While I was at the periodontist’s office this week — yep, it’s that old punch line: my teeth are great, but the gums have got to go—my dentist was admiring my pocketbook. She liked the design, an illustrated look of London, complete with the famous red telephone booths, Big Ben, and two Swinging Sixties birds with umbrellas and miniskirts. But even beyond the Nicole Lee drawings, she liked the Aurora squishie I have hanging from a loop. The calico cat is a cute plush pal, and it’s rendered me a lot of compliments over the past year. It’s funny how a tiny stuffed animal can open up avenues of conversation. And my little patchwork pal does just that. Another feline that is a guaranteed focal point is Pusheen. Pusheen definitely knows how to push the right buttons for chatting and laughing.
Pusheen is the brainchild (brainpet?) of cartoonist Claire Belton. In 2010, along with her then-partner Andrew Duff, Belton was running a website called Everyday Cute. On this site, which was also part of Tumblr, Belton would post sketches of Pusheen, along with written updates about Pusheen’s activities, plans, dreams, and ambitions. The visual chronicle and the verbal correspondence established Pusheen as a house cat who doesn’t let four walls and a roof define her. Lounging on her owners’ couch — that was initially Belton and Duff — Pusheen would watch Catflix and let her imagination carry her away. Exposed to blockbuster movies and TV shows, Pusheen would envision herself as heroines, villains, fantasy characters, and extremely comical alter egos. Pusheen was able to dream big and provide large laughs.
Having burst onto the scene in 2010, Pusheen became an immediate draw for merchandising, licensing, and collecting. Over the years I’ve been impressed with her Gund variations. In fact, I remember meeting Pusheen’s creator Claire Belton at Toy Fair 2015, where Ms. Belton pulled a Sean Penn and refused to be photographed for the magazine and blog site. Holding up a huge folder in front of her face, Belton firmly stated that she did not want to have her picture taken. The animator was adamant: she did not want to be photographed by me. It’s akin to those tribal “primitives” who fear that a camera will capture their soul along with their image. Not wanting to cause a scene, or make an enemy, I complied. In this case, I figured “Pusheen should not come to shove”!
At the Gund showroom, Pusheen is always a major draw. Retailers love the chance to scoop up her three-dimensional formats: plush characters, ornaments, slippers, cups, sleep masks. Truly, if you can dream it, it can be converted into a Pusheen silhouette. Since Pusheen and her sister, Stormy, are fans of “let’s pretend,” the possibilities are endless. They can be made into a myriad of recognizable pop culture characters, from mermaids to dinosaurs, catlike elves to Katniss Everdeen, the feisty ass-kicker of the Hunger Games franchise. Yep, Pusheen kicks down conventions and can become whatever she desires to be.
The word “pusheen” derives from Gaelic and means “kitten.” (In the Irish language, it is spelled “puisín.”) The role model for Pusheen was Belton’s actual tabby cat that had a bit of a weight problem coupled with a hefty dose of “cattitude.” It was a natural for translation into an Internet sensation. Even people who don’t collect soft-sculpture art have a chance to interact with Pusheen on a daily basis. She is one of the stickers available for use (for free) on Facebook. Every day, Facebook’s billions of users can add one of her depictions to their IMs. She’s a bit of complimentary cyber punctuation. Why just write something mildly amusing and sweet when it can be intensified with a Pusheen emoticon?
All of this success has made Belton a wealthy businesswoman, and she now has a Pusheen Corporation with headquarters in Chicago. The collectibles and merchandising arm of Pusheen has grown exponentially. The clothing, jewelry, plush pals, calendars, books, dishware, and every other incarnation can be bought through the Everyday Cute site and its spinoff website, which is strictly dedicated to Pusheen. In addition to the Internet retailers, brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes & Noble, Petco, Hot Topic, and independent mom-and-pop shops carry the Pusheen creations.
As with many decent folks who earn hefty revenues, Belton and her cohorts have decided to share some of their bounty with the less fortunate. Over the years, the rotund kitty has feasted on all manner of delicacies. Like Garfield, a similarly weight-challenged cat, Pusheen and pasta, and cookies, and cupcakes, and pretty much anything caloric, go hand in paw. Because of this, it makes perfect sense that Pusheen and Belton’s charity would be food-based. They partnered with the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) to help eliminate global hunger. Pusheen pledged to provide 36,000 meals for children around the world in 2014. It was an altruistic and heartfelt promise, and elevated Pusheen to a cat with caring credentials.
One of the most popular things to do with Pusheen is the blind-box/surprise box trend. Collectibles companies are jockeying for ways to remain relevant in a world that is increasingly shunning the acquisition of “stuff.” When you are looking to make money in a society that is anti-merchandise, anti-ownership, and anti-clutter (hmmm, could it be anti-capitalism?), how do you persuade people to buy into your business? If we’re all not supposed to covet or desire things — remember, Pusheen dreams about experiences — then that is what the collectibles firms are doing more and more. With these surprise boxes, it’s all about the reveal. The collector doesn’t know what she’s receiving until it’s cracked open. If it’s a duplicate of a past box, that’s where eBay, Craigslist, and good old-fashioned flea markets come in.
Pusheen also has a quarterly box subscription program, where a collector pays a fee and has Pusheen products shipped to their house every three months. The excitement comes from having merchandise curated for you, hand-selected and packed without your knowledge. You’re paying to have a chance at accumulating first-edition and exclusive Pusheen merchandise. Because it’s arriving four times a year, the Pusheen collectibles key into the seasons and holidays of the year. Again, if you receive items that you aren’t particularly fond of, you can swap with other members of the Pusheen community.
Begun as an Internet illustration, spiraling into a second life as a Facebook sticker, and then growing and evolving into collectible items plus purchased experiences, Pusheen seems to be a typical cat in one regard. She’s had so many different, publicized lives, it doesn’t seem farfetched to imagine her having nine more.