Slight change of plans,” Cat Marnell says in an e-mail to me the day we’re supposed to get together. “Can you meet me in front of 315 Broadway between Thomas and Duane so you can see what I am actually about besides things that smell like coconuts and here-and-there PCP?”
We had been set to go to the Juice Press to detox with a couple of bottles of pulverized vegetables, a winking choice—Marnell, 29, the beauty director and health critic of Jane Pratt’s xoJane.com, has made herself into a kind of Internet anti-hero for writing about her drug use in the unlikely forum of columns about lipstick and perfume. But now she’s changed her mind (“Sitting inside actual Juice Press is death because of all of the blenders,” she tells me later), and our new meeting spot is outside an office building that looks like it’s full of out-of-work notaries.
“You look hot!” she yells by way of greeting as she rushes out of a cab. She looks like a ballerina who’s seen better days: Her pink Christian Louboutin ballet flats, flimsy skirt, and Forever 21 leotard are topped with a glow-in-the-dark rosary necklace and vintage fox-fur jacket. She’s wearing M.A.C false eyelashes and heaped-on black Smashbox eyeliner.
It’s 7 p.m., but Marnell tells me she’s been up for only an hour. She seems flustered, jittery, and a little lost. “They want me to go to rehab,” she says as we rush to a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee. “Shit, I was going to wait until the end of the interview to tell you that.”
“They” is SAY Media, the publisher of xoJane.com. According to the company, Marnell is the site’s most read and most commented-on writer—Pratt calls her writing “raw, riveting, and not at all derivative.” Marnell tries to return the compliment: She describes Pratt as “not like Slimer in Ghostbusters,” a movie she will confess she’s never seen, “but it’s the same essence. She’s always smiling and hovering and saying ‘I love you, honey.’ ” Her problems with her bosses run deeper than being coaxed into rehab (intensive outpatient sessions, starting last week). “On our site we run stuff like, ‘Can you wear white pants when you have your period?’ and I flip out,” she says. “It’s like, Shoot me in the fucking mouth. It reduces us to bodies, and I hate it. I resent how reduced the world of women is. I resent how small we allow ourselves to be.”
Marnell’s own writing is personal and honest, her columns—about caring for her hair when she was in a mental hospital or slipping away from Fashion Week to take prescription stimulants alone—bizarrely relatable. And her eventual recommendation for an eyeliner or deep conditioner seems as natural as credits at the end of a movie. “The beauty product is part of the story,” Marnell explains. “You can think of anything that’s happened, and there’s a beauty product in it.”
The line between being honest about getting high and adored for being a train wreck is smudgy, though. “I don’t want the reader not to be in a shared experience, not connected with me,” she says. “Why am I not talking about drugs if I’m taking them every day? People can say that’s pathetic, but it’s one of my main hobbies. That’s when I go back to the idea of shame, especially for girls. Why do I have to clean up?” she asks. “It’s time to question the idea that everybody has to live a certain kind of life.”
Marnell’s behavior is raising a different kind of question. She is intelligent and funny, but she’s also troubled and clearly high: spilling her coffee, freaked out simply by being awake. She’s on the stimulant Vyvanse and keeps the pills in a freezer-size Ziploc bag in her fringe purse, along with Physicians Formula pressed powder and Lavanila Forever Fragrance Oil.
After a stop in Duane Reade, where Marnell realizes she already has a pack of Marlboro Ultra Lights (“Sorry, man,” she tells the cashier), we head up to a friend’s fifth-floor studio. He’s a graffiti artist who’s lined the walls with canvases that look like Broadway sets for ugly, rough neighborhoods. “This is the environment I’m comfortable in,” she says. “The people I’m drawn to sleep in nests of dirty clothes.”
She looks around a little reflectively. “I hated myself for most of my life,” she says. “I started liking myself when I started writing for xoJane. All of these people started telling me how much I made them feel better, and that made me better. And I’m getting better all of the time.”
She feels a debt not just to her readers but to her subject. She loves being a beauty editor. “I’m bad all of the time, and beauty products are fixing me,” she says. “Without beauty products, I would have never gotten through my life. I owe everything to them. They’ve afforded me unlimited debauchery. It’s been beyond.” She takes another pill.
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