Interview: Photographer Debunks the “Crazy Cat Lady” Stereotype with Over 300 Portraits

Women and Cats Photo

Devin Caskie, Salsa & Queso. (Fosters: Lather, Rinse, Repeat)
“So far, I have been the foster mom of 14 beautiful kittens. My current fosters are three tabby siblings named Lather, Rinse, and Repeat. It’s so rewarding to see them grow up from little roly-poly balls covered in kitten food and dirt, into healthy, spunky young cats. And it’s even more amazing when you get to see them grow and thrive in their new permanent homes. In my life, there have been few experiences as rewarding as fostering.”
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The “crazy cat lady” is one of modern culture’s most enduring stereotypes. Photographer BriAnne Wills knows that this idea is largely false, and she has set out to dispel the myth with her ongoing project called Girls and Their Cats (GATC). Since 2015, she has snapped portraits of women and their felines to showcase them in a positive way—as interesting ladies who love their cats. The initiative has been a hit; over the course of several years, she has photographed more than 300 women and their rescued, adopted, and fostered kitties across the U.S.

Wills presents her audience with more than just a charming picture of a woman and her cat (or cats). Each profile features many photos of the two interacting, whether it’s cradling the cat like a baby, petting them, or playing with a feather toy (sometimes it's all three). In addition, Wills shares the story of how the woman and cat came to find each other, the feline’s personality, and, often, how pet ownership has changed the life of the human for the better. The result is a well-rounded look at the families and what makes the “crazy cat lady” idea feel totally silly.

GATC has been a massive success. Wills is now getting ready for the launch of her first Girls and Their Cats book. We had the chance to ask her some questions about her series, and what you can expect when you pick up a hardcover copy. Scroll down to read My Modern Met's interview.

Just because a woman has a cat, it doesn't mean she's a “crazy cat lady.” Photographer BriAnne Wills is looking to debunk this false (and very negative) image of women with cats—one photo at a time.

Cute Cat Photo

Sara Anderson & Loki
“This cat has more personality and sass than any animal I have ever met. We are inseparable. We are best friends.”

Cute Cat Photo

Nomi Leasure, Atticus & Scout
“Food, it would turn out, was something Atticus really, really enjoyed. Perhaps it was those formative months spent scrounging the unforgiving and un-bountiful city streets that instilled in him the dire desire to dine… In any case, he quickly became a sizable companion whom I lugged – lifting from the legs not the back – from city to city.”

GATC started as a way to debunk the “crazy cat lady” stereotype. What inspired you to want to dispel this generalization?

I was just tired of seeing the way “cat ladies” were portrayed in the media. And I wanted everyone else to see cat-owning women the way I see them, as unique, cool, and interesting women who love their cats.

Woman and Her Cats

Jen Hsieh, Bubba & Jeff Goldblum
“As a child growing up, I never had the responsibility or companionship of pets (aside from fish, who I had to learn not to get emotionally attached to, due their short lifespan). So, providing much needed homes to these furry nuggets has been such a game changer. Not only have I learned to love more unconditionally and work on my patience – seriously though, how many plants can one cat knock down – but it’s also given me and my boyfriend a way to strengthen our relationship by caring for Bubba and Jeff Goldblum together.”

What is the process for photographing your subjects?

Each shoot is about an hour. I come to their home and we sit for 10-15 minutes chatting and getting to know each other. It's also a way for the cat to feel comfortable with my presence. The next 45 minutes or so I photograph them in various posed and candid moments. In order to get the cats to look at the camera, I use a noisy cat toy and shake it near my camera.

Cute Cat Photo

Catherine Willett & Edgar
“We made eye contact, and the next thing I knew, the staff were giving me the scoop about this new friend… So, I signed the paperwork, named him Edgar after Edgar Degas (there was something quite French about his style) and took him home with me. Within a month or two, he grew to the size he is now to my utter surprise. He must be part Maine Coon because he weighs over 20lbs and is quite large.”

Cute Cat Photo

Dr. Alisa Neymark, Koda, Lily & Finnegan
“My relationship with a heroin addict was a no-win situation: the more I tried to help Alex (a pseudonym), the more I lost my balance… Alex had grown up with cats. Shortly after he moved in, he expressed disappointment that he was never greeted at the door by a slinky feline, weaving between his legs. Wanting to please him so that he’d stay off the drugs, we adopted Koda.”

The stories of women and their cats are extensive—you really get to know these cats and their humans! How do you get your human subjects to open up and share their stories?

Maybe it's because they know the cat community is supportive and welcoming that some people feel like opening up and sharing more than just their kitty story. Sometimes they touch on a subject (past trauma/abuse) and I ask if they're comfortable sharing how that ties into their cat story, but I never pry or force anyone to talk in detail. When they do open up like that, we get something so personal and beautiful and it tends to resonate with many readers.

Woman and Her Cats

Tyisha Shaia, Ginger, Piper & Brooklyn
“Brooklyn is the most recent addition to the family at 4 years old. She’s a dog in a cat’s body. She comes running to the door when I get home, loves to play, and literally bounces off the walls. She’s everyone’s favorite at house parties.”

Women and Their Cats

Daniela Gutmann, Kuki Doh & Moka
“Her foster mom had named her Duchess….which is funny. We re-named her Kuki Doh on our way home because she reminded me of cookie dough.”

Your project is so popular that you've had to stop accepting new applications. What do you think resonates with people that makes them want to participate in GATC?

I think everyone just wants to share their special story and have nice portraits with their cats. I don't blame them.

What's next for GATC?

I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, but I'd love to do a second book at some point. Maybe international Girls and Their Cats one day.

Woman and Her Cats

Thanu Yakupitiyage, Bug & Fish
“My partner and I joke that we got them because we were stressed out by the election, and well, clearly having them around has helped us cope with the aftermath. It felt significant at the time for me to get pets because I had just received my U.S residency card after fourteen years of visas and struggling to stay in the States.”

What can you tell us about the Girls and Their Cats book?

Girls and Their Cats the book features 50 profiles of cat ladies around the U.S. It's an extension of the website in that each profile has a portrait and a story. But it also comes with a fact box about each cat, that includes their favorite snacks and their many nicknames. Interspersed throughout are cute and relatable listicles, like “You know you're a cat lady when…” and “Cat tail language, explained.” And an underlying message of the book is adopt don't shop.

Photo of a Woman and Cat

Ryan Norville & Theo
“Until Theo, I had only one other cat in my life. His name was Socks and he lived with me and my mom in the Bronx before she passed away… The bond I have with Theo is so special to me. He is talkative and extremely affectionate. When one of us leaves the house, Theo cries, and when either of us returns, he will actually start meowing when we are still about a block away. When he starts meowing and running to the door that is what lets me know my husband is still about 5 minutes away, it’s absolutely incredible.”

Cute Cat Photo

Christina Nguyen & Bentley
“I had just graduated college and was feeling a bit lost navigating the real world. I thought taking care of a little kitty would give me some purpose and I knew I was ready to take on the responsibility since I was no longer in school. So, I started looking for cats on Craigslist and I found a post that said “free kittens”. Apparently, the owner’s cat escaped their home for some time and came back very pregnant.”

Women and Cats Photo

Sarah Hood & Princess (Fosters: Medeva & Tigress)
“Years ago, I was battling terrible depression. PTSD from past trauma was taking a toll on me to a point where I lost all desire to live. In an effort to take back control of my life, I started fostering as therapy. I knew that when I was depressed, my cat Princess was the reason for living. She loved me and needed me. Fostering gave me a purpose I desperately needed, helping animals and my community. I knew that if I wasn’t there for them then no one would be there to feed them, give them their medicine, or take care of them, and I could never abandon a cat in need.”

Girls and Their Cats Photograph

Malia Griggs & Yam
“Where do I begin? I am obsessed with Yammy, Yamyam, Yammers, Yamburger, Yambaby. He has silky, ginger fur with soft, hieroglyphic-like patterns. His most distinctive feature is his tongue, which permanently sticks out. The animal shelter told me that this is because of an injury he suffered to his jaw, most likely the result of a car accident. Luckily, he’s in no pain, just requires a diet of wet food.”

Girls and Their Cats Photograph

Aelfie Oudghiri & The Shah
“We adopted The Shah from a shelter in East Harlem. At the time, I was a student and my husband was in between work. We were 20 somethings living together for the first time in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time in our apartment.”

Women and Their Cats

Brie Statham, Charlie, Louis & Pigeon
“Charlie was my very first pet. I didn’t really have much of an opinion on cats at the time, besides knowing that my mom was terrified of them, but I had always found them to be interesting animals. I rescued Charlie from the Detroit Humane Society when she was six months old. I went in just to look, and I saw her and liked her but was unsure. When I turned around to leave, she stuck her paw out. I was a goner. She was named Precious, but it didn’t fit her. I renamed her Charlie, after Charlie Brown, because I am a big Peanuts fan.”

Woman and Her Cats

Lizz Hill Wiker, Prince & Stevie
“[Me and my husband's] lives have shifted in such wonderful ways in the short months since we’ve had them. Prince and Stevie are the absolute love of our lives and we’ve realized we feel like a family now, not just a couple.

Women and Cats Photo

Gabi O’Connor, Kit & Meatball. Fosters: Newby, Hop, Eleven
“My two cats couldn’t be more different from each other in every way. One is the cat that couldn’t find a home and the other is the one everyone wanted.”

Women and Their Cats

Laura Weiszer & Chester
“In 2012, my then-boyfriend and I decided to adopt a cat together. I wasn’t a cat person at all, so I’m not really sure why I agreed to it, but as soon as we started the adoption process and met the tiny kitten we would later name Lord Chesterfield, I fell in love. When we later split and went our separate ways, my ex kept the couch and I, fortunately, kept the cat.”

Girls and Their Cats: Website | Instagram | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by BriAnne Wills.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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