In order to talk about 2019 Cat Marnell, one needs to understand the past iterations of Cat Marnell.
There’s 2012 Cat, who snorted bath salts to avoid writing a story for the now-defunct XoJane.com, where she was a popular and controversial beauty director. She was known for incorporating her party lifestyle (as documented in her Vice column “Amphetamine Logic“) into her health and beauty coverage. There’s 2013 Cat, who signed an impressive six-figure book deal to tell her one-of-a-kind story about being a blonde media darling with an out-of-control drug habit (her description). Before that, there was Cat the Intern at Nylon, Teen Vogue, and Glamour. By 2017, Cat Marnell had become a New York Times best-selling author.
And then her life fell apart again.
Marnell embraces all these past versions of herself — each with her own demons — in her new Audible original, Self-Tanner for the Soul: How I Ran Away to Europe and Found My Inner Glow (When Life Got Dark), out now.
“I’m an idiot,” Marnell says almost immediately when I call her to talk about the audiobook — part travel diary, part self-help, and entirely her signature rambles. It’s an unexpected follow-up to her hilarious and intense memoir, which she refers to as “Murder” (the aforementioned NYT best-seller How to Murder Your Life). She goes between calling herself an “idiot” and “crazy,” frequently during our conversation, as if she’s trying to beat everyone else to the punch. At 37, Marnell has had years of practice being self-deprecating, but she also has some life lessons worth sharing. Some are simple (don’t bring a suitcase full of just wigs and shoes for a backpacking trip across Europe), while others are profound (“be a fountain, not a drain” of your own happiness).
Told over the course of five chapters, Marnell’s new project documents her summer in Europe following a complete and total mental breakdown after the release of Murder. She flooded, and totally ruined, her Chinatown apartment in an event she described as a “beauty Chernobyl.” Left with scars, burns, and practically no hair (Marnell never specifically describes what happened in that apartment, but still sticks to wigs), she escapes to Europe to solve her problems. And it kind of works. For over 100 days, Marnell travels solo from Croatia to Germany to England to Romania to Italy to Poland and beyond. She’s following her favorite artist Pete Doherty (she even once followed his path all the way to a fancy rehab facility in Thailand), and indulging in heavy pours of white wine while avoiding real life — a graffiti artist ex-boyfriend, her agent, sobriety, responsibility. The result is an immersive storytelling experience full of Adderall, loneliness, and something Marnell calls “wizard walks,” narrated by one of the most polarizing and recognizable writers born of the Internet.
But that was more than two years ago. 2019 Cat is good. She’s back in New York staying in an Airbnb (temporarily), and she says she’s weaned herself off Adderall. She says she’s not sober, but she’s trying to get shit done. She has bills to pay and stories to tell.
Refinery29: Where are you right now?
Cat Marnell: “I am on a stoop on North 5th St. in Williamsburg, looking at a bulldozer.”
How long have you been back in New York?
“I’ve been back, on-and-off, all month. It is very annoying because it is Airbnb for me now, which is very hard to do in New York. Once you travel in Europe, you’re like, It’s no wonder that people don’t come here. When you’re overseas you find that people don’t come to New York. They all want to, but they can’t fucking afford it.”
Who approached whom for this collaboration?
“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.”
I’m sure you had enough within just two weeks for them to publish.
“Oh yeah, I always do more than I have to. I’m an idiot. Like when my book was turned in, it was way longer than they wanted. I turned in, initially, 800 pages. They cut it down to 300. I basically wrote two books. I’m an idiot.”
Did this make you look at your voice in a different way? Have you listened to it?
“Because I’m so tired all the time, it was definitely a flattened version of me, but that’s fine...I felt like this kept it very real, because I was exhausted. Because I wrote it on the train [while traveling], it kept me going. I am someone who gets depressed and gets nostalgic. I was in bed my whole fucking 20s, you know what I mean? I would give myself 20 minutes of staring out the window [of a train], and then I would pull out the computer. That’s when I would write. I was always fucking exhausted when I was writing it, but it was real.”
"I just didn’t want the book to be all about drugs. Getting off of that stuff has made me so much happier."
- Cat marnell
How did you gather your source material?
“I just love diaries. I just want to keep writing diaries. I’d rather read that than anything from other people right now. It’s just more real. Our guess our brains have changed, and we can’t read elevated stuff. Or maybe that’s just me. “
Do you consider yourself an influencer at all?
“I’m a bad influencer. I’m proud to say. Whether I’m sorting bath salts or escaping, whenever I hear the word influencer, I think ‘bad influencer,’ you know? I never worried about recommending PCP to anyone because I always knew they wouldn’t know where to find it! I only knew where to find it because I was a fucking scumbag. I do not have the hustle to [be an influencer]. That is the worst thing about my life. I look at them, and they get their hotel rooms [for free]. I always intend to do that, and do, like, an initial email. Even getting the free train ticket to EuroRail, I sent an initial email, and then I never followed up. It’s just not me! I always just pay for it. I would be in the worst place if it meant I didn’t have to talk to anyone.”
How would you describe your travel style?
“I guess, in a negative way, I am an ‘adult child.’ That is what responsible people would say about me. Other people would be like “Oh, she’s so free!” But I don’t need anything. Honestly, sometimes, if there was a safe place to sleep on the street, I would do it.”
What are “wizard walks?”
“First of all, I used to take a lot of speed. You don’t need that for a wizard walk, though. The whole ‘wizard’ thing is played out now, but think of a carnival, or a fairground. During the day, it looks like nothing. That is how I am during the day. That is how my brain is during the day. Right now, I look like shit. I’m wearing sweatpants and I look sad, just sprawled onto these steps. That is my brain during the day.
“But the way carnival rides look lit up at night, my brain is the carnival. [It’s] so glowy and awesome at night. That is the wizard thing. I’ve always connected with cities at night, the glittering night lights. I look better at night, I feel better at night, and so I take these night walks.
“You can go to the best cities in Europe, and then everything at night is completely empty and it’s all lit and glowy and enchanting. Nothing is enchanting during the day — it’s just not. It’s sunny, and it’s pretty, but enchantment is only at night. Even a string of fucking Canal St. bulbs just strung up, or LED lights — that’s my speed. In Europe, everything is a fucking castle — well technically it’s a fortress, but in your American brain you’re like, That’s a castle!. It’s all glowing in the distance, and you put on electronic music and just wander over there. It’s awesome. I’m crazy, though, I’m crazy. You get the energy. It charges your brain for real. Night walks are my thing.”
Is How To Murder Your Life still being adapted into a TV series?
“It’s going to be a limited series with Sony TriStar. I can tell you that it will have the showrunner Esta Spalding, who is the showrunner for the Kristen Dunst God thing [On Becoming a God in Central Florida]. My co-writer is Jessica Caldwell, who has worked on Billions. I love them. I am very excited. I am involved, not because I want to make it accurate about me, but because I want to want it awesome. I want to elevate it. We are creating a fictional world, but I want to come at it from a place of humor and energy — some crackling different stuff. I’m not a big TV person. I don’t watch any TV. I don’t have the patience for it because I find it all to be quite hackneyed and cliché. The second something is played out I’m like, No, I can’t watch this. I have cities to walk around in!”
A piece about your finances went viral earlier this year. Do you feel like you’re in a better place financially now?
“Not at all, actually. I backslid. I don’t have any money coming in anymore! Well, I do. But the TV show money is so far away. I need to sell a book. That’s what I am going to do. Next month. I’m going to fucking Europe again. It’s cheaper! All I do in New York is go to the fucking Buffalo Exchange to buy shit I don’t need.
“Tax extensions are due. I’m just piling up fines again. When you’ve been in tax debt hundreds of thousands of dollars, like I used to be, being in debt $20,000 doesn’t feel like anything. Try telling my mom that. Even my storage unit — I owe them like $800, and I can’t get in. I don’t have any of my dresses. I don’t have any of my shoes. I can’t get in. I am miserable.”
Are you still wearing wigs?
“Of course, I have to. I can’t even get into that. I am trying to get some sort of wig sponsorship, but I’m not sure that is going to happen. I wear bad ones, too...I don’t know how to do anything. I can barely keep up with my email. I can’t hustle for anything. I wind up paying for everything. It’s annoying.”
I am trying to get some sort of wig sponsorship, but I’m not sure that is going to happen.
A person who’s been in the news a lot recently has talked about how much she looks up to you...
“Are you talking about Caroline Calloway? C.C.? Good for her, I hope she flourishes and thrives. I DM with her all the time, and I definitely feel protective of her, as someone who can understand what she is going through in a unique way. The advice I gave her was just to work out through all of this. I said, Caroline, work out. Even if it is just half an hour a day. It is going to keep this entire experience that much more clear for you. That exercise is going to affect the other 23-and-a-half hours in the day in a good way.
“I only have two pieces of advice for anyone, ever: travel and work-out. I really do think for her, you have got to snap out of it sometimes. But it’s intoxicating when it first happens. Hopefully, she seems to be monetizing everything. It’s harder than you think to monetize.”
People want to hear from you, and her, all the time. They also want to judge.
“Everyone hates Kim Kardashian — well, I guess they don’t anymore — but being polarizing has made all these people’s careers. It’s annoying that Caroline will try to charge money for things, and people will attack her for that. I really don’t see how that is scamming. And also the vitriol. People are negatively obsessed with her. Howard Stern has the same thing where people are obsessed with hate-listening to him, and it’s almost like hate-fucking. Hopefully she can just make that into something, and I think she will. I like that she is just obsessively creative, because yeah, people are fucking disorganized. Disorganized creative people are a thing.”
After this experience, do you have any new cures for loneliness?
“Oh, God. Well, you know, I am off Adderall now. I’m not sober or anything...But on that trip, I took my supply and just took less and less and less and less, so I was down to crumbs by the end. I just didn’t want the book to be all about drugs. Getting off of that stuff has made me so much happier. I don’t know why I just bought up drugs…”
Because going off was your cure for loneliness?
“There’s no cure. I am actually lonely all the time, but I realize that is not going to change. It doesn’t matter if I become a quote-unquote famous person or anything. If anything, fame has made me more self-protective and weird and withdrawn. I am trying to meet up with people more. Like someone hit me up last time when I was in London, inviting me to dinner. Usually I don’t do that stuff, but it turned out being amazing. I made these new friends in London, and I feel like my whole life over there opened up. Now I can actually move there and know people.
“People need to be brave. Human connection does not come naturally to me. It has nothing to do with social media — this came before all that shit. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. I was always surrounded by people like my graffiti writing friends who protected me from the real world. When I was in Europe, I didn’t have anyone. You learn to stand on your own. But you have to make an effort. I sound like my dad. [Laughs]”
Check out this clip from Self-Tanner for the Soul, below.
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.