Cat Marnell Talks Success, Love And Accidentally Turning Her Head Into A Meth Lab

The writer who became as famous for her debauched lifestyle as her dazzling talent sits down with Jane Mulkerrins.

Cat Marnell

by Jane Mulkerrins |
Updated on

'Travel has replaced the drugs,' declares Cat Marnell, dramatically. ‘I’m addicted to buying plane tickets now.’ As addictions go, while it might not be the cheapest or most environmentally friendly, it’s certainly a good deal less dangerous than her previous habits. Cat, 37, was the bad-girl New York beauty editor who made a notorious name for herself writing with brutal honesty about her partying and drug- taking (sample headlines: 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), and rose quickly through the ranks at Condé Nast, before enjoying stints at the now-defunct online magazine XoJane and Vice.

Even when the all-nighters finally caught up with her and Cat declared herself unfit for desk jobs, in 2013, she landed a book deal worth a reported half-a-million dollars. And even though it took two stints in a Thai rehab clinic and one heroin overdose to finish it, her lurid, Adderall-infused memoir, How To Murder Your Life, detailing abusive relationships as well as drug escapades, became an instant best-seller when it was finally published in 2017.

But Cat couldn’t quite handle the success. ‘Fame stuff is really fun when you’re in a good place in your life,’ she says today. ‘But when I was promoting the book, and I’d have to do an interview and a shoot, the make-up artist would arrive and I’d be hysterical, and by the time the journalist showed up I’d be shaking and crying. I was truly burned out.’ She’d also recently broken up with her boyfriend, for the second time. So she did, she says, ‘the thing that everyone always talks about doing: I put everything in storage and went to Europe.'

Today, she admits to me that there was another factor, too. Shortly before the book’s publication, in the midst of her messiest, pill-popping, downtown partying days, she attempted to give herself a home hair dye job, which did not go to plan. ‘Never put baking soda on your head, much less a whole box for hours while you’re on drugs,’ she warns. ‘I basically turned my head into a meth lab.’ The combination of chemicals caused such serious burns to her scalp and neck that, even several years later, her hair has not grown back, and she relies on a vast array of wigs. ‘That’s part of the reason I went away too,’ she confesses. ‘I wanted people to just think that I was being cool, but really I was, like, I have to disappear. I can’t be seen.

She packed her wigs, bought an unlimited Inter-Rail ticket, and set off criss-crossing the Continent. The idea to turn her travels into a project, however, did not occur until she ran out of money, when she came up with the notion of an audiobook. ‘My favourite book growing up was The Andy Warhol Diaries – I’ve read it a million times,’ she says. ‘But no one can sit and read any more. I wanted people to have something in their ears that they could listen to as they had an adventure.

The result is Self-Tanner For The Soul, a four-part Audible Original audiobook of Cat’s first 100 days of European travel, solo, across 26 countries in the summer of 2017. She hasn’t really stopped travelling since, and most of her stuff is still in storage, but she’s briefly back in New York for the launch of the audiobook when we meet in a hotel in her old Chinatown neighbourhood.

Cat answers the door in a full-length knitted blue Margiela dress and perspex heels, an extravagant silvery-platinum wig from her favourite wig shop in Dalston, East London, and a pair of dangly cigarette earrings, which she insists I mention that she bought on the street in Bangkok, ‘for $1 for about 10 pairs’.

She is shoot-ready, like a glamorous, edgy Barbie-cum-Britney, but the small room is anything but: instead it’s a maelstrom of half-unpacked suitcases, rucksacks and plastic carrier bags. The floor, twin beds, coffee table and desk all covered in an explosion of blue and yellow fake-fur coats, silver pumps and red bras, with a bottle of pills and a half-drunk glass of white wine beside the bed.

‘I haven’t done illegal drugs in over a year,’ she says. ‘I’ll definitely do them again though – definitely. But it’s never going to be as bad as it was.’ Prescription drugs remain a mainstay of her existence, however. ‘What time is it?’ she asks, halfway through our interview. ‘I have to take half of an amphetamine pill right now. I’m bulimic, and amphetamines are an appetite suppressant and make that go away.’ She fishes into a bag, pops half a pill, and becomes noticeably more manic during the second half of our time together, at one point standing in the middle of the room, espousing about Fantasia, wizardry and Michael Jackson. ‘I have a writer’s brain,’ she declares, as if by way of explanation.

All these fancy hotels that these influencers get, I’ve never been good at that. I don’t like the free lunch. I don’t like the hustle

She describes several bulimic episodes in Self-Tanner For The Soul. ‘It should probably have been even more, but I don’t even think it occurs to me to write about something that is such a part of my life,’ she shrugs. She also describes several incidents in which she gets into serious danger when drunk, in water. ‘I learned about currents – I had no idea,’ she nods. ‘It was absolutely horrible. So yes, I hope that was the last time I go swimming alone, drunk.

Near-drownings aside, her Continent-hopping adventures in the audiobook, which she narrates herself, do have the effect of making me want to jack everything in, put my stuff in storage, and head off into the sunset too. But, given the dramatic, debauched life she lived in NYC in her twenties and early thirties, I’m a little taken aback by how naive and inexperienced she sounds at certain points.

For example, before embarking on the trip – at the age of 34 – she’d never slept in a hostel. ‘I know, it’s embarrassing. Americans are horrified by the idea of hostels. And if you did sleep in a hostel to save money, you wouldn’t tell anyone about it. I am trying to be the ambassador for hostels now,’ she says, whirling around the chaotic room, making herself a mug of oatmeal in the microwave. ‘I could get free hotels if I wanted,’ she adds. ‘But that’s not my personality. All these fancy hotels that these influencers get, I’ve never been good at that. I don’t like the free lunch. I don’t like the hustle. I’d rather just do less work and sleep on a bunk bed. I live my way because I value adventure and experiences and I don’t value stability.’

This is Cat in a nutshell – a funny, compelling, likeable but messy bag of contradictions, at times unflinchingly open and self-aware (‘I’m like a hurricane and I hurt myself. Not on purpose, but I’m self-destructive and self-sabotaging’) but still apparently blinkered when it comes to her own privilege. ‘Anyone can travel, anyone can do what I did,’ she enthuses. ‘You don’t need a lot of money. I’m here to say that hostels are cool and money is over. You can fly from Warsaw to London for literally $16 if you just book it six weeks ahead. Once you stay in a few hostels and you realise you can do it without dying, it becomes very tempting – you realise you can spend $13 for two nights in a weird new place.

The weirder, the better, in fact. ‘I learned when you’re travelling alone, don’t go to the holiday places,’ she advises. ‘I started in Portugal, oiled up on a lounger and I was like, “Oh, this is depressing, actually.” But when you’re charging around Istanbul and your brain is so stimulated, it’s amazing.’ Poignantly, towards the end of the audiobook, she reflects that her travels have ‘turned her back into her better self ’ and made her ‘problems feel smaller’. ‘My personality totally changed,’ she enthuses today. ‘It was like a colouring book – Europe has coloured in my brain and life.’

It was like a colouring book – Europe has coloured in my brain and life.

She’s also got a new – very new – boyfriend out of it. On her most recent trip to London, on a night out for her birthday at Loulou’s, the secret members’ club at 5 Hertford Street, she met Jono Namara, a former Dior model. ‘Male models are God’s gift – they’re hilarious, he’s hilarious,’ she giggles. She is planning to move to London more permanently – not for Jono, although he adds to the city’s appeal. ‘I just feel very at home in the UK,’ she says. ‘English people make me happy – I like English women.’ And she has a deep, abiding love of cheese-and-pickle sandwiches from M&S. 'There’s nothing like that here,’ she says, shaking her wig. ‘7-Eleven doesn’t cut it.

I ask her opinion onCaroline Calloway, the 27-year-old New York Instagram personality and apparent fellow/former Adderall addict, recently accused of buying followers and employing a friend to write posts on her behalf. ‘Oh, Caroline!’ cries Cat, like some digital dowager duchess (the amphetamines are really kicking in now). ‘I DM with her all the time. She’s like: “Come for dinner.” I’m like: “Why don’t you come out and party?” She needs to get out of that apartment.’

Caroline was also the subject of a Fyre festival-style disaster involving charging fans $165 a ticket for ‘creativity workshops’ that turned out to be a shambles. ‘I don’t think she’s a scammer,’ says Cat. ‘I just think she’s hugely disorganised and she tried to monetise it, like many people would try to do.’ As for her own monetising, somehow Cat (seemingly the proverbial cat) has fallen on her feet yet again. How To Murder Your Life is to be turned into an eight-episode TV drama that she is co-writing, which, she says, she can easily do from London or anywhere.

There’s mention of a second book too, which she’s had in her head for years now. ‘I’m a little worried about my mental health though,’ she laughs. ‘I was smoking crack, taking Adderall, heroin, everything and nothing went wrong.’ (That probably depends on your perspective, I think, but I keep my opinion to myself.) ‘Then I write a book and it all goes to hell. So now, I’ve been thinking... maybe I should get my Pilates certification.’ Somehow, I strongly suspect that would be far too much stability for Cat to ever stomach.

Self-Tanner For The Soul is available to download for £21.99 from

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