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  1. Arts & Entertainment

How Tampa's Cole and Marmalade got famous, beat cancer and helped save more cats

Cole, top, and Marmalade play at the home of Chris Poole and Jessica Josephs Thursday, June 14, 2018 in Citrus Park. The couple's cats have become YouTube.com sensations. "That's what we are, cat servants not cat owners." Josephs said. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jun. 15, 2018

TAMPA — Here's how to make your cat famous on the internet, according to the owners of famous felines Cole and Marmalade.

Rescue, don't buy. Choose a cat because it needs a home, not because it's funny looking. Use your cat video powers for good, not just for making money.

That's it, but also, be a charming Englishman who has worked with lions and tigers and sharks in Africa and Australia, and who doesn't mind getting on the floor and playing a supporting role in videos like "Cat Alarm Clock" and "AMEOW-ZING 50 Box Cat Maze!." Have a knack for social media and the kind of goofy editing that's catnip for the internet.

In this case, the famous cats are named Cole and Marmalade.Chris Poole, 36, and his wife Jessica Josephs, 38, are "owned" by Cole and Marmalade. And Poole didn't actually articulate all that wisdom. The native of Nottingham, England who moved to this area a decade ago to be a videographer for Big Cat Rescue, is too modest.

But the couple, who met on Match.com where Chris was listed as Cat Man Chris, can't offer a better explanation for why their cats have a combined three million followers across Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. They've won Friskies awards, graced the cover of Modern Cat and had videos featured on Ellen and Ridiculousness.

As they explained this from their dining room table, the goofier one of the celebrities flopped down on top of a cardboard box, resting his tabby face awkwardly against some packing material. There were many better places for a nap nearby, including two large cat trees.

"That looks comfortable," Chris said.

Cole, the more serious and affectionate one, was escorted into the room. Dressed in long, elegant, all-black fur, he ignored pleas for his attention like he was breezing past TMZ at LAX, pointed his butt toward a guest and left the room.

"There goes Cole," Jessica said. "I don't know. They're just ... cats."

CHRIS URSO | Times

Jessica Josephs and Chris Poole with Cole and Marmalade at their Citrus Park home.

Well, just cats famous enough to get their owners recognized in the Wal-Mart produce section and by pizza delivery people who want to come inside and hang out. And famous enough that their humans work from home full-time running the Cole & Marmalade enterprise.

It started with Cole. They adopted him after a friend found the six-ounce kitten alone and infested with fleas on a roadside in Pasco County. They bottle fed him back to health.

For fun, Chris posted a video on his personal YouTube account titled "Black Cat Stick 'Em Up," featuring Jessica playing with kitten Cole, and struck gold — more than 100,000 views immediately. After learning black shelter cats are last to be adopted and first to be euthanized, he posted "10 Reasons To Adopt a Lucky Black Cat" and found the formula: mixing silly videos alongside educational ones that help shelters and promote spaying and neutering and feral cat care.

Then came Marmalade. They'd heard about a litter of kittens some neighbors were leaving outside to fare for themselves as part of a feral colony. Marm's two siblings didn't make it, but Chris and Jessica got him home safe.

The 2013 video "When Cole Met Marmalade..." showing the kitten's introduction to his new big bro was a smash — more than 2.4 million views.

Cole was popular on his own. Together they were stars.

Then Marm got sick. First it was a tumor in his stomach that had to be surgically removed. Then he tested positive for FIV, feline immunodeficiency virus. Not long after that, a diagnosis of lymphoma. Chris and Jessica said they never thought twice about spending thousands on 15 rounds of chemotherapy that might not work.

Last year, a video of Marmalade leaping into the air celebrated "2 Years Cancer Free!" and he's living just fine with FIV, they said. They used the experience to teach people about adopting FIV-positive cats ("FIV+ Cats = Positively Adoptable!")

These days Cole and Marmalade videos frequently top a million views.

"We won't make millions," but YouTube ad revenue and earnings from merchandise and other promotions are enough for their four-bedroom rental home in Citrus Park with the pots full of catnip growing out front, and to fund veterinary care for the many cats they rescue. Chris has trapped, neutered and released so many feral cats, found homes for so many kittens over the years that they're not sure of the count.

Chris shoots and edits the videos, and is constantly scribbling ideas in a notebook. Jessica replies to the deluge of weekly fan email and questions Cole & Marmalade receive, writes copy for the Cole & Marmalade website and crochets cat toys for their Etsy store.

"I took a pay cut, and it definitely doesn't come with insurance," Jessica said of leaving her corporate job in November. "But look at this. There's no more stress. And it's pretty cool when you get people writing you to say Cole and Marmalade have helped with their PTSD or anxiety."

It's the kind of life where you where you get to wear a comfy Cole & Marmalade T-shirt on a Monday afternoon. If Chris catches wind of a litter of four feral kittens down the street, or a cat stuck in a sewer near Busch Gardens, he can rush off to rescue them (both happened last week). Then he'll use his Cat Man Chris online presence, bolstered by the fame of Cole and Marm, to find them a forever home.

"He's called me more than a few times and said, 'Meet me with the hose in the backyard,' because he's crawled into somewhere nasty trying to get a cat," Jessica said. "He doesn't want to come in the house smelling like, uh ... "

"Poop?," Chris finished.

A post shared by Cole and Marmalade (@coleandmarmalade) on

Ah, cat people romance. Make no mistake, they are Cat People. Despite being a major part of the animal internet, they'd never even heard the term "doggo." Explain the uber-viral WeRateDogs Twitter phenomenon, and they reply with a blank stare.

They're working toward a goal that will immerse them even deeper in the cat life. On Tuesday, Chris met with local rescue organizations to discuss plans to open what would be the Tampa Bay area's only "cat cafe," serving coffee, tea and snacks, with adoptable cats roaming around. They're scouting locations now.

If it comes to fruition, Cole and Marmalade will be largely to thank. But they'll act like it's no big deal.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.

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