‘CAN’T BELIEVE HOW BIG IT IS’: 70-YEAR-OLD AUSTRALIAN WOMAN’S ‘CHONKY’ CAT BECOMES RUSSIAN CELEBRITY
Source: 9Honey (Extract)
Posted: November 15, 2021
Tucked away in the Melburnian suburb of Tecoma is a bona fide celebrity — one most Australians may not even recognise should they stumble across him, but millions of people almost 10,000km away yearn for the chance to meet.
Like many pets during lockdown, Bender the Chonky Cat rose to notoriety on TikTok, where he now has over one million followers.
What started out, however, as an unassuming initiative to carve out a wholesome space on the internet has acquired a level of fame Nella, Bender’s 70-year-old owner, is still getting used to.
“I still am shocked and cannot believe it,” Nella tells 9Honey.
In the almost two years since Nella shared the first video of her 11-year-old feline, she has received hundreds of messages from people in Russia and Ukraine who are not shy about showing their appreciation through hand-made drawings, paintings, dolls and even a Minecraft character.
Bender, who is known as Кот Бендер in Cyrillic script, has his own fan accounts, and people often share their own videos where they dub over his meows with their own cheeky interpretations of what he’s saying.
On a more official level, Bender has been featured by Greenpeace in Russia, and the City of Tula in Russia use his image on their tourism billboards.
Nella also says Ukraine’s tourism board has reached out to her to organise a promotional campaign featuring Bender.
“All I want is for Bender to make people happy, which he seems to be [doing],” Nella tells 9Honey.
Although Nella herself has a connection with Russia — her parents came to Australia in 1949 — Bender’s popularity in Russia specifically was “pure coincidence.”
Part of the fascination stems from the sheer size of Bender, whose disgruntled meows are a result of a vet-ordered diet to lose two to three kilograms, but Nella says Bender’s Russian fans also like how her house “looks like a babushka [grandmother] house.”
“I just can’t believe how big it is,” Nella says. “A lot of people comment on my TikTok saying how their lives are happier as watching his videos make them happy.”
Nella’s children, who are in their 30s and 40s, think it is “funny that an old woman like [herself] has become popular” on social media.
But the parasocial relationship that exists between the “chonk,” Nella and their fans also has a deeper, more personal connection than what one would assume at first glance.
One comment from a fan that has resonated with Nella implies Russian fans feel connected to Bender because he reminds them of themselves.
“Bender is that famous in Russia because he resembles a typical close relative giving undemanded advice on a regular basis,” the fan’s comment, which refers to the cheeky captions Nella writes in her videos — and captions made up by fans in reposted or dueted videos — about what Bender’s saying, begins.
“It actually is so Russian, being kind and caring and yet giving these awkward and often too intimate or personal [pieces of] advice, which would generally be considered rude.”
The connection between the phenomenon that is Bender and Russia is not one-sided — since her parents passed away, Nella hasn’t had anyone to speak Russian with. Now, she gets to revisit that familial connection by speaking to Bender’s Russian fans, and says her reading comprehension and writing skills in the language have strengthened with each conversation.
Bender’s popularity is also something Nella is leveraging to give back to the Russian community, and she’s started raising money for Teddy Food, a Russian-based online service that feeds and shelters homeless dogs and cats, and helps them get adopted.
Nella not only encourages donations to Teddy Food directly, but she’s also begun selling limited edition tote bags, with all money made from the accessories going towards the charity.
“Everyone was asking me to make merchandise, but I am old, I don’t want to make money off people,” Nella says.
“I just want people to be happy and care for dogs and cats that no one else wants. So when I saw Teddy Food, I thought, ‘Why not use Bender’s popularity for good?'”
It’s a cause close to Nella’s heart, as Bender’s mother was a stray cat, and Nella is trying to raise as much money for Teddy Food as possible before she has surgery for a brain aneurysm in two weeks.
“With life so short, it’s a good feeling to make people happy, and Bender does that for many people,” Nella says.
“This makes my heart warm. Feeling like I did something.”
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