The busy corner between Doyers Street and Chatham Square used to be known as the “Bloody Angle” when Chinese gangsters fought each other with hatchets, but it no longer looks dangerous – and neither does the woman leaning up against a wall in a light blue wig. Cat Marnell – the 5-foot-2 party-girl author who, at 34, is re-launching her career for the second time – gives her wig a little flip and sparks a Marlboro Ultra Light. Her face is defined by eyes as big as whiskey barrels. A stranger mistakes her for Lady Gaga. She lets it slide.
She has better things to worry about at the moment – namely, the publication of her first memoir, which is out this week. “Writing this book was agony,” says Marnel of the long-awaited How to Murder Your Life, which chronicles the Gonzo-style beauty-blogger’s brutal rise and fall. Her voice sounds breathy yet serious, like Moon Zappa reading you your birth chart. “I’m so relieved it’s finally over,” she says.
In 2013, Simon & Schuster offered Marnell a book deal, handing over half a million dollars to get it on the shelves. It would take her three years, two stints in rehab and an overdose on heroin to finally finish. “I completely shut down and panicked for two years. Like, throwing chairs across the room – it was that unbearable. But if I didn’t write it, they were going to sue me.”
Before the book deal, everyone wanted a piece of Cat Marnell, this suddenly famous Internet star who seemed hell-bent on documenting her own self-destruction via Jane Pratt’s edgy web-mag xoJane. Pratt, a Nineties alt-publishing mogul who’d launched third-wave feminism into the realm of glossy fashion magazines with Sassy and Jane, was one of Marnell’s childhood idols. So when Pratt announced the launch of xoJane for “real women” seeking “real stories,” the young writer jumped at the chance to apply for a position described as “unhealthy health editor.” It was a job that soon rocketed Marnell to becoming the Internet’s most controversial hot mess.
However, it wasn’t always that way for the publishing prodigy, who by the age of 10 was writing letters to Anna Wintour and mocking up magazine layouts in the bedroom of her parent’s mansion in Bethesda, Maryland. As she describes in the book, her Dad was a noted adolescent psychologist with a temper, her mother a chic diabetic prone to periods of isolation. With her older sister away at a fix-your-teen type program, the life she describes at the seemingly perfect Marnell residence was hanging by designer threads.
“In the beauty world, you could never even suggest a negative,” says Marnell, remarking on her tour de force up the ranks at Conde Nast in the early 2000s, where she eventually became a beauty assistant at Glamour and an editor at the now-defunct Lucky. “Jane let me write whatever I want, and that was when I soared. I remember writing in my cover letter to xo, ‘If you hire me, I will do beauty like no one has ever done beauty before.'”
Even today, Marnell’s struggle to choose ambition over addiction continues to hold her back. The dilemma rails through the book, and by the end, it’s unclear which side wins. She says she’s struck a balance these days, best described as 9 p.m. workouts at Barry’s Bootcamp aided by “a little nibble of Adderall. I cut out heroin, benzos, PCP, crack – though I will do the occasional bump of coke.”
Most impressively for a self-professed pill-head – one who claimed that by 26, “Addiction won. I didn’t want to be an editor in chief of a creative director or a beauty director anymore. I just wanted to go to bed” – Marnell has vowed to follow any and all creative impulses, even if that means glueing mini crosses to her eyelids in the middle of the night or following Pete Doherty around the U.K. for the profile she longs to write. “There’s a lot of strategy to what I do,” she says, sucking on a cigarette, standing on the sidewalk next to crates of mangoes and lychee. She cracks open a pink can of rosé. “Float like a bimbo, sting like a bee.”
In long, fake pastel hair and a fur coat (faux – she quit fur for New Year’s) she might as well slap the phrase on a billboard. “I have great ideas, and that’s why people keep me around,” she says. In fact, Marnell was slated to return as beauty editor at to xoJane this fall, though the site has now officially folded and become a part of InStyle Magazine.
So, as of now, Marnell is jobless, though she claims she could make a killing “marketing things that are bad for you. I could make poppers for straight people. Post-felatio mouth wash. A lipstick that is also lube! Why hasn’t anyone come up with that already?”
Cat says she could make a killing “marketing things that are bad for you. A lipstick that is also lube! Why hasn’t anyone come up with that already?”
Marnell’s apartment around the corner is a large, white-on-white studio with big, glass windows and a clawfoot tub, full of sparkly pastel treasures – though she insists the good stuff (“A throw pillow embroidered by Bridgette Berlin!”) is in storage. She moved in after rehab, and has since made it into “a cozy cocoon.” There are stacks of celebrity biographies, from Whitney Houston to Zelda Fitzgerald, Basquiat to Diane Arbus, Anna Nicole Smith to Sharon Tate; hardbound books of photography by Alexander McQueen and Larry Clark; psychology textbooks with names like Everything There is to Know About Your Eating Disorders; vintage issues of international Vogue’s, zines by Harmony Korine, books on O.J. Simpson, Helen Gurley Brown, Monica Lewinsky. “I need to send a copy of my book to Monica Lewinsky,” she notes, and quickly punches out an email to her publicist.
She has everything organized by shades of pink and white, from yoga mats to sheepskin rugs and boxes of diet cereal. Underneath a massive Murakami is a copy of Norman Mailer’s Marilyn – though she says identifying with Marilyn is about the most basic thing a party girl could do. “If Bella Hadid reads one book this year,” posits Marnell, unironically standing in front of a Harry Styles cutout. “I hope it’s How to Murder Your Life.”
Marnell’s obsession with over-the-top party girls is the coke-rimmed pillar of her life, going back at least as far as the time she practically lobbed herself at Gwen Stefani backstage at a festival in 1995. “Being a teenybopper in the Nineties was pretty dark,” she remarks in the beginning of the book (“Kurt was wearing green Converse One Star sneakers in the suicide photos, so I bought green green Converse One Star sneakers”), then dives into her conservative upbringing in a lavish home that bordered the congressional golf course. She recalls in amphetamine-glazed detail how much she worshipped Courtney Love and eventual boss Jane Pratt, trailblazing trendsetters whose grunge-girl aesthetic defined Marnell’s love for alternative culture. When her father ripped her posters off the wall and tore up her hand-crafted zines, she writes, she was devastated.
From there, How to Murder Your Life moves quickly as the Adderall that fueled it, racing through magazine gigs, promotions, benders, psych wards and rehabs like free-fall. “There aren’t any big words in the book,” she emphasizes, tapping at a tower of advance copies. “And it’s not that I don’t know those words. I just don’t talk like that. When I went to Hope Rehab in Thailand to write the book, my counselor Simon Mott let me use writing it as part of my recovery. He let me have affirmations like, ‘My book is fun to write! My book is fun to read!’ I was trying to write a book that was as readable as celebrity gossip.”
Celebrities rule Marnell’s perceptions of culture as well as politics. “I think people are going to get obsessively creative under Trump,” she says. “Like what happened in the Eighties under Reagan. Symmetry, Instagram, Kardashians – it’s over! Money is over. Rich people need to get weird again, like Diana Vreeland used to be. Like, why don’t you quilt yourself a coat of white monkey fur and meander around your apartment?”
Shock-and-awe is indisputably Marnell’s forte, testing people’s boundaries as means to see what they were. In 2011, she pushed at what was acceptable to share online by publishing brutally deprecating essays like “The Art of Crack-Tractiveness: How to Look and Feel Great on No Sleep” and “Worst Beauty Editor: ‘I Snorted a Line of Bath Salts Today in the Office’ Edition” that were no doubt influenced by the kind of leopard-print-pill-box-hat excess that seduced her idol, Edie Sedgwick, in the 1970s. “I’ve been attracted to feathers, beads and fur my whole life.”
But like many addicts, her sickness pushed her over the edge. Just as her dream of becoming a print editor was ripe enough to grab off the proverbial tree, she found herself having to shield her bad habits and subsequent lack of sleep from the higher-ups at Condé Naste. “The darkest parts of my addiction happened when I was working for Condé,” she says without blinking a manicured eyelash.
Her writing works the same way, jumping from deathly serious topics like abusive relationships with stalkers and the bloody, second-term abortion she had at 18 to making fun of Lindsay Lohan for slurring on pain pills or comments like “There’s always a beauty moment – even in the mental hospital.” Rambling at times, How to Murder Your Life mirrors her many years dosed on speed, for better and for worse. Its dark humor isn’t a gag – rather an opportunity for Marnell to revel in the irony. Susan Shapiro, who taught Cat writing at the New School in 2009, remembers her former student’s style as always being “honest, deep, dark, edgy and hilarious.”
Cat was willing to use beauty writing as a platform to air the ugly truth about drug use.
Marnell’s voice for the beauty beat was refreshingly candid. Articles like “I’m a Lonely Insecure Mess with Really Good Skin” and “My Life is Mess but I Smell like Vanilla Ice Cream” flipped the script on an industry designed to cover flaws by hurling hers at you in all caps with elongated vowels. Her willingness to use beauty writing as a platform to air the ugly truth about drug use made her into a polarizing internet antihero. Around that time, Marnell’s long-winded rant, “On Whitney Houston’s Death: Why I’ll Never Shut Up About My Drug Use,” got hashed out all over the web.
Sarah Hepola published her reaction to the piece in a 2012 article for the The New York Times Magazine titled “Watching a Spectacular Public Meltdown With Just a Hint of Jealousy.” A recovering alcoholic herself, Hepola praised Marnell for speaking about her addiction to pills and opiates, no holds barred. However, she also expressed worry for the young writer, in whom she saw herself. “Cat’s piece took us inside the long night of the addict in a way I had not seen other writers do,” says Hepola now. “Stories about addiction get told from the safe side of sobriety but that’s not most people’s experience, and here she was on the edge of a cliff, in her sparkly slip dress and smeared lipstick, daring us not to watch.”
But people kept reading, especially as her posts grew darker. Other journalists began to express concern at what exactly was going on behind the scenes at xoJane. A Jezebel writer blamed the support of Pratt, as well as her exalting public: “It’s hard to know what the deal is when we only hear about Cat through her frenetic first-person narratives or through her adoring boss and commenter fan base. Both often seem, well, ‘enabling,’ which is the exact word Cat used, jokingly or otherwise, to describe Jane’s background cackling in this D.I.Y bath salt snorting video.”
“I definitely did some stunt queening,” Marnell admits now. “But if you had a star writer, you’d probably enable that shit, too.”
Then, a number of her erratic musings began to look like cries for help: “3 Beauty Products I Must Have When I am Sooo Sick (and Not Even in a Fun Cokehead-y Way),” “No, Psychiatric Nurse, I Did Not Nod Off Into My Fruit Juice: My Mental Hospital Hair Secret For Subtle Punky-Pretty Pink Streaks” and “I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution but Left with Better Hair.”
“My career popped off when I was sickest,” Cat recalls, changing wigs in her bedroom, standing next to a large, unmade bed. “Like the darkest parts of my addiction and when everybody wanted to interview me were when I fell off the grid… when I finally murdered that part of my life and just let myself go. No job. No tether.”
At the time, she revealed to Page Six in a now-infamous quote that she wasn’t interested in the daily grind of a full-time job. Marnell, they wrote, had “parted ways” with xoJane, after refusing to complete rehab. “I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night,” she told the newspaper, “when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book.” (Pratt, in a post, called Cat “a brilliant writer and one of a kind,” but admitted that her lifestyle might have gotten in the way of her duties on staff.)
The outrageous statement and announcement of her forthcoming book drew media attention, though mostly out of morbid fascination. Gossip circulated from sources who seemed to be tracking her inevitable downfall, with headlines like “Cat Marnell’s Friends are Nervous That She Now Has $500,000 to Spend on Drugs.” Even Hepola expressed worry for Marnell, writing “I’m afraid Cat only thinks we want to see her bleed.”
“Cat has done more to break down stigma, possibly by accident, than she is given credit for,” says one friend.
She bled and bled that following year, telling anyone who would listen – most infamously through her short-lived column for Vice – that she was spending her advance on drugs, determined to hit rock bottom and shatter then and there. In retrospect, she says now, “That year was so dark for me. Some real shit went down in my personal life, and when I emerged from it, I couldn’t even make eye contact with people. I lost my mind, honestly.”
Simon Mott, however – Marnell’s confidante and counselor at rehab in Thailand – says Cat’s ability to open herself up to pain is her greatest strength, both as a writer and a person headed towards recovery. “Cat has done more to break down stigma, possibly by accident, than she is given credit for,” Simon says. “Of course she has paid a price for being so open but ultimately she has survived. Surviving addiction is one thing but then to have survived the public arena is another. Cat takes it all in good humor and always forgives those who may have been scared off in her darker times, she takes responsibility for her sins.”
She explains how everyone wants to talk about what happened to her long blonde hair, which she lost shortly after she turned in the final draft of her book. She told New York Magazine that it was the result of a “bad dye job” that left her with chemical burns across her scalp, but the story is still a bit hazy. “I’ve been told it fell out and I just didn’t notice,” Marnell says now, looking away into space, touching the sexy pink bob covering where the hair used to be. But just like that, the verbose talker with a knockout memoir is back at it. Marnell, without a beat, jumps into conversation about her surreal drug binges, celebrity gossip (“I know who January Jones’ baby daddy is!”), and the latest pharmaceutical jargon, like none of it affects her at all.
How to Murder Your Life is meant to feel like you freebased the whole thing in one sitting – that’s how it brings you in for the inescapable clench, not unlike addiction itself. But she’s trying to move on from the past. She repeatedly refers to a tactic she learned in rehab. “Teflon mind,” she writes. “Where you imagine your brain being like nonstick cookware: negative thoughts just slide right off.” The thing about Teflon, though, is that no matter how hard you try and scrub off what’s burned onto the surface, it always leaves a mark.