By Benji Elkins:
*Name of the informant and the informant's personal information have been changed or hidden for privacy reasons.*
By Hannah Timbel:
I was first contacted by Melissa Levine* through a private email. I had just finished my 5:00 a.m. spin class downtown and began the routine of checking my email. Often in the early hours of the morning, the emails merely consist of spam, advertisements, and Facebook notifications alerting me of my high school bully’s birthday. Of course however, that all changed upon seeing an email sent from firstname.lastname@example.org with an attention grabbing subject line – ‘Help.’
For a second, stuck in the process of archiving and trashing early morning emails, I almost marked the message as spam. I wasn’t sure if I could trust it. Over the past five years, The Milking Cat has become known worldwide for its marketing stunts and tricks such as its hacking of the 2022 Super Bowl Halftime Show, sponsorship messages at the end of both candidates’ campaign ads in the 2024 election, and its petition to rename Mt. Everest “Mountain Everest.” As head investigative journalist at Centennial, I often get emails from similar sized corporations (Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Nestlē) whether they be requests for added publicity, competitor infiltration, or orders to cease and desist. However, I have never received an email as bare and straight forward as the one I received from Levine.
Melissa Levine (email@example.com)
Subject Line: Help.
I need you. Please, help me. You’re the only one. Call me, ***-***-8369.
There wasn’t a punchline at the end. The Milking Cat always ended its emails with a “hilarious” punchline. I knew something was either seriously wrong, or The Milking Cat changed its company policy. Using context from the tone of the email, I settled on the first.
I waited until 9:00 a.m. to call Melissa, formulating hypotheses and theories as to what exactly I was to help her with. I figured it was possible she had heard of my recent apartment renovation and wanted a referral on a decent interior designer. Or, much worse, she needed my help with her own life.
When she picked up the phone, her voice was raw and throaty. I could tell she had been crying. I decided she most likely did not need an interior designer recommendation. As mentioned before, she explained to me that her name was Melissa Levine, a Junior at ****** County High School and a Columnist at The Milking Cat. For a second, despite the fear and pain in her voice, I became jealous. I had always wanted to be a Milking Cat Columnist. What aspiring writer didn’t? However, as she began to talk, my jealousy dwindled and my sympathy rose. She needed to tell her story, ASAP. We agreed to meet 40 minutes outside my city in an undisclosed coffee shop. She was friends with the owner, she said, and could get us time to talk while the shop was closed. We met the next day. In all my years of investigative journalism, (“Surf’s Down: The Aggro Prevalent in SoCal’s Beaches,” “Santa Claws: The Reason Bears Don’t Celebrate Christmas,” “Canadians; Just Americans but North,” to name a few) I have never felt so much responsibility to tell a story exactly as I heard it. No embellishments, no lies, nothing. So, without further ado, here is Melissa’s story:
11:17 P.M. – Undisclosed Coffee Shop.
Melissa Levine: Thanks for meeting me at the Starbucks on the corner of West Houston Street and West Broadway in New York, New York.
Hannah Timbell: Of course. Now, please, tell me what’s on your mind.
ML: Everytime people think of The Milking Cat, it’s always the same things. “What the hell is a ‘milking cat?” or “Oh, that site is an absolute superpower in the teen writing/art industry!” It drives me nuts. People don’t realize the truth.
HT: What is the truth Melissa?
ML: The truth? It’s horrible. It’s so horrible and I can’t stand it.
HT: Take your time.
ML: Let me start from the beginning.
I joined The Milking Cat in my sophomore year of high school. I was so excited! I mean, everyone who gets a spot on staff is excited at the start. You tell your friends and family, expect a little jealousy, go out for a nice dinner to celebrate. It was one of the greatest days of my life.
And just like that, the next day, I woke up with this greater understanding of the world. A greater sense of purpose. I was in The Milking Cat Staff WhatsApp group chat. I had made it. But instantly things started feeling...off.
Benji, Dan, and Noah, the editors, they just kept spamming the group chat, saying stuff like, “We just made a ton of money off the site!” “We just met this famous person!” “We just got another celebrity shout-out!” and all I could think of was that by “we,” they meant “them.” No staff members make money from The Milking Cat. No staff members get to meet famous people. In fact, when you think of The Milking Cat, do you think of the staff? Do you think of Melissa Levine, my colleague Sam Riko, or my friend Rachelle Brooks? You don’t. That’s the first thing I realized when joining the site. Look, I mean, I don’t care about fame. I don’t, really. But all they would do was show off.
So when I asked Dan privately if there would be any opportunities for us, Dan said, “When you become as cool as me you can join us. Meanwhile keep working on it, kid.” I was taken aback. It was then I learned that in The Milking Cat, you had to hold your tongue. Those who spoke out were ridiculed. When Noah Stern bestowed nicknames on the recent inductees during a staff meeting, I expected something fun and witty. One of the new staff members who had recently criticized the site received the bare nickname, “F*cking Idiot.” It wasn’t even funny, just plain mean! My nickname was simply the lone word “Ugly.” It hurt for someone who has struggled with body issues like myself. When my friend Sam Riko complained and said that they had crossed the line, Noah responded it was only a joke and gave Sam the nickname “Bitch Boy.” We were forced to call each other by our nicknames during our mandatory monthly meetings. I had to call a colleague who suffered from Chron’s disease “Diarrhea Man.”
As my time as a Columnist went on, the repressive nature of the site became more and more apparent. Deadlines became stricter, workload increased, and any attempt to let the editors know I was just a little too swamped with responsibilities between the site, school, and family was ignored. When I let Editor-in-Chief Benji Elkins know I wouldn't be able to finish my article because of the slow and painful death of my father, he simply responded, “Just bring your computer to the funeral lmao.” My aunts and uncles looked at me with disgust as I typed away at a half-funny piece while the pastor read my dad’s eulogy. I simply had to bring the computer, I was too scared at what would happen if I didn’t. When Benji found out that I followed the orders he himself gave me, he reportedly laughed and said “Damn. Guess we gotta change her nickname to Party Pooper. She definitely ruined the vibe of that funeral.”
HT: Jesus, Melissa. That’s awful. I’m so sorry.
ML: Hannah. I’ve been reading your work for so long. Your exposé on the lack of anesthetics for the animals in Build-a-Bear Workshop rocked my world. You’re the only one I trust with this story.
HT: Of course, Melissa. You have my word.
The abuse Melissa detailed to me over the 3 hour-long conversation left me silent. It was an awful story, filled with awful characters. In the end, who will know if The Milking Cat will be held accountable for their crimes against their staffers. Often, in the realm of comedy, too much is excused under the pretense of a “joke.” I would like to believe that The Milking Cat is a more moral company, run by more moral people rather than people who write off their misdeeds as “trying to be funny.” Unfortunately, after hearing the story detailed to me by Ms. Levine, I sincerely doubt it. I would think it a miracle if The Milking Cat took responsibility as it should. Instead, I believe it is much more likely they will completely dismiss it. Ms. Levine speculated they may even publish this exposé verbatim on their own site, under the “Explore” section, framing it as their own humorous piece. It is a shame what the corporate world has come to.
Hannah Timbel, May 18th, Centennial