My Dog Was An Instagram Superstar. Here’s How She Changed My Life

For her wedding, which was televised on The Real Housewives of New York, she wore a custom Marchesa gown and a $170,000 diamond necklace. She was a published author. She starred in an international eyewear campaign, had several sold-out clothing collaborations, and appeared on billboards across the country. Almost a year ago, her death was covered in People and Page Six. She was my dog, internet celebrity Toast, who boasts over 362,000 Instagram followers.
I never thought she would die. She was too famous, too cute for death.
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Sturino.
Toast on her wedding day.
Toast changed my life. Everyone thinks their dog is special, and I respect that. But Toast had an undefinable, impossible-to-manufacture charisma. I am an introvert, and she enabled me to reach a lot of people and do a lot of good while remaining behind the scenes. It’s a role I was very used to. As a publicist for a number of years, my job was to promote the client. Toast, on the other hand, was a natural at being famous.
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I fell in love the first time I saw her, a Ruby King Charles Spaniel, eight years ago: someone was petting her and she was jumping on their leg. She didn’t look sad or broken — just happy to be free and to forge an instant connection with another living thing. That was Toast.
Toast was rescued from a puppy mill in North Carolina and brought up to New York City to be fostered. Puppy mills are factory farm-like facilities that supply puppies to pet stores; puppy mill rescues are usually the parents of those pet store puppies and are bred in continuous, brutal cycles. I learned all of this when I got my first puppy mill rescue, Muppet, in 2010. My eyes were opened even wider six months later, when six-year-old Toast, happy as she was, came to my then-husband and me in terrible condition.
Photo: Courtesy of Karen Walker.
Toast in the Karen Walker eyewear campaign.
When I decided to start her Instagram account, she had been living with us for three years, and I’d observed how people were drawn to her. Being a fashion publicist, I knew exactly what to do: I dressed her up like fashion icons and asked Who Wore It Better. (She almost always won.)
Her account began to take off when influential editors and designers took notice. Eva Chen did a funny video for Lucky; Leandra Medine from Man Repeller did a side-by-side outfit shoot with her. Karen Walker, the famous eyewear designer, cast Toast as the sole model for her spring/summer 2015 collection. Her face was in retail stores worldwide. It was a really big deal!
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Toast became the Gigi Hadid of dogs. Big black SUVs would arrive to pick us up for shoots and appearances; she had dressing rooms with her name on the door; brands clamored to send her products like cashmere dog toys from Barneys, $1,000 dog beds from Jonathan Adler, and quilted barn jackets from Canine Styles (a lifestyle brand for dogs). She flew first class. Whenever she checked into a five-star hotel, there would be a special menu just for her. TV crews from all over the world wanted to interview her and, of course, she was always in demand for photo shoots. Every day, my package room had some gift or offering for Miss Toast. The only mail I got was a ConEd bill.
Her televised wedding (to another Insta-famous dog, Finn), was nicer than I could have imagined and certainly grander than mine. Fairy godmother Darcy Miller (party guru and founding editor of Martha Stewart Weddings) created three wedding cakes with matching custom cake toppers. (Oddly, Real Housewives star Ramona Singer cut the cake before anyone else had a chance to.) If you haven’t caught that 2016 episode of Real Housewives of New York (from season eight), it’s definitely worth a watch. The best part of the over-the-top event: how much awareness and funding we raised for the anti-puppy mill cause.
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Sturino.
Despite her supermodel-dog status, Toast was never a diva. She knew her cues for photos, and never got shy on camera. I remember taking her to Good Morning America for the first of four appearances. The energy in the room, the little red light alerting the anchors that the world was watching, made me incredibly nervous. I was sweating bullets, and could barely hand her off to a producer. Toast, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less. She cozied up in George Stephanopoulos’ arms and nearly fell asleep.
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I launched Toast’s Instagram not just as a fun, creative outlet but as a way to help dogs. I had gone most of my adult life unaware of the inhumane practices that take place in puppy mills, and I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. I knew that if anything was going to change, we needed to get more people on our side by educating them. Our mission was to push the #adoptdontshop message, specifically surrounding puppy mills.
We raised money for many charities, but our main focus was the Humane Society of the United States. As a board member of Humane Generation, I was able to attend a puppy mill raid, and saw firsthand the hell these dogs live through; I was constantly amazed by both their resilience and their sweetness. Even though their only interaction with humans had been negative and abusive, some of them would just look at you through matted fur and wag their tails. If you saw these breeding dogs, you would never stop to look at the puppies in the pet store window again.
Through Toast’s feed, we were able to promote the adoption of senior canines and to raise awareness in general about fostering and improving the lives of dogs. Toast eventually starred in a national ad campaign aimed at shifting the stigma that shelter dogs are broken, unhappy, and not suitable pets. Her billboards can still be seen over the country, and fans still send pictures to me all the time.
When I started Toast’s Instagram, my friends and family thought I was crazy. Toast didn’t become a star because of some viral video or explosive post. She became a star because I believed in her, and I worked hard to get people to see what I saw. I knew that if others could truly see this incredible little being, they would love her as much as I did. What I didn’t know when I started was how much this animal would impact me as a person. I had so much confidence in Toast, in her ability to connect with people and make a difference in their lives; this eventually inspired and boosted my own confidence.
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When Toast was asked to appear in a 2015 NARS makeup shoot for Man Repeller (Again, think about that concept! This is a dog!), I was thrilled. But I had no idea that shoot would affect me so much. I met the site’s head of creative, Amelia Diamond, on set; she offered to do a style profile on me aimed at showcasing styles for curvy women. I was over the moon yet very anxious – but I had learned from the best, Toast, to just go with it. After the piece came out, a lot of women commented on how meaningful it was to see a body type like mine on a site like Man Repeller. Seeing their responses made me realize that I, too, had the ability to connect with people. I had found my new project: The12ishStyle.
Losing Toast last December was difficult not only because I loved her so much — it was also the final goodbye to a past life. She was a thread to my old marriage (I got a divorce in early 2017) and my old self; without her, there was nothing connecting me with that past. It was oddly freeing. Her death was a passing of the torch: I had gotten to where I needed to be. She no longer had to teach me about confidence. I could stand on my own.
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Sturino.
Lisa Vanderpump, Toast, and Katie Sturino
Toast passed away last December when I was out of town, two days after our latest vet had told me he felt optimistic about her health, despite a recent diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. On a Saturday night at 9 p.m., she vomited blood, laid down, and closed her eyes. She didn’t want me to be with her when she went, and I will have to put faith in the universe that there were reasons for that. Although she was loved by people all over the world, she was also my dog. I loved watching her run into the building after walks (especially because she refused to actually walk on them). She made me laugh every day, whether it was finding her snacking on a roll of toilet paper she dragged in from the bathroom, or snoring so loud I would have to move rooms if I was on a call.
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It is a very strange feeling to privately mourn the loss of your pet while also coming up with a plan to announce her passing to hundreds of thousands of fans. I took a week to gather my feelings and create the best way to channel my grief. I set up a link to donate to our favorite anti-puppy mill charities, and we raised over $10,000. The messages that came through alleviated my sense of loss and filled me with gratitude for all the lives she has touched.
While many don’t know this, I do have other dogs: Toast’s siblings, @MuppetsRevenge and @UnderPantsTheDog (who passed away just last month — it’s been a rough year for my pups). But someone else came into our lives with very auspicious timing: Cheese.
Photo: Courtesy of Katie Sturino.
My fiancé and I decided to foster her just before Toast became really sick. We then became so caught up in dealing with Toast’s health that we never really processed the fact that this little creature had been living in our home for almost three months.
While we worried about Toast, Cheese took time to recover from her own past as a breeding dog at a puppy mill. She learned to live in a home, sleep in a bed, and walk on a leash. She lost weight, and her coat got shiny. When Toast passed away, it was as if she passed on on some of her energy into Cheese. While my love was suddenly strong for this pup, I was so nervous about introducing her to the internet and waited until the time felt right. Toast will never, ever be forgotten, but Cheese helped all of us heal.
Just about every day, someone tells me — in person or via social media — how much they loved Toast. It’s a welcome but bittersweet reminder of her impact on this world. She was and is a positive force. How lucky I was to be her mum.
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