Shortly after leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2009, photographer Lori Shepler welcomed a stray cat with thumbs and a short, stubby tail into her home. Within a few months City the Kitty was appearing in videos and gaining Facebook fans by the thousands. City the Kitty has gone on to appear in numerous television shows including Animal Planet’s “My Cat from Hell” and he has a YouTube channel with over 1.5 million views and 150 videos.
For Shepler, the absence of daily newspaper assignments was replaced by making wildly popular cat videos and by a friendship with Lakers star Pau Gasol. Shepler met Gasol while on assignment for The Times in 2008 and developed a rapport with him that led to the publication of a book on Gasol’s life, “Pau Gasol/Life Vida.” The book is available through gasolfoundation.org/lifevida and all proceeds go to the Gasol Foundation.
Shepler took time to discuss working with Gasol on the book and building an Internet presence for City the Kitty:
Question: What was the most memorable moment while photographing Pau Gasol?
Answer: I would have to say that it was in the hospital when he was visiting a little girl who had an aging disease. It was just such a touching moment when the two of them were together. It just epitomized what Pau is all about — and that is to help lift the spirits of children in unfortunate situations.
Q: How has your relationship with Pau evolved over the years?
A: It’s really odd, but Pau and I have had the same type of friendship from almost Day One. He always seemed so comfortable around me and vice versa. I was never intimidated by him because he is a famous basketball player and I think he’s always felt a trust with me. Of course, we have shared a lot more experiences and fun times since then.
Q: Four years, two countries, 12,000 images. What was the editing process like?
A: When we decided that we had enough photos and content to create the book, I had to start thinking about how it would all fit. I wanted the photos to match his words and all the chapters to be interesting and revealing. So I basically had to go through all of the photos and decide which ones I would keep and which ones I would have to let go. I narrowed about 12,000 photos down to about 350. It was hard to cut any more of them out, so with the help of ex-Los Angeles Times photographer and current author of many successful books Randy Leffingwell and current Los Angeles Times photographer Mel Melcon, we narrowed it down to about 230, most of which I used in the book.
Q: Were there difficulties you would not have foreseen in publishing a book?
A: This book started as a simple idea and I wanted to try to do it all myself. Late one night, about three years into this project, after I had collected hours of transcripts of interviews and hundreds of photos, I realized that I needed help in putting it all together. I knew that I needed a very talented editor to put together all of the very interesting thoughts and feelings that Pau had conveyed. So I hired my good friend Phuong Nguyen Cotey. She did an amazing job with all of the editing, including the words from Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Juan Carlos Navarro. I couldn’t have done this without her.
Also, I had a lot of ideas as to how I wanted the look of the book to be, but I didn’t know how to put the pieces in place, so I needed a designer. I hired another good friend, Howard Shen, and he helped me with his skills with InDesign to put all the photos and pieces together in the way that we did. It truly was a big challenge to match the photos with the words. I didn’t have a game plan when we first started and just decided on the topics and chapters along the way.
It was fun to see all the pieces falling into place and a real, tangible book starting to take shape. I had a lot of good friends who became consultants and helped me with valuable suggestions and advice. I am so grateful for them since it was a daunting task to do something like this for the first time, especially for a famous athlete. I knew the eyes of the world would be on this book and I wanted it to succeed. And I especially wanted Pau to be happy with it.
Toward the end phases of its creation, I proposed to Pau the idea of me becoming the publisher. He contemplated the options and this idea and, thankfully, agreed to it. He knew that I wanted to start doing books about my famous cat, City the Kitty, and I think he thought it would be a good steppingstone for me to have this experience. I was working 12-hour days on the book when we started the production process of it, which soon turned into 15-hour days, since I had the publishing side of the book to get started. So for at least six months I really had no days off and lived and breathed this book.
Q: What did you learn from this process?
A: It was like a baptism by fire. I feel that I went through a hands-on, intense learning experience as to how to make a book and also how to be a publisher. If I would have known how challenging it was going to be to create this book and how overwhelming it was at times to learn all the necessary things I needed to do to be the publisher, it probably would have scared me too much to start. Thank goodness, I was a bit naive and believed I could do both because I think it all culminated in a successful way. I think most people have no idea how much goes into making a book like this. It was a team effort with so many people on my team and I will be forever grateful for them and this experience – mostly to Pau for entrusting me with this whole thing.
Q: What is the City the Kitty phenomenon and how did you first decide to do videos of your cat?
A: I realized that he was very unique after he started posing for photos. He would get the mail out of the mailbox and carry it with his teeth. I started taking videos too, since he was such an active and unusual kitty. People started saying that I should make a Facebook page for all his photos, so I did, and it slowly gained attention with more fans.
Q: At what point did you realize the videos struck a chord with people?
A: He’s appeared on Animal Planet shows, “My Cat From Hell” and “Bad Dog”; “Nightline”; and “Good Morning America” with Jackson Galaxy; and currently stars in a Fresh Step commercial. His Facebook page now has almost 200,000 fans, with about 2,000 to 4,000 new ones per day. His YouTube channel has more than 1.5 million views with over 150 videos. I thought I would run out of videos and photo ideas after a few months, but he just kept doing different and unique things. People always ask me what makes him different, but it’s so hard to explain and I have to tell them that they have to see it to believe it.
Q: What plans do you have for City the Kitty going forward?
A: City the Kitty and I have a lot planned for the future. I’ve always wanted to just keep making people smile through his photos and videos. Some people write me, or City, and say that they go to his Facebook page every morning to start their day with a smile. Some have said that City helps them forget, if just for a moment, the suffering or illness they are going through. My desires are to write some children’s and inspirational books with City the Kitty. He seems to be able to spread good messages.