New York (CNN Business)Grumpy Cat has died, but she left quite a legacy. She’s one of the first pets to make big money for its owner as a successful influencer.
The internet star passed away due to complications from a urinary tract infection, according to her official Twitter. The cat had feline dwarfism, which her owner said accounted for her unique frown and smaller size.
Grumpy Cat — her real name was Tardar Sauce — rose to fame in 2012 after her owner’s brother, Bryan Bundesen, posted images of the cat’s perpetual frown on Reddit. To address suggestions that the cat had been Photoshopped into that expression, Grumpy Cat’s owner Tabatha Bundesen posted videos of her to YouTube. That’s when Grumpy Cat went viral.
Soon after, she landed a deal with Nestlé Purina’s Friskies pet food brand, starred in her own Lifetime movie called “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” and even had her likeness become a permanent Madame Tussauds wax figure. Grumpy Cat merchandise can be found in Hot Topic and Walmart.
Grumpy Cat was such a big shot that she even had legal troubles. Last year, Grumpy Cat Limited — the company founded by Bryan Bundesen to handle Grumpy’s business — won more than $700,000 in damages from a beverage company that had licensed Grumpy Cat to sell a line of iced coffees called Grumppuccinos. Grumpy Cat Limited claimed the company violated the licensing deal by selling unauthorized Grumppuccino T-shirts.
The cat’s owner has never disclosed how much Grumpy is worth, and her owner, business manager, and meme agent did not respond to CNN Business requests for comment for this story. In a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post, Tabatha Bundesen shot down a report that Grumpy had earned $100 million.
Bryan Bundesen told CNN in 2013 that they wanted Grumpy “to become the next feline icon that stands the test of time like Garfield has.” He also said at that time that the cat had already earned “six figures” in five months through its licensing deals.
“I love cats. I’m cranky. So I really identified with this image,” said Tabitha Blankenbiller, a freelance writer who wrote a 2014 essay titled, “How Grumpy Cat Changed My Life” about her trip to see the cat at an Arizona bookstore. “The medium was correct, the timing was right for this really succinct message of lighthearted cynicism. The internet and cats are like peanut butter and jelly.”
Internet memes usually have a short, unstable lifespan. And cat memes were around long before Grumpy Cat, said Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor at Know Your Meme, a website that documents internet trends. But Grumpy’s fame endured thanks to her various deals and media appearances.
“Grumpy Cat was always just around but (by 2017) almost at a point that was above the internet. It had crossed over into the mainstream, doing conventions, TV appearances. So it was a little bit removed,” Schimkowitz added.
Part of Grumpy’s success came down to timing. Her owner “capitalized on the meme economy when it was possibly at its hottest,” said Mike Froggatt, a director at consultancy firm Gartner L2. She also rose to popularity when Instagram was fairly new and it was possible for brands to build large followings quickly and organically, he added.
The cat’s work with pet brands and other partners helped, too, Froggatt said. She felt authentic, and that endeared her to her audience.
Grumpy Cat embodied the internet of 2013: “cute, weird, and very sarcastic,” said Claire Graves, executive director of the Webby Awards, which issues annual awards to notable content on the internet. Graves said Grumpy set “a huge benchmark” for other animal influencers of “mostly dogs who have tried to replicate her success.”
So, will any of Grumpy’s successors ever rise to her level of fame?
“She was a true original, and even if it can’t be copied completely, it’ll leave a mold for success for those to follow,” Froggatt said in an email. He added that there is “still room for successful pet influencers, especially as brands look for more niche audiences to market products authentically in an increasingly difficult — and expensive — social media world.”
One recent star: Doug the Pug, who has 3.8 million followers on Instagram. He’s the self-proclaimed “King of Pop Culture” and published a book back in 2016. It became a New York Times bestseller.
“It’s not like anyone is going to stop liking dogs and cats,” Schimkowitz said. “I mean they’re adorable. And when you have an owner that recognizes one particular animal’s brand of adorable, that is always going to be popular.”