I'm fascinated by xoJane blogger Cat Marnell. She's ostensibly the Beauty and Health Director for Jane Pratt's site, but her posts — and I would know, because I read every single one — are usually long, rambling essays about her dysfunctional relationship with her father, past mental asylum stays, and on-again off-again prescription pill addiction sagas, with brief blurbs for coconut-scented lotion tacked on at the end. (Often gracefully, somehow.) Sometimes her posts are so meandering they're unreadable, and occasionally she makes glib comments that don't offend me as much as make me roll my eyes and wonder why I care about anything she has to say — like that time she said she preferred Plan B to condoms but had no idea how it worked and was too lazy to explain it to her readers, or when she threatened, via her assistant, to burn herself with cigarettes if the guy she was dating didn't call her within 15 minutes.)
Mostly, though, I find myself engrossed in posts like "ON THE DEATH OF WHITNEY HOUSTON: Why I Won't Ever Shut Up About My Drug Use" and "HOW TO: Defeat The Office Bitch (One Cat Marnell) And Make Her Smell Fantastic At The Same Time" because, whatever you think about Cat, she's always 100% genuine, whether it's in a cringe-inducing or commendable way. At least, it all seems very genuine — it's hard to know what the deal is when we only hear about Cat through her frenetic first-person narratives or through her adoring boss and commenter fan base. Both often seem, well, "enabling," which is the exact word Cat used, jokingly or otherwise, to describe Jane's background cackling in this D.I.Y bath salt snorting video. In the comments section of her Plan B post, Cat wrote: "i have really low self-esteem about my abilities as a health editor, but i promise i'm working on it and hang in there with me." She received responses like: "Cat, I love the way you write everything, totally makes me feel like you're a real live human person with flaws, unpopular opinions and an uncommon amount of honesty with yourself." I used to wonder whether Cat was truly a blogger or more of a social media-savvy performance artist.
I was really excited when I saw Kayleen Schaefer's New York profile on Cat this morning; so excited that I emailed my friend before 8 a.m. without even saying anything substantial, just "!!!" And...Cat comes off exactly as she does online, but less like a character I can pretend isn't real and more like an addict. She woke up an hour before her 7 p.m. interview, "looks like a ballerina who's seen better days," and is clearly high the entire time — she even tells Schaefer that her company is coaxing her into rehab. And it doesn't seem like she really wants to go, especially because then she'd have to stop writing about her drug use:
"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."
There's no doubt that Cat has a strong fan base. But do they depend on her like she depends on them? It doesn't seem like it:
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."
To be fair, she thanks her beauty products, too, although it's hard to tell if they got her through the hard times or just got her through the door:
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.
"The line between being honest about getting high and adored for being a train wreck is smudgy," Schaefer aptly notes. What are the rules for watching train wrecks as entertainment? Our culture tends to obsess over troubled celebrities but then blame each other for not doing more after it's too late. Cat isn't a "celebrity," really — and when we're talking about "real" celebrities, like Lindsay Lohan, we tend to feel like they deserve or asked for the attention in some way. Cat undoubtedly solicits our attention, too, and allows us to follow her as she journeys through life, tweeting and Instagraming the entire way.
According to Say Media, Marnell is the site's most read and most commented-on writer. Pratt calls her writing "raw, riveting, and not at all derivative." After reading this profile, I might try to stop being so riveted for a while.