“WHY DO I love Choupette? Let me count the ways,” my best friend Cathy says, cocking her head to one side. We’re at a club on Park Avenue South, where DJs play novelty hits from the early aughts while girls in sparkly blouses stand on tables and fumble the lyrics. Instead of dancing or doing shots or flirting with men who claim to have skied with one of the Winkelvii at Sundance, we are sitting in one of the quieter corners of the bar, where we are discussing the appeal of a minor Internet celebrity who also happens to be a cat.
“Honestly, I think Choupette is one of the most beautiful cats around right now,” Cathy says, setting her $14 whiskey soda on the table. Her eyes take on the steely intensity of someone in an arcane, highly specialized field —like, say, a tax accountant— trying to communicate to a disinterested outsider why she finds loss disallowance rules or the General Utilities repeal deeply compelling.
“I also think she’s very savvy for a cat,” Cathy continues. “She has two iPads and she is able to work them. There are multiple pictures of her pawing at those iPads, and the fact that they are still intact means that she must be able to take care of it to a basic degree.”
“Is it just her looks or something innate about her persona that appeals to you?” I ask her.
“No, it’s something innate,” Cathy insists. “There’s some sort of power in her that makes you say, ‘I want that, [but] raw,’ or in Choupette’s case, ‘I want Choupette.’”
The recording of this discussion is cut off by one of us emitting a piercing shriek, at a Selena Gomez song that has just come on the DJ’s playlist. Choupette is briefly forgotten as Cathy and I join the miniskirted revelers on the dance floor.
Here are some things that the Internet knows about Choupette. She is the pet and muse of 77 year-old Karl “Kaiser Karl” Lagerfeld, the Chanel creative director notorious for his eccentric, misanthropic persona (he once told an interviewer that he found people “boring, pretentious, and vulgar”) and vampiric appearance (he refuses to be seen in public without his trademark sunglasses, and reportedly lives on a diet of sugar-free soda and apples). She was originally the property of 24-year old Chanel model Baptiste Giabiconi, and was adopted by Lagerfeld after Giabiconi asked him to babysit over Christmas vacation. “I refused to give her back. I thought she was too cute,” Lagerfeld told Women’s Wear Daily last June.
Choupette made her Internet debut in January 2012, when V Magazine’s Stephen Gan tweeted a photo of her next to Lagerfeld’s bathroom sink. Since then, she has taken the fashion world by storm, inspiring Facebook groups, Tumblr pages, and a satiric Twitter account, @ChoupettesDiary, with more than 32,000 followers (sample Tweet: “a man’s promise to call is about as unreliable as Anne Hathaway wearing Valentino”). Last September, she appeared in a ten-page, black-and-white editorial spread with model Laetitia Casta in V Magazine; more recently, she appeared on the cover of German Vogue with supermodel Linda Evangelista. According to Glamour, by last summer she had already appeared in more fashion magazine spreads than Sports Illustrated supermodel Kate Upton.
Choupette has two iPads, two maids, and a Goyard-designed food bowl, from which her handlers serve her a daily meal of pate and croquettes. She doesn’t like to eat on the floor, so she has a special seat at Lagerfeld’s table, on a pillow embossed with the slogan “Ici, c’est la place du chat” (“here is the place of the cat”). For her first birthday, she was presented with shrimp cocktail in the shape of a birthday cake, an event that Lagerfeld documented on his Twitter account. She is nineteen months old. Depending on whom you speak to, she may or may not have a multi-million dollar contract with IMG Models.
Based on the above known information about Choupette, here are some of the things that Cathy and I have speculated about her: She is best friends with German model/actress Diane Kruger. She socializes exclusively with photographers and models, and does not fraternize with fellow celebrity cats (in fact, she is suspected in the untimely demise of Kim Kardashian’s teacup Persian Mercy, who died at four months old last December). She has the beauty of a French heiress, the grace of Jackie Kennedy pre-Onassis, and the charisma of a young Brando, and she is one of the foremost cultural icons of our time.
Cathy and I became obsessed with Choupette after we saw her V editorial spread. Since then, we’ve devoted innumerable texting minutes to Choupette-related discussion: what kind of food she eats, what her favorite toys are. We created a fictitious rivalry between Choupette and my cat, Thundercat (this primarily entailed showing her pictures of Choupette on my iPhone while screaming, “Isn’t she gorgeous, Thunder?!!? Don’t you haaaate that bitch?”). Once, we spent hours hatching an elaborate plan to arrange an interview with her, which culminated in a semi-serious screaming match over which one of us would get to pet her first.
Imbuing an animal with human characteristics is either the result of deep-seated irony or eccentricity. Cathy and I share a passion for all things low-brow and objectively ridiculous — overpriced cocktails, bars in midtown Manhattan, Selena Gomez — and a crazy Teutonic fashion designer’s cat ostensibly falls into this category. Having said that, our love for Choupette is genuine, and I don’t think our love for her, or the Internet’s love of cats in general, stems from that same winking, semi-detached place as does our ardor for shitty midtown bars, or the artistic output of former Disney television stars.
Earlier, I stated that I considered Karl Lagerfeld’s cat one of the foremost cultural icons of our time. If you are dubious of the notion that Choupette deserves this label, consider how ubiquitous cats are on the web. From adorable sourpuss Grumpy Cat, (whose YouTube channel has more than 24 million views) to the Japanese YouTube superstar Maru (who has more than 228 million), cat memes are more likely to go viral than any other on the Internet: in fact, one video of Maru jumping in and out of a box has twice the number of combined views for the official White House YouTube page. Cat videos have been permanently imprinted in the collective digital consciousness, to the point where blogger David Burge joked the first digital computing machine was invented as “an integral part of a sophisticated worldwide cat picture distribution system.”
Publications from Mashable to the New York Times have run a number of think pieces attempting to explain why, to borrow the title of a Vice piece on the subject, “cats own the Internet.” Hypotheses range from the historical (the ancient Egyptians used to worship cat goddesses) to the pseudo-scientific (Michael Newall, an art expert from the University of Kent, told the New Republic that our interest in cats derives from our evolutionary nurturing instincts, citing “their formal resemblance to our offspring — their big eyes, smallish noses, and dome-shaped heads”).
Whatever the reason, cats have achieved unprecedented significance in the digital age. They are authors (former President Clinton’s cat, Socks, published a memoir), musicians (the YouTube virtuoso Nora the Piano-Playing Cat has released a CD), film and TV stars (for example, Lil Bub, star of the award-winning Internet cat documentary Lil Bub and Friendz, who shook paws with Robert De Niro at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) and politicians (Stubbs, a tabby, has been mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska for more than fifteen years). They have been “interviewed” on television news outlets, and their life stories are documented in best-selling biographies, such as 2008’s Dewey: A Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is reportedly in the works). They are, for better or worse, an integral part of our culture.
In this cat-friendly milieu, it’s not too difficult to imagine a Birman kitten with 26,000 Twitter followers and her own Chanel handbag named after her — the Choupette, carried by models in Lagerfeld’s Fall 2012 collection — acquiring the cultural cache of a Grace Kelly, or at least a furrier Paris Hilton. Perhaps these 26,000 people see the same thing in Choupette — and Maru, and Dewey, and Grumpy Cat — that Cathy does: an ineffably attractive force within her, an innate power. It’s the thing about cats that makes us say, “I want that, but raw,” or in Choupette’s case, “I want Choupette.”
Although the Internet has provided us with a global forum for cat worship, it is not an historically unique phenomenon. In the Second Dynasty of ancient Egypt, from 1000 to 350 BCE, the cat goddess Bastet was venerated as the protector goddess to the pharaoh. Depicted in sculpture as a sleek, imperious-looking black cat, Bastet was lavished with golden earrings and pendants, and the people of the Nile held annual feasts in her honor. If a cat died, it was decreed that her owners would shave their eyebrows. If a human killed a cat, the murderer was subject to the same penalty as if he had killed another person: dismemberment by the hands of an angry mob.
According to leading zoologist Desmond Morris, the reasoning behind cat worship in ancient Egypt was simple: the Egyptian economy was dependent on grain farming, and cats protected storehouses from rodent infiltration. Yet the phenomenon of feline worship was not restricted to ancient Egypt. In Norse mythology, the goddess Freya was said to have ridden in a sled pulled by two white cats so large and imposing that not even Thor himself could pick them up. Birmans like Choupette were also considered sacred in nineteenth-century Burma, where it was said that they had the ability to bring men back from the dead.
During the Middle Ages, when the Black Plague swept through most of Europe, cats’ standing as prognosticators of good fortune took a direct hit. Whispers that cats were allied with the Devil prompted an onslaught of cat killings. (Paradoxically, because rats were the primary carriers of the Plague, historians estimate that Black Plague death tolls could have been significantly reduced had there been more cats in Europe.) Since then, Westerners have associated cats with disease and misfortune, a conception that lasted well into the Salem Witch Trials, where cats were regularly burned at the stake alongside their owners.
The past century or so, however, has seen a cat renaissance of sorts. According to a 2012 survey by the American Pet Products Association, cats are the most popular pets in the country, with at least 8 million more pet cats than dogs in the United States. This discrepancy also holds on the Internet, where a Yahoo! Search reveals that hits for cats outnumber those for dogs three to one. The onset of the digital age has taken cat worship to a new level, with memes like LOLCats, Keyboard Cat, and Nyan Cat becoming ubiquitous pop culture staples.
Compared to the sumptuous treatment of Bastet, or Freya’s gargantuan sled kitties, Choupette’s living conditions might seem somewhat shabby. Yet in the same way that our society elevates beautiful women to the level of goddesses, Choupette is the closest thing we have to a Bastet in the ever-expanding canon of cats on the Internet. We worship idols of her image in the form of ten-page glossy editorial spreads; we lavish her with gifts in the form of shrimp, pate and iPads. In our hyper-digital, hyper-image-obsessed, hyper-ironized culture, Choupette is a totem of everything we hold near and dear: youth, beauty, cats on the Internet.
You might be of the opinion that equating a wealthy gay man’s pet with an ancient goddess is at best facetious and at worst stupid. “How could a cat achieve the standing of a deity if she only has 32,000 Twitter followers?” you might ask. “That would make a celebrity like, say, Al Roker, who has well over a million, God, or possibly the anti-Christ. Furthermore, if Choupette were a goddess, she would have goddess-like properties: she would be the protector of a pharaoh, like Bastet, or be able to bring men back from the dead, like the temple guardians of ancient Burma. As far as I can tell from that video of Choupette handling an iPad, she barely has the motor skills required to play Angry Birds, let alone reanimation properties.”
Although we have no evidence that Al Roker is, in fact, the antichrist (nor do we, for that matter, have evidence to the contrary), there is substantial proof that Choupette has the ability to bring men back from the dead. We have this evidence in the form of her owner, Karl Lagerfeld.
Like many rich and eccentric pet owners, Lagerfeld speaks of Choupette the way he would a beloved friend or relative: he showers her with gifts, drags her to fashion shows, and showcases her in Chanel ads (her best work is probably a spot for one of Chanel’s classic chain purses, which features her poking her head insouciantly out of the bag). He keeps a veterinarian on call at all times, and books her first-class seats when they fly to St. Tropez. In short, Choupette is treated like a wealthy and spoiled human who is constantly rewarded for her youth and beauty; she benefits from the same system of cultural values that dictates that fifteen year-old Slovakian models never have to pay for their drinks at bars.
Of course, wealthy people treating pets like humans is not a new phenomenon. In the early nineteenth-century, Lord Byron was known for toting his pet bear around the Trinity College, Cambridge campus, where it would accompany him to classes and lectures; at one point, when the administration protested, the poet tried to procure a fellowship for him. The celebrity animal-as-accessory trend continued with Michael Jackson, who drew criticism when reports surfaced that he was sharing a two-bedroom suite with his chimpanzee, Bubbles, while on tour in Japan.
What makes Choupette exceptional in the world of celebrity pets, however, is that her owner does not seem like the type of individual who could form an attachment to any living thing, unless it was by way of sinking his claws into its flesh. Lagerfeld is the high-cheekboned, white-ponytailed embodiment of many criticisms leveled against the fashion establishment: he is elitist, catty (he has remarked that Michelle Obama’s bangs “make her look like a news anchor,” while Pippa Middleton should “only be viewed from behind”), and fattist (he has called both Heidi Klum and Adele “a little too fat”). His soundbites read more like lines from an SNL parody of the fashion world than the observations of a thinking, feeling person.
Throughout his decades-long career, Lagerfeld’s foremost commitment has been to his work: though never married, he has been photographed with a series of comely, much younger male traveling companions, most of whom have, at one point or another, worked for Chanel. For Lagerfeld, work and life are inextricable from one another, which is why he has avoided emotional intimacy for much of his adult life. “I personally only like high-class escorts,” he told Vice in 2010. “I don’t like sleeping with people I really love.”
Before Choupette, Lagerfeld’s lack of romantic companionship contributed to his reputation as a sexless, soulless fashion ghoul. With his gaunt frame, sunken cheeks, and omnipresent man candy, he seemed less like a mortal man than like some folkloric, Death Eater-type figure, bathing in the blood of dewy-skinned virgins to hold onto some semblance of his former youth.
After Lagerfeld acquired Choupette, something in him softened. He gushes about his new pet in interviews, displaying her fluffy visage at every given opportunity (a short film for Lagerfeld’s Spring 2013 collection features his godson, Hudson Kroenig, wearing a sweatshirt with her face on it). Lagerfeld has become more empathetic, or at least more open about his capacity for empathy: although he previously came out against same-sex marriage, telling Vice he believed more in “the relationship between mother and child than in that between father and child,” he featured a same-sex wedding–albeit between two women–in his Spring 2013 haute couture show. And he seems to have no problem with an interspecies union, telling a reporter from the Independent that he would marry Choupette if it were legal.
Even gossip blogger Michael K, an outspoken critic of Lagerfeld’s, noticed the change that Choupette had brought about in the designer: “With Choupette, Karl’s dead heart cracked open and it started to beat for the first time since he was turned into a zombie vampire centuries ago,” he wrote in a post on the cat.
Unlike foppish nineteenth-century poets or infantile pop stars, Lagerfeld is a deeply self-serious man: although he is undeniably eccentric, everything about him, from his social circle to his life’s art, is resolutely high-end. Yet with the union of Choupette and Karl Lagerfeld, the highbrow fell prey to the lowest brow entity of all: an adorable, fluffy white kitten. Choupette sunk her claws into Lagerfeld’s heart and refused to let go, proving that no one, not even Kaiser Karl, is impervious to the appeal of cats.
After seeing the Twitter photos of Choupette with her shrimp cake, last month Cathy and I threw a Choupette-inspired birthday party for Thundercat. A few hours before the Shrimp Birthday Sexxxtrvaganza, as we advertised it on Facebook, she came over with a few bottles of liquor and prawns from Whole Foods. As we set up, it occurred to me that we were celebrating my cat’s birthday with top-shelf whiskey and six ounces of organic shrimp, while I, a human, hadn’t had a real birthday celebration since my bat mitzvah.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” I said. “Maybe we’re taking this too far.” I envisioned Kaiser Karl at a cash register, about to purchase two iPads for Choupette, and wondered whether the same thought had crossed his mind en route to the Apple Store.
Cathy looked at me as if I had just announced, with great pomp and circumstance, that I fully intended on soiling myself. “Of course we have to do this. We can’t invite people to a shrimp birthday party for Thundercat and not provide shrimp, or a birthday party, or a cat. That’s insane.”
A few hours later, we brought Thundercat out into the living room for her shrimp cake. Everyone cheered and sang “Happy Birthday” to Thundercat before she scampered away, terrified. While Cathy raged to no one in particular that Thundercat had behaved in an undignified, un-Choupette-like fashion — “I can’t believe that thankless bitch. How dare she?” she kept screaming—I left the room to look for her.
I found Thundercat in my bedroom, sitting atop a pile of peacoats and ski jackets. Although she was clearly terrified, she looked so adorably imperious, like Bastet on her golden throne or Choupette peeking out from Daddy Karl’s Spring 2012 chain bag, that I felt compelled to heave myself onto the sea of outerwear and bury my face in her fur.
“Thunderrrrrr,” I cooed, in the same high-pitched, lilting, vaguely eastern European inflection that humans use when talking to animals. “I’m so sorry for all the peeeeeeople, Thunder. I’m so sorry.”
As the hordes of shrimp birthday revelers milled outside my door, I lay with Thundercat on my bed and thought about when I adopted her last year: I was still living in my college town a year after graduation, I had broken up with my boyfriend, and I had taken to getting drunk on a bottle of rosé every night and cruising my more successful college peers’ Facebook pages, which is one of the most reliable indicators of someone on a downward spiral.
Thundercat was my very first pet, and during my first few weeks with her we approached each other warily, like two drunken hookup buddies trying to have sober sex for the first time. After a month or so, however, she’d evidently decided I was worth her affections, and started jumping onto my belly every night. I’d lie there, petting her, and I’d marvel at how easy it was to fall in love with an animal, something silent and blinking and fuzzy and unable to damage you in the myriad ways that humans could. I wondered what it was about this cat that made me warm and soft and pliable, like putty in her paws, and I’d think, “If my love for this animal is a tenth of what it feels like to love a human child, I am going to be a sorry fucking wreck of a parent.”
As I drunkenly stroked Thundercat, I thought about how, simply by being her silent, blinking, fuzzy self, she had saved me from those months of hell, and I knew Kaiser Karl felt similarly indebted to Choupette. “I love you so much, Thunder,” I said, kissing her on the top of the head.
I looked into her eyes, expecting to find some sort of reassurance that the feeling was mutual, that me and Karl and millions of other cat lovers, from the ancient Egyptians to the Norse gods to bored middle managers surfing LOLCats on their work computers, were justified in our unconditional worship. What I saw was less than nothing, before she swatted me with her paw and ran away.