Meet CAA's Million-Dollar Cat Client

Courtesy of CAA; Lisa Dragani
Owners Shannon Ellis (left) and Varisiri Methachittiphan (who left her job at Six Flags to manage Nala Cat’s career) with kitty; The cat star

Nala Cat, Instagram's most-followed feline, brings in seven figures annually: "The pet industry is such a booming market."

It's been a tough year for viral cats. Grumpy Cat passed away May 14 at age 7 following a urinary tract infection, and, on Dec. 1, Lil Bub, a special-needs perma-kitten with an ever-dangling tongue, died in her sleep at age 8. Going strong, however, is Nala Cat, a Siamese-tabby mix with 4.3 million Instagram followers, who happens to be the sole feline client of powerhouse agency CAA.

It started with a screensaver. CAA’s Max Brabant, an agent in the digital media department, was catching up with Instagram’s Justin Anthony, head of content and creator partnerships, at an event in early 2018 when he eagle-eyed her smartphone’s home screen. “Essentially, he was like, ‘You’re a cat lady,’” recalls Brabant, the confirmation coming courtesy of a photo featuring her two black cats, Birdie and Mochi. “Then he said, ‘I have some people you need to meet.’”

The introduction Anthony wanted to facilitate was with a couple and their cat: Varisiri “Pookie” Methachittiphan, Shannon Ellis and Nala Cat. Brabant already followed and was a fan of the kitty who, at the time, was one of the most popular cats on Instagram with followers in the millions. She immediately told Anthony she’d be happy to meet the trio but couldn’t guarantee anything. “I brought it up in our pursuits meeting and the response was, ‘Why the heck are you talking about a cat?’” explains Brabant, whose client list includes a mix of companies, actors and influencers like Overheard LA, Melvin Gregg and Jaclyn Johnson. “But I had put a lot of thought into it and explained my vision and why it’s a lucrative business.” 

Take the meeting she did, inviting Methachittiphan, Ellis and Nala Cat to CAA’s Century City HQ where the cat strutted across the conference table while the humans talked shop and cat-loving CAA colleagues stopped by. Ellis says they were so nervous on the way over from their home in Riverside County that they had to compose themselves in the elevator. “We came prepared to pitch and show off merchandise and all the stuff that we’d already done so they could see the possibilities, but it turned out not to be that kind of meeting. [Max] just said let us know if you’re interested,” says Ellis. They were, so they signed with CAA in April 2018. “It was very special and the beginning of the next chapter.” 

Methachittiphan rescued Nala Cat from a shelter when she was just a 5-month-old. She created an Instagram account in 2012 as a way to share her kitten with family and friends back home in her native Thailand, but thanks to Nala Cat’s adorable cross-eyed face, authentic captions and pioneering Insta account, her popularity skyrocketed. Methachittiphan was able to leave her job at Six Flags amusement park and dive headfirst into a new career, following the lead of her catrepreneur with the help of Ellis, whom she met and fell in love with five years ago. 

Together they have managed Nala Cat’s burgeoning business empire that includes Instagram, a website, merchandise (T-shirts, hats, onesies, scratcher beds, coffee mugs, calendars, iPhone cases and cat food bowls) and endorsement deals (Nala has shilled for cbdMD, Litter Robot and Bissell vacuums) while also operating a full house of animal influencers. Nala Cat’s siblings included cats White Coffee (2 million followers), Luna Rose (581,000 followers), Stella and Steve (118,000 followers), and a dog named Spencer (83,600 followers). 

When CAA and Brabant came calling, Methachittiphan and Ellis were ready to create a platform that would complement the family’s philanthropic passions on behalf of rescue pets and animals in need. After more than a year of planning and negotiations, they launched Love, Nala in September with its first product — a premium line of cat food in both wet and dry varieties. Now at age 9, Nala is prepping for the release of her first book, Living Your Best Life According to Nala Cat (Penguin), in April. It's nothing to meow about: Multiple parties confirm the enterprise is a seven-figure-a-year operation.

"The pet industry is such a booming market, and we saw the opportunity," says Brabant of the strategy they developed together, which saw Methachittiphan and Ellis move away from cash grabs like one-off social media posts to longer-term partnerships with companies they believe in as well as ownership of their own brand. For now, Love, Nala is direct-to-consumer from the cat’s own website — in partnership with Perfection Pet Foods — but the hope is that it will soon be in retailers and not the only thing with her name on it on shelves.

Collars, toys, possibly even a cartoon one day are just a few of the business ventures being envisioned for the Nala Cat empire. In addition to Methachittiphan, Ellis and CAA’s Brabant, Nala Cat’s team includes attorney Phil Daniels at Ginsburg Daniels, the Rose Group for PR, Creative Labs vp product Maura Rogers, and design guru Jonathan Mentzos. “Our goal is to have something for everyone,” Ellis explains, adding that they hope to offer a variety of formulas as well as treats to please “finicky” cats. “Love, Nala is her legacy and will be something that generations to come will be able to enjoy.”

Methachittiphan and Ellis are making sure other cats have the opportunity to do what theirs does. At launch, they donated 5,000 meals to Kitten Rescue L.A. and recently, they mailed 55,000 meals to Daisy’s Hope Foundation, an animal-focused nonprofit that provides free and subsidized spaying and neutering, vaccinations and microchips, among other services. “What drew me to them is their entire spirit of giving back and their business mindset. They have such an amazing story, not only in the pet space but also what they’ve done for kids and families — they’re always giving back,” Brabant says of Methachittiphan and Ellis. “If I wasn’t [an agent], I would be running a cat shelter and fostering all the animals in the world so helping them has been able to help me spread the wealth from a pet perspective because they’ve also created this insane foster system to help people afford to pay for fostering and adoption. It’s all about being the most responsible pet parent out there. It’s been really rewarding.”

Clearly, being an influencer has been rewarding for Nala Cat. With a bank account and entourage that rivals some A-listers, she's already living her best life, but her owners say that despite the fancy cat furniture they bought for her with bridges, scratching posts and secret rooms, she’s still just a cat and not, as yet, a diva. “She will always go to an empty cardboard box first,” Ellis says with a laugh. “Plastic wrap is her jam and toilet paper rolls are life.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.