By now, she’s used to getting stopped on the street. It’s not even 9 a.m. when it happens the first time.
“Can I take a picture?” a chipper blonde asks her in the lobby of a boutique hotel in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry — but it’s so funny.”
Katie Sturino is gracious. She doesn’t just let the woman take a selfie, but takes a photo for her. By now, the oddity of watching strangers pose with her dog has worn off.
That’s because her dog isn’t any dog — her dog is Insta-famous. With more than 350,000 followers, Toast is part of a coterie of pets with public personas cultivated over social media. And Toast’s celebrity now transcends beyond Instagram; to date, she has starred in a fashion campaign (she was the face of Karen Walker’s 2015 summer line), secured a book deal (ToastHampton: How to Summer in Style), and pulled off a high-profile wedding (she wore a custom Marchesa gown and $175,000 of diamonds to the ceremony).
With her distinctive look — an 11-year-old puppy mill rescue, she lost her teeth and so her tongue permanently (and adorably) hangs out — Toast is a natural star. But as with many rags-to-riches stories, her rise was the result of sheer hustle. A longtime PR rep, Sturino started Toast’s Instagram account two and a half years ago after she discovered famous Internet dog Tuna and realized pet accounts on social media “were a thing.”
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“Nothing was organic,” she says of the process. From the beginning, she pitched photos of Toast to editors, magazines, popular dog Instagram accounts and brands. Toast’s big break came courtesy of an Oscar-themed photo, in which she is dressed up as Joaquin Phoenix (a PR pro, Sturino understood that publications need to generate content around events like the Academy Awards). The picture caught the attention of Eva Chen, then the editor-in-chief of Lucky, who featured Toast in a comedy video. Interest grew, and more promotional opportunities have streamed in ever since.
Today, Toast is a bonafide social media pet celebrity. While not strictly A-list — the tier is reserved for animals that break the 1 million follower mark on Instagram, a distinction shared by Marnie (2 million followers), Grumpy Cat (1.7 million), Doug the Pug (2 million), Tuna (1.8 million) and Lil Bub (1.4 million) — she makes enough money via endorsements, paid events, and products, that Sturino has dropped all but one of her PR clients. While she won’t go into specifics, she does say that Toast makes upwards of $1,000 a post.
But Sturino would like to be known as more than just Toast’s “mom.” She has her own projects, most notably 12ish, a fashion blog for plus-size women. The idea was inspired by a post on the fashion site Man Repeller, in which she shares tips for choosing outfits that flatter her body (she wears a size 12). “I saw all these women commenting like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my body!’ and ‘I’ve never seen my body on Man Repeller before,’” she remembers. “Not to be like Oprah, but that was my ‘aha’ moment.”
Sturino has thrown the same work ethic that elevated Toast from no-name Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to Internet sensation into promoting 12ish. She pitches content to publications, regularly writes for the fashion site Refinery29, and contributed to a video series for People.com. And yet, a year later, her follower count (28,000) remains a fraction of Toast’s.
“It’s a good example of how hard it is to build an Instagram following…it’s very difficult,” she says. “So when you see people with a lot of followers, it’s impressive.” (That would include her husband, Josh Ostrovsky, better known as the “The Fat Jew,” who has amassed 9 million of them.)
While Sturino operates in close proximity to powerful social media influencers, she says she doesn’t use her husband’s account — or Toast’s, for that matter — to promote her blog. If her PR background has taught her anything it’s that just because you have access to an audience, doesn’t mean they’re interested in what you’re promoting: “If I’m coming to see cute dogs dressed in funny clothes and I’m now seeing this, like, plus-size fashion blog, I’m going to be like, ‘What is this?”
So for the moment, at least, her life is all about Toast. Because she no longer works full-time in PR she can escort her three dogs (Toast, plus her less famous siblings, Muppet and Underpants) to and from desksides, events and photoshoots. In the next few days, Sturino will take the trio to Ralph Lauren to film a video (the retailer already sent over customized, miniature polos), and Jacks Studios for a Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot. A couple weeks earlier, she shepherded them to a three-course steak dinner, thrown by the mattress startup Casper, complete with a live string quartet and a green, miniature carpet. It was a ridiculous event — check out the video below — but by now, Sturino is used to the surreal trappings of dog celebrity. Recently “we were at a hotel and Toast name was written out in rose petals,” a gimmick that has been repeated with treats, and liver mousse. “I guess the statement I’m trying to make is that ridiculous things happen all the time,” she says.
Despite these luxuries, it can be a grind. Every day, a new wave of pet owners take to the Internet, convinced their dogs can be Insta-famous, too. While Sturino knows the barrier of entry is high — most hopefuls stop after a few weeks when they realize traction isn’t an organic phenomenon — the sheer volume of upstart dogs can be anxiety-producing. “I’m always pitching, I’m always trying to keep networking because there are a ton of dog accounts,” she says. “You start to become irrelevant if you stop.”
The ultimate goal is to reach a level of fame that Toast can take her talents offline, without the constant pressure of a follower count. “There are so many things I would like to do with Toast: children’s books, toys, all these things. But the question is, is there an interest? There has to be an interest beyond her social media,” she says, as she scoops Toast, Muppet and Underpants into her car. She has to dash — they’re running late for their next appointment.