Mr. Winkle Forever: The Making of the Internet’s First Furry Superstar
Documentary photographer Lara Jo Regan reveals how creative marketing turned a rescued pup into “the cutest dog in the universe.”
Before Boo, Maru and Lil Bub, before Grumpy, Sockington and Menswear Dog, before social media and incessant memes, before likes, followers, shares and snaps, before the word viral had even entered the vernacular, there was one dog to rule them all: Mr. Winkle, the internet’s first bona fide four-legged phenomenon.
The year was 1996 and award-winning documentary photographer Lara Jo Regan was driving home to Los Angeles late at night after wrapping an assignment for Newsweek in Bakersfield about women on welfare. In need of caffeine and fuel, she turned off the freeway and found herself in an unfamiliar industrial wasteland when her headlights happened upon a strange, small and indeterminate creature teetering in her direction. Regan pulled over and got out of her car. A trembling and tattered tuft of fluff lurched toward her, stared into her eyes and staggered into her arms. Her heart melted on contact and she took him home.
A veterinarian pronounced the dog “one in a million,” a canine-DNA oddity of enigmatic ancestry in which the most dominant gene was the one for “adorable.” After a few years of rehab to heal several infections and a head fracture, the real Mr. Winkle, as he came to be called, was revealed: a 7-inch, 5-lb. awkward golden fluff ball with enormous, expressive eyes and a perpetually extended pink tongue. Wherever Regan took him, everyone reacted the same: Mr. Winkle was instantly endearing, awww-inspiring, a whimsical wonder dog with five-alarm charm. Resistance was futile. And everyone wanted to know: What is Mr. Winkle?
Regan set out to answer that question doing what she did best. She shot 12 photographs of Mr. Winkle with simple costumes and props, added playful captions that suggested he might be a cat in a dog suit, a hamster with a perm or maybe even an angel and self-published the first “What is Mr. Winkle?” calendar in 2001, selling the calendar on a new Mr. Winkle website she commissioned. She waited patiently. And then impatiently. Nothing happened. And then everything happened.
Mr. Winkle beguiled the world. In short order, website visitors shot up to the millions, the calendar sold out and went into reprints, calendars through 2017(and counting) followed, Mr. Winkle made the rounds of nearly every TV talk show and graced the covers of numerous magazines, including Time for Kids. Time magazine’s own online supplement On crowned Mr. Winkle “Best Internet Celebrity of 2002,” Regan signed a three-book deal with Random House, frenzied fans mobbed bookstore signings (where Mr. Winkle personally “pawtographed” each purchase) and “Sex and the City” paid tribute in an episode where Mr. Winkle stole the spotlight from Carrie Bradshaw (Sara Jessica Parker) at her own book signing.
To handle the whirlwind of demand, Regan put her documentary work on hold and devoted herself to all things Winkle. For the next decade, she applied her formal credentials to a cascade of Mr. Winkle photographs that straddle the sometimes uneasy line between kitsch and fine art. Inspired by his chimerical quality, she captured “the cutest dog in the universe” in an ever-expanding cast of characters, in a series of “nudes” in natural settings and then in the mundane mise en scène of roadside hotels and motels. Evident in every photograph was an artist’s sensibility, so much so that her work caught the attention of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art which mounted a major exhibit of 60 Mr. Winkle photographs in 2012 to examine how “ironic juxtaposition can incite dialogue about empathy, projection, human-animal relationships, and the nature of cuteness itself.”
It was all an unexpected detour for a photographer whose work appeared in many of the world’s leading publications and who had just won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for a photo from a series on poverty for Life Magazine. But, like Wegman and Man Ray, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, Mapplethorpe and Smith, Warhol and Sedgwick, Burton and Depp, Regan and Mr. Winkle were an artist and muse for the ages, and that, more than anything, may be the reason for Mr. Winkle’s enduring appeal.
Regan, who has returned to her documentary photography, graciously agreed to speak with Montage about the Mr. Winkle phenomenon.
Can you go back to that moment in 1996 when Mr. Winkle stumbled into your headlights? What were your first thoughts when you got out of your car that night and laid eyes on him?
My thoughts were pretty fuzzy at the time, but I was feeling overwhelming panic and worry for this poor little creature. It was late at night and he was in such bad shape.
What was the inspiration for his name?
I originally named him Rinky but was not 100 percent satisfied with that. One day a friend and I were taking him for a walk and we launched into funny rhyme riffs on his name to the beat of his adorable prancing gait: Rinky, Dinky Binky, Binkle, Winkle… Mr. Winkle! It was one of those stream-of-consciousness revelations — as the perfect name for our pet often comes to us.
What made you think Mr. Winkle had star potential?
His nuclear cuteness combined with his chameleonic nature. He had the legs of a doe, the ears of a koala, the face of a baby bear… the fur of a lamb. He was a composite of nearly every cute creature in existence, a living, breathing kitsch object.
You’re a photographer. Mr. Winkle is a perfect subject. What were the chances? Kismet?
Yes, I could not deny the one-in-a-million synchronicity, but the realization of actual marketing potential took a while to surface. When I found Mr. Winkle he was a mess — even scary looking. My maternal instinct kicked in and I just wanted to make sure this little creature survived in a loving home. It took a year of vet visits and TLC to get him to the point where he was no longer skittish. After he was healthy and happy, nearly every person who crossed his path had something funny and inspiring to say about him, eventually inspiring the “What is Mr. Winkle?” photo series.
You started marketing Mr. Winkle in 2001 with a self-published calendar featuring Mr. Winkle in 12 character photographs and a website to sell the calendar. This was the very beginning of the consumer internet. How did you promote the calendar and the site? How did people discover them?
At the time, I knew nothing about publishing or internet marketing. The calendar and website were done out of pure love, just wanting to share this extraordinary creature with the world. Cynics will doubt my motivation, but documentary photographers have this overwhelming impulse to capture extraordinary moments and things that will not be here forever. I just did the calendar in the hopes of making my money back for the expenditure of website design, printing and production of the images which was pricey with pre-digital cameras.
Who built the website? Do you remember what you paid for it?
I was lucky to find an independent website builder who was a friend of a friend and had a very kid-like sensibility. I think he charged a couple thousand dollars. The printing was the big expenditure, which was very risky. If I knew then what I know now I would not have embarked on the venture. So this is one of the rare cases where naiveté and cluelessness paid off. I just was convinced that “somehow” the world would see in Mr. Winkle what I saw in him.
How important was the site in your marketing efforts?
Very. The first year 95 percent of Mr. Winkle stuff was sold on mrwinkle.com, and I was able to capture a huge fan mailing list that sustained the brand for years. This was back before all the restrictions took hold on contacting customers via their emails. But I was very respectful of the contacts, email blasting only two newsletters a year.
Why did you decide to self-publish the calendar rather than pitching it to a publishing company?
At that point it was just a timing issue. Mr. Winkle was so fragile when I found him I was not sure if he was long for this world. I did not want to take the time of trying to convince publishers I had something special. Also, I wanted to shape what he was all about from the ground up.
How many copies of the calendar did you print? Did they sell out? Did you have to reprint it?
Idiotically, I printed ten thousand which drained a big chunk of my life savings. But they sold out within a month of Mr. Winkle going viral, and it even necessitated a second printing for the Christmas season.
You and Mr. Winkle made dozens of TV appearances on news and talk shows. Did one lead to another? Was there a snowball effect?
Yes. That’s how it works with the mass media, it seems, but it’s important to note that if something does not have viral DNA, no amount of press coverage can make something go viral. The toughest thing by far is getting that first bit of press coverage. How that unfolded for Mr. Winkle is that I had a photojournalist colleague at the LA Times who had met Mr. Winkle and mentioned he would like to photograph him if I was ever doing a public event, just for those fun photos the Times used to publish as eye candy to fill space. So when Mr. Winkle was making his first official public appearance at my local street fair to sell his newly minted calendars, I called the Times and spoke to my friend’s editor who wanted more information. At that point Mr. Winkle’s website had just gone live and he had become a “local urban legend” in my neighborhood which I mentioned to the editor, partly in jest. Much to my surprise, the editor sent a writer to my house the next day because he thought it had potential for a fun human-interest story. Luckily, I had compelling unique artwork to substantiate my passions and pursuits, which is important to serious publications.
The following week, a full feature about Mr. Winkle along with a huge double-page spread image of his “Cat in a Dog Suit” character appeared in the LA Times. A few dribbling orders on my website turned into hundreds. The local news saw the Times story and came to my house to do a segment. Then CNN saw the local news and sent their own reporters. Then Rosie O’Donnell saw CNN and we were invited on her then massively popular show. Hundreds of orders grew to tens of thousands, and it just kept snowballing. At the time I did not think that trying to share my pet with the world through pictures with a companion website and calendar was anything special, when in reality Mr. Winkle became the first internet animal star, the progenitor of all the pet stars we see today. I was lucky that the Times editor recognized that what I was doing was unusual at the time.
Do you remember when you realized Mr. Winkle was a sensation?
These two sweet USC computer students were helping me do some technical stuff on mrwinkle.com for a really good price. At that point I was freaking out I printed so many calendars before I even had orders from stores or had built up an awareness of him online. The LA Times article had just come out when I arrived at their dorm room. They looked at me when I walked into their dark tiny man cave with their faces glowing from the computer light and said, “it’s gone viral.” I think they were more stunned than I was.
How did you land a contract with Random House for the three Mr. Winkle books?
They contacted me after it went viral and my licensing agent worked out the details.
Mr. Winkle appeared in an episode of “Sex and the City,” upstaging Carrie Bradshaw (Sara Jessica Parker) at a book signing. How did that come about?
The producer of the show was a fan, as was a comedian friend of mine who knew the producer. I think they were just casually talking at a party about how interesting and amusing the Winkle phenomenon was, especially how so many people lined up around the block at his book signings as if visiting the Christ child himself. And then the producer had the clever and hysterical idea to incorporate it into a plotline, then contacted me through our mutual friend.
Mr. Winkle has rubbed shoulders with a myriad celebrities, including Betty White, Rosie O’Donnell, Jaclyn Smith, Tori Spelling, Caroline Rhea, Kevin Nealon and Jane Pauley. Do you have a most memorable celebrity moment?
Most of these encounters took place at charity events, and I remember how amazed I was that they all wanted their picture with Mr. Winkle. But the more lasting takeaway was my realization of how much love and support there is out there for animal causes, from people in all walks of life.
You were an established and award-winning photojournalist before Mr. Winkle entered your life. Did you think twice about devoting so much time and energy to photographing Mr. Winkle and how that might affect your photojournalist credentials?
Oh, yes. That was a huge concern. No one supported what I was doing at first; many colleagues thought I had lost my mind. But at the time I just thought of the Mr. Winkle calendar as a little side project. I honestly never thought it would take off to the point where it would upstage my career as a magazine photographer. Just when Mr. Winkle took off I found out I had won the World Press Photo of the Year, and several European reporters interviewing me about the award had a hard time getting their minds around the fact that I was doing these two entirely things at once.
The Mr. Winkle website is virtually the same as it was in 2000 — the landing page offers a Flash version and an HTML version. You’ve said that’s purposeful, because the “handmade sincerity was not only one of the elements that made it popular and unique, but it represented a certain era in early Internet history that I wanted to freeze in time.” The site isn’t mobile or tablet friendly and Flash has been on its way out for some time now. Are you concerned that there may come a day when the site is simply unviewable?
Yes, I’m grappling with that now, trying to figure out how to preserve the charming anachronistic quality of the site while bringing it up to date. It all really depends on if I decide to somehow revitalize the brand. I’m of two minds about it, because Mr. Winkle is so loved and unique and a proper heir to his throne would be tricky.
How many hours of work went into each character photo?
Each character took about a week to produce. A lot of special props, costumes and sets had to be handmade. I was still shooting film and was a long way off from learning sophisticated post-production Photoshop. So all the elements had to come together in real time. Some still find it hard to believe that all Mr. Winkle’s expressions and poses are real in those photos.
Facebook is the only social media platform that Mr. Winkle is on, and you post relatively few photos there. Do you purposefully limit the number of photos you post online?
Yes, I’m now keeping interest in Mr. Winkle to a minimum while deciding what the best move is to extend his brand beyond his physical life in a meaningful way. I had become a bit burned out on building and maintaining fan bases, which is extremely time consuming and is a huge distraction from actually making art. I had communicated with fans with the utmost passion and dedication the old-fashioned way through mrwinkle.com for a decade. I am eternally grateful for the fans; sharing my love of an animal through my artwork while making a statement about the beauty and potential of stray animals in the process will always be one of the most satisfying and remarkable experiences of my life. It was a dream I could never even have imagined. But after a decade I felt an intense need to circle back to my long neglected documentary projects addressing the serious social and political issues of the day. So you might say Mr. Winkle’s light social media presence represents a holding pattern. When I’m ready, I would perhaps like to introduce Miss Winkle, the female counterpart of Mr. Winkle. My daughter is now 12 and she has taken a great interest in helping, which is further motivation because I think it would be a fun educational experience for her.
Instagram would seem to be the ideal social media platform for a photography-based phenomenon. But the 150 character photos of Mr. Winkle featured in your latest book, “The Complete Character Collection,” which represent nearly all of the character photos you’ve taken, could easily be used up in about six months if you posted one a day on Instagram. And being on permanent display would also seem to devalue their uniqueness. Has not giving in to the never-ending demands of social media contributed to the Mr. Winkle mystique that’s lasted 15 years now?
Those are very good points, things I think about often, in relation to all kinds of photography. While there are no straight-jacket rules, overall I believe less is more. Or, as the old showbiz saying goes, “Always leave them wanting more.” Posting too much and too often is no doubt the biggest mistake Instagrammers and Facebookers make today. Being able to discriminate between share-worthy and non-share-worthy material is difficult for those who have not spent their lives exposed to a broad range of the very best photography in existence. Making these distinctions becomes even more important when there is product involved. If I were introducing Mr. Winkle to the world for the first time in the social media age, I would only post day-in-the-life-type pictures in the Instagram feed, just a few times a month. But they still would have to be wonderful images. I would save the more creative, labor-intensive and costly character photos for his books and calendars, only showing a few on Instagram for promotion after the products were available for purchase. The more casual Photo Diaries on his old website served the purpose of what Instagram would today.
It is true that too much exposure can devalue the specialness of anything, so it is a fine-tuned exercise to expose something just enough to generate interest in purchasing the product, but not so much that people think looking at the images on the internet is enough. Making sure your products would make a great gift is important, too, because the need to give and receive physical gifts is not going away anytime soon. But most importantly, if you want something to last through time, there has to be inherent quality there, as with the photos of William Wegman, Anne Geddes and the like. Those brands have also lasted over a decade because there are serious artists behind them and many layers of thought, beauty, humor and originality in their images that cell phone snaps rarely possess. For brands like Grumpy Cat that are more humor and text driven, visual aesthetics matter less. Art directors at publishing houses can add whistles and bells to make up for the pedestrian nature of the images. But for most internet pet stars whose owners are not sophisticated creative types, their day in the sun rarely lasts more than a year or two, usually just one season. Not to mention the formidable expense, legal and copyright complications of hiring a third-party photographer to photograph your pet. For pet owners who want to make their animal a star, not being able to create original content themselves can be quite a barrier. Some publishers with budgets exploit this situation by hiring work-for-hire photographers to photograph flavor-of-the-month internet pet stars, but that benefits the publisher far more than the pet owner, and usually results in product that looks overly commercial. The genuine love a thoughtful artist has for their own pet muse and that unique expression only they are capable of expressing through their medium is just white-washed away.
You’ve used Mr. Winkle’s fame to contribute to a long list of charitable animal-welfare organizations. Were you ever approached to do any product endorsements? Could you ever imagine Mr. Winkle doing product endorsements?
There was some interest in that when he was red hot, but for some reason it just never happened. It was not something I ever pushed for, because I was so overwhelmed with creating content for everything else. But, in retrospect, I suppose I could have explored it more vigorously through my licensing agent. Mattel did license the right to the doll, but, in 2001, the mass-market stores Mattel sold to were too scared and skeptical to take on a plush toy based on an internet phenomenon. Back then it was all about Hollywood movie merchandise tie-ins, and the idea of something reaching people’s hearts and souls via the internet was literally a radical notion to them. You could say Mr. Winkle was ahead of his time on that count. But I created a doll myself and sold thousands of them on mrwinkle.com directly to the fan base.
In 2012, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art mounted an exhibit titled “Mr. Winkle: Object of Projection” featuring 60 Mr. Winkle photographs. How did that come about?
My husband is an artist, art writer and curator like Micol Hebron, who curated the exhibit, and they knew each other through the art scene. She had been a longtime fan of Mr. Winkle, and when she discovered I was the wife of someone she knew, she approached me about a Museum show. Mr. Winkle was then at the 10-year mark, so it was great timing.
Hebron wrote that your photographs explore “how kitsch and ironic juxtaposition can incite a meaningful cultural dialog about empathy, projection, and human-animal relationships… [They] create an incredible gateway to a wide array of discussions about contemporary culture and aesthetics — from our tendency to anthropomorphize…to the power of cuteness to destabilize a bad mood, to the finite details of photographic compositions.” It’s safe to say that none of Mr. Winkle’s social-media-famous heirs have inspired a description like that. Is the secret to Mr. Winkle’s longevity embedded in her observations?
I would like to think so. Micol has a keen mind and is good at seeing beyond the surface. She was especially interested in exploring the concept of cute in a more academic way, using Mr. Winkle as the quintennsential symbol. She suggested that cuteness is quite a profound thing because nature has selected for noetenic features in almost all creatures to help ensure their survival. It can be as powerful a drug as the sex drive. She was challenging us to think about it in a more expansive way, to not necessarily discriminate against cute in art by seeing it only as a manipulative or mawkish ploy. I was thrilled to be a part of it, and it helped to validate the deeper impulses I had behind creating the work. It also helped expose that I was, in part, poking fun at some aspects of our culture through Mr. Winkle.
In 2012, you said you had stopped photographing Mr. Winkle years earlier and you’ve returned to your documentary photography. Do you apply anything you’ve learned from marketing Mr. Winkle to marketing your documentary work?
Mr. Winkle gave me a keen insider understanding of the internet, publishing, the nature of viral matter and a host of other things, but the gap between all that and documentary work seems only to be widening. Unfortunately, the sources of support for serious documentary work diminish more every year. Such work has almost become philanthropic in nature. If you are not independently wealthy, you now have to raise money to do in-depth documentary books and projects. I was lucky to have worked for great magazines like Time and Life during the last great decade when you were actually paid well for such work, both short and long-term assignments. This was just before the internet sent the print world into a near-death spiral. The perfect marriage between print and advertising has yet to find a counterpart in the digital age. That said, what I learned from the Mr. Winkle experience actually enabled me to become a small publisher in a natural organic way that I otherwise would have perceived as mysterious and daunting. About six years ago, sensing the demise of paying documentary jobs, I started producing other non-Winkle calendars because I already had relationships with the outlets who bought Winkle merchandise. Now I’m expanding to books, developing an imprint for commercial animal gift books and one for art and documentary books. I was recently offered distribution by several good companies and am excited to take it all to the next level. None of this would have even entered my realm of the possible without Mr. Winkle as guide.
Do you miss photographing Mr. Winkle?
Last question: In nearly all of your photos of Mr. Winkle, you’ve explored the question, “What is Mr. Winkle?,” which was inspired by people’s reactions to him. In your introduction to “The Complete Character Collection,” you write, “A cable repairman accused him of being a robotic squirrel. An aging hippie declared him a demon from another dimension. An out-of-work actor friend insisted he was not a dog at all, but a cat in a dog suit.” In emails to you, fans have said that Mr. Winkle is a smile, an angel, a bodhisattva. After all this time, and after so many observations, what IS Mr. Winkle?
The spirit of love and endless possibility.
Originally published in Montage, the Nutmeg newsletter. For more stories like this one, click here.