When Anna Mathias started an Instagram account for her 2-month-old hedgehog in April, her goal was to have 1,000 followers within a month or she would delete the account. She had 1,000 followers in four days.
By late September, Lionel, better known as @LionelTheHog, had more than 27,800 Instagram followers. Not bad for a 1-pound hedgehog with grumpy tendencies.
Mathias loved hedgehogs but had never thought about getting one for herself. Yet when she heard Lionel’s owner was giving him up, she jumped at the chance to have a hedgehog of her own.
As active Instagram user, Mathias started snapping photos of Lionel (named for Lionel Richie) for her own account.
“I’d take five or six pictures in a day, and they were really cute, and I wanted to share them,” she said.
She knew her friends might grow weary of the nonstop Lionel updates, so she decided the spiny critter needed his own Instagram account.
Mathias started the account just for fun, but Lionel has turned into a full-fledged social media celebrity. His popularity soared in May when Joe Jonas of Jonas Brothers fame reposted a photo of Lionel atop an ice cream cone with the caption “Spiky Scoop coming up.” The photo got 110,000 likes and a bunch of new followers for Lionel.
Lionel certainly isn’t the first pet to gain Internet notoriety. Grumpy Cat, the tiny feline with the perpetually sour face, has been the subject of countless memes, starred in her own holiday movie on Lifetime TV and has more than 8 million Facebook fans, almost 300,000 Twitter followers and 887,000 Instagram followers.
On Facebook, Boo the dog has more than 17 million Facebook fans. A Pomeranian with a short haircut, Boo looks something like a teddy bear and a stuffed animal. He also has joined Twitter (4,000-plus followers) and Instagram (604,000-plus followers).
Perhaps the pet that especially paved the way for Lionel’s fame was Biddy, the late hedgehog that amassed 609,000 Instagram followers with photos of his travels.
Right now, there are no plans for Lionel to take on Hollywood, but he is giving his owner something unique for her resume.
A senior at the University of South Carolina majoring in public relations and minoring in fashion merchandising, Mathias has turned Lionel’s social media fame into some real-life marketing experience.
Mathias, who’s from the Charleston area and interned at a local PR firm over the summer, selected Charleston backgrounds for Lionel’s pictures, including the beach, in front of a horse-drawn carriage, at the Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park, and next to flowering window boxes downtown.
“I’ve branded him as a Charleston hedgehog,” said Mathias, who also has a teacup Pomeranian.
Lionel’s life appears pretty glamorous for a hedgehog. Other hedgehog social media accounts capture what real life with a hedgehog is like. Mathias presents Lionel in a fantasy world, and that’s why he has drawn so many fans.
“People think he has his own life, but he’s just an animal,” Mathias said with a laugh.
Sometimes hedgehogs don’t want to be handled, but Lionel’s affection for Mathias seems to help him tolerate the photo shoots.
Hedgehogs can be grumpy and scare easily, Mathias said. She has learned Lionel’s quirks and can tell when he’s not in the mood for photos. If he’s not cooperating, she won’t push it. Mathias wants the account and its posts to be authentic.
“I never force him if he’s angry or just not into it,” Mathias said. “I tried to give him a Verde (restaurant) salad, but he wouldn’t have it.”
In his free time, Lionel likes running on a wheel and snacking on mealworms.
Some pictures are manufactured, giving Mathias a chance to practice her Photoshop skills after taking an introductory design class at college.
“I can see the progression of how I’ve gotten better at it,” she said. “It’s cool for me to see that.”
The obviously ridiculous photos – Lionel with a light saber, Lionel wearing a sombrero and holding a taco, Lionel dressed like Harry Potter – are manufactured, she said.
“People tend to really like those images. The sombrero and taco – people love that one.”
Mathias has even turned a couple of her photos in products. Lionel sitting next to a pineapple and“wearing” a pineapple crown became a limited edition T-shirt run that sold out in three days. Now Mathias is selling socks featuring Lionel atop an ice cream cone.
What’s been particularly exciting for this fashion lover is the opportunity for collaboration with some big brands who are more than happy to provide items for a Lionel photoshoot. And what large company wouldn’t want its products in front of more than 27,500 people?
One of her biggest scores was a Kate Spade gold leather crossbody purse shaped like a hedgehog that sells for nearly $300. With the purse, Mathias received a Kate Spade hedgehog pendant necklace and earrings. Her Instagram picture of Lionel with the hedgehog-inspired products received 3,160 likes and 146 comments.
“Kate Spade is definitely huge,” Mathias said of that collaboration.
Online retailer ASOS, one of Mathias’ favorite places to shop, reposted a photo of Lionel in confetti. Mathias is working on a project that would feature customized Lionel wrapping paper. And in September, Lionel showed up on Charleston author Mary Alice Monroe’s Facebook page sitting in a sweetgrass basket with Monroe’s latest book, “The Summer’s End.” Lionel helped kick off a giveaway for a signed copy of the book.
Earlier this summer, Lionel and Mathias were guests on local morning TV show “Lowcountry Live,” another boost for Lionel’s local popularity.
His fame has grown so much that Mathias is often asked, “Are you Lionel’s mom?” Everyone expects Lionel to be in her purse at all times.
“It’s getting to the point where I can’t keep up,” Mathias said. “Every day I’m getting emails.”
She’s hoping Lionel will be featured in a story on BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post, or maybe in a magazine like Seventeen.
Mathias will graduate from the University of South Carolina in December and plans to return to Charleston to look for a job. She’s confident her experience branding Lionel will give her an advantage.
“I was nervous to put Lionel (and his account) in my professional experience,” Mathias said. “But it shows people who are in the communications world that I know something.”