Drugs, Blogs, and Cat Marnell: What Happens When One Woman's Addiction Becomes an Editorial Hallmark?

Now that Cat Marnell has left her post as beauty editor at xoJane—where, as the site's "beauty and health director" she infamously chronicled the intimate and more fucked-up details of her life like her drug abuse, mental health, and strained relationships—readers are wondering: What Will Happen Next? After all, the bread and butter of Jane Pratt's site has been first-person, experienced-based essays, with interoffice activities and conversations between staffers providing fodder for posts that read like reality TV (one source told us that Pratt has been pitching a show about the office). The more compelling, dramatic episodes revolved around Marnell's addiction and her brief absence due to employer-mandated rehab—sometimes written by Marnell's coworkers. But weren't those her stories to tell? She seems to think so.

I spoke to Marnell the day her departure from xoJane appeared in Page Six. It quoted her as saying:

Look, I couldn't 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 and writing a book, which is what I'm doing next.

While Marnell doesn't deny her drug use, she attributes her exit to "creative unhappiness." Having honed her editing skills at Condé Nast—as an intern at Teen Vogue and later, a beauty editor at Lucky—Marnell seems to prefer print to online media.

"I love magazines," she gushes. In the spirit of her professional pedigree, Marnell firmly believes in some diehard women's magazine conventions, telling me, "Beauty is supposed to be aspirational."

It's a philosophy by which she lives her life. "I threw up everyday because I was afraid of getting fat," she declares, without any hint of shame, referring to when she took a break from stimulants during her recent stint in outpatient rehab. Even if she recognized how aspirational beauty has fucked her up, she wouldn't care.

She hated being referred to as a "lady blogger," and she's made no bones about vocalizing her distaste for the genre's earnestness or its body-positivity focus, nor is she a fan of the "gross out" stories that have become the hallmark of many women's interests' sites.

I'm not some girly blogger that's part of a sugar and spice and everything nice community, okay? I hate that. I hate that on principle.

That last quote was from one of her beauty columns for xoJane that was ostensibly about perfume, but was actually an essay outlining her aforementioned "creative unhappiness" and how it, coupled with her drug use, was affecting her behavior in the office. She illustrated her self-proclaimed "bitchiness" by detailing a fight she got in with the site's managing editor Emily McCombs, whom she made cry. It lifted the curtain and gave readers that inclusive feel for which Jane Pratt's publications have always strived, but have never achieved so effectively. Watching—or rather, reading—events unfold became irresistible.

About six weeks later, a New York profile on Marnell revealed that SAY Media, xoJane's parent company, mandated that she take disability leave to attend outpatient rehab. Her absence from the site was noticeable. (According to SAY, she was the most-read writer on staff.) Technically, Marnell's choice—or coercion—to seek treatment was nobody's business. But the personal nature of the workplace at xoJane had become the business. It seemed like it made sense to address the matter on the site.

In a piece titled, "On Dealing with Active Addicts," posted 11 days after the New York profile came out, McCombs name-checked Marnell in the dek ("This is only a little bit about Cat"), but wrote mostly about her own experience of working with an addict. But she also shared a private phone conversation she'd had with Marnell just before she'd decided to accept the offer of treatment.

One source told us that Marnell was furious and had not given her permission for such a post. When I pressed her about the issue, Marnell only said, "I wanted it to be completely quiet." She's full of contradictions, though.

McCombs told me that it was Marnell's idea. "When Cat's New York magazine feature came out, she suggested that we might want to capitalize on its traffic by having a staff member write a 'brutally honest' article about what it's like to work with an addict. In response to that request, I wrote a draft that was more explicitly about Cat and the difficulties of working with her when she was using. She was hurt when she read it and so we didn't run it."

I read some of the unpublished piece. It was nasty—shockingly so. An entire paragraph was dedicated to describing, in great detail, Marnell's physical unattractiveness and smeared makeup. It was undoubtedly mortifying for a beauty editor to read.

McCombs reworked it, made it less about Marnell and published it. "I didn't ask her permission to run the 'Dealing with Active Addicts' piece, but she didn't ask my permission to write about events in the office either."

Therein lies the problem with creating a group narrative amongst writers. Who owns the material?

McCombs often writes about her own sobriety for xoJane. When I questioned her about the ethics of being in AA and publicly discussing another person's addiction she said, "I would never, ever have told anyone about Cat going to rehab, but once she had already announced it in New York and on her Twitter, I didn't see any problem referencing it."

The back and forth made for some compelling reading, but the danger in relying so heavily on a cult of personality for material is that the lines become blurred on what's fair game for personal show-and-tell.

In an email, Marnell told me, "'Fair game' is not really how one would expect a managing editor would view an employee on disability for addiction but I had been behaving badly and I do respect her honesty—disconcerting as it is to this day."

Because Marnell's exploits had become almost synonymous with xoJane, it appeared that Pratt was forced to address the end of Marnell's employment in what came off as her own version of the site's popular feature "It Happened to Me", and was at once self-aware and self-absorbed:

I know there has been some radio silence on my end with regard to the whole issue ever since she got back from her time off. I wrote a draft for you of what happened in the last week at xoJane and it was roundly and rightfully trashed here internally.

It had heavy paragraphs in it like this:

Right now, Cat is tweeting from Soho House and I am feeling the sadness of everyone I've ever known whose use of drugs/food/sex/whatever habit limited their abilities (or desires) to fulfill their potential. From my dad, who was left on the side of the road to die and left my step-mom to clear out the s and m equipment (should s & m always have an ampersand? seems so) from under his bed and the box of wine from the shelf in the artists' colony room where he was staying, to so many others I've believed and believed in.

Oy, said my publicist.

Oy, indeed. At this point, the business model is not unlike a snake eating its own tail. Not that I'm saying that Pratt is a snake. In fact, Marnell only had lovely things to say about how much she respects her former boss. "I love Jane. We have a special Duke parents blond prep school magazine-y bond and we are both very skinny naturally."

It will be interesting to see where xoJane goes from here. With the identity of the site wrapped up so tightly in the identity of its staffers and their relationships with one another, there is clearly an endless font of stories to tell. Who has the right to tell them, however, is much murkier.

Drugs more fun than work [Page Six]
Cat's Gone [xoJane]
Cat Marnell on Jane Pratt, Her Book, and Splitting From xoJane.com [New York]