Cat Marnell Is Still Alive

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I’m relieved that the weather is unseasonably warm on the day I meet Cat Marnell, because it means I can wear my vintage fake-leopard jacket and not my North Face Brooklyn Mom sleeping-bag coat. From reading her new memoir, How to Murder Your Life, with its Bret Easton Ellis–style litanies of labels, I know that Marnell notices the details of other people’s hair and skin and clothing, down to the perfume they’re wearing. But as soon as she greets me on the stairs of her apartment building (wearing bleach-stained black leggings that hang loosely on her sticklike legs), I stop worrying what she’ll think of me and try to figure out what’s going on with her. She’s talking quickly, loping around her living room, offering explanations and covering about ten of the topics I’ve planned to ask about before I can even take off my sensible shoes. She’s barefoot, wearing a white headscarf with what look like clip-in extensions hanging down her back, her eyeliner is uneven, and she is still undeniably beautiful.

Marnell’s beauty — undiminished by years of disordered eating, cigarettes, and an erratic sleep schedule — is of a particular doll-like kind that somehow brings out the worst in men and women alike. She is tiny, with gaunt limbs, perfect lips, and those giant cartoon eyes. She looks like a cross between Elizabeth Wurtzel and Tara Reid, like a doll you’d be tempted to bend into weird shapes and give a buzz cut.

A housekeeper is leaving just as I arrive, but even though the place is now pristine and smells like cleaning products, there’s a lingering sense that a big ongoing mess is just barely being contained. Hundreds of books and magazines, organized by color, frame a spectacular Manhattan Bridge view; the first title that catches my eye is Exploiting Chaos. A curtain of sparkly, probably expensive dresses are hanging off the shower rod in the translucent-paned cubicle bathroom that divides bedroom from living room/kitchen. More gowns dangle from a closet door and line the garment racks that surround the bed. “You know that line in Trainwreck where Amy Schumer gets invited to a gala last minute and jokes she’ll find something to wear in her ‘gown closet’? I only have a gown closet,” Marnell says. It turns out the dresses are waiting to be packed up and put into storage by a media-studies major who’s working as her part-time assistant; the goal is to make the contents of the apartment unappealing to a former friend turned stalker who has robbed Marnell before. “I want him to come in here and see only, like, a Hanes sweatshirt,” she explains. We walk past a pink shoe rack adorned with a collection of multicolored hospital bracelets and curl up cross-legged on the couch, me with a glass of water I’ve poured myself from the spotless sink, Marnell with a cup of Dunkin’ coffee that she reheats periodically in the microwave.

There’s a grubby pink totebag on the sofa between us, and I immediately imagine Marnell reaching into it and scrabbling around for a pill bottle. An hour or so later, when she finally does, neither of us even bothers to mention it. “There’s a bottle of Adderall right next to me as I sit writing this. It has always been my ‘mostly companion,’ as Eloise would say,” she writes in her book’s afterword. Most addiction memoirs end with the end of the addiction. Cat Marnell, however, remains what she’s best known for being: a pillhead, a doctor-shopper, and a beauty expert whose own stunning looks are under constant assault by her lifestyle, which even at its least druggy is basically nonstop self-harm.

In conversation, Marnell’s light, gushy voice is similar to the Eloise-y tone that makes her book so companionably charming; her laugh is always on the verge of bubbling out, and light flashes behind her marble-size irises as she speaks. Her daffiness belies a knack for offhand brilliance; even her glancing observations are writerly and insightful: “He’s so serious in such an endearing way,” “He has the craziest eyes, second to the National Geographic cover lady.” It’s fucked up to admit, but even though I’d read a lot of her writing, I didn’t expect her to be as smart as she is. She works what she calls the “wolf in bimbo’s clothing” angle, though it’s not entirely clear why a wolf would want to adopt that particular disguise. Part of it might be that she never really had a choice: she was born blonde and pretty to rich, dysfunctional parents. Worse still, one was a psychotherapist and the other a psychiatrist; a teenage Cat’s father wrote her first prescription for ADHD medication.

She first rose to prominence, at least in the insular New York media world, around 2011, when she was hired by Jane Pratt to help run xoJane. (This was Pratt’s ambitious website launch and third headline-grabbing media moment, after Jane and Sassy.) Marnell, who’d resigned from her previous job as an associate beauty editor at Lucky after her meteoric rise there culminated with stints in rehab and a mental hospital, had responded to a tweet from an editor looking for an “unhealthy health writer.” She wound up writing a column that reliably generated news, much of it from other websites that questioned her employers’ role in enabling her. She also garnered fans who read her to be entertained and also, maybe, reassured that they had their own shit comparatively together. When I told my friends I was interviewing her, they were quick to cite their favorite Marnell posts, but their curiosity about her (“Is she terrible?”) was mingled with a kind of guilty concern. “I don’t want to look sometimes,” a friend who follows her on Instagram told me.

There’s always a fine line between appreciating the art that someone’s making out of her fucked-up life and feeling like your attention makes you complicit in her self-destruction. With the publication of How to Murder Your Life, Marnell is blurring it more thoroughly than ever. But being open about her drug use has always felt healthier to Marnell than hiding it. In one of her most popular posts, about Whitney Houston’s death, she pointed out that keeping addiction under wraps is what so often leads women to overdose in private. “No one else in women’s magazines or websites is writing about this stuff, so there’s nowhere for a female community to read it,” she wrote. “You call it oversharing. I call it a life instinct.”

From xoJane, Marnell went on to write a column called “Amphetamine Logic” for Vice. When she left xoJane, a “Page Six” item quoted Marnell saying that she would rather smoke angel dust and watch shooting stars on the roof of Le Bain than show up at a job. The item also contained the news that she was working on a book. With the help of a literary agent (one who also represents President Trump), she sold a proposal for what would become How to Murder Your Life for an estimated half a million dollars in 2013. I remember reading that “Page Six” item and smirking: It was and is so crazy to me that anyone would think writing a book was easier than showing up to a job every day! Marnell missed her first book deadline, overdosed on heroin, and spent her whole advance before writing a word. She more than justified the concerns of everyone who thought that book would never be written.

But then Marnell managed to get herself to rehab, at a facility in Thailand helmed by a guru who also treats Pete Doherty. There, she finally started writing without her usual helpers. “Rehab is basically a memoir-writing workshop,” she told me. “You have to reiterate your story so many times, you storyboard it out. You basically leave with an outline that you can send to a publisher.” Now, despite a recent “drug vacation” (more on that below), she says that she’s healthier than ever before. “My survival is not a fluke. I have definitely chosen the better path.” The mere fact of the book’s existence means that she is capable of putting her ambition ahead of her addiction, at least temporarily. The book is also far from messy — her control of style and tone is impressive, as is her wry self-awareness. Plus, Marnell’s story isn’t only about Adderall, bulimia, angel dust, and abortions. The familiar party-crash-bottom-out-recover-slip-repeat cycle-of-addiction narrative is there, but just as interesting is the backdrop: a slippery, fascinating moment in the history of media. It’s a record of a time that kids growing up post-internet won’t really ever understand, before randos with YouTube channels became more influential than any beauty editor.

At the start of Marnell’s career, which began with internships at Nylon and Teen Vogue and then a job at Lucky, print magazines were glamorous and Condé Nast was a citadel of power. Then, just as Marnell’s drug habit was getting wildly out of control, the economy crashed and the print world began to collapse. For the girl who, at age 7, created two issues of a craft project called “Beauty Queen Magazine,” complete with cover lines and advertisements, it was a shattering comedown that she’s still not quite over.

Marnell still reveres print, but she was made for the internet. Online, the habits that had once been liabilities became her brand, and she was at the forefront of a brief golden era for a particular kind of online media. It’s hard to remember now that what writers like Marnell and I started out doing online — basically, incorporating the ongoing stories of our lives into the content we were required to churn out for work — was once considered shocking; it went so quickly from novel to deliberate outrage-clickbait to de rigueur to played-out. The day before I met with Marnell, Time Inc. announced that it was folding the xoJane site, which it had recently acquired, into InStyle’s site, and Jane Pratt announced her departure.

Marnell wants to make it clear that she loves Pratt, that the economics of the industry are to blame rather than Pratt herself, and that she thinks former staffers who’ve rushed to speak ill of the dead are wrong to do so. The love is mutual. “Cat is extremely smart and thoughtful and ambitious and driven and I can put up with a lot to get the quality of work that she can produce,” Pratt tells me via email a few days later. “I would be lucky to get to work with her again.” As to whether keeping Marnell on staff and giving her a platform (and the health insurance that enabled her to fill her prescriptions) was helping her to harm herself, Jane says, “I worried about whether I was enabling her fairly constantly, particularly toward the end of her time on staff at xoJane when I was more aware of her self-destructive behaviors. By that time, it became an ongoing conversation with the HR department and others at the publishing company as to how to handle it.” Incidentally, Pratt notes, this isn’t the first time one of her former employees has written a book about the drugs they took on the job: Jane staffer Joshua Lyon first bought Vicodin online for an article and wound up publishing the memoir Pill Head in 2010. (“I could definitely stand to learn something from that,” Pratt says.)

Marnell is realistic and clear-eyed about the risks and rewards of what’s been called the “first-person industrial complex.” In our conversation, she outlines solid advice for writers looking to make a living online these days: Do long-form stuff, do original reporting, set boundaries. By being temperamentally ill-suited to hitting deadlines and churning out anodyne copy, Marnell says, she inadvertently kept herself from becoming an SEO slave cranking out 20 posts a day. While readers might have worried about Marnell, she doesn’t feel like her bosses ever exploited her; far from it. Instead, she feels bad for them — bad for having lied to them and flaked on them over and over again. She believes in paying your dues, taking unpaid internships, and getting thrillingly reamed out by your powerful bitch-queen editor. “If Anna Wintour ever screamed at me, I’d make it my ringtone!” she says, eyes wide.

So what is Marnell’s current dream job? “I would love to be Jane’s creative director, but I also don’t really want a job at this point.” She may or may not need one; though she’s vague about what happened after she spent her whole book advance on drugs, she does tell me at some point that her dad is now in control of her money. I think immediately of Britney Spears, then realize there’s another thing they have in common: They’ve both shaved their heads. Or, well, there’s something weird going on with Marnell’s hair; what’s going on under the scarves and wigs she’s been wearing lately?

It’s hard to get her to speak directly about what happened to her scalp. “I lost all my hair. Well, it might be there, but I’m not allowed to think that. I think it’s plastered to my head in a kind of glue that resembles skin. It’s so complicated.” While working on her book, Marnell had stuck to a regimen: waking up at a normalish hour, Barry’s Bootcamp, prepackaged cut veggies and half-sandwiches from Starbucks and 7/11, Adderall just to focus and not to get high, a few drinks with friends, and maybe a little coke, “but not, like, lines of it, everybody just gives me bumps,” and then no sleep aids except Ambien and nonnarcotic antidepressant Trazodone. After turning in her final draft, she decided to reward herself for her years of abstemiousness by taking enough Adderall to get high, then higher, and then she really lost the thread. She tried one product after another to correct a bad dye job, then tweakily left something or other on too long and ended up with what sounds like a combination of chemical burns and scar tissue. When she tried to unknot what hair had grown back, using a meat thermometer, blood shot out of her head onto the kitchen counter. She showed me a laundry basket full of what she calls “cosplay wigs” in cotton-candy colors. “I have everything now, except hair. And a man.”

When she says that, I wonder aloud why she would want one. In her book, she describes romantic involvements that range from druggily codependent to horrifically abusive, starting in high school with a boyfriend who got her pregnant and then left her for a close friend. The most harrowing sequence in the book is about a sometime hookup who would use Marnell’s apartment as a crash pad when he was in town, and occasionally use her body as something akin to a wad of toilet paper. She got pregnant from that encounter, too.

Still, she says, she wants a boyfriend. She claims that she dreams of having a husband, a baby, a reliably boring day-to-day, but for someone who “misses every flight” and seems to use her fancy stove solely to light cigarettes, the mandatory routines of domesticity seem like they might be a ways off. In the more immediate future she also wants to travel the world, now that she’s done with her book, but that also poses some logistical challenges. “You think, Wait, how do I get my stuff every month? And that grounds me …” She makes a noise of deflating, falling back to Earth. “Like, I can’t. I have to figure that shit out.” When I commend her on avoiding the standardized addiction-and-recovery story arc, she shrugs off the compliment. “That’s what everyone says, but I’d so much rather have that story arc.”

But in a way she does, at least for now. She’s back to her routine of Barry’s Bootcamp and waking up during daylight hours, dedicating herself to promoting her book and beginning work on the next one. For some people, semi-sobriety can work for years — I think of Courtney Love, who makes a memorable cameo in Marnell’s book. If you have the resources to hit bottom and then detox in a nice place every few years, why not keep doing what you do for as long as you can?

As we talk, night falls outside and Marnell’s face starts to make more sense, somehow; the unevenness of her eyeliner and other tiny flaws become invisible, and her fake hair gleams in the neon reflected through her windows. She’s started bouncing around her living room as we talk, itching to get outside, so we go for a walk in the warren of tiny streets that surround her building. She lopes down the crowded sidewalks like she owns them, talking a mile a minute about her neighborhood and the friends we have in common. Later she’s going to a club that her friend is opening underneath the Williamsburg Bridge, and I’m invited, if I want to go. For a minute, I think I do want to; the outsize energy that fills her tiny body has given me a contact high in the hours we’ve spent together. This, rubbernecking aside, is why reading Marnell is so much fun: When she’s sparkling, high and pretty, it seems so thrilling to be her. “This is when I feel most like myself, walking around for hours, looking at the sky,” she tells me as we stroll, and I remember a time when I felt that way too — when my first book was coming out, and I still thought that the purpose of my life was to accumulate material. Certainly, Marnell has accumulated some great material; I hope she’ll be able to keep getting it down on paper. We hug good-bye, and she feels like a small pile of knobs in my arms. Then I turn around and head for the subway back to Brooklyn, an early dinner, and a reasonable bedtime.

Hair and makeup by Mahfud Ibrahim for Exclusive Artists Management using CHANEL Rouge Coco Gloss and Hot Tools.

Cat Marnell Is Still Alive