FAMOUS IN 30 DAYS The crazy way one writer did just that
In the world of the Insta-famous, one group is raking it in without you even realising. Here’s what really goes into creating a global pet superstar
“Her digital paw print needs some serious love”
Watching the photographer set up, I am so anxious I swear you can hear my heartbeat – and, despite a strong breeze from the open window, the nervous sweats are taking hold. I look across the room at Wilma, who is ambling around the set, entirely relaxed. We’ve approached numerous modelling agencies without success and, just as I was beginning to worry it was starting to dent her self-esteem, this one seemed to like her.“She’s got that classic British look that advertisers really go for,” the stylist, Rebecca, tells me. “Her face is beautifully expressive and I think if she was dressed right she could have real potential.” I breathe a sigh of relief.
“She’s very nice-looking. Passed on all fronts,” the agency director, Melody, chimes in. Suddenly, I see a future of photoshoots, paparazzi and red carpets as I realise we’ve done it: Wilma is going to be a star. Just as soon as she stops licking between her legs.
I guarantee you’ve seen them on social media, retweeted their memes or maybe even bought their books. Pet influencers are the biggest thing to hit Instagram since unicorn – well – everything, and they’re definitely richer than you. Grumpy Cat has reportedly made around $100m, while Boo the Pomeranian (once a guest star in a Katy Perry music video), apparently earns $1m annually. These pets have book deals, apps, merchandise and advertising contracts with big names like Febreze and Mercedes-Benz. In an age where memes are a major form of communication, it’s no wonder these social-savvy pet influencers (or rather the owners that pamper them) are cashing in.
Because behind every Insta-famous animal there must be a responsible human. So does that mean anyone with access to a cute dog and a smartphone can make their pooch a star? And if you do – how easy is it to actually make any money? This question is the reason I find myself at the PetLondon Models agency on a Thursday afternoon with Wilma, my sister’s basset hound, discussing the nuances of canine fame with Melody Lewis, PetLondon’s director. “It’s really important they enjoy it,” she tells me,“and that they can take instruction. We need them to have quite a strong ‘sit and stay’ when they’re on set.” At this moment, Wilma is massacring a fluffy unicorn toy.“I will pay for that…” I gesture awkwardly as she skips off to find a new victim, leaving a path of candypink limbs in her wake. We do a few test pictures, as I’m told she’ll need to do some simple photoshoots before she can land filming roles. At first, she sits calmly, peering her big doe eyes up into the camera, but after 10 minutes, she decides more unicorns must die today and trots off elsewhere. When I ask the team if they’d consider representing her based on today’s performance, surprisingly, Melody says yes. “Definitely. Cats are having a moment right now, but her breed is still super popular for ad campaigns. I would suggest you work on the ‘sit and stay’ at home, though.”
That’s not the only thing we need to work on. Her digital paw print needs some serious love. I need to have at least 1,000 followers to be taken seriously. My sister and her boyfriend once made a weak attempt at a Wilma Instagram, but with just 20 followers, it’s a sad and desolate place to be, full of well-meaning but deflated hashtags and dodgy bot followers. Unsure where to start, I consult Yena Kim, the phenomenally successful momager of Menswear Dog (real name Bodhi), who shot to fame in 2013 after Yena featured Bodhi dressed in various menswear brands (we’re talking Ralph Lauren and Coach) on her blog. He was quickly picked up by The New York
Times and CNN, and now Bodhi boasts 308k Instagram followers and is rumoured to earn $15,000 a month.
“I would say you need about 50,000 followers to be considered a microinfluencer,” Yena tells me. “Quality content is key, so for good shots use peanut butter to get Wilma looking in the right direction,” she continues. “And play music while you shoot, so she’s enjoying herself – Bodhi likes The Rolling Stones.” One last piece of advice: post videos. “People love it and Instagram’s algorithms favour video, so you’re organically going to get more engagement.” This is beginning to sound a lot harder than I imagined. Finally, Yena tells me to find a small community of similar influencers to support and like each other’s posts. This idea is reiterated by Laura Hughes, owner of Mr Bojangles, the Finnish Lapphund who has 34k followers and a penchant for modelling bow ties. “We share tips and ideas all the time,” she says. “If one of us goes to a conference, we bring back information for the others.”
The next day I go on a following spree, commenting things like ‘#longearsdontcare!’ to other basset accounts. I set up an Instagram group with four other basset influencers, and tell them about the community idea. They all seem keen, until I send a tip about hashtags, to which I get no response, except a painful thumbsup from Sir Woofington. So much for my clique. Wilma’s popularity, however, is growing; after only three days, she has reached 100 followers – mainly through following relevant accounts and hashtagging heavily until Instagram tells me off (you’re only allowed 30 per post).
Logistically, however, I’m struggling; Wilma is heavy and she isn’t allowed on the Tube unless I carry her up the escalators (cheers, TFL), so I think my biceps might be growing more than her fame. Yet, undefeated, I arrive at my sister’s flat two days later with a beach ball, a comedy tongue and what looks like a foot-long sex toy (a giant tube of bubbles) and announce, “I’m here for a photoshoot.” We spend the next hour coaxing Blue Steels out of Wilma with cheese and deli meat.
I start posting two to three times a day at Instagram’s busiest times (11am and 7pm), communicating with followers and relevant accounts by commenting, hashtagging and liking a lot. Additionally, I’ve been using Laura’s 80/20 hashtag approach: 80% ‘good’ hashtags (those with 500,000 to 700,000 uses) and 20% ‘bad’ hashtags (1 million or more). The aim is to always be in the top nine posts under that hashtag. After a week, we’re at about 250 followers. But I worry that Wilma is disappointed. She knows Mr Bojangles gets red carpets rolled out for him when he stays in hotels, that Menswear Dog is often sent oil paintings from fans and that Dean the Basset has been on the front row at a Nordstrom fashion show.
I speak to Carly Bright, owner of Dean the Basset – who, with almost 200k followers, is arguably the Beyoncé of the Insta-basset world – and she again emphasises communication with other accounts and tells me that Dean also has a very successful line of merchandise. In fact, their first moneymaker was a Dean calendar. Motivated by Carly’s advice, I decide to change tactics, or rather take my current tactics to Defcon 1. I begin to spend at least two hours every day commenting things like “OMG adorable!” on other pet accounts. This works so well that Wilma’s following shoots up to 350 just 10 days after my project began.
Laura (Mrs Bojangles) advised me to speak to brands for collaborations, so I gingerly reach out to dog-related companies online to see if they’d be willing to partner up for a giveaway. I am surprised at the positive response we get. At the end of week two, we do the first giveaway: sending out a sixmonth supply of Peamutt Butter to the winner, who was asked to follow the account, like two photos and leave a comment saying why they should win. The winner then posts about us and our following again grows. Our next giveaway, a Petlandia personalised dog storybook from Mind Candy, goes even better, and we creep over the 500-follower mark. I start receiving emails saying things like ‘Would be lovely to meet Wilma (you can come, too),’ and pet clothing brands reach out to us. I’ve become every bit the stressed manager, while Wilma is languishing in the heady world of fame and fortune. She’s teetering on the verge of fully fledged diva-ism, routinely pushing me off the sofa so she can spread out while I’m forced to eat my dinner cross-legged on the floor.
At 600 followers, I enlist the advice of Lexie Gagnon, owner to Owen the Great Dane who has a fan base of almost 40,000. Her advice is to try and get featured on a dog Instagram account, as many of them have hundreds of thousands of followers. So I start desperately tagging and emailing, using Wilma’s cutest photos, but I am rejected at every turn. Until, finally, a US account called dogs.247 (over 100,000 followers) reposts three of her photos. Wilma has succeeded where Robbie Williams and Cheryl have failed – she’s cracked America.
Once the followers start rolling in, I get tactical. I follow everyone who liked the photo on dogs.247, preparing to sack off most of them within 72 hours. Before I know it, an account called Basset Hounds Of Instagram reposts pictures of her to its 50k followers and ours jump to 753. I am overjoyed, but Wilma, oblivious to the success, is taking this opportunity to steal underwear from the washing basket. In fact, behind the scenes, she is becoming increasingly Mariah-like. The gifts I bring her are destroyed within minutes, and meals that aren’t from the Selfridges charcuterie section, discarded. And all this is before we’ve made any money.
Loni Edwards, founder and managing partner of The Dog Agency in New York, the first talent agency specifically for pet influencers, says, “To monetise, you need a minimum of 10,000 followers. Even then, you can probably only charge a few hundred dollars. I don’t really represent anyone with fewer than 20,000 to 50,000 followers.” According to Loni,“Half a million is where it shoots up to a $5,000 to $8,000 fee, and at a million, you can easily charge $15,000 to $25,000 for ad campaigns.”
For some, money like this is a reality. Yena, for example, quit her day job just a few months in. Partially because she needed more time to manage the account, but also because it was so profitable she could afford to. To manage Mr Bojangles, however, Laura gets up at 4.30am every day to work for two hours before going to her job as a social worker. What’s apparent is that making it in this industry takes huge dedication, and unlike Menswear Dog, who went viral overnight, most pet influencers work tirelessly for years just to make a few hundred pounds. Far from just uploading the odd cute photo with a couple of hashtags, this business takes research, analysis, time, investment and years of commitment. Plus it comes with the stress of social-media pressure: I had started to wake up almost every hour to track Wilma’s follower count.
So why do it? This is a question I asked myself as I cancelled on family to stay at home and photograph Wilma in a teepee, or missed my best friend’s housewarming to get a four-second video of her snoring. Isn’t it all just frivolous? “Pets don’t let you down,” says Loni. “The more chaotic the world gets, the more this industry grows, as people want the security of knowing that when they go on Instagram and search for their favourite dog, they’re going to find something that will make them happy.”
Ultimately, I’m not sure Wilma and I are cut out for this game; I’m short of sleep and have run out of deli cuts. Wilma, too, seems to have tired of celebrity. The look of disgust in her eyes when I get my camera out tells me that our days in the limelight are over. And after a month of hustling pet-food companies, lugging Wilma up and down the Bakerloo line and shamelessly stalking pet Instagram accounts (Franklin_D_Woofsevelt, I am sorry), if I’m honest, I’m relieved to be hanging up my hashtags.
“Wilma is teetering on the verge of full diva-ism”