Cat Marnell interview: shooting star

Cat Marnell is clever, funny and talented – but what she's famous for is taking drugs and not saying sorry. Hermione Hoby meets a writer toying with self-destruction

No other city has celebrated its spangly car crashes of bright-burning characters quite like New York. Dorothy Parker, pretending her tears were just gin spilt in the middle of a new joke; Andy Warhol, who wanted to get as far from himself as everyone else wanted to get closer; journalist Pete Hamill and his cohort hard-drinking their way towards death in a celebration of life. And, sitting in front of me, moving within minutes from a bravura "I really resent sometimes living in this time period; there's no decadence any more" to a tearful collapse over her tiny chicken salad – "I'm always lonely. I've never been in love" – is this town's latest burning star.

It's not as though no one has ever taken drugs in this city before and written about it. It's not as if no writer has ever flounced out of their job. But it's unprecedented that such a double act should merit not only multiple magazine profiles but a very public letter of resignation to the city, via the New York Post. Cat Marnell is probably right that this isn't a decadent town any more – not since Rudy Giuliani took office as mayor in 1994. But that's not the only reason Marnell sparks such adoring and condemnatory interest: she is also the first high-profile burn-up of the Twitter years, these years where storming from the office with a warm quart of gin and a zinging aphorism is a quaint archaism of a gesture. Instead self-immolation takes place in electronic nanoseconds, online, where it's magnified by myriad reposts and retweets.

And so, last July, Marnell sent an email to the New York Post. Why, she scoffed, spend "another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends"?

The job she was leaving was as beauty editor at women's website xojane, where she had become celebrated for reviews that were as much about her enjoyment of drugs as they were about cosmetics. Finally her drug use had become so heavy that Jane Pratt, the website's founding editor, had to let her friend go. Marnell was hired almost immediately by Vice, the youth culture media conglomerate that delights in controversy. As its self-styled "pills and narcissism" correspondent, she began a column called Amphetamine Logic, and her writing became even harder to quit.

Marnell recounts parties and drugs and sex in writing that mirrors the experience of being on drugs – sometimes fizzing ("You know what speed is like? It shrieks you up through the sky… explodes over and over again with durrr ideas, fluorescent-rainbow nothings like fireworks that scatter sparks and ash") and, just as often, cold and blunt and brutal ("I start scrolling through my phone for someone to fuck. Then I stop caring about that, too, and decide to just go home").

This was how she introduced herself to her Vice audience: "I'm the one… dressed like a sort of slutty Commedia dell'Arte Zanni, in white rags, a Dior slap bracelet, a Winston – I know, inexplicably – tucked behind my ear, a nameplate necklace that says 'methadone' in cursive (indeed, roll your eyes; please), filthy white Topshop flats, three plastic rosaries in pastel colours that are all chewed up."

But the reason Marnell resonates, and could do so for years, is that she's more than a poor little rich girl with a hard drug habit; she is clever and, crucially, she refuses to conform to the sanctioned narratives of either desperate victim or contrite, recovering addict.

"The reality is so many people are using drugs," she says. "I know hardly anybody who isn't. But people aren't used to people writing about drugs."

Sanctimony certainly isn't a charge you can levy at Vice, where her popularity confirms that losing one job due to her addiction has in fact been an excellent career move. It also, however, means that her own disintegration, physical and psychological, has now become her "brand". Her job now, as a recent New York Magazine profile put it, is "to be fucked up". But is it our job to spectate?

As I wait FOR HER in an East Village café I start to feel foolish for thinking she'll turn up at all. Then there's a ripple and I look the way of the turned heads. They're appraising the small, tanned, very blonde figure who is crossing the road, half-striding, half-hobbling, in ferociously heeled pastel stilettos. Perhaps they're staring because she's hard not to stare at, or perhaps they're staring because Marnell's notoriety has now transcended the comment boards and made her famous in the offline world, too.

She's wearing a torn white clingy vest of a dress and clutching a graffitied handbag that looks as though it's been kicked around countless nightclub corners. Breathless non-explanations tumble out – she ended up "at some guy's apartment", there was "way too much coke". Making haphazard gestures towards her face, she adds: "I'm, like, caked in make-up with my false eyelashes falling off." She seems to be performing her own chaos. This, it seems, is the character she's made for herself, or maybe one the internet has helped make.

Marnell is 30, but her snub-nosed, round-eyed bratty beauty (she is made even more doll-like by those in fact perfectly intact false eyelashes) and her very petite frame (a side effect of amphetamines) make her look a decade younger. She calls herself an adult child. "It's very Peter Pan. A girl can be a lost boy, too." She boasts about her own helplessness. "I don't know how to do anything. I don't know how to drive; I don't know how to pay taxes; I don't know how to keep a house; I don't own any dishes."

Marnell is the middle daughter of psychologist parents with whom she has next to no contact. Her older sister is a publicist and she claims not to know what her younger brother does. It was a privileged upbringing: "I was raised with everything – this huge house with a guest house and tennis courts and everything, but I was so unhappy."

She tells of her ultra-Republican father tearing up a Riot Grrrl 'zine she made and forbidding her to use the word "feminism" in his house. As for her mother, she was "like an ice cube: she literally wouldn't talk to us. She was just completely unable to connect with us. I was raised by nannies. I left home at 15 for prep school and never went back."

This was when her father put her on Ritalin to improve her grades: "I was top of my class for years because I did everything better than everybody else because I was on so much speed." She has been on amphetamines ever since. "The New York Times is still publishing articles like: 'Oh, college kids are using Adderall' and I'm like: 'Yo – is this, like, 1997?' What people aren't talking about is how these Ritalin kids are turning into Adderall adults. You think I'm the only one taking Adderall?"

Before xojane, Marnell was a beauty editor at Condé Nast magazine Lucky, where her drug use quickly became a problem. "I was disgusting. I was 90lb and green and coming in with nosebleeds and hiding in the beauty closet. I was hanging out with some really bad people doing heroin."

She left Lucky for $1,000- a-day rehab clinic Silver Hill Hospital, a choice governed partly by the fact that her beloved Edie Sedgwick had gone there. She paid for it herself, she says, while her employers put her on disability pay. She loved it there: "Eating meals at a table with people and being in a house with people was really fun for me. It felt like family."

But a few months after leaving she fell apart: "I did the thing when you take all the pills and then you call someone and you're locked in your apartment. I was taken out on a gurney and all of that. But that was, you know, the height of the drama for me. It's not really representative of who I am and the problems I have. My recreational drug use is not a problem. Nobody would be using drugs if there weren't tons of upsides. I love stimulants, I love being wired and I love, as New Yorkers say, just coming out of my face. I love it. I'm definitely not going to die – I'm very conscientious about what I mix and what I don't."

That morning she'd tweeted: "I hate my career I just want a boyfriend". The sorry statement made sorrier still by all the blithe retweets and "favourites" it generated from her thousands of followers.

"I hate men," she tells me, then corrects herself. "It's not that I hate men: I hate myself around men. If I'm rejected, the shame is too much – it's devastating. A lot of addicts can't handle that. Because we already hate ourselves, to have that validated by some man not wanting you is... too much."

The thing that seems to be keeping her going is her book, a memoir, although she admits that her agent is "mad at her" for still not having written the proposal. The agent is Byrd Leavell, who pioneered the blog- to-book trend with Tucker Max, a frat boy named one of the "douchebags of the decade" by Gawker for his chronicling of his own immoderate drinking and sleeping around.

When I speak to Leavell I mention the boyfriend tweet and ask whether he worries about exploitation. He doesn't seem to understand my question. Does it bother him, I persist, that she's now effectively dependent on this identity and reality as an addict? And that the internet both exposes and encourages that vulnerability? Isn't this a problem?

"You're right in many ways," he says. "It always strikes me what thick skin you have to have. Because commenters are… merciless. When you choose to write about yourself online, there's kind of no half-measures. But if she did a whole book as good as her best pieces… I mean, imagine. Imagine the validation – and the copies that would sell."

I think it's naive to hope that he – and everyone else – might prioritise the former.

"I'm the first to say my life is glamorous," Marnell declares. "The people I hang out with are fabulous. And that's really what I'm about. Drug addicts – and drug use – are boring; it's what lives they're living that creates a story."

But notes of fabulousness do not, ultimately, make that story any less bleak, or the exploitation – hers and ours – any less problematic. I like the story of the nonchalant writer-heroine doing whatever she wants, shamelessly, messily, so much more than the story of the desperately sad addict. Unfortunately, both are true.

"At the core of addiction," Marnell continues, "is a depression that feels unbearable. In July I spent 11 days in my apartment and I did not go outside. It's hard to write this stuff, but it's also boring. Who wants to read about what it's like to be in bed for days?"

But the thing is, lots of people do: the abject dejection of her comedowns, self-loathing and lovelessness are just as compelling as the descriptions of downtown glamour.

Her most recent Vice column ran three weeks ago and looked as though it could be one of the last. "I am better," she announced, "and I will continue to get better, and it doesn't matter to me that you don't want to believe this, or don't understand what it means."

But she also wrote: "I'll be 30 years old in four days, and here's the big revelation: it's OK to be a freak show. It makes you special and strange and valuable to the universe."


Hermione Hoby

The GuardianTramp

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