Forget retouching. Forget naked women. Getting people to look at fashion photography these days is as simple as adding a cat. Over the past few years felines have become some of the most popular and celebrated fashion models, appearing regularly in magazines like Elle and Vogue, and in ads for brands like Lanvin and Dolce & Gabbana.
"I think they're really seen and respected as a creature of beauty and elegance, and sometimes sensuality, because of their beautiful, stealthy bodies," says Cathryn Long, an agent from All Creatures Great and Small, which represents animals for acting and modeling work. "They're really so much more highly regarded and appreciated than they ever used to be." Her talent roster includes all kinds of animals — sloths, pigeons, dogs, horses, snakes, you name it — but she says that over the past few years, her bookings of cats for fashion work have doubled. "Really there's nothing that is not touched by cats anymore. Before it might have just been [ads for] cat food or cat litter. Now it's not." If cats aren't appearing in fashion magazines, they're probably adding warmth to a scene of a family in a Verizon commercial, for instance.
Sarah Cristobal, editor of the edgy fashion magazine V, says cats are "back on the brain" among her fellow editors. "Definitely, people in the office have been like, 'I should get a cat,'" she says. "[Cats'] personalities do match the fashion set — they're beautiful and graceful but also kind of finicky." Also, they're the most viewed animal on the internet and — in an age when many fashion companies are trying to get their fashion films and ad images to go viral — the wit, humor, and chicness of cats just makes sense.
Cats have been most noticeably on the rise in fashion arguably since Lanvin's fall 2009 ad campaign included two black felines. Then Miuccia Prada unveiled a cat print for her spring 2010 Miu Miu collection. Riccardo Tisci also incorporated cat imagery (panthers, specifically) into his fall 2011 runway collection for Givenchy. And so the onslaught had started: Chanel dressed a model as a cat for its ad campaign, magazines started casting cats for editorials with increasing frequency — and then Choupette was born.
V, which has been photographing cats for years, will feature Choupette — the most famous fashion cat of them all, owned by Karl Lagerfeld — in the September fall fashion issue. The spread announces Choupette's representation by IMG, one of the world's top fashion model agencies, crediting the cat as an "IMG model" in the spread. (IMG was unable to comment on its relationship with Choupette at press time.) For the shoot, which was done in Paris, Choupette posed with model Laetitia Casta in front of the Eiffel Tower. "She looks a little terrified in the images, actually," says Cristobal, who was not present on the set. "But in a couple of them she actually gives kind of a model pose — she's a real natural, that one." V was able to book Choupette — a very in-demand cat — because editor Stephen Gan is close friends with Lagerfeld. The magazine was one of the first to tweet a photo of the fluffy wonder (which went viral) and the idea to shoot her for September followed. "We were very fortunate to shoot Choupette," Cristobal said. "From what I hear she's very well-behaved."
But to call Choupette's situation — her two maids, her unending fashion spreads in the top magazines — unique would be a serious understatement. Despite the explosion of cat fanaticism in the fashion industry, the business of cat modeling is going widely unregulated. Cats have agents, like Long, who fight for good monetary compensation and their well-being on shoots, but they do not have unions, and they will not get rich from a modeling career. Cat modeling has even lower financial rewards than male modeling. A successful male model is lucky to make $40,000 a year, while a successful cat model is lucky to make half that.
If you dream of getting your kitty in a magazine, you can probably forget about it. The cats you see in magazines by and large are not someone's pet who happens to appear in Vogue on the side. These are career cats, who spend their lives in show business and train for the spotlight from infancy. Cat fashion models often do the cat show circuit and belong to breeders. Others belong to animal trainers. (The two careers tend to overlap.)
Training a cat model is much more difficult than training a human model. Long says cats are the most difficult to train of all the animals she represents, and it has nothing to do with them being stupid or stubborn. "You can't calm a cat like you can another animal with a treat or a toy," she explains. Karen Hoeverman, a breeder and cat model owner, trains her cats from infancy by walking them around PetSmart on a leash because the store is "like a studio." She knows they're ready for jobs when, during these walks, they finally get bored and don't care about being in PetSmart anymore. When kittens get a little older, she'll start bringing them on shoots with the working cats so they can get used to the car ride and being around people and on sets.
Hoeverman's cats, Persians and Himalayans, have two agents who call when potential jobs come up. Her cats have appeared everywhere from the cover of international issues of Elle to British GQ, in which they posed with Victoria's Secret models.
While "smashed-in face cats" are more popular at cat shows, cats with long noses are popular requests for fashion shoots, because people think they look less angry. Once the breed of cat is settled on, Hoeverman then figures out what the client wants the cat to do. "Sometimes the [model] is holding the cat, sometimes the cat is posed on a chair or sofa — if they want the beautiful lines of the body sometimes it's walking through set. It really really varies," Long, the agent, explains.
If the client wants the cat to perform an action — jumping or swatting, say — Hoeverman sometimes has to film a cat doing the behavior as an audition (there are no guarantees she'll get the job even after she puts hours into those tapes). If an action needs to be performed, the cat will always practice in advance. "No cat's going to do every behavior," Hoeverman notes. "Some cats are action cats — they'll paw at stuff. Others will sit there like, yeah, right. I had one cat that sat in a producer's lap for three hours straight and never moved." Those kinds of cats tend to get the most work in fashion since that's what many fashion jobs require — sitting and looking pretty, or being nice when being held by a model.
After shoots, Hoeverman receives a check from her agent. The cats' monies are kept in their own bank account, separate from hers. Often rates are around $200 for a two-hour shoot, and $500 for a full eight-hour day; overtime is common, but cats aren't paid for it. Cats also don't get royalties if images from one shoot are used for more than one editorial or ad campaign. Day rates for the cats often depend on the budget for a shoot, but, Long says, "Don't expect to send your kids to college on the number of jobs your cat's going to get in a year." Hoeverman says her cats might book two jobs a week and then go months without one.
And sometimes, she has to turn down requests. "One job they want me to do now — and I just said no — was put a taxidermy mouse in the cat's mouth with fake blood. Like, it's not a dog. It's not going to fetch and sit still and if you put something on its mouth it's going to lick it off," she told them.
All kinds of requests are likely to continue pouring in. With Choupette (and the internet, obviously) on the rise, this cat fad is only likely to continue exploding. At least, don't expect to see less of Choupette any time soon. "I think she has a very bright future," V's Cristobal says. "She's going to have an everlasting career."