s legion of fans lost interest tomorrow, all of the cat superstar’s projects disappeared and her fame faded (as happens with many viral sensations), it wouldn’t really faze either of them. Bridavsky would have Bub all to himself and wouldn’t have to spend hours on the computer keeping up with the full-time job that is “Bub’s Dude.” Of course, that’s far from reality. Bub has an upcoming book and talk show. She’s already starred in a documentary and has appeared on live television. She’s traveled across the country to meet people who’ve waited hours just to see her for a minute. People get tattoos of Bub (Bridavsky has a few of his own). 

Is this normal? No, and Bridavsky knows it. 

“I don’t think most cats should be famous,” he says. “This isn’t the life for a normal cat — I’ve got four other cats, and if they became famous, I’d snuff it out instantly. I thought about it with Bub, but the outpour of emotional response that she got and how much she meant to people — I can’t not. This is what’s happening and it feels right.”

“I’m known as the cat guy around my friends,” Bridavsky says. 

So when a friend learned about a litter of feral cats back in August 2011, it was natural to send Bridavsky a photo of the runt, despite the fact that he already had his hands full with four other felines.

“It was pretty much love at first sight,” Bridavsky says. “I feel like we’re kindred spirits. She sat on me and started purring really loud and just kind of fell asleep and then I just took her home. I was like, ‘I just have to take this cat.’ ”

At eight weeks old, weighing in at only six ounces, he could tell Lil Bub was special. But it was clear that she had problems. He planned to give Bub a good home and keep her comfortable, assuming she wouldn’t make it very long.

“My vet looked at her and said she was the weirdest cat he’d ever seen in his life,” he says. 

Bub exhibits a laundry list of physical oddities, but Bridavsky is quick to point out that her outward appearance is only part of what makes her special.

“The whole point is this positivity that she puts through, and her looks are just a way for her to become famous to get that through to people. It’s like this specifically designed creature to help people out.”

The reason Bub looks so different is because she has dwarfism. She also has an underdeveloped jaw and her teeth never came in, which results in her ever-present tongue. 

“Her eyes — interestingly enough, what most people comment on are how big and full of wonder her eyes are.

They’re like twice the size they should be,” Bridavsky says. 

She also has large ears, two extra toes on her front paws and a long body that rides low to the ground.

As Bridavsky details Bub’s physical oddities, he pets her in a way that she obviously adores — but it’s a mutual love. At the risk of going too deep — Lil Bub is a cat, not a deity — it’s refreshing and heartwarming to witness something so joyful and pure: just the simple love between a cat and her dude.

The main condition that affects Bub is a bone disease called osteopetrosis, an extremely rare disorder for any species, especially cats.

“There’s no cure,” Bridavsky says. “It’s a degenerative bone disease. Basically, the bones keep growing and are extremely deformed and keep getting more deformed.”

In late 2012, Bub’s discomfort worsened and her mobility was extremely limited. Bridavsky feared he was going to have to put her down and was ready to back out of a bidding war for Bub’s book. Bridavsky put his life on hold.

“I was basically in tears every day. I couldn’t keep it together. My friends had to take care of me — it was horrible. I just didn’t want her to go through this pain.”

Someone recommended reiki healing, an alternative medicine practice of transferring energy through the palms. Bridavsky found a practitioner in town and started taking Bub for daily reiki treatments. Within three days, he noticed a difference.

“I was pretty skeptical,” Bridavsky says. “But she was very responsive. The lady would come over and [Bub] would walk up to her, ready for her treatment.”

Once it was obvious that Bub was healing, Bridavsky learned reiki himself. Bridavsky was conceived in Russia, and he learned through research that he comes from a line of reiki healers. It turned out his great grandfather was a renowned healer in Russia.

Bub has also had a positive response to the Assisi loop, an electrotherapy treatment for pain management.

“After two weeks [of using the Assisi loop] she was able to stand up fully, on all fours, which she hadn’t done since she was a kitten. And now she’s running and jumping and in the best mood she’s been in a while,” he says. “I’m talking to them about getting the word out about this device because it could help so many pets.”

Bub’s rise to fame was not the overnight viral sensation you might think of in terms of Internet celebrity — like Bub’s sister in feline fame, Tardar Sauce, aka “Grumpy Cat.” Lil Bub experienced more of a grassroots rise to stardom. 

As Bridavsky explains, “I happened to be sort of equipped with friends and a background in music and all this stuff to be able to make it work. I don’t seek out opportunities, but when they come, I know how to handle them.”

Like any person with a pet, Bridavsky posts pictures of all his cats on Facebook. Bub just evoked much more of a response. A web-savvy friend suggested he start a Bub blog on Tumblr. It was just supposed to be for fun, to show pictures of Bub to his friends. When more strangers started following and messaging him, Bridavsky’s friend, designer David J. Woodruff, suggested making a Bub T-shirt. Woodruff is the dude behind the less-hyped (but still revered) Smoosh, a cat who, Bridavsky explains with feigned seriousness, is Bub’s boyfriend.

“[Woodruff] already has T-shirts made of his cat because he’s a designer. And our friends, we’re all into Smoosh and this sort of faux cat celebrity thing as a joke, locally, with our pals.” Meanwhile, one of Bub’s photos went viral on Tumblr, making it to the front page of Reddit. At this point, Bub was just a funny-looking cat. No one knew her back-story, but pre-orders for her shirts started rolling in. Fans called for buttons, stickers and postcards, and Woodruff cranked out designs (today you can even purchase Lil Bub onesies, magnets, coffee mugs and tote bags). After setting up an online store, Bridavsky enlisted the help of friends to fill and ship orders, which rose to 50-60 per week, without advertising or any type of promotion.

“People were wearing the shirts, their friends see it and then they order it, and that’s where the virality really happened.”

One day, Bridavsky was shipping an order and noticed the address.

“BuzzFeed, isn’t that a thing? We’re sending this to BuzzFeed, and then Vice — we’re sending this to Vice. And these were just fans who worked there who had them shipped to work. But then they wore them.”

Not long after, BuzzFeed posted an article about Lil Bub that went viral. Then Good Morning America called. Bub soon made her television debut, melting the hearts of millions.

Vice, then, fell in love with her. The documentary started as this little short about the cat video film festival in Minneapolis and once they met Bub — that’s what happens when people meet her.” 

What started as a short film about cat videos turned into Lil Bub and Friendz, which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. 

The response to Lil Bub has only grown over recent months. Her appearances draw 700-800 people — just to look at her.

“And I’d say every meet-and-greet we do there’s 10-20 [people] that will start sobbing when they see her,” Bridavsky says. Her book, Lil Bub’s Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet, featuring photos and captions of Bub by Bridavsky, Chris Glass (who hails from Cincinnati) and Carli Davidson (the pet photographer behind Shake — those amazing photos of wet dogs caught in the moment of shaking their coats) will be available this September. And coming next: Lil Bub’s Big Show.

“There’s going be a lot of just Bub being Bub, eating yogurt, playing, running around, doing cute stuff,” Bridavsky explains. “We have a lot of ideas, but the overall premise is that it’s a late night talk show.” 

Bub will interview celebrities and animals like Whoopi Goldberg, a baby chick, world champion air guitarist Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard, a dog and more special guests. This “Space Ghost-style” show is set to debut on Discovery Channel’s web television network Revision3 in August. And if you’re flying Delta Air Lines in the near future and spot a certain mystical cat in the safety video, you haven’t had too many tiny bottles of vodka — Bub’s going to make an appearance in that, too.

“I’d like to do a graphic novel,” Bridavsky says of future endeavors. “Sort of like Bub as a hero.”

As crazy as it may sound, Lil Bub has been a hero for many. 

“[The feedback is] more than just, ‘Your cat’s awesome!’ ” Bridavsky explains. “I get messages every day that are like, ‘Your cat has changed my life. I was going through the hardest time in my life and pictures of your cat helped me through this.’ ” 

He goes on to describe psychics and tarot card readers that have had intense reactions to Lil Bub — sometimes without even seeing her or knowing anything about her.

“There’s this energy around Bub,” he says. “It’s changed my life, certainly. I can’t deny all that stuff. And, like I’ve said, I’m a skeptical person, but I believe in this other energy that we don’t understand. And she’s got it, in spades.”


For more information about LIL BUB, visit lilbub.com.

 
 
 
 

 

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