The first rule of Meow Meetup: When other attendees ask about your Instagram, it’s a trick question. What they’re inquiring about isn’t you—sorry, human—it’s your cat’s social media presence.
It’s a pretty good time to be alive if you’re a Felis catus. Or so it seemed at Chicago’s first-ever cat convention. An estimated 3,000 people gathered at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont over the weekend in devotion to their chosen house pets. Some adopted adorable strays, listened to lectures like “How to #LoveCatsMore” that doubled as pro-cat agitprop, shopped for political cat toys (the Donald Trump one sold out in under an hour), attended a feline film festival, visited a cat-themed cafe, participated in cat yoga and bingo, and, yes, exchanged Instagram handles.
“Cats are taking over the world,” pronounced Jessica Spaid, a manager of Windy Kitty, a Cat Cafe in Bucktown, as she held a pair of mewling kittens at the meetup.
But what kind of emperors will these tiny carnivorous mammals make? I must admit that, as a brand-new owner of a kitten, I left the meet-up feeling a bit insecure. Remember when ownership was mostly a matter of taking care of your cat’s sustenance, shelter, litter box, and in exchange for—if you’re lucky—some affection?
No longer. Feline-obsessed grassroots communities born on the Internet have grown and spawned celebrity cats with millions of followers who get book and movie deals and appearance fees at the cat-themed conventions, which keep springing up around North America since the debut of CatCon in Los Angeles in 2015. To keep up, cat enthusiasts must now serve as their creatures’ PR person, social media manager, and marketing executive.
That might sound exhausting, but living in an era of cat supremacy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Take Lauren Mieli, Meow Meetup’s founder. She got laid off from her Chicago-area marketing job in the last year and is turning her six-year-old cat blog, The Catnip Times, into a full-time job. After amassing almost 900,000 followers on Facebook and 50,000 on Instagram, she decided to organize a convention to bring cat lovers together in real life.
“Unlike, say, dog owners, cat people meet online because there is no such thing as a cat park in Chicago,” said Mieli. “So I decided to go big or go home and said, let’s do this. Let’s have fun and bring together this huge Instagram community and influencers and friends of felines.”
Mieli hopes that the Meow Meetup (which she’d like to turn into an annual event) can help normalize cat fandom to some extent—enough of the crazy cat lady cliche. “I was once in the closet about my love for cats, and then I came out, so to when I started my blog,” she says.
The biggest draw of cat cons still seems to be the promise of mingling with Instagram-famous felines at meet-and-greets. At the top of Saturday’s bill was Lil’ Bub, the odd but endearing saucer-eyed mutant cat from Bloomington, Indiana, who has her own media empire that includes a , a book, a documentary, and most recently a video game. Attendees paid $100 each to briefly bask in the presence of ‘Lil Bub and waited in lines to pet or get selfies with a handful of other, more minor, cat celebs.
I strolled over to celebrity cat’s Chuck the Duck’s booth to meet the Lakeview-based Instagram star, but the 11-year old orange tabby was on break in his hotel room, said his owner Cody VandeZande. Four years ago, , a professional hairdresser, started to dress up his cat in elaborate costumes and post pictures of them online. One in particular, of Chuck wearing hair extensions in imitation of went viral, and he now has 11,500 Instagram followers. Not bad for a former barn cat from rural Wisconsin.
“It’s been great so far,” says VandeZande about his first cat con. “A bunch of Chuck’s fans so excited to see him. Everyone in this community is so supportive.”
Even with Chuck taking a breather, VandeZande was busy promoting his cat’s merch: stickers, pins, and a forthcoming ABC primer, The Chuck Book, an illustrated children’s book featuring dozens of other Instagram-celebrity pets in alphabetical order.
“I never thought I’d be a crazy cat person,” he confesses. “But it definitely did happen.”
Four booths down from Chuck, I spied a different species of celebrity in the cat world. It’s the booth of Jeanette Skaluba of Decatur, who 2015 decided to try bringing cats from a nearby shelter to her yoga class? “Yoga and cats is a natural combination that no one thought of before,” says Skaluba.
She taped the resulting event on a GoPro and the video of a black-and-white colored kitty named Oreo slinking around or on top of Skaluba and other women as they made catlike poses earned 13 million views on YouTube and inspired what’s become a nationwide phenomenon: Cat Yoga. “I still get contacted from media outlets about it,” said Skaluba. “Recently it was BBC Russia.”
Cat yoga’s success has meant good things for Skaluba. Her Yoga4Cats became a both nonprofit and a licensed rescue organization last year, and she hosts special events such as an upcoming night session that pairs cat yoga with beer. Silly? Sure, but for a good cause. “Doing yoga with [the cats is] supposed to be a way to give them new exposure so they can get adopted,” she says.
Don’t be surprised if Lululemon has a Meow Meetup booth next year.