She poops on your sidewalk and nibbles at your garbage, but Toast, the dog queen of Instagram, has a brand that will make you roll over with envy
It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a conference room in New York City, listening to Katie Sturino boast about her “daughter’s” celebrity admirers. “Reese Witherspoon follows her,” she says. “Drew Barrymore follows her. That girl from Pretty Little Liars follows her. She has a lot of random celebrity followers, which is really cool.”
Her “daughter” is a dog named Toast, a 10-year-old ruby Cavalier with marble-round eyes and an unreasonably long tongue that flops out the side of her mouth. And for thousands of pet-inclined internet users, Toast is the celebrity. “Probably like three or four times a day, people stop and take pictures,” says Sturino. “We were at an adoption event last week, and this woman came from Sweden and was like, ‘I was so excited! I thought I wouldn’t meet you.’” All for a dog whose primary skill appears to be sleeping.
Toast is a quintessential wags-to-riches tale, rescued from a puppy mill half a decade ago by Sturino and her husband, Josh Ostrovsky (better known as the Instagram comedian “Fat Jew”). “The first day we got her…she had all dead teeth, crazy hair.” Then Sturino, a PR professional with an interest in fashion, began dressing up the dog in fancy outfits and taking photos. Now Toast commands a following of about 360,000 on Instagram and is repped by DBA (Digital Brand Architects), an agency that specializes in internet celebrities. “Toast is their only dog client,” Sturino says. “They were like, ‘This is a joke.’ I said, ‘It’s not a joke.’”
It’s definitely not. All around you, pooping on your sidewalk and nibbling at your garbage, are internet-famous dogs—four-legged animals with more successful brands and more lucrative marketing deals than you’ll ever know. Some, like Manny the Frenchie, have upward of a million Instagram followers. These dogs are moneymakers: A single sponsored Instagram post might earn an owner several thousand dollars. (Toast has worked with brands like Febreze and Swiffer.) Recently, Harvard Law graduate Loni Edwards launched the Dog Agency, a talent management firm intended for these big-deal canines.
“I get DMs, like, every day,” Sturino says, “with people with four followers being like, ‘Repost me!’” In these cases, she rarely responds. “If I went to your account, and maybe you had 10,000 followers, and I see that you have 200 posts, and you’re actually working at it and doing it, OK, let’s talk about it,” she says. “Maybe you have a message. But, like, I’m not going to take your pet store dog and just help you out because you want a famous dog.”
Sturino has had meet-ups with a dozen or so pooches, but status anxiety can get in the way. “I think there’s like a hierarchy on Instagram,” she says. “Maybe if you’re too famous, you’re not going to meet up because you’re weary of people using you for your followers.”
In January, I met some of the internet’s most elite dogs while attending Toast’s swanky wedding, where Sturino says she dressed up the dog in $175,000 worth of diamonds and raised money for the National Mill Dog Rescue.
This time, I’m here to cover the release of Toast’s first book. ToastHampton: How to Summer in Style consists of 120 sleek pages of photographs showing Toast posing against tony Hamptons backdrops. In some images, the dog wears sunglasses or sweaters; in others, she appears au naturel, with her trademark lolling tongue. The photos—professionally shot and full of colorful ornaments—are similar to what you’ll find scrolling through Toast’s Instagram except bigger, fancier and, well, with a $17 price tag. “Toast is fancy,” Sturino says, “and she is just telling the people about how to live like a luxurious, fancy dog.”
The dog mom always wanted to have a book, so she reached out to HarperCollins and scored a deal. The target audience? “Toast fans,” she says, and “resort towns.”
Sturino has two other dogs, Underpants and Muppet. They’re Toast’s “siblings,” and they each have their own Instagram profile. When I ask Sturino about the income generated from her dog’s branding deals (“it’s…not enough to live on”), a publicist tells me that a portion of the money goes to dog-related charities. A few paragraphs about helping dogs from puppy mills appear in the back of the book.
Sturino’s passion for helping dogs rescued from puppy mills is genuine. (She bristles at the mention of labradoodles, a breed commonly purchased in pet stores.) So is her passion for the vicarious celeb glow that comes with having an Insta-famous dog.
At first, her family and friends were dismissive. “People were like, ‘This is a weird obsession, and you should watch out,’” she recalls. “Even the wedding! People were like, ‘Uh, that’s so weird.’ But then [Toast] was in People magazine! Real Housewives filmed it. It was ridiculous! But these are the qualifiers that make people think you’ve done something right, versus ‘You’re a psycho.’”
Soon Sturino pulls out her phone to show me a video of Toast #Swalking, a swimming motion that the dog makes in the air when carried. Other dogs have also started #Swalking, she says, but Toast did it first and does it best.
I can’t help telling Sturino that the whole business is a lot like Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s 2000 mockumentary about dog show devotees. Surprisingly, she agrees. “Don’t think I’m not in on this joke,” she says.
Joke? What joke? In on it—how?
“I understand it’s ridiculous. I understand it’s funny that my dog wrote a book. And, like, my dog is being picked up in a car service to go to Good Morning America.”
“Katie is fully laughing with you!” one of the publicists adds.
But I’m not laughing. Neither is Toast. She is sleeping, sprawled across the conference table like a frat boy recovering from a dozen Natty Lights. Occasionally, her long and winding tongue emerges from its cocoon. It’s all very on-brand.