Every story starts somewhere. This story starts with Toast.
A person has to be pretty prominent to have their death make headlines in Newsweek, TIME, Today, Bustle, and Jezebel, but when headlines swirled about a death on December 15, 2017, the person in question wasn’t, well, a person. She was Toast — a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and puppy-mill rescue who found fame on Instagram, the photo-focused social-media network.
Despite her diva attitude and adorably droopy tongue, Toast didn’t rise to stardom overnight. Her Instagram account, @toastmeetsworld, started in 2014 and grew to nearly 400,000 followers by the time of her death. Toast’s legacy lives on in her siblings — Muppet (@muppetsrevenge) and Pants (@underpantsthedog) — as well as in the trio’s owner, Katie Sturino ’03, a College of Letters & Science grad and native of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Sturino, described by Jezebel as “Toast’s custodian,” was the opposable thumbs behind Toast’s Instagram account — a job that has catapulted her to celeb status of her own.
Sturino has done a lot in 15 years. Since graduating from the UW, she’s become the “dogager” of three celebrity dogs and a voice for animal adoption; launched The 12ish Style, which put her at the forefront of plus-size fashion blogging and the body-positivity movement; and, most recently, launched Megababe, a line of women’s comfort products for everyday issues.
Exactly one month before Toast passed (and the #toastmeetsheaven post received nearly 80,000 likes), Sturino posed for a photo shoot with Toast, Muppet, and Pants in their home in New York City’s posh West Chelsea neighborhood.
Location one for the photo shoot was the window seat in Sturino’s 12th-floor apartment, which looks out on an unobstructed view of the Empire State Building. The shoot was for a Boss Babes series on Taste the Style, a website “for the stylish and hungry.” As the camera shuttered away, Sturino and her three dogs sat side by side, the pups wearing matching Gap sweaters. In the foreground of the photographer’s shot was a sample product from Megababe, Sturino’s beauty comfort product line.
In one photo, the freelancer captured the empire that Sturino has worked tirelessly to build — one of fashion, dogs, and boob-sweat spray.
“I want to look like Meg Ryan in 1992” is the instruction that Sturino gave her hair stylist the morning of the shoot. She sat cross-legged in a green, velvet armchair, sipping a matching green smoothie and scrolling through her phone. The stylist — a hip Brooklynite — tugged a straightening iron through Sturino’s hair as Kate Boyle, Sturino’s assistant, grabbed the apartment keys and ran out for palm fronds to fill an empty vase. Stylists, assistants, and green juices are a far cry from Sturino’s suburban-Milwaukee childhood, and an even further cry from her freshman year at the UW, spent living in Cole Hall and waking up at 4 a.m. for crew practice.
“My sister [Jenny Sturino ’00], we both rowed in college,” she says. “I rowed two and a half years. I got injured, and then I never got uninjured.”
Although an athlete and member of the Delta Gamma sorority, didn’t fit into “normal” college life. “I never really felt like I fit in in my sorority. I didn’t really feel like I fit in with the athletes,” she says. “I was just, I guess, too cool for school!” Sturino also didn’t drink alcohol during college, which she thinks contributed to her outsider status. After graduation, she wrote an article about her experience as a sober Badger for Seventeen magazine, which she has proudly framed.
Not fitting in served her well, and being a nondrinker led to her first entrepreneurial venture. “My senior year during football games, I drove a drunk shuttle,” Sturino laughs. “Just my car. I had, like, one friend with me, and I would drive up and down and pick up visiting out-of-towners, young alumni, and be, like, ‘You need a ride to the stadium?’ Then I’d be, like, ‘20 bucks.’”
Sturino’s go-getter mentality secured her two summers of internships in New York City with Chanel. Just after her graduation, she flew back to New York — this time to stay. “I moved out here without a job. I just assumed that once you worked at Chanel, you could work anywhere!” Sturino says. “It was not quite like that … it took me a while to get a job, and then I ended up working at Dolce & Gabbana in their PR department.”
While the cutthroat nature of the high-fashion industry didn’t fit with Sturino’s vibe, she did find her passion: public relations. After leaving Dolce & Gabbana, she started her own firm: Tinder PR (not to be confused with Tinder, the dating app). “I never really grew it beyond myself and one or two employees,” she says, “but I was always doing well and very happy. I think that’s the point — I was happy with my day-to-day life.”
Sturino’s day-to-day life kept getting better, especially after she rescued Toast from a puppy mill in 2010. Shortly after that, Muppet and Pants joined the family. At that time, dog social media “wasn’t really a thing,” Sturino explains. Now it’s one of the most lucrative subsections of the United States’ nearly $70 billion pet industry. The most popular platform for pet fame is Instagram, a social-networking app that Facebook developed and launched the year of Toast’s adoption. During the past eight years, Instagram’s 500 million-plus users have shared more than 40 billion photos.
In 2014, Sturino launched @toastmeetsworld. “Basically,” she says, “I thought that Toast was very cute and very special.” And Toast was. Because of mistreatment and malnourishment in the puppy mill, all of her teeth had rotted through and had to be removed. As a result, her tongue was constantly hanging out of the right side of her mouth.
On February 25, 2014, just before the Oscars, Sturino dressed Toast up to look like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, which was nominated for Best Picture. The post was Sturino’s Lucky break — but to say it was a “lucky” break would be inaccurate. Sturino used her passion for PR to shop the photo around to numerous news outlets and magazines, and Toast scored an interview with Evan Chen, former editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine and the current director of fashion partnerships at Instagram. Soon after, Toast was getting book deals and even a gig as the model for the 2015 eyewear collection by noted designer Karen Walker followed.
As Toast rose in prominence, so did Sturino. Hustling as hard as she did while studying at UW–Madison, she ultimately landed an interview with Man Repeller (MR), a women’s fashion and lifestyle website. The resulting article in 2015 was called “The Shape Issue,” and its headline read: “So your size doesn’t fit ‘the mold’ — why should it? Spring dressing tips from a woman who not only gets it, but nails it.” The article read like any other interview with your average fashionista — which is the point Sturino wanted to make and continues to make.
“I’m your reader,” Sturino told the writer. “I’m not a size 6. I’m not even a size 8. I’m a 12 ... but I love clothes.” Being fashionable and wearing certain styles aren’t reserved for just one body type — especially when the average dress size for women in the U.S. is 16. The story’s comments were entirely positive:
“can we have more plzzz? she’s so hilarious and authentic.”
“Can you feature more of her? This article rocks!!! Thank u for this post and she should be a regular on MR!!!”
“I LOVE this post. Let’s see more of Katie!”
Seeing more of Sturino is exactly what they got. The positive response, coupled with the experience she gained in running three successful Instagram accounts, inspired Sturino to start her own website — The 12ish Style: Style for size 12ish–18ish girls living in a size 2 world. Part of her motivation was to fill an important gap in the blog and Instagram markets.
“There was really no one with my body type who was doing just regular fashion blogging,” Sturino explains. “Many of the plus-size bloggers are much more body activists than I would say I am. I’m all for accepting yourself and embracing who you are … and also just shopping. Like, I’m also into helping you find cute clothes.”
According to Psychology Today, women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies and appearance has been steadily declining since the early 2000s, thanks in large part to the body-positivity movement. It’s been fueled by bloggers and Instagrammers such as Sturino, as well as systemic efforts by the media, such as moving away from Photoshopping women’s images to exaggerate — and slim — shapes. Buzzfeed defines body positivity as “unlearning the idea that only certain bodies are worth acceptance and praise, and instead recognizing that all bodies are equally valuable.” But through The 12ish Style, Sturino is finding a new space adjacent to #bodyposi: “body neutral.”
“I’m totally cool with my body,” she explains, but like most other humans, she has some days when she’s more jazzed than others about how she looks. Sturino wants women to be allowed to feel however they feel about themselves.
“I have those days,” she says. “I guess for me, it’s more of a true statement in that I don’t hate my body, and I don’t walk around talking sh*t about my body, but I also am not like, ‘Daaaamn, I look so good!’ It’s ending the mentality — or starting to crack the mentality — that you are flawed and you can’t talk about it. It’s accepting those things about yourself that are normal and that we’ve been made to feel are not normal.” For Sturino, those things are thigh chafe, boob sweat, and stinky armpits. “You do sweat, and you do stink, and there are all these different problems, and we’re expected to walk around hairless and looking amazing with fake eyelashes.”
Thus Sturino’s latest venture. Megababe is a line of comfort-beauty products created specifically for women. Sturino teamed up with two other Badger “boss babes” — sister Jenny and best friend Kate Oehler McPherson ’03 — to develop Megababe’s three products: Thigh Rescue, and anti-chafe stick to keep thighs “cool and free of irritation”; Bust Dust, the “anti–boob-sweat spray”; and the upcoming Rosy Pits, an all-natural deodorant “that actually works,” Sturino exclaimed in an Instagram video. She passionately explains that all of the products are 100 percent natural, free of parabens and toxins, never tested on animals, and made in the USA — across the river in New Jersey, to be exact.
In character with Sturino’s tenacity for PR, the trio pitched their products to media outlets across country — Man Repeller, Women’s Running, and even the UW’s own On Wisconsin. It didn’t take long for Megababe to take off, becoming a staple brand for women of all ages and sizes.
Sturino describes Megababe as a brand that you get immediately or not at all. It’s a small product line with big goals: primarily to normalize the problems that many women face every day. “Why does the beauty industry turn a blind eye to our imperfections, and who decided certain topics are so hush-hush in the first place?” reads Megababebeauty.com.
“I just wanted to make a brand that felt like it was just for women living their life, not athletes or men, [not] cheesy or gross,” she says. “I just wanted to make a brand that addresses issues without making it shameful or quiet.”
If it seems as though everything Sturino touches turns to rose gold, that’s because it does: she looks for gaps in the market and then builds brands that fill the blank space. With @toastmeetsworld, she saw that leveraging empathy for rescue animals could turn them into spokescritters. With The 12ish Style, she saw how to make fashion accessible to women of all sizes.
Advocating for inclusive sizing is a big part of Sturino’s career. In her series #supersizethelook, she takes photos of thin models and celebrities and recreates their outfits, posting their photo and hers side by side. The goal is to show average women that they, too, can be glamorous regardless of their size. This series has garnered the attention of brands that are working toward more inclusive sizes, including the global athletic-wear company Reebok.
Some brands send Sturino complimentary pieces in the hope that she’ll feature them on an Instagram or blog post (including Kate Spade and the Gap, which have boxes of garments sitting on an armchair in Sturino’s living room). Others invite her to events. Reebok, for example, hosted a spring/summer 2018 press preview that Sturino attended after her morning photo shoot.
The event was held in a warehouse gallery in the Meatpacking District across a cobblestone street from Manhattan’s High Line park. Sturino’s entourage grew as she floated through the gallery, drawn to anything with red, white, and blue stripes — one of her signature looks. Various fashionable Reebok execs and marketing reps joined Sturino’s posse, taking turns congratulating her on her successes and dropping hints about future collaboration opportunities.
But in classic Sturino fashion, she was there to work. A PR manager complimented Sturino’s shearling bomber jacket — a piece from a capsule collection that Sturino recently designed for plus-size clothing line Eloquii: “The collab you did — it’s amazing.”
“Thanks! … We need a Megababe/Reebok something!” Sturino responded, and in flawless transition, she explained the product line (met by “Amazings” and “So cools”).
Eventually Sturino said her goodbyes. She gave her assistant the rest of the night off; collected her new, custom-painted Reebok shoes; and disappeared into a taxi — while her Megababe products silently infiltrated the handbags and hearts of more media influencers.
Megababe’s following continues to grow — in sales and on Instagram. The night before the Reebok party, Sturino flew back to New York from San Francisco, where she and McPherson had a series of Megababe meetings. Her first day back home — jam-packed with two photo shoots (Taste the Style and Man Repeller), a lunch interview, and the Reebok event — is what Sturino describes as a pretty typical workday. But even after the cab dropped her off 12 blocks north of the gallery, her work continued. The evening of the Reebok party was also the Project Runway season 16 finale, and Sturino is a guest host of the fashion-design show’s Youtube series, Project Runway: Behind the Seams. Her final gig of the day was to live-Instagram the finale on the @projectrunway account. She fired up her phone and snuggled in for what she didn’t know was one of a few remaining, precious nights with Toast, the dog whose story started it all.