The unlikely star of SXSW: Grumpy Cat

8:45 AM, Mar 12, 2013   |    comments
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Austin, Texas (CNN) -- Forget Elon Musk or Al Gore. The biggest star of the South by Southwest Interactive festival is less than a year old, sleeps all day and looks like she just swallowed a hairball.

Austin, meet Grumpy Cat.

The real-life cat, an Internet sensation since photos of her sourpuss face began circulating last fall, has been holding court during SXSW at the Mashable House, a temporary lounge run by the tech-news site. People have stood for hours, in lines snaking around the block, to get their picture taken with her.

Grumpy Cat, an 11-month-old mixed breed whose real name is Tardar Sauce, has ignored them all. Mostly she sleeps in a cat bed while fans pass by to pose next to her. Instead of smiling, many of them make pouty faces of their own.

Through it all, Grumpy Cat has remained unimpressed.

"People keep asking if we sedate her," said one of her handlers, Bryan Bundesen, on Sunday. (The answer is no.) "It's been crazy. Yesterday, they were lined up for almost three blocks."

This is the first official public appearance for Grumpy Cat, who lives with her owner, Tabatha Bundesen, in Morristown, Arizona. The cat first gained fame in September when Bryan, Tabatha's brother, posted some photos of her on Reddit, the social-news site.

"It was an accident," said Bryan Bundesen of the viral stardom that followed. "We thought it would get some laughs, with the Internet liking cats. And it just kept going."

Grumpy Cat now has a website that Bryan Bundesen said attracts 1.5 million unique visitors a month, plus a popular Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter account. Bryan manages her social media pages from his home in Ohio with occasional help from Tabatha, who sends him fresh Grumpy Cat photos every week or so.

"I don't mind it," Tabatha said of her pet's celebrity. "I'm thrilled to see that my cat brings joy to people."

The Bundesens declined to say exactly how much money they've earned off Grumpy Cat, although Bryan said it's in the mid-five figures.

They're also sensitive to charges that they're exploiting their pet. At SXSW, they have made her available to the public only for several hours each day, and Tabatha sits close by to make sure no fans get too cozy.

But that hasn't stemmed people's enthusiasm for the small cat with the cranky face. Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") was doing an interview a few feet away Saturday, but people crowded past him for a glimpse of the cat.

Fans have come bearing cattnip toys and other gifts. One woman said she came all the way from Australia to see Grumpy Cat.

Mashable, a content partner, invited the Bundesens and Grumpy Cat to Austin as part of their SXSW party space, which celebrates Internet memes. The result supports the notion that Internet fame is becoming as potent a force as other types of celebrity.

"There's this great universal quality that Grumpy Cat captures," explained Mason Peatross, who waited in line more than 90 minutes for his 30 seconds with the snoozing kitty. "Everybody's got that grumpy moment where they just hate things. The cat just makes me laugh every time."

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