Every now and then an idea comes along that, in its elegant simplicity, has true break-the-Internet potential. Case in point: Girls and Their Cats, a popular Instagram account that’s now a handsome coffee-table volume from Chronicle Books. Launched in 2015 by fashion and beauty photographer BriAnne Wills, the project spotlights a diverse array of women. These doulas, tattoo artists, actors, CEOs, journalists and designers all share an unflagging love for their cats, an equally eclectic bunch (consider Maud’Dib, a Peke-Faced Persian sporting a hip-hop gold chain; or Loki, a hairless Sphinx with a posh fashion sensibility).
“I love every cat I meet,” Wills admits. “Even the women I photographed who started out not liking cats — they met one cat who changed their entire perspective. It just takes the one.” The photographer’s heart is currently taken by a pair of felines that she rescued in the Ukraine with her husband, Chris. Wills has spent the past few years meeting and documenting fellow cat moms across the country, shedding light on both human and pet; each entry in the “Girls and Their Cats” book includes a short profile about the kitties in question.
We spoke with Wills about the unexpected beginnings of her project and why it might be true that cats simply prefer women to men.
Have you always been a cat lover?
I’ve been a cat person my whole life. Since I was born, I’ve had a cat in my life. We never sought out cats — they’ve always just shown up. We never went to a shelter. Somehow they always found us.
Girls and Their Cats started out because you were doing a project involving nude portraits of women. That’s a pretty big pivot.
I had just moved to New York and hadn’t started working yet. I moved here to pursue beauty and fashion; the industry is really hard to break into if you don’t know the right people. I figured I would work on a private series that would keep me busy and out of the house, meeting people and focusing on something creative. I thought a series of nudes, coming from the female perspective, would be interesting.
The first woman I photographed nude had done many shoots with friends, she’s very casual and comfortable with it, and as we were sitting in her kitchen her cat just decides to waltz into the shoot and hang out. I changed direction, slightly, into photographing [the woman] in the buff interacting with her cat. It was really special and sweet and a little bit more interesting than just “a naked woman.”
Then, in 2015, I got to thinking about all the cool cat ladies in my life. I have cats, my sister has cats, a lot of my friends have cats. Why is that we’re still seen as this stereotype of the “crazy cat lady” who has a ton of cats and who doesn’t bathe regularly? Come on, guys! I decided to change direction completely — from naked women, to women who have cats.
What happened to those first photos?
She is naked with her cat on my Instagram feed, if you scroll all the way down. When we started doing an open call to get more cat ladies involved, they were like…”Do I have to get undressed?”
The cat lady stereotype is present in the wider culture, but did you also find it surfacing in interactions with people you know?
In fashion and beauty I meet a lot of people who don’t have cats and who have this prejudice against them. I’d just bring up cats in general and it’d be like, “Ew, cats! I don’t like cats. Cats are assholes. Oh, no, she’s gonna be alone and live with cats her whole life!” Very flippant remarks.
Not to be stereotypical about the fashion industry, but I’m assuming that maybe small dogs are more the norm.
Totally. Dogs are fine. Dogs don’t get a bad rap.
People think that cats are assholes, to a degree. They do their own thing. They don’t care about you.
You have to work a little bit harder to earn their trust and love. A lot of people don’t like that.
During a shoot, is there a routine you follow in terms of getting to know the person and getting to know the cat?
The shoots usually take about an hour. I allot 10 to 15 minutes for sitting down and chatting with the girl, getting to know her and letting the cat get comfortable with my presence. Then we move into her interacting with her cat, more candid shots. I’ll try to get some solo shots [of the cat]. Then we’ll work into some more posed, strategic photos.
The late, great cat photographer Walter Chandoha had a bag of tricks to get cats to pose. Do you have your own go-to?
My go-to is a crinkly cat toy that I hold near the lens. It can be difficult holding the camera with one hand and the toy with the other, but it works. It gets them to look up 95% of the time. The other 5%, it scares them.
Is there one shoot that presented a lot of challenges?
I’ll always remember one in particular. She chased the cat around the apartment for the full hour, trying to get him to come to her. She didn’t want to pick him up — because, you know, body autonomy and everything, I respect that — but it made it very challenging to get him involved. She ended up picking him up for the one shot we got. He was making this face, mid-meow, like, “Nope, this is not going to work.” It ended up being a really great photo.
Have you found differences in the cat community in New York versus elsewhere?
One thing I’ve noticed is the difference between West Coast and East Coast cats. I want to say West Coast cats are a little bit more outgoing. They greet you at the door. They’re excited to have you around. Whereas East Coast cats are a little bit more reserved. They take their time. I wonder if this has to do with the smaller spaces we live in on the East Coast.
I’ve had a running conversation with my wife (who, incidentally, was featured on Girls and Their Cats) about a certain issue: My cats just like her more, honestly.
I’ve heard this a lot. Most women are more connected than their male partners. We could say that it’s a whimsical connection that [women] share. But I think it has a little bit to do with the fact that we don’t take up as much space [as men]. Not in a physical sense. Men can be louder; they walk a little louder. I know when my husband is home, he speaks in a softer voice, and the cats really react positively to it.
Okay, I won’t take it personally. My cats still like me.
Totally. My cat Tuck and my husband have a very unique bond. They’ll do things together that Tuck won’t do with me. But when Tuck wants to cuddle, he’ll come to me.
Has anyone ever made the sacrilegious suggestion that you do this project, but with dogs?
Of course. All the time. Dogs don’t need as much help with their image. They’re doing just fine.
What about a “Boys and Their Cats”?
It’s been done. And also, I can’t picture myself going into strange mens’ homes. So I’m going to avoid that.
Do you keep in touch with the people you’ve photographed?
The only people I follow on Instagram are the subjects for Girls and Their Cats. I’m always keeping up with the cool things they’re doing, dropping them little notes, trying to be supportive.
All the photographs so far have been shot in the U.S., right?
Every month or so, on Instagram, somebody from a different country will take over my Stories. It shows a bit about their lives and their cats, and it’s so fascinating. The one that struck a chord with me was the takeover from Saudi Arabia. The woman had like 10 cats, and her friend had, like, 30. There isn’t any effort over there to rescue cats, so these two women are doing most of the work themselves, in their homes — [but] their homes are pretty darn big. It would be such a great thing to actually go to some of these countries and have an international Girls and Their Cats book one day.
Are there similarities between these girl-and-cat portraits and your fashion work?
It’s more challenging than fashion photography, that’s for sure. Cats do not know how to pose, at least not on command. The Girls and Their Cats photos are a lot happier, friendlier, more approachable, whereas my fashion and beauty stuff tends to be more serious. I definitely feel like Jekyll and Hyde. But there are ways that I tie things together, and the women I photograph are very fashionable themselves.
Has there been any cross-over? Like you’re shooting a fashion job and someone says, “Why don’t we bring a cat into the mix here?”
The one and only job I had like that was a beauty shoot for Teen Vogue. The make-up was cat-eye, and they brought in a bunch of shelter cats to pose with the models. It was my favorite shoot ever.
We’ve established how wrong the “crazy cat lady” stereotype is. But what’s the craziest or most loving thing you’ve ever done for a cat in your life?
I did commission a couple of illustrated portraits of me and Tuck by two of my favorite artists, Anna Bak-Kvapil (a Girls and Their Cats alumni) and Maia Boboia. My husband would argue that the craziest, most loving thing we’ve done is fly them both to the U.S. from the Ukraine. He might be right.
You said that the cats you’ve known have always found you, in a way. Do you think there’s something in your nature that brought them to you? Is someone a “cat person” because of some innate felineness that actual cats are responding to?
I would love to say it’s some hippy-dippy cosmic connection, but to be honest, I think we just have a very serious stray cat issue. And since most kittens are born outdoors, chances are you’ll come across them at some point in your life, cat person or not. What you choose to do after coming in contact with them, though, separates cat people from non-cat people. And my family always chose to keep them.
What’s some concrete advice you might offer to someone, currently catless, who is considering bringing one (or more) of these sweet creatures into their life?
Be patient! Oftentimes the bond you’re looking for comes with time spent together. And if the cat has spent some time in a shelter, they might take a while to come out of their shell. And also: please adopt, don’t shop.
Top Image: Detail of BriAnne Wills and Tuck. Courtesy: Chronicle Books.