FLHS graduate, cat pictured on Purina Cat Food bags
Shalee Dunaski is no stranger to the stage or acting in challenging roles. But never ever did the 2001 Forest Lake High School graduate see herself in the role of the “cat lady.”
But that is exactly what Dunaski has accomplished, thanks to the charm of her cat, Cash, and a Purina Pet Foods contest. “Life is pretty good as the cat lady,” the 30-year-old Dunaski said with a smile.
For anyone with a cat who frequents stores where pet foods are sold, you may well meet the cat lady and Cash, her feline companion. The two are now pictured on Purina Cat Food bags. It’s all part of a promotion that concluded this past summer with the release of a new packaging program by Purina.
It is only by accident and chance that Shalee and Cash wound up on the cover of a pet food bag. She admits to having a strong bond with her feline partner but never envisioned the path the two would follow.
How It Happened
Dunaski is not a regular reader of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, “O,” so it was just by chance that she saw an ad in the magazine seeking applicants to become Purina’s official “Cat Correspondent.”
It just happened to be a slow time in Dunaski’s social life and the St. Paul resident figured she had time on her hands to take a chance. “I didn’t have much going on in my [social] life,” she said.
She was among the many thousands who entered the national contest in the spring of 2011 and was selected to take part in a regional competition in the west metro. Armed with her quick wit, pleasant smile and personality, and a YouTube video that sold the deal, she won the audition and became one of seven finalists for the $50,000 Purina contract.
By late spring 2011, Dunaski joined the six other finalists in St. Louis, Mo., where the Purina Cat Correspondent was to be selected. And the competition was tough, she said. She faced off against two cat bloggers, a New York actor who worked on Broadway, and a talented college football player from Arizona who was a charmer.
Still, Dunaski said, she was confident that her presentation and the charm of Cash would carry the day. “I played up my Minnesota accent,” she said.
“I thought I had it,” she said. “I didn’t get the job. I was pretty disappointed.”
Down but not deflated, Dunaski left St. Louis for home after telling Purina officials she was still open to helping the company in the future. She expected little from the overture, she added.
Back home, she continued in her job as office manager of a Twin Cities law firm, a position she landed after graduating from Hamline University in 2005. Two months later she received a call from Purina asking if she and Cash would be willing to be photographed for a cat food marketing promotion.
“I was shocked,” Dunaski said.
In July of last year a film crew dispatched by Purina arrived at Dunaski’s home for a series of photos. The shoot took the better part of a day. Weeks later Purina called again and asked if the pair would sit for a second photo session. The crew returned, this time to a rented home near Wayzata where a full day of shooting was completed.
The first session results were not to the liking of the final editors. For the second shooting, four or five actor cats were brought in as “stand-ins” for Cash.
“It took all day,” she said of the second shoot. “[Then] they used the originals.”
The photo that now appears on the cat food bags shows Shalee and Cash in a quiet moment in a window perch with the two focused on each other. The back lighting almost gives the solid black Cash the appearance of being gray, but gray she is not.
A major portion of the text on Shalee’s and Cash’s story printed on the back of the package was written by Dunaski.
Shalee was in Forest Lake for the Fourth of July celebration this past summer. She stopped at Rainbow Foods to see if the new packages had arrived. Her scream of glee was a true indicator they had arrived.
There is no certainty that anything more will come of her duties with Purina, but she has signed a three-year contract.
Shalee and Cash became fast friends from the day she was adopted from a humane society in St. Paul as a kitten. “We had always had cats growing up,” she said. “Cash was a Christmas present.”
That was seven years ago and Cash has become a constant in Dunaski’s life. Her social life is no longer void, but Cash is always there should she need a close friend.
Pets are amazing, Dunaski said. At any time when she may be a bit down or feeling sad, Cash is there to pick her up. Cats seem to know, she says.
Cash has no tail, likely the result of some early-life incident. Black as coal, Cash got her name from one of Dunaski’s favorite singers, Johnny Cash. (She now has a second cat named Otis. That name comes from another favorite singer, Otis Redding.)
There is no doubt that Cash was the inspiration that helped fill Shalee’s life at an important time. “She’s a real diva,” Shalee says. “I talk a lot about my cat. I really love my cat.”
Dunaski’s career path has also changed in the past two years. She has given up her law firm job and returned to school with the goal of earning a teaching degree. Her intent is to teach junior high English. She is working part-time in the Hopkins district as a paraprofessional in a gifted and talented program.
The theatrics that helped claim her the unofficial tile of “cat lady” are in no way sitting idle. After many years of high school and Masquers Theatre Company acting duty, Dunaski continues to work with Youth Performing Arts in Forest Lake. She is serving as Vanessa Novak’s assistant director for this winter’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
As for Cash, she’s at home in St. Paul sunning herself in the widow perch, waiting for her best buddy to return. It is a good life for the cat and the “cat lady.”