With clients like Grumpy Cat, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, Scumbag Steve, Nyan Cat, and Success Kid, Ben Lashes is the world's first—and only—meme “manager.” And the 34-year-old has made a name for himself as an Internet oracle of sorts based on one simple, undying standard: “Is it cool?”
“That’s the question every time: ‘Is it cool?’ he said. “And if it’s not, we don’t do it.”
Lashes has a sweet spot for cat memes, which he considers a meme subculture, and has three cat-related clients, all of whom he loves equally. Before his days as a cat meme connoisseur he was in a band The Lashes, which had record deals with Columbia and Lookout! Records. The band went on tour and “did the whole roller coaster of being a band that finally gets signed,” he said. Lashes later took a break and began to work behind the music scene as a distributor for different artists.
His career path dramatically shifted when Charles Schmidt, a longtime family friend of Lashes, came to him with an idea after uploading a video he filmed in 1986 that went insanely viral. Enter: Keyboard Cat.
Lashes considers Schmidt a genius – he’s an artist, designer, actor, and has become a household name in Spokane, Wash., where both of them are from. Schmidt once went viral himself with a video involving Plexiglas and lip-syncing to Tom Jones’ songs – thrusting him into the spotlight and shows like The Tonight Show, which he appeared on three times.
Keyboard Cat eventually became too much to handle—despite Schmidt’s experience in the entertainment business—so Lashes and Schmidt made a pact: Keyboard Cat must have a manager.
“I’m a pop-culture junkie,” Lashes said. “I’m just a good ol’ nerd who studies being a nerd. So I saw this as a much bigger thing: that this was the Elvis of the Internet.”
Keyboard Cat had to be managed like a musician, he said. But memes are different. According to Lashes, there’s a certain timeless quality about them that “always makes you laugh.” Meanwhile, Schmidt began to grow and make more products. Lashes said, “His house is like an art studio already. He makes weird stuff whether people want to watch it or not.” His “weird stuff” ended up in Nokia, Wonderful Pistachio, and Starburst commercials, while Keyboard Cat dolls flew off the shelves of toy stores.
“Once we had a bit of a foundation, I was deep into the world of memes and watching it closely,” said Lashes. “We already encountered people who were trying to steal it. Lots of fans and then lots of people that were trying to do it for their own profit. I’m a big fighter for the underdogs. It’s like a DC comics universe in the meme world. Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, they can totally hang out together and then they have their separate universes too, and that’s how I think the memes work out there.”
Lashes loves to see how different websites and forums have their favorite memes, and how the Internet is constantly manipulating them and creating their own “corral” of memes that become larger and larger. With Lashes’ success, the creator of Nyan Cat, Chris Torres, reached out for help. In the beginning, Lashes said, he didn’t even understand Nyan Cat. He thought, “This is too hip for me or something.” Eventually, he began to understand more about what was behind that galaxy-blazing animated kitty. Nyan Cat inspired merchandising and commercials as well, making memes more “mainstream,” he said. Now, newscasters don’t even have to explain what “memes” are.
Lashes realized his passion and focus should be on his career as a meme manager and quit the music business, picking up more clients in the process. He did the A&R for Rebecca Black’s “Friday” single, and began communicating with other meme-tastic people and cats alike.
Scumbag Steve’s mother cried when she first saw the meme, he said. Now Steve, whose real name is Blake Boston (and he happens to live in Boston), owns his Scumbag-ness and whips out his famous douche-y hat right on command. He even, with the help of Lashes, released a rap album. Boston said he believes “there’s a little bit of scumbag in everybody.”
“He became Scumbag Steve folklore,” Lashes said.
But what’s in the future for Lashes? He’s always had an eye for Trollface, so perhaps that’s on the menu. Most of his time, though, is dedicated to one famous little sourpuss: Grumpy Cat. The meme that just keeps on giving.
From a coffee line to an upcoming movie, Grumpy has it made. The last nine or ten months with Grumpy’s owner have been crazy, Lashes said. They did The Today Show and South by Southwest. “It’s hard to be that pissed off and so cute,” he said of his client.
Like a proud father, Lashes doesn’t separate his client children. “I love all my clients,” he said. “It’s fun to do stuff – that we always just keep smiling.”