Move over Gigi Hadid and Kim Kardashian, a new celebrity set is rising. Not everyone thinks it's a 'cute' trend.
For as long as the internet has been around there have been cute pictures of animals at the centre of internet popular culture - Grumpy Cat, Jiff the Pomeranian and Doug the Pug - and now, many of those animals have burgeoning careers as social influencers.
The social media influencer business for high-profile 'fur-lebrities' has become so large there are management agencies springing up to represent them.
The "fur-lebrity" phenomenon began in the United States, where The Dog Agency, with over 100 "talents", claimed to be "the first [American] management agency to focus exclusively on pet influencers". It's founder, Loni Edwards, said she manages some of the world's most influential pets on social media including Tuna Melts My Heart, a chihuahua-
dachshund cross with almost 2 million Instagram followers , and Crusoe The Dachshund, a wiener dog and best-selling author with over 2.5 million Facebook followers.
In the wake of the US phenomenon, the trend is taking hold in Australia. One agency hoping to cash in is Power Pets, launched in 2018, to connect the world's largest brands with wannabe Aussie pet
influencers. These brands include Xbox, Disney, Kmart, Kellogg's, Optus, Universal, Petbarn and Samsung.
"What we do is connect our talent with brands looking to tell their brand stories through digital channels," said Karan White, founder of Power Pets. "Some might be through Instagram, it might be through Facebook, it might be blogs, vlogs and YouTube that sort of thing. So, we've rounded up some of Australia's top talent or celebrities in the pet space and we connect those pets with brands looking to cut through a really crowded market to use pets to tell their story."
'Brands were wanting to send us their products ... we got to a point where we had as many dog beds as we needed.'
This Australian "talent" comes in many different shapes, sizes and species. Nathan the Beach Cat, a water-loving cat from Queensland who loves to swim, Kou the Kelpie Dingo who won the title 2017 Wonderdog of the Year, My Deer Little Pony, the city-living pony from Sydney, and Dexter the Mini Lop Rabbit from Melbourne, are amongst the eclectic group of animals currently signed with the agency.
According to White, what makes a successful "fur-lebrity" has less to do with their follower count than how they interact with their followers.
"We know anecdotally that the larger an account becomes the less visibility they have with their community. So, smaller accounts can have higher visibility and [engagement] with their community," she said.
"We're looking for different things. Do they produce beautiful content? You know, they might have a really strong skill in producing stunning photos or they might have a great skill in captions - telling really great stories through captions."
Hana the Toy Poodle, with a modest 7,700 followers on Instagram (Jiff the Pomeranian has 8.8 million) is on the books at Power Pets. Hana's owner, Rumiko Nishi, has a background in photography.
The two-year-old pooch apparently has a very active social life which she makes sure to post about whenever she can. Most importantly, she models all of her favourite outfits for her followers and links to where she got them.
What Hannah lacks in her follower count, she makes up for in the cute pictures department and social media engagement, one day modelling a "pawlentine" heart-shaped neckerchief ahead of Valentine's Day, another, campaigning against puppy farms.
Nishi said "I have so many Insta-famous 'furiends' who [are] much more popular, so I don't think she is that popular, but I'm enjoying posting and sharing my cute girl and love looking back myself."
She said she only recently began receiving gifts and sponsorship for her posts.
"When I started, I just do it and [had] no plan. Now I realise
d people recognise her and it helped me to connect with people," Nishi said.
Not everyone thinks it's a "cute" trend". The RSPCA recently released a statement condemning pet owners who dress their pets up in costumes.
RSPCA Scientific Officer, Bronwyn Orr, told the ABC "posting a picture of your cat and dog dressed up or with makeup on, for a lot of people that might seem really quite funny or cute. But it obviously goes completely against the dignity of the animal and their natural needs and instincts."
"We have to keep in mind … a dog is a dog, a cat is a cat, we have to respect that."
DREAMS OF GLORY
Despite the calls for greater respect for animals' dignity, an increasing number of Australians are trying to get their household pets into the celebrity pet-space, giving them their own Instagram accounts.
Back in 2015, Melbourne's own Frankie the Lil' Sausage Dog, one of Power Pets' flagship talents, had barely 100 followers. That number has exploded since she lent her trademark "sassy personality" to media outlets such as Sunrise, Woman's Day, Vogue
, and brands such as Disney and Plush Sofas.
Frankie's owner, Alex Zajonc, said that teaming up with a social media agency for her dog is an attempt to take what was an accidental career to the next level.
"When we got her, she was a super cute puppy so we were posting photos of her all the time on our personal Facebook and Instagram pages. Then we thought let's just start up her own Instagram page … and that way if our friends want to follow and see pictures of her they can and we're not bombarding them on our personal pages all the time."
And it took off. She now has more than 73,000 followers.
Zajonc said Frankie was on Instagram for more than three years before joining the agency and she had been doing
sponsored posts and "sort of running it a bit more like a business", for at least a couple of years." She has also created a blog written in Frankie's "voice" devoted to giving dog related tips and telling stories of fun activities that she gets up to.
"When we started Frankie's Instagram even the caption was … a creative outlet and then the blog just sort of naturally followed that," said Alex.
As with human celebrities, with rising fame came the free stuff. "At the beginning … we were getting a ton of messages online saying brands were wanting to send us their products in exchange for a post. Then we kind of got to a point where we had as many dog beds and treats and toys as we needed … [So] we donate a lot of the things that we get to … pet charities and shelters."
A sure sign of Frankie's "fur-lebrity" status are her high profile gigs on the red carpet at the Dog Lovers Show, a celebration of all things canine. The 'Furbo Insta-Pooch Red Carpet' sees Instagram's most followed dogs walk the carpet and later make themselves available for a "cuddle and a selfie" with fans.
Frankie was one of the main attractions alongside Captain, sitting on a throne at the 2017 show while a long line of fans queued for a chance to stand in the presence of canine celebrity royalty.
For Hana the Toy Poodle it is still a case of watching the red carpet from the sidelines and biding her time as a minor player, decked out in a unicorn headpiece for Paw Principality.
This rise of toy poodles in unicorn headpieces, crowned sausage dogs that strut the red carpet and the management agencies which represent them have prompted the RSPCA to begin to develop guidelines on how to treat pets when used on social media or in advertisements
The RSPCA's Orr said that "a lot of people have real difficulty actually reading the body language from their animals and knowing when exactly they are distressed."
Hana's owner at least is convinced her pet loves the attention. "I initially posted a picture of the cute unicorn headpiece and I heard some customers came to the stall to ask for the one she was wearing," said Nishi. "Also, at the stall, there were a huge crowd wanting to pat her… Hana loved the attention and was happy the whole time."
For now, Hana (and Nishi) are dreaming the "fur-lebrity" dream. Asked if she thought Hana was Insta-famous enough to walk the red carpet, Nishi said: "Hana wasn't part of the Insta-famous ... yet."