Cat Marnell: How She Went From Success To Rehab and Back

Cat Marnell

Cat Marnell is the beauty blogger who once snorted bath salts to avoid writing a story for the now-defunct XoJane.com. She also spoke about how her career shot up when she was at her sickest which she diligently incorporated into her column, her New York Times best-selling book and audiobook. Juggling an intense career as an up-and-coming magazine writer (at Lucky, xoJane, Vice) with an even more intense dependency on prescription pills; in defiance of other hard-partying confessionals, she didn’t pretend to have conquered her addictions by the end. After her anti-recovery memoir, she hit rock bottom, but that’s where her latest project, an Audible Original audiobook called “Self-Tanner for the Soul,” fell on her lap.

Cat Marnell: Life Story Between Success And Rehab 

What did Cat Marnell do to her hair?

PC: Vanity Fair 

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 the writer can be seen in various wigs in every colour imaginable commonly getting mistaken for Anime characters and even Lady Gaga.

Cat Marnell actually studied writing: 

Cat Marnell

After moving to New York, Cat Marnell attended The New School in Greenwich Village to study nonfiction writing. She began as a beauty blogger but now her books don’t feature beauty and there’s nothing fictional about 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. It’s dark humor isn’t a gag – rather an opportunity for Marnell to revel in the irony.

Marnell’s voice for the beauty site features 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. 

“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.”

Both her parents work in fields related to the mind: 

Cat Marnell entered the world on September 10, 1982 in Washington, D.C. She was named after Caitlin Thomas. Her mother is a psychotherapist and her father is a psychiatrist. Growing up in Maryland, 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.

More recently, post the success of her audiobook, she has been staying at her mother’s house outside Washington. “She’s very different now,” said her mother, Stacey Marnell, certain that her daughter is no longer using. 

“I knew her in all the dark days of her book as someone who couldn’t keep a routine, couldn’t focus,” she added. “She’s so focused now. If anything it’s a little bit annoying, because her day revolves around an exercise class that she’s doing on the floor of my living room.”

She has a history of running away:

At 15, Marnell began attending Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts and was a strong student academically, but at 17 was expelled weeks before graduation. She finished high school at Emerson Preparatory School in Northwest Washington, D.C.

Continuing with this theme in life, in her release of the audiobook “Self-Tanner for the Soul,” the seemingly reformed party girl/school drop out tells listeners that you can, in fact, run away from your problems, as your past bleeds into the future.  

When Marnell was recording, she said into a microphone in Audible’s Newark studios: “It’s said that you can’t run away from your problems, but guess what, babes? Untrue. Of course you can. You can do it fabulously.” 

She was reading aloud from the travel diary she kept during her two-year solo tour of the youth hostels, all-night supermarkets and grimy public beaches of Europe and Asia. One day when she impulse-bought a one-way ticket from J.F.K. to Lisbon it was the first of several flights she would miss in 2017 but her problems mounted up and she sprinted towards her pills. 

The same year just before she was set to start promoting her book, she burned off all her hair and flooded her Chinatown apartment while high on Adderall. “It was complete beauty Chernobyl,” she said, the culmination of substance abuse that stretched back to when she was 15. “Everything that I’d been doing my whole life caught up with me. All of a sudden, the inside matched the outside.” Then she escaped to Europe.

But just as she finished her education even after being expelled, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Especially according to her agent. 

Byrd Leavell said that because of the debauchery, the drugs and the self-deprecation, people constantly underestimate Marnell.

“There’s this magnificent brain that’s inside that whole package,” he said. “Cat is the first one to dismiss it, to always joke about whatever she’s doing. But you realize, with the level of drug addiction she was essentially surviving, and then going to work, way back in the day, how tough she is, and how driven she is.”

According to Marnell, it is important that we not look at “Self-Tanner” as her Next Big Book, but as a real-time account of a journey that helped her get, if not quite healthy (“I’m definitely not in recovery”), then at least “the healthiest I’ve ever been,” she said.

Travelling to Europe changed her life:

The writer who tapped into that nonchalant resilience, also shared the same instinct to travel around the world alone.  Over a span of 100 days, Marnell travelled solo from England to Romania to Croatia to Germany to Italy to Poland and beyond. She even followed her favorite artist Pete Doherty (she even once followed his path all the way to a fancy rehab facility in Thailand), and indulged in heavy pours of white wine to escape reality.

Her recent audio book“Self-Tanner for the Soul” — a title Marnell came up with forever ago,  was the perfect chance to hear the rambling tale of bus rides and breakfast-buffet binges, from Naples to Krakow and every consonant-laden town in between. 

In the audiobook, she talks about being “still the crazy person I was in New York” but finds that Europe doesn’t have the same tolerance for an adult woman parading around in a green wig, oversleeping past checkout time. “Also I was miserable because there’s nothing going on at night anywhere,” she said. “When I got there, I was dressed like I was in New York, it was like costumes, and by the end of it I dressed really normal. I just wanted people to like me. It really, really helped me.”

After visiting more than 60 countries in two years, she was able to sell her travel diary according to this conversation with Refinery 29:

“I met with Audible the spring after How To Murder Your Life came out. It was the one meeting I took as I was actually having a complete fucking mental breakdown and snapping. I showed up at the bar with a rainbow wig, and I met with this guy Andrew (Eisenman) from Audible — shout him out! Love him — and I found out that Audible, which I didn’t know that much about because I was writing my book and also in a drug haze, wanted original content from published authors. I thought it was pretty modern. What I originally thought of when my agent sent through that request, because I usually just say no to everything — how sad is that? — was Howard Stern working with satellite [radio]. I know it is completely different, but I really admire Howard Stern. I just liked the idea of doing something new. I just wanted to switch it up.

“One of the ideas that we settled on was ‘self-help.’ Like I said I was going through a bad time, and I just wanted to ditch New York. I bought The Andy Cohen Diaries on the way at the airport, [and] I read it on the plane over there and was enjoying it so much I was like, Okay I’m going to keep a diary and see if I can sell it. And then I did. I actually sold it to Audible while I was in Europe.”

She saved her own life O.D. after O.D:

PC: FilmMagic

Just as her dream of becoming a print editor was about to flourish, she found herself having to hide 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 willingness to use beauty writing as a platform to air the ugly truth about drug use made her into a polarizing internet antihero. During which time, Marnell’s long-winded rant describing “On Whitney Houston’s Death: Why I’ll Never Shut Up About My Drug Use,” got hashed out all over the web. 

Writer Sarah Hepola published her reaction to the piece in a 2012 article for The New York Times Magazine titled “Watching a Spectacular Public Meltdown With Just a Hint of Jealousy.” A recovering alcoholic herself, Hepola spoke highly of Marnell for speaking about her addiction to pills and opiates. 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 (and drug addiction) grew darker. 

And more journalists began to express concern at what exactly was going on behind the scenes at xoJane.  “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 headings sent some serious red flags: “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. “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.” 

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