A southern Californian with white socks and crystal-encrusted sunglasses crawls onto a wooden chest at a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., as a photographer snaps away. The model doesn't fuss when the camera lens encroaches on her personal space or protest when her handler adjusts her body for a more charitable angle. But after several stoic minutes, she can no longer stifle her own needs. She rolls onto her side, stretches her back leg and licks the full length of her limb. She bends her head down and cleans her chest. She wets her paw and runs it over her head like a comb. In the process, she knocks off her glasses, revealing olive green eyes that never close.
The model's name is Bagel. Bagel is a cat, but not just any cat. The 6-year-old rescue from a Los Angeles County shelter is known for her collection of fashionable sunglasses, a stylish accessory born of necessity, not vanity. When Bagel was a kitten, her owner, Karen McGill, discovered that she suffered from eyelid agenesis, a congenital condition that prevents the eyelids from developing. The absence of natural shades means that Bagel can't blink or clear debris from her eyes.
To protect Bagel's corneas from scratches, a friend of Karen's rigged up some special kitty sunglasses: An elastic band slips around the head and tucks under the chin, like wrestling headgear. Of course, no L.A. cat would dare leave her lair without a little bling, so Karen bedazzles the frames. All 600 pairs. "We have different colors for holidays, with skulls and pumpkins and hearts," she says.
Until a few years ago, Bagel was a common house cat with a small circle of friends. Today, she is the public figure known as Sunglass Cat, who has more than 580,000 followers on Instagram. On her account, she sports flashy spectacles that sparkle as brightly as her fabulous life, which includes gambling trips to Vegas, Beverly Hills pool parties and sunset strolls on the strand at Venice Beach, California.
Throughout the year, she also appears at cat conventions and animal rescue events, such as the one that recently brought her to Washington: a springtime shindig called Meow DC, organized by the Humane Rescue Alliance. While Bagel works the crowd, Karen spreads their species-inclusive message of acceptance and tolerance. "It's okay to look and be different," says Karen, who was bullied as a child. "Never let any disability hold you back."
More than a thousand people, many dressed in full-body cat attire, stream through Union Market, site of Meow DC. In addition to the tete-a-tete with Sunglass Cat, which draws 150 to 200 fans, the schedule is packed with lectures ("Cats Aren't Weird, They're Cats"), activities (design your own cat-ear headbands) and vendors (surprise your feline with a bottle of White Kittendel cat wine).
Karen and Bagel receive guests inside a plastic dome, where Bagel is curled up on a blue blanket atop a high table. Her tail flicks precariously close to a basket filled with sunglasses donated by Tito's Handmade Vodka. She's wearing the same shades (red hearts, yellow lozenge-shaped crystals) from last night's photo shoot. In cat couture, repeating outfits is not considered a fashion crime.
A line starts to form outside the entrance. "I'm a cat lover," says Amy Vance, who is next up. "Actually, I have a dog. I don't have a cat." Inside the shelter, Amy pets Bagel and listens to Karen explain the feline's medical issues. (Bagel also can't regulate her body temperature, hence the sweaters and wraps on cold days and frozen bags of peas and kiddie swimming pools on hot ones.)
"I can't believe how docile she is," Amy says. "The sunglasses are fantastic."
"I do the blinging," Karen says. "Do you want a photo?"
"Can we?" Amy asks with childlike glee. She cradles 13.2 pounds of gray fur in her arms and smiles widely. Then she cajoles her husband into posing for a picture. Bagel melts his reticence like a flame next to an ice cube. The pair exit and Varsha Koduvayur bounds in. "Hi, Bagel! Welcome to D.C.," she exclaims. "I follow you. I'm your biggest fan." Varsha tells Bagel that Nigel, her cat, posted a greeting on Bagel's Instagram page. They snap a photo to share with Nigel.
Three girls and their mother, all wearing cat ears, enter. Bagel turns her back on her guests to gaze out the window at the parking lot. A bird flits by. She knocks the bin of glasses off the table and paws off her own pair. "She doesn't look too different," one of the daughters says, studying her bare face. "She's cross-eyed," observes the mother.
The meet-and-greet is nearing its end, but fans are still queued up. Bagel has fallen asleep - eyes wide open - several times over the three hours, but has not growled orders to cease operations. So Karen allows a few more people to visit: a pair of tween-age sisters, including one who interviews Karen for her school paper about the difference between dogs and cats; a family with a disabled child, who tenderly caresses Bagel.
Karen and her cat have to catch a plane to Detroit, but they make one quick lap around the venue, Karen holding Bagel aloft as if she were an Olympic torch. From on high, Bagel calmly surveys the scene and her adoring fans. At least we think she is surveying. Behind her bejeweled shades, Sunglass Cat could be snoozing away.