Long Reads

Cat Marnell talks affirmations, adderall and crying in the subway

In her new Audible Original audiobook, Self-Tanner For The Soul, the former beauty editor turned party girl runs away to Europe to escape her problems. 

“Hi, I’m truly so sorry,” says Cat Marnell one recent afternoon, down the phone from New York, “It sounds crazy but I slept. Which I never do. I was with my London friends last night. I wasn’t partying or anything.” 

Marnell is beginning our call with this disclaimer because partying is what she’s known for. Or, more specifically, addiction. In 2010, she left her job as the beauty editor of Condé Nast’s Lucky magazine after trying and failing to give up pills and parties. Only to join the website xoJane as beauty director and quit a year later, telling Page Six, “I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain smoking angel dust with my friends”. She went onto to be a columnist for Vice, where she wrote under headlines like, The Cockroach And The Cokehead and Nothing Is Wrong If It Feels Good.  

Then came her New York Times bestselling memoir How To Murder Your Life. In it, she explained herself: how she got hooked on adderall (it was prescribed to her by her father, a psychiatrist, when she was a teenager), how career became her escape, her messed up relationship with a potential psychopath she calls “Marco”. And it didn’t have your average and-then-I-found-Jesus ending. Marnell left it wide open; she was still struggling. 

Now, she’s released an Audible Original audiobook Self Tanner For The Soul: How I Ran Away To Europe To Find My Inner Glow (When Life Got Dark), detailing a summer spent stomping around the continent in 2017. “Listen, it’s said that you can’t run away from your problems,” she says in the first chapter, “but guess what, babes? Untrue. Of course you can. You can do it fabulously. Abroad. For months at a time.” 

The problems she was running from were vast. She had flooded her Chinatown apartment; chemically, and permanently, burnt her scalp and was wearing wigs; had broken up with her boyfriend – and was still using. In Europe, though, all this felt lighter. She lived out of a suitcase, stayed in hostels and took late night “wizard walks” around 26 countries. 

She sought out glowing wands everywhere, which you can spot on the project’s cover art. “They became a spiritual touchstone for me,” she says, “I feel alive at night and I feel at peace at night. It’s a different kind of self-care. It’s Eat, Pray, Love for a crackhead girl.”

And when she returned her life was still there: waiting. How To Murder Your Life is being adapted into a TV series by Sony TriStar with a big-name (currently unannounced, so I can’t tell you) actress attached. “And I’ve gotten paid so I know it’s happening,” she says, “I can’t wait to write some physical comedy for this fabulous girl”. And then there’s her next book, which she says she will be writing in London. 

The thing is, Marnell has always known what makes her special – her wit; her mind; her sense of the absurd – and she guards it. “I didn’t want [the audiobook] to be all about my problems,” she says, “and it has been. And I get it. I did it to myself. But it’s not actually who I am. At this point in my life, I’m about my spirit and sense of adventure much more than my unhappiness,” she explains, as sirens blare and traffic hurtles past her on the street and she chatters on, unbothered. “Because that inner glow I have, or whatever, is what’s carried me through my life and it’s the strongest part of me. I’m not my problems.”  

Congrats on the audiobook. I just finished listening today.

Thanks, thanks. Don’t you just find diaries so interesting? They can be so mundane, but I find them very appealing in that way. I’ve kept journals in the past but they were so ridiculous. And inconsistent. This was sort of inspired by Andy Cohen’s diaries. And The Andy Warhol Diaries, which was my favourite book in my twenties. 

For this, I just wrote on the train. At the cafe. In my notebook and then I’d photograph the page and send it to myself. I liked being able to write it anywhere. Because I had loopy bad experiences writing my book. Every day, I felt like I’d just gotten off an airplane. I was crunched up, scrunched over. I was miserable. I was over it. And that’s not good for your life when you have to write that book for two years. This gave me a feeling of freedom. 

And what about the title, where did that come from?

Well, I didn’t want to do self-help. I had met with Audible at a fabulous little bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel here in New York and it was a horrible time in my life. I was wearing a bad clown wig. It was really bad. I mean, when you’re wearing a coloured wig and you’re not combing it because you’re fucked, it’s a very bad situation. So, I was sitting there in the subway after the meeting, about to cry, wearing a rainbow wig, and I was like I can’t write self-help. Because that was what was suggested to me, because I had this self-help title Self Tanner For The Soul, which comes from my beauty background, you know, and I love self-care. 

But what I really just wanted to do was run away from problems. And in doing so it turned into the solution. OK, I wouldn’t say the solution, but it turned into a way of hope. I don’t have the best coping skills, but I do have the most interesting life.

What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t left New York when you did?

Oh, I was about to go to the mental hospital. I needed to go to the mental hospital or Europe. Oh yeah. Everything was breaking me. About three months before I left, I dumped my cheating boyfriend and went on this crazy meditation retreat for like Elle or something to try to recalibrate. Because you know how it is when you’ve just been cheated on? It’s insane. There’s nothing like it because your entire life just blows up in your face and there’s nothing you can do. 

Then I chemically burnt my entire head of hair into my face and mutated my face and lost my hair permanently. I thought I was going to snap just from the cheating, and then I did this from myself. I had a falling out with all our mutual friends. Then, a guy from my past was trying to rob me. I really didn’t have a choice but to leave. I was crazy by the time I left. I don’t know if I was being stalked for real, but I felt like I was. 

And I didn’t want to write about any of that. I could barely write those sentences in the [audiobook’s] intro. I wasn’t ready, I was so traumatised. I’ll write about all that stuff in a future book, I’m sure, but I had to get outside of myself. 

I know you’re really into mantras and affirmations. Is there one on your mind these days?

It’s so funny that you say that, I don’t know if other people do this but whenever I meet new people or have to talk to new people I listen to self-confidence affirmations. I did it last night. Like, ‘I love being around people,’ ‘I am a confident person’. I get a lot of my confidence from that. I’ve been working on that. People are important. The biggest thing I’ve learnt on my travels is that you’ve got to have people in your life. I don’t believe in shoulds, or one way of doing things, but I do believe this: you’ve got to have people around you. 

How has your life changed since you got back from Europe?

People have been taken aback, because I’m being really careful with money. I see money in a really different way. I know it’s weird, but until I went travelling I never went to a supermarket and bought groceries and made them into a meal. I wasn’t that person. I go to bed now. I sleep. When I was out there, I was like an athlete. Every day, I was with that bag of heavy wigs. Hiking mountains! Nothing daunts me. The thing that I would tell myself all the time is that I can handle anything. Even if I couldn’t. It was an affirmation. 

Sometimes, I just look down at my legs, and my feet, and they’re moving and I can’t even believe the places they’ve brought me. I also feel like I come out of it with humility, not only in understanding the human condition, but also leaving a career where I was in the New York Times and all that stuff and just being a nobody. Everyone was just annoyed with me. Like, ‘get your feet off the train seat!’ I love that. It got me out of my head. 

Image credit: Audible