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April 8, 2015
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Marnie the Dog is one of the most famous dogs on Instagram. Two years ago, she was near death at an animal shelter in Conneticut, now she has 1.2 million followers and hangs out with human celebrities.This week, we investigate the formula for internet dog fame, and look at how having a famous dog will completely upend your life.
Don't forget to participate in Email Debt Forgiveness Day! Leave us a voicemail at (917) 475-6668 about your most anxiety inducing unanswered email. All will be forgiven, we promise.
PJ VOGT: Last week I visited Shirley Braha at her apartment in Chinatown.
SHIRLEY BRAHA: Hi, how are you?
PJ: Shirley’s 32 years old, She had a bunch of jobs in TV. Back in 2012, she was about to turn 30, and she decided to do something she’d always wanted to do—adopt a dog from an animal shelter.
SHIRLEY: I started looking on Petfinder.com, which is of course a website to find like homeless dogs and cats.
PJ: She found a dog she liked, this 10-year-old from a shelter in Connecticut.
SHIRLEY: Her name on the listing was Greta, but like her actual name in the shelter, like when you signed the paperwork, it was actually Stinky, because she smelled so bad, because like all her teeth were decaying.
PJ: She was in bad shape. Her fur was matted. One of her eyes was clouded over, the shelter said that she could no longer see out of it. She looked like she was dying.
SHIRLEY: And um, especially the first week that I had her, it's like I would feed her and then like few minutes later she would just start coughing and just like making all these like really scary noises and I just, I was really afraid she was going to die.
PJ: The only reason to adopt this dog is if you’re an angel. Which, fortunately, Shirley is. So she brings her home, and Stinky thrives. Even her cloudy eye clears up—she can see. And Shirley renamed her.
SHIRLEY: Hi, Marn! Hi, Marn!
PJ: Marnie. She’s a Shih Tzu.
SHIRLEY: Hungry? Go. Hungry? Go. You can go.
PJ: Her tongue is always sticking just out of her mouth like a tiny flag. Her whole body has a tilt to it.
SHIRLEY: Who's my squishy? Who's my squishy?
PJ: Her head is permanently crooked to one side, like she’s just half heard a joke—-”Ruh?” She’s adorable in a way that defies description. While I talked to Shirley in her apartment, Marnie padded around in circles, pawed at the carpet and eventually curled up on Reply All producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s jacket for a nap. After Shirley and Marnie’s first scary week together, they fell in love.
SHIRLEY: I'm very, very grateful that I have her.
PJ: Yeah, it also just seems like you love her the way a person, like it doesn't seem like lowercase "L" jokey love, it seems like you really love her.
SHIRLEY: Yeah. I just bought a fire extinguisher because I was like, what if there was a fire? I have to protect Marnie.
PJ: Soon after Marnie's recovery, Shirley did what any proud dog mom would do. She started taking pictures of her dog, sharing them with her friends on Facebook, on Instagram. Life was happy, simple, ordinary.
[Sound of music on Vine]
PJ: Here’s a short video of Marnie that Shirley posted to Vine. It’s just six seconds of Marnie, running around a pharmacy. Shirley added the music., but this is the crazy thing. This video has been played 55 million times. Marnie's Instagram account has 1.25 million followers. Marnie is on pace to possibly become the most popular dog on the internet.
PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. I’m PJ Vogt and this week, the magical formula for internet dog fame.
So, even before Shirley started regularly posting Marnie photos on the internet, rumors of Marnie’s existence had begun to circulate. This is Summer Anne Burton. She’s an editor at Buzzfeed. She used to edit their animals vertical.
SUMMER ANNE BURTON: Marnie's so special that like even before she was on Instagram, there was like word of mouth about her in New York. Also because I think Shirley takes her everywhere she goes, so she would show up at like parties and stuff and people would talk about this incredible magical dog.
PJ: Summer wrote about Marnie, and Marnie’s follower count shot up by thousands, and then tens of thousands. Instagram put her account—-@marniethedog—-on their front page. And from there, they were off. The days when they could walk down the street unaccosted are long gone—people stop them constantly
SHIRLEY: They're like, "Oh my god, can I take a picture with Marnie?" They get so excited and it brings people so much happiness, so I'm more than happy to stop on the street.
PJ: There’s a class of celebrity who transcends celebrity and becomes an icon. Bill Murray is one of them. They’re incapable of doing regular, human-scale things because their presence in any place makes that place magical. If Bill Murray goes to the gas station, everybody who was at that gas station will talk about the day that Bill Murray pumped gas for the rest of their lives. Marnie’s like that. And she shows up everywhere.
NEWS ANCHORS: Here's a riddle for ya, Who has a tilted head ... and a bunch of very famous friends... Marnie! Everyone wants to be photographed... we are thrilled to be here... Instagram star Marnie The Dog has challenged James Franco to selfie-off.
PJ: CNN, FOX TV, Good Morning America, The New York Post, The Daily Mail, The New York Times. When Marnie skipped the World Dog Awards, TMZ ran a story covering the scandal, headline: "Marnie The Dog Rejects World Dog Awards Invite I’m Too Famous, Bitches!" Here’s a partial list of celebrities photographed holding Marnie—Tina Fey, the entire cast of the Big Bang Theory, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Ed Sheeran, Jason Schwartzman, Wilmer Valderamma, Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, Grimes, Joe Jonas, Lena Dunham, Demi Lovato, Larry King. Marnie does hotel openings. Marnie makes paid appearances at the birthday parties of her fans. So why is there this much fame for stink old Marnie?
PJ’S FRIEND ERSZI: Hello?
PJ: Hey, how's it going?
ERSZI: Good, how are you?
PJ: Good, um...
ERSZI: What can I help with?
PJ: As my friend Erszi told me, if you look at Instagram, you will find other celebrity dogs. Erszi actually owns one of them herself. Some of these dogs hover near Marnie’s level of adoration. And I was curious, is there some kind of formula? Something that might explain Marnie’s sudden magical skyrocket? Erszi and I looked at a few of these dogs. She says take, for instance, Boo the Pomeranian.
CLIP: Come here, Boo! Come here, Boo!
ERSZI: I don’t even remember how I discovered Boo. It must have been a couple years ago. All I know is it's like this perfectly manicured dog that looks like it's completely fake or a stuffed animal or it's just genetically modified to be a mini stuffed animal that you got for your second birthday
PJ: Boo has 16 million likes on Facebook, but the scuttlebutt is he owes most of his fame to nepotism. His mom works at Facebook. Or, there’s another dog that Erzsi really likes—Menswear Dog.
ERSZI: It’s this dog that wears clothes.
CLIP: I feel like he's ready to model today... the five year old Shiba Inu shows why big brands are so keen for him to represent them...
ERSZI: Everything from flannel to bandannas to kinda hipster round sunglasses with mirror shades.
PJ: But Menswear Dog or Jiff, who's another famous Pomeranian like Boo, they’re kind of what you’d expect. They're beautiful dogs being photographed beautifully, and anyway, none of these dogs has as many Instagram followers as Marnie. So what’s her secret? Is it just that on the internet, that the Underdog will always rise to the top? Well, of course, there is another.
SHINJIRO ONO: Hi. Hello.
PJ: Hi, I cannot believe... I'm so glad we're talking... I can't believe it.
PJ: Um, yeah so we were just doing a story about famous dogs on Instagram and and it seemed like Maru might be the most famous one. Is that true?
PJ: So this is Shinjiro Ono, who I talked to on the phone with our translator Aya. He lives in Tokyo with his dog, Maru Taro. Ranking famous dogs on Instagram is less straightforward than you think. The site doesn't make it easy, but everybody seems to agree that Maru is the most famous dog.
PJ: Maru is a very beautiful dog.
SHINJIRO and AYA: (laughing, speaking Japanese)
PJ: Shinjiro thinks that Maru is the sort of exemplar of authenticity.
SHINJIRO: (speaking in Japanese)
PJ: A dog being a dog is the most beautiful thing. That’s Shinjiro’s ethos and Maru Taru is beautiful. Ridiculously beautiful. The archetypal beautiful creature. The Sistine Chapel of dogs. A recent video has Maru squinting quietly in a park, looking impeccably cute. The wind ruffles his poofy red fur and the sun catches in the gleam of his black eyes. Whereas, a recent Marnie video has her loping sideways down the aisle of a pharmacy, skidding joyously past boxes of tampons. Shirley says Marnie likes the aisles because she can run straight down them without bumping into anything.
SHINJIRO: (talking in Japanese)
PJ: So, I asked Shinjiro—what do you think it is about Marnie?
SHINJIRO: (talking in Japanese)
AYA: He thinks Marnie is cute, funny, and interesting.
PJ: Cute, funny, interesting. Maybe this is just Shinjiro guarding the throne, but he doesn't really have a compelling explanation for Marnie's fame, for why Marnie is now on pace, by my calculation, to overtake Maru Taro.
PJ: Now, my friend Starlee thinks that Marnie’s secret weapon is her backstory. She’s not a bred dog. She’s a scruffy shelter dog. Our producer Sruthi thinks that there’s something about Marnie’s crooked body that makes you want to mother her. Erszi says maybe it’s the great captions Shirley puts on the photos. Summer, the writer who first broke Marnie, has this theory that Marnie just has a relatable face.
SUMMER: She has (laughs)... She has sort of like an emoji expression on her face all the time. She has the perfect face for you to post a picture of her and say, “This is me.”
PJ: If Marnie is an emoji, like what is she the emoji for?
SUMMER: She's definitely the one... you know, the like party face where it's got one eye closed and its tongue hanging out? And you use it when you're like, having a good time brah! Or whatever.
SUMMER: She always looks happy and she always looks silly. Those two things together is sort of a magic combination.
PJ: To me, all these theories feel right but they feel incomplete. They don’t totally explain Marnie’s magic. So, here’s my theory. It takes awhile to lay out, but it starts with this fact. Last year, Shirley stopped working in order to spend more time with Marnie. Then, she ransacked her bank account to produce Marnie-themed calendars for her fans. They were expensive.
SHIRLEY: 5,000 dollars.
PJ: That's a scary amount of money to have, like, suddenly on a credit card.
SHIRLEY: Yeah, especially if you really don't have any money left. Yeah.
SHIRLEY: I said, if people don't buy these calendars, I am totally effed, because not only do I have no money, I'm also like in debt now actually. Because I had to like put things on my credit cards to get those calendars produced.
PJ: The idea was that she’d sell the calendars to pay her rent. When she broke the news to her Dad that she’d stopped working, he did not react well.
SHIRLEY: I was telling my dad: I'm doing Marnie full time, this is what I'm focusing on. He's like... I think he just thought that was a really crazy idea, like I was delusional or stupid or something, you know?
PJ: But, her Dad was wrong and he started to understand just how unstoppable Marnie was at a dinner a few weeks ago.
SHIRLEY: We went out to this Italian restaurant in the city and I brought Marnie with me. She was like hiding in my bag. She just comes with me everywhere. So she's hiding in my bag and then like towards the end of the dinner, she kind of pokes out and she's like looking around and then the waiter was like, “Oh ma'am, I'm sorry. You can't have a dog here.” And then he was like, “Oh! Is that Marnie?”
SHIRLEY: And then I think that was the moment where my dad was like, “Ooh, she really is famous, huh?” I'm like, yeah, dad, yeah.
PJ: (laughs) How satisfying was that?
SHIRLEY: Yeah, it was really funny.
PJ: Did they let her stay?
SHIRLEY: Of course. Marnie always gets her way. Don't worry about Marnie.
PJ: The calendars, of course, sold like hotcakes. You can ask Shirley why Marnie drives her to do these things but the answers you get aren't satisfying. Nobody is good at describing the thing they love very well. Marnie’s specifics disappear in the blinding white light of pure love. And this is my theory, pure love, a love so powerful, it hits any eye that wanders across her Instagram... we all want a piece of that love. Here’s summer again.
SUMMER: Shirley is as in love with Marnie as any like human and an animal I've seen in person I think, it's up there. I've talked to her about it before and I think that when people talk about finding someone, I mean it sounds cheesy but, when you get into a relationship and you're like, I found my person, I think that Marnie is Shirley's person. They're just like right for each other.
PJ: Every photo of Marnie—Marnie with her face goofily poking through a tortilla, Marnie buried in a basket of easter eggs, Marnie in a tuxedo—is also a photo of the most loving relationship possible between a human and their dog. Marnie has an agent now, the same guy who represents the bands Sleigh Bells and Girl Talk. Shirley’s new job is to be Marnie’s manager, a job which would be much more lucrative if she wasn’t managing the thing she loves most in the world. She finds herself turning down sponsorship opportunities that other dog owners would probably lunge for.
PJ: Like Burger King chicken fries, I don't know they reached out to me. It's like, I don't really think that fits with like Marnie's Instagram.
PJ: I feel like she would eat chicken fries.
SHIRLEY: She would totally eat chicken fries. She'd probably love chicken fries actually. She really would. But they're not... Marnie's account is supposed to be about empathy for animals... that’s not what it’s about, it’s about Marnie, but an element of it is having compassion for animals and I think encouraging people to eat chicken fries doesn’t really gel with that.
PJ: Right, because chicken fries are made out of animals. I did not even make that connection. I am so dumb.
PJ: Of course, there’s a grim question looming over all of this. Marnie’s 12. In human years, that would make her a senior citizen. Which means Shirley's dedicating her love, her whole life, actually, to something that can’t last forever.
PJ: Do you think about what will happen after she dies?
SHIRLEY: Aw, she'll never die. Nah, she'll be around at least another 100 years, I'm sure.
PJ: Before we left, we made sure to get a picture with Marnie.
SHIRLEY: Alright I'm going to help you... hold her like a baby...
PJ: She’s a pro. She is totally looking towards the camera.
SHIRLEY: Marnie? Hi! Good girl. One more...
PJ: People are always promising to give up everything for love, but it’s bullshit. Everyone always has a plan B. An ex they get coffee with. A prenup they sign just in case. Nobody ever quits their job because they think that the love of their life is so perfect that all they have to do is share that love and the love will provide for them. Shirley’s done that. She’s all in. And yeah, one day she’ll get separated from Marnie. But for now, Shirley loves her dog with a pure and uncompromised heart, and a million other people are lucky enough to get to witness it.
SHIRLEY: Marnie... hi!
PJ: She smells good too.
SHIRLEY: I'm taking a bunch...
PJ: Thank you.
SHIRLEY: I always take a million.
PRODUCER: I feel like she started cocking her head more when you took the camera.
SHIRLEY: That's just, like, the weight of her head.
ALEX: And now back to the show.
PJ: Hey, Alex.
PJ: How many unread emails do you have?
PJ: Work and personal?
PJ: How many unread emails do you think that I have?
ALEX: If I had to wager a guess based on just everything I know of you, I said like 1,043.
ALEX: Really? Are you serious?
ALEX: Oh my god. That's creepily accurate.
PJ: Yeah, that's crazy.
ALEX: I want to be perfectly clear though. Saying that I have read all of them does not mean that I have done the due diligence to respond to all of them.
PJ: So, I'm coming to you because I have an idea for something that I think could be revolutionary and huge and that I really could not overstate the significance of.
ALEX: It sounds like you're doing a pretty good job of overstating the significance of whatever this might be.
PJ: I have an idea for a national holiday that sort of requires something of listeners to our show.
PJ: So the idea that I have is for a national holiday called Email Debt Forgiveness Day.
ALEX: I like it already, because I like having any debt that I might have forgiven.
PJ: This is not a day that people declare email bankruptcy. It's not a day where you just delete all your emails and don't answer them. It's a day about specific emails, like the specific emails that you have not responded to because they're somehow loaded with an emotion and the emotion makes you feel anxious and you put off responding, and you put off responding and eventually it's just been so long that you feel like you can't answer it, because it would be too weird.
ALEX: What... can you give me an example of an email like that that you have?
PJ: I can give you an example of one that I think you would not have a hard time responding to that I got last night.
PJ: Alright so it's from my friend Nicole, subject line: “Reply All.” She's saying, like, “Hey good job on the podcast, I'm really liking it. I hope you feel good about it.” It's just like a nice email from a friend.
ALEX: Why would you have a hard time responding to that?
PJ: Um, she's like somebody who was sort of like my teacher at one point and so I have a lot of respect for her and it means a lot that she would like it and it's just like an emotionally complicated email and it would take me a while to sit down and think about it and write it and so what is probably going to happen is that I'm going to not do that and because I won't do it for a few days, I'll start to feel weird and I'll feel like it has to be really good, since it was a few days and then it'll be a few months and then like I will start to dread seeing her name anywhere and I'll worry about running into her and if I do run into her, I will just ramble about how bad I feel about not answering this email, which she probably will not have thought about since she sent it.
ALEX: I have one of these right now. It's kind of stressing me out. Let me find it, hold on just a second.
PJ: Alright, what's the subject line?
ALEX: “June tunes? Dearest bandmates, I hope all is well. Goldman, congratulations to you and Sarah on your new baby. I just wanted to let you all know that I will be moving to Kentucky at the end of June and I wanted to ask what you thought about one more kick ass goodbye bonanza, wherein my band..”.
PJ: You are in a pop-punk band...
ALEX: It's not a pop-punk band.
PJ: You have a band that some might consider a pop-punk band.
ALEX: No one would consider it pop-punk.
PJ: You have a band.
PJ: And your band is relatively defunct and I get the sense that like, maybe you don't want to play one more show and they're saying like, “Hey, let's play one more show.”
ALEX: I just don't want to practice. It's going to take three practices. It fills me with anxiety. Everybody else lives in Brooklyn and I live in New Jersey, so I'm going to have to drive there. And I mean, on top of just all the practice stuff, I just feel really busy because I'm married to Reply All right now.
PJ: Also your wife.
ALEX: I'm married to work and a new kid.
PJ: You married your kid?
ALEX: And my wife.
PJ: You're not allowed to marry your kid.
ALEX: I really just want to take this again.
ALEX AND PJ: (Laugh)
ALEX: Um, and I will say that I do want to do it. It's just the anxiety of having to say yes and then start preparing is causing me to not answer this.
PJ: Ok. So, I want April 30 to be Email Debt Forgiveness Day. And the way it works is that you can email whoever you've been meaning to email and been emotionally paralyzed and unable to email and you're allowed to email them as if you are responding to their email in a timely fashion. You just send an email to them. You include a link to an explanation of the holiday, which we'll have at our website, replyall.limo, and you can just pick up the conversation as if no time has passed.
ALEX: It sounds like something that not only do you and I need, but it sounds like something the world needs.
PJ: We're also interested to hear about what sort of emails people are having a hard time sending and so we set up a voicemail. The number is 917-475-6668 and if you decide to send an email or are thinking about sending an email or if you receive an email because of this, then please give us a call and leave a message. Maybe we'll put it on the show.
ALEX: I encourage all of you to participate, because it's only through your participation that people will not be furious at PJ and I for picking an arbitrary date, one day a year, to send all the emails we've been too scared to send.
PJ: Yeah, make us look normal.
PJ: Reply All is me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and edited by Alex Blumberg.
Matt Leiber is the pregnant pause before good news.
Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore.
Special thanks this week to Slyvie Douglis, Aya Kato, and Fuku.
Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.
We are on so many websites. We're doing a Reddit AMA on Friday if you want to drop in. You can hear the show on iTunes.com/replyall or on TuneIn, where—apparently—there's now a channel that played Gimlet podcasts 24 hours a day. And we put extra adorable dog photos from this episode on digg. Our website is replyall.limo, which was designed in partnership with Athletics.
Special thanks to our sponsors[...]
PJ: Do you listen to all of the credits? Because, if so, you're fantastic. Please tweet the word "discretion" at Alex Goldman without any explanation. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.