His nonchalance, glass of wine, and disco lights had made him an internet sensation; the war in Ukraine gave him a much more politicized platform. Stepan, a 13-year-old “old” Ukrainian cat who became an influencer after several videos went viral at the end of 2020, fled the war to land in Nice, while waiting to be able to return home to Kharkiv. Sheltered on the Côte d’Azur, he was even nominated at the “World Influencers and Bloggers Awards” ceremony, on May 18 and 19 in Cannes. We interviewed Anna, its owner, who has 2.5 million followers between Instagram and TikTok.
“Stepan the Jaded Cat” went viral before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But at the time, few people knew he was from that country. What was your life like before the war? When did you realize Stepan’s viral potential?
It has now been a year and a half that Stepan is known all over the world. It all started with the social network TikTok, when millions of people watched this famous video in which he had his eyes bulging with, in the background, a woman yelling at her dog. It went viral in a very short time, immediately gaining millions of followers.
Six months later, I created his Instagram account for my cat. It was last summer that a second wave of popularity hit, with a video of him sitting by a pizza looking disappointed. At first, it garnered 5 million views per week, and has reached 33 million views to date. A third wave followed when Britney Spears posted a photo of himself.
Tell us about your journey from Ukraine to France. What specific event prompted you to leave your country?
From the first day of the invasion, February 24, we heard an explosion around 5 am while we were sleeping, without really understanding what was going on. Half an hour later the windows were shaking again. I jumped out of my bed and realized that the war had just come to our door, in Saltivka [une zone résidentielle au nord-est de Kharkiv, Ndlr]. The first day of the war is when my city suffered the greatest destruction. Shells were hitting nearby houses every day, some catching fire. Miraculously, ours was spared for a week. But on the eighth day, a projectile landed on the neighbors’ balcony. Stepan and I then spent two nights in the basement, without electricity. I had to go to the building next door every day to charge my phone.
Then we managed to escape the city when volunteers took us to the station. Twenty hours later we were in Lviv [dans l’ouest de l’Ukraine, Ndlr]. From there, we joined the Polish border, alongside 5,000 people. It was when we arrived in Poland that the “World Influencers and Bloggers Association” (WIBA) offered us their help. Its members helped us to come to France, until we could return home.
Do you “enjoy” yourself here, despite the circumstances?
We like Nice a lot and everything is fine for us here, we are sheltered… but it’s not at home. I worry a lot about our family left in Ukraine, and do my best to help my country. It’s a pure coincidence to have found ourselves here: the “World Influencers and Bloggers Association” is located on the Côte d’Azur, that’s simply why we are in Nice.
Do you make a living off Stepan’s face?
Our three biggest contracts were with Valentino [Stepan a effectué sa meilleure pose mi-triste mi-critique aux côtés d’un sac iconique de la marque italienne, incrusté de diamants, Ndlr], Crocs and Puma. Last summer, Stepan advertised a Rockstud handbag, for a campaign coming out in November 2021. Then videos followed on TikTok, again for them. With Crocs, we had agreed to film an entire ad, but the package of shoes got lost on the way. However, everything ended well.
The figure of Stepan the cat, initially a purely entertaining “meme” (1), has become political because of events in Ukraine. What kind of messages are you trying to convey when you write “posts”?
What Russia is doing is a flagrant violation of the march of the world. No one can afford to be silent when the insane actions of a dictator cause great suffering. Putin only sows desolation and death. This war must end immediately.
How do you help your compatriots back home?
So far, our Instagram fundraiser for war-affected animals in Ukraine has raised over $10,000.
What does Stepan’s future and yours look like? Do you want to stay here or return to Ukraine?
We want to return to Ukraine, to our home in Kharkiv. It’s our home.
Stepan is now a symbol. What does the WIBA ceremony in Cannes represent for you, which will also donate money to Ukraine?
I am very honored to be nominated and very grateful for the opportunity and the support of the “World Influencers and Bloggers Association”. Stepan is now a symbol of Ukrainian resilience.
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