I’m sitting in a Manhattan conference room with three Instagram-famous dogs sitting in three separate office chairs.
Muppet, Underpants and Toast. They are brothers, more or less. In total, they have 12 legs, two social media-savvy parents, 431,000 Instagram followers, dozens of famous friends, and a book deal. But I’m really just here to meet one dog: Toast.
It’s a Friday in late May and the dog’s “mom,” Katie Sturino, is telling me about Toast’s famous fans. “Reese Witherspoon follows her,” Sturino says, adopting the same tone a mother would use to brag about her daughter’s report card. “Drew Barrymore follows her. That girl from Pretty Little Liars follows her. She has a lot of random celebrity followers, which is really cool.”
But for thousands of internet users interested in pets, Toast is the celebrity. “Probably three or four times a day, people stop and take pictures,” says Sturino, a gregarious dog lover passionate about her animals and the attention they receive. “We were at an adoption event last week for Dylan’s Candy Bar and this woman came from Sweden and said, ‘She was so excited!’ I thought she wouldn’t know you. “She came and took all these pictures.” All for a dog whose main skills seem to be “sleeping” and “having a tongue.”
Toast, a 10-year-old ruby Cavalier with round marble eyes and an excessively long tongue protruding from the side of her mouth, was rescued from a puppy mill a half-decade ago by Sturino and her husband Josh Ostrovsky (better known as the Comedian Instagram “Fat Jew”). It’s a rags-to-riches story: “The first day we got her… she had all her teeth dead and her hair crazy.” Then Sturino, a public relations professional with a deep interest in fashion (she runs a plus-size fashion blog called ella) began dressing the dog in stylish outfits and taking photographs. Now Toast on Instagram and is represented by DBA (Digital Brand Architects), an agency that specializes in internet celebrities. “Toast is her only canine client,” Sturino says. “They said, ‘This is a joke.’ I said, ‘It’s not a joke.’”
Toast, a dog with more than 350,000 followers on Instagram, is the star of a new book titled “ToastHampton.”Daniel Ballesteros/Harper Design
It definitely isn’t. All around you, pooping on your sidewalk and munching on your trash, are Internet-famous dogs: four-legged animals with more successful brands and more lucrative marketing deals than you’ll ever imagine. Some hunting dogs, like Manny the Frenchman, have more than a million followers on Instagram. These dogs are money makers: a single sponsored post on Instagram can earn its owner several thousand dollars. (Toast has worked with brands like Febreze and Swiffer, though Sturino’s favorite was a campaign with Karen Walker, who hired the dog to model a line of sunglasses in 2015.) Recently, a Harvard Law graduate named Loni Edwards launched a talent management firm for these large canines.
The obsession extends to real-life meetings. Sturino has met a dozen dogs, but status anxiety can get in his way. “I think there’s a kind of hierarchy on Instagram,” he says. “Maybe if you’re too famous, you won’t meet because you’re tired of people using you as their followers.” In January, I met some of the Internet’s most elite dogs while attending Toast’s fancy wedding, where Sturino says he dressed the dog in $175,000 worth of diamonds and raised money for a national mill’s dog rescue.
Toast’s first book features photographs of the dog posing in the Hamptons.DANIEL BALLESTEROS/HARPER DESIGN
This time, there’s a different occasion: the release of Toast’s first book.
ToastHampton: How to Summer in Style (Harper Design, 2016) consists of 120 elegant pages of photographs showing Toast posing against the elegant backdrops of the Hamptons. In some images, the dog is wearing sunglasses or sweaters; In others, he appears natural , with his characteristic tongue hanging out. The photos, professionally taken and filled with colorful embellishments, are similar to the ones you’ll find browsing Toast’s Instagram, except they’re bigger, fancier, and, well, with an attached price tag of $16.99. Reading the book (or rather looking at the pictures, since the text consists of single-line subtitles like: “As I always say: lift the kale salad!”) feels a little like printing out a Twitter meme and post it on your refrigerator in search of a sense of permanence and then be faced with the utter meaninglessness of existence.
Well, yes, the famous dog has a book. “Toast is fancy,” Sturino says by way of explanation, “and he’s just explaining to people how to live like a fancy, fancy dog.” The dog mom always wanted to have a book, so she approached HarperCollins and got a deal. The target audience? “Toast fans,” he says, and “tourist cities.”
In our conference room, we are joined by three publicists assigned to work on the book. This is your office. “I’m going to give you Toast’s Snapchat,” Sturino tells one of them, passing an iPhone across the table as if it were nuclear code. “Just don’t take pictures of me.” Publicists occasionally interject during the interview to share a favorite detail about Toast, or to keep the interview on message, emphasizing the dog rescue angle. When I ask Sturino about the revenue generated by his dog’s brand deals (“it’s not enough to live on”), a publicist tells me that a portion of the money goes to dog-related charities. “The book is still about spreading the message.” Some paragraphs about helping puppy mill dogs appear at the end of the book, just before the acknowledgments page.
Sturino’s passion for dog advocacy and rescue centers is obvious. He (he gets angry at the mention of Labradoodles, a breed commonly purchased in pet stores). So is his passion for the vicarious celebrity glow that comes with having an Instagram-famous dog. Once, the owner of another famous dog recognized her at the airport.
“I get direct messages every day,” Sturino says. “With people with four followers saying, ‘Repost me!’” In these cases, she rarely responds. “If I go to your account and maybe you have 10,000 followers and I see that you have 200 posts and you’re actually working on it and doing it, okay, let’s talk about it,” she says. “Maybe you have a message. But I’m not going to take your pet store’s dog and just help you because you want a famous dog.”
At first, his family and friends were dismissive. “People said, ‘This is a strange obsession and you should be careful,’” he recalls. “Even the wedding! People were like, ‘Uh, that’s so weird.’ But then [Toast] appeared in People magazine ! Real Housewives filmed it. It was ridiculous! But these are the qualifiers that make people think that you have done something right and not that you are a psychopath .”