These fashion-furward supermodels could teach Gisele and Naomi a thing or two about posing. Lucy Sweet discovers what it takes to be a top cat at the feline answer to Crufts.
‘People think we’re a little bit… what’s the word?’ says Lucy Lockyer, owner of an award-winning Maine Coon cat called Reggie. ‘We’re a bit…’
‘Mental?’ chimes her friend.
‘Eclectic. No… no… that’s not it either… Eccentric! That’s the one! When I say to people at work that I’m going home to bathe the cat, they look at me like I’m mad.’
But here at the LondonCats International Cat Extravaganza, held at Tobacco Dock last month, the doubters are the mad ones. This is a safe space for the feline-obsessed, where more than 130 cats are lined up in cages on trestle tables, being prepared for their big moment in the seven judging rings. These purring poseurs will be examined for everything from personality to the length of their noses, while ardent fans crowd the aisles, desperate to meet a prize-winner.
Featuring breeds such as long-haired Persians, hairless Sphynx cats, American Curls, Toygers and kittens all accompanied by their owners and breeders, along with judges from The International Cat Association (TICA), this two-day event is the largest cat show in the capital. Dubbed ‘Crufts for cats’, it’s a razzle-dazzle affair where you can buy Swarovski crystal-studded cat toys, glow-in-the-dark cat embroidery and a designer cat wheel for £639.99.
Feline fanatics explore the event wearing cat ears and T-shirts fitting the theme, taking photos and squealing with joy. Some have even brought their pet cats along – one is on a lead, another is in a pram. They’re here to meet superstars such as Starina, a snow-white British shorthair with one blue and one green eye. A feline influencer, she has 7,500 followers on Instagram and a fashion CV that includes a Stella McCartney ad campaign and a spread in Vogue. Owner Sazsa Silvaz, who lives in London, smiles proudly as adoring fans flock to Starina who is, of course, wearing a tutu.
But the focus is on the tables where cats are being scrutinised. Judge Katharina Krenn prods with kindly efficiency, while colleague Aline Noel Garel holds her favourite animals indulgently in the air. They stretch out the cats, fluff them up, squeeze their faces and snap their tails. To the untrained eye it’s impossible to guess what they’re looking for.
Being held aloft and having his photo taken by a small crowd is the majestic Supreme Grand Champion Amisti Versuvius – Suvi for short. He’s a magnificent Lynx Birman alter (alter is breeder-speak for neutered) and the Best in Western Europe, with blue Paul Newman eyes that appear to gaze meaningfully into the middle distance. His owner Celia Kelly from Birmingham beams at him with pride. Last year, she took him to 30 shows across the UK and Europe.
So what does it take to be a Supreme Grand Champion? ‘They have to have everything that meets the standard of the breed – perfectly blue eyes for his chocolate coat, his face markings should be in a perfect diamond and he has to have a Roman nose. If he had a chocolate marking on the underside of his leg, for example, then he would fail,’ she says.
‘For 90 per cent of the time we can see what the cat is like before it even comes out of the cage,’ says Sue Hart-Jones, a TICA judge for the past eight years. ‘The colours, the shape of the ears, how they hold themselves. You’re looking at balance, body shape, weight and personality.’
Judging is serious business – it doesn’t happen overnight. Becoming an all-breed judge takes two years and involves a series of exams as well as needing to show several cats of two completely different breeds yourself. Trainees must learn around 20 attributes for almost 70 different breeds and have a mentor who checks their progress. After all, when they’re judging, they handle over 40 cats a day. ‘It’s a lot of hard work,’ Sue says.
Also working hard is Riley, a brown and white tabby Persian. Owner Carol Tonks and her daughter Anna McEntee, from Cambridgeshire, are getting ready to show him – and tensions are running a little high. ‘He’s looking a bit blinky,’ frets Carol. Anna takes out a make-up brush and a tiny pot of eye-grooming powder to stop any feline tears from staining his facial fur while on the judging table.
Riley has an intense beauty ritual, involving three hours of bathing, blow-drying and seven feline-friendly beauty products, including volumising spray. But then, you’d expect nothing less of a cat with the official name of (‘You’d better write this down,’ deadpans Anna) Supreme UK Olympic Gold Imperial Grand Premier Regional Winner Supreme Grand Champion Alter Cullykhan Vivaldi. Riley goes on to end the weekend as Overall Best Cat in Show, so is his ego out of control?
‘He’s quite an aloof cat, he knows he’s special,’ Anna says. ‘But he’s also a normal cat who gets to go to play in the garden at the weekend.’
It soon becomes clear that although Riley and Suvi look pampered, none of the cats here has an overly charmed life. Suvi lives with three other cats and is allowed outside to get dirty. It’s also vital that the cats like the shows; several owners say that showing a reluctant cat is pointless, even if they tick all the boxes.
Echoing this easy-going (c)attitude is Sue Hart-Jones, who has six cats and lives in a mobile home in Cornwall. She is the polar opposite of a snooty Crufts judge. The show, with its Household Pets category, is also open to rescues, moggies, disabled and one-eyed cats. ‘The only standard is that they are clean, healthy and happy,’ she says. ‘A lot of people don’t have pedigrees but you should treat everyone’s cat the same. It’s someone’s pride and joy. It’s really important to respect the animal and the owner.’
The relationship between the cats and their owners is indeed strong. The phrases ‘pride and joy’, ‘I fell in love’ and ‘my baby’ are bandied about all day like so many Dreamies cat treats. ‘We have a real bond,’ says Celia. ‘Suvi and I watch telly and we even go shopping together. I put him in a cat carrier in the front seat of the car and he has a harness.’
‘I haven’t had a pee alone since I got my cats,’ says Joanna Bell from London, who is showing her hairless Peterbald cats Bear and Grace. ‘But I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
‘Cats are a bit like people, but nicer,’ explains Claire Winman from Lincolnshire. She is a breeder of the rare American Curl which originated in California after a stray produced a litter of curly-eared, but highly photogenic cats. Today she is showing a five-month-old kitten, but her heart belongs to his big sister Pie, who has been an international winner for seven years. ‘She’s just my baby,’ Claire says. ‘They form this incredible bond and they’re so clever. When my husband had a stroke she wouldn’t leave his side.’
Many of the breeders say that their cats have helped them during dark times. For Sazsa, turning Starina into a model was a welcome distraction while her mum was undergoing chemotherapy. ‘Starina is my little angel,’ she sighs. ‘She lets me be me, and when I share her story it makes people happy.’
But surely it can’t all be fluffy loveliness? After all, even though there’s no prize money on offer at a TICA show, cats accumulate points over different shows, gradually increasing their standing. Don’t the claws ever come out? Robert Martin from Reading, snazzily dressed in a white suit with purple trim and a purple cat-paw patch on the lapel, is an owner and breeder of Bengal cats. His rosette-strewn corner suggests he’s a success on the TICA circuit. Surely he’ll spill the beans? ‘Most breeders are really friendly, and it’s not as bad as the dog world,’ he says. ‘You can quickly spot who most of the competitive folk are because you see them at every show.’
‘You get people in little corners, huddling, Facebook arguments, that sort of thing,’ admits Joanna. ‘But we have a laugh. I come out for fun and if the cats do well, that’s great. Showing my cats has given me a whole new group of friends. I was going through a difficult time and they supported me. They even came to my mum’s funeral.’
Finally, the judges pick their top ten but both Riley and Suvi are upstaged by spotted tabby Exotic Persian Jiminy Cricket, who wins the day’s Best in Show. Owned by Yvette and Ian Barber from Lincolnshire, he’s a regular winner along with his sister, Vanellope Van Sweetz (named in tribute to the child racer from the animated film Wreck-It Ralph). Apart from the brushing that goes into making sure Jiminy’s brown and white hairs don’t overlap, he’s a regular lad and his owners aren’t precious about being winners, either.
‘It’s not only about showing a cat,’ says Ian. ‘It’s the interaction with other cat friends that makes the shows special. We’ve met so many nice people here and across Europe. Of course we show in the hope that Jiminy and Vanellope will do well but even if they don’t, we still have a great time. The social side of showing is just as important – it makes for a wonderful hobby.’
Indeed, as the competitors empty the litter trays and take their cat carry cases home, if there’s bitterness it’s hard to spot. Joanna and her friends plan to go out on the razz tonight and they’ll all be back tomorrow for more of the same.
‘At the end of the day, we all take the best cat home,’ one breeder says. ‘Whatever happened in the show, yours is always the best cat.’