He was an underemployed journalism graduate who on a whim created a Twitter account for PM Jacinda Ardern’s cat Paddles. Then it went viral. Then Paddles died.
I was in the supermarket in Newtown, Wellington when my Radio New Zealand app alerted me that Winston Peters had chosen to form a coalition government with Labour. It seemed surreal how such a monumental shift had taken place in New Zealand politics while I stood there, grinning at my phone, surrounded by celery and swedes.
I wanted to shout out, I wanted to high five people, I wanted to dance. Perhaps because I’m very culturally English (first generation) I struggle to outwardly express emotion, so instead I took to Twitter to celebrate with my people – because everyone knows Twitter is pretty much just comedians, journalists, socialists, and a few alarmingly angry people.
As I joined in the silent, thumb-dancing, hunchbacked celebrations on Twitter, something struck me. Clarke Gayford was now our First Gentleman… but what about Paddles, Jacinda Ardern’s gorgeous ginger and white polydactyl cat? Where were Paddles’ congratulations on becoming the First Cat of New Zealand? I tweeted something to this effect, and @zaichishka replied – ‘yes, but does Paddles have Twitter?’
Good point. I signed out and created the account. On my own account, I wrote:
@FirstCatofNewZealand? No. Too long. @FirstCatofNZ. Yes.
I’ve since deleted the tweet to cover my tracks.
The @FirstCatofNZ account sat there for a day. It was study break time and I was finishing up my Graduate Diploma in Journalism Studies at Massey (btw, please hire me). On the Saturday, I had finished my assignments for the day, and around 8pm or so gave Paddles’ her profile picture, wrote a quick bio and her first tweet:
I didn’t think about it much. I was just having some fun. It had been a crap day – stressed with assignments, I logged on to Twitter to find that people had been sharing some dumb graphic about MMP that demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of how MMP works. It was frustrating.
I’m not sure how the account took off. Either I retweeted it or @zaichishka did – perhaps both of us did. I have 1000 followers (just) and Eleanor has 2,300. That’s all it took. The retweets, comments and likes skyrocketed, and along with it, the follows.
“Bastard cat,” I thought, still erroneously assuming Paddles was a boy. Took me five years on Twitter to reach 1K followers; Paddles got there in 24 hours.
“Bet the Herald will pick it up tomorrow,” I said to my sister.
Not quite. It was the Sunday Star Times. Hats off.
After this, it went absolutely bonkers, rising at about 1000+ followers a day for a week. At the time of writing, Paddles has 11,797 followers.
It got picked up locally, by Stuff, Spy, RNZ, Mindfood, the Otago Daily Times. Even NZ Farmer got on board. Then it exploded globally – Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, Mashable, People, Buzzfeed and the BBC. It was even in languages that I not only don’t understand but I can’t even recognise. Paddles is huge in India. And of course the prime minister herself commented on it on the AM Show, and Paddles was added to the cat wall at Sunrise in Australia.
It was surreal. And the weirdest part was, for that fleeting moment, I (through Paddles of course) was world famous, but the world didn’t know I was famous. It was very public and very private all at the same time. Only a few people know I’m Paddles’ PR Guy – my family, and a few of my friends. Also that barista that happened to be there when Paddles made Vanity Fair.
I didn’t have any expectations when I created the account, just to amuse myself tweeting as a cat. Maybe a few followers. Definitely under 1000, probably under 100. I thought I could comment on things like that silly MMP meme and, of course, make some cat puns. The funny thing is, I’m not even that big on cats, and I didn’t vote for Labour. When it went viral I felt quite unqualified to be an unofficial part of Labour Party PR. And I’m more of a dog guy. So I was particularly torn when responding to dogs who tweeted at Paddles; I had to remain in character and yet welcome the doggie friends to the fold. Dogs, cats, even a lizard or two welcomed Paddles to Twitter – the outpouring was beautiful.
That was my first lesson from running the account. Here’s a few more.
Humanity is still kind of okay
Paddles taught me that adults will still suspend their belief for a fairy tale, and it’s lovely. We’re more like children than we like to admit. It’s awesome. I created a character, but people made Paddles. #Wholesome #Blessed #Pure
You asked fur it. pic.twitter.com/JQuCpqiLej
— Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ) November 2, 2017
Some people just want to kick over sandcastles
Some people see that kind of purity and they are compelled to attempt to destroy it. It’s very transparent and quite sad. Like, imagine being so sad that you take it out on a cat on Twitter? Instead of being mad back, I felt a profound sense of sadness for those people. It hurts my heart a bit. Makes me think of Voldemort’s weird gasping old man/foetus soul in Harry Potter.
The world is kinda desperate for joy right now
It’s pretty hard to know the subtle chemistry that made Paddles go viral. I think it’s the idea of having a ‘First Cat’ of any country, but especially a place that is as romanticised overseas as New Zealand is. Then there’s the fact she was a particularly cute cat for sure, though there are plenty of cute cats on the internet. Maybe it’s that she had a point of difference – as a polydactyl cat, she had an extra claw on each paw that made it look like she had hands.
It was all of these things, but I also think it was that Paddles had a message quite rare and poignant these days: be kind. She was definitely sassy, and shot down a few haters, but the core of her message was about being kind to yourself and others. It’s the kind of message that the internet and perhaps the whole world is jonesing for at the moment.
Thanks Mum for bringing me out so I can speak to the press. Must give the people what they want – and what they want is me. Prrrrp ❤️ pic.twitter.com/uiA1jk3qeN
— Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ) October 21, 2017
All good things come to an end
I was just starting to consider how I was going to manage the new responsibility that was Paddles’ Twitter account when she passed away. Clarke Gayford messaged me ahead of the news breaking to let me know – such a decent and kind thing to do. He said “thank you for bringing her spirit to life” in that message, and I’ve scarcely felt more honoured in my life. Genuinely.
It was my privilege to work for Paddles, and for the people who loved her around the world. It is so funny and curious how a seemingly little thing can have such an enormous impact. She was just a cat, it was just a Twitter account, but it was bigger than that – it was people sharing and caring. And as Pollyanna as that may sound, that people would so wholeheartedly embrace such goodness is pretty encouraging in the volatile world we live in now.
So as much as I would have loved to keep tweeting on behalf of Paddles, it was time to let the account go with her. I’ll never delete it, but she’ll never tweet again. She was just too good for this world.
I am stardust. ❤️
— Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ) November 12, 2017
Gareth Morgan is a total dick
I mean, I was never a fan, but I thought y’know, maybe his stuff about cats (keeping them inside, not getting new ones, protecting our native species) made some sense.
Understand u fragile flowers of Twitter-wandering cats whether called Moonbeam or Paddles, r pests. We need PMs with conservation integrity
— Gareth Morgan (@garethmorgannz) November 8, 2017
He’s just a tactless narcissist who thinks if he shouts the loudest he is right. Take a leaf out of Paddles’ book, Gareth, and be kinder. Everyone can be.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.