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During an interview with the multimedia artist Richard Phillips, a journalist suggested that the appeal of Lindsay Lohan—a muse of the artist’s—was the “constant tension [of] whether she’s going to make it or not.”
“That is very precisely an American question, you know? It stays with us, and she has embodied that,” Phillips agreed.
The Writers: the Drug Addict, the Slut, and the Internet Weirdo
You may scroll past their bylines: Cat, Slutever, Marie Calloway. Idle magazine flipping yields hybrid versions: Caitlin Marnell, Karley Sciortino, and Jane Doe. At the right time and place in New York—a deli in Alphabet City, the Bedford L-stop, and a nondescript midtown hotel, respectively—they might elicit a double-take.
Cat Marnell (xoJane.com), Karley Sciortino (slutever.com), and Marie Calloway (mariecalloway.tumblr.com) are three female writers made “famous” by publishing stories of their own lives on the Internet. But last year, unless you were browsing their host sites, you might not have caught their work: a deft mix of sex, drugs, photos, dialogue, and name-dropping.
Yet, in 2012, the standard media profiler has been focused on all three women. (Okay, it’s possible you didn’t take fastidious note of all that passed through Page Six, VICE, the New York Observer, New York Magazine, and Purple in the past year, and still don’t know who they are.)
Cat is the 30-year-old former beauty editor, trust-funder, and drug addict. Karley is the 26-year-old former London squat dweller, sex blogger, and slut. Marie is the 22-year-old former co-ed with a Tumblr, a “literary seductress,” and Internet weirdo.
To compare three women writers—simply because of their gender and the medium in which they write—seems at first a fundamental miscalculation. Is it enough that they have each written about sex for VICE? Probably not. (Arguably their most-famous peer at the magazine, Kate Carraway, responded to an email query: “I don’t know why I’m being compared to other females at VICE, specifically.”) But to say they don’t represent a very specific cross section of bloggers is to ignore the way in which women writers are grouped on the Internet.
Molly Fischer, in the n+1 piece “So Many Feelings,” uses the term “lady blogger” to describe the attempt of early women’s websites to “assault the standards [set by] mainstream women’s magazines.” The early editors of Jezebel did so by making a point of “[proving] their aptitude for bad behavior—and not bad meaning titillating, but meaning reckless, abrasive, or just disgusting,” writes Fischer.
These days of Jezebel are long over (which isn’t as much an indictment of the website as it is the reality of having been institutionalized in the landscape of the Internet). But the entertainment value of that which is “reckless, abrasive, or just disgusting” has not been devalued in the least in American culture. And, more to the point, its shock value is best retained when it is delivered by a woman—especially one who is young and beautiful, in the public eye, and unwilling to divorce her persona from what could be construed as questionable social choices.
But as VICE—the once stereotypically male-oriented media conglomerate—begins to capitalize on this female-writer-gone-wild paradigm, and ostensibly fills a chasm in ladyblog land, the question arises: Are these women exploiting or being exploited?
Or, are they just being themselves?
Cat: Crack-Skinny or Cracking Up?
As any casual observer of the Mary-Kate Olsen bag-lady phenomenon can tell you, the downtown anorexic is never without her props. Cat slings her “graffiti-tagged Balenciaga bag,” seemingly swims in “white rags,” her wrists wrapped in rosaries. She may or may not be clutching a juice cleanse. Trying to look past those “PCP eyes and Adderall thighs”— her words—might take more moral energy than it’s worth. The Wall Street Journal profile described her as “caked in makeup,” also taking note of “a leaf caught in her unkempt hair.”
Then there’s the stylized Cat, with collared shirt and tight blonde ponytail, caught by a handheld camera seven months ago. Despite her good-girl looks, she intones, with droll self-confidence, “I’m xoJane Beauty Director Cat Marnell, and I’m about to snort a line of bath salts.” Laughing, Cat momentarily loses her self-satisfied smirk and raised eyebrows. A line of powder is cut with an insurance card.
“This is Jane Pratt exploiting me, because I’m in negotiations for a raise!” Pratt, the amused editor in chief of Sassy fame, can be heard confirming this in the background. “Say ‘Media!’” pipes Cat as she lowers her head to the table, then snorts. (SAY Media is the Publisher of xoJane.)
The video ran in the post “WORST BEAUTY EDITOR IN THE WORLD: I SNORTED A LINE OF BATH SALTS IN THE OFFICE TODAY EDITION” on Feb. 21. Cat explains, “[I] didn’t write [my daily blog post] ... And I wanted to put something up today, so here.” By April 2, Marnell was flagged by SAY Media human resources, the publisher of xoJane, and “put on disability” because of erratic performance related to her drug use. The night before her leave of absence from the site, she popped pills and spilled coffee during a New York Magazine interview. The journalist described her as “troubled and clearly high” and seemingly “freaked out simply by being awake.” Her May 15 return-post on the site elicited 500 comments.
On June 14, an item on Cat’s exit from the company ran in Page Six under the headline “Drugs more fun than work.” xoJane was losing its “most-read writer on staff,” reported Jezebel’s Tracie Morrissey.
When she managed to file work on time, Cat favored a fast and loose prose style that coupled nicely with what amounted to a policy of self-indulgent honesty. She tuned up the writing, and spewed anecdotes like clockwork. Posts were unpredictable, unapologetically egotistical, and just as likely to let spelling and grammatical errors slip as comic or cosmic gems.
In a post on the Clarisonic Skincare Brush, she rags on “the types of girls who ... always are all, ‘Isn’t it FREEZING?’ and bust out like 50 gnarly old pashminas form under their desks to swaddle themselves in like they are the Lord Baby Jesus Himself while they chatter to each other and sip chamomile tea (real caffeine = too intense).”
Only in the rare post in which she lost control of the performance did the writing (and the writer) seem manic rather than dialed up. Readers for whom solipsism was not an affront liked her character—the death drive, the refusal to be bored or boring, and the totally sincere belief in the power of beauty products. And of course, the linchpin in her public persona: a laissez-faire stance on addiction. (An Atlantic Wire piece on Cat gravely reminds the public, “We’re talking about an illness, not a ‘lifestyle choice.’”) But who better to give concealer tips than the beauty editor who smokes crack?
Seven days after the Page Six story, the first installment of a newly acquired weekly column, “Amphetamine Logic,” ran online at VICE. She called it “The Aftermath” and addressed who she is, an explanation that made passing reference to the New York Magazine and Page Six stories.
Cat later tells The Daily Beast she came to New York as a pregnant 17 year old, having been “kicked out of school for drugs two weeks before graduation.” In the fall, she started college at the New School. “Marnell did none of her work, hardly came to class, and charmed her professors to get by,” wrote Caitlin Dickson of The Daily Beast. She managed to graduate with a degree in nonfiction writing.
Though Cat remained indifferent to traditional academia, she often recalled this period with great fondness on xoJane. Cat was not an aimless youth—indifferent, sure, to fiscal responsibilities or guilt. (She refers to her ever-dwindling trust fund as “a gilded cage” in a VICE column.) She knew exactly what she wanted: “to be an editor with high rank and power somewhere.” And she left college having logged time in fashion closets at magazines like Nylon, Vanity Fair, and Glamour.
It is easy to forget that through her early twenties, Cat was not only a high-functioning addict, but also a person who “worshipped everyone [she] worked for, and [she] worked very hard.” At the young age of 25, Cat got her job as a beauty editor at Lucky Magazine.
Two and half years later, she lost that job—her “dream job”—because she couldn’t get clean. When that happened, she just gave up, and spent an entire year unemployed, locked in her apartment, spinning out.
Then she went to work for Jane Pratt, founder of xoJane.com. Because, to Cat, it will always be “about being a beauty editor, and about nightlife, and graffiti writers, and getting away with everything in my crazy life.”
Or perhaps it’s better distilled in the first “Amphetamine Logic” column: “‘THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE’ I have scrawled at the top of my bathroom mirror in YSL Rouge Volupte lipstick, #17, a bright coral.”
Karley: Squat Sex to Sex Blogger
Slutever, or Karley, is a bottle-blonde All-American with the face and body-dimension combo to land French Playboy at 22. Freelancing in London for Dazed & Confused magazine at the time, co-founder Jefferson Hack handpicked her for the spread. “He was curating people associated with him [for Playboy], his crew,” she tells me, shrugging. Karley’s [pin-up-next-door] looks are effectively a photographic mandate. In photos, American flags are systematically hung as a background, if not literally wrapped around her. On the fourth of July (we ended the night at the same house party), I watched her rocking effortlessly on her haunches in four-inch stars-and-stripes platform shoes and a skin-tight red mini-dress.
It was Friday after 4 p.m. when Karley opened the door wearing nothing but an XL white Hanes t-shirt decorated with a screen-printing of her own vagina. A pink sheen was added to the picture, “but no photoshopping!” Hamilton can be seen modeling it on Slutever—her blog, and subsequent persona, that she started in 2007 to document life as a 21-year-old college dropout in a decrepit London squat. Over the last two years, Slutever has evolved from a de facto diary of Karley’s life to an investigative blog that explores sexual trends and fetishes. Karley, in essence, has become a tried and true sex blogger.
She now stars in the second season of VICE’s docu-series Slutever and a monthly fictional video series for Purple TV. As a journalist, Karley is often tapped to interview those with sexualized public images, like bad-girl art darling Aurel Schmidt—famous for posing for a Purple magazine shoot pouring a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer out from between her legs.
“I’m not wearing underwear,” Karley announces drolly, plopping down next to me on the couch, “but I made homemade guacamole.” Within ten minutes she and Ally—a “very part-time” dental hygienist who owns the apartment—are examining an ingrown hair near her bikini line.
Karley tells me that she spent the afternoon in midtown, doing a dominatrix session (payment: $100). On the phone to me, the day before: “I have $83 in my bank account right now. Yesterday I had to buy coffee with money from my couch.”
And so goes the classic Karley anecdote, on and off the web: unapologetic candor mediated by a tone of dry self-deprecation.
In the September post “Being Tragic,” Karley laments “at 26” getting recognized as Slutever at the Williamsburg Chinese restaurant where she works part-time: “They make a facial expression which basically says, ‘Wow, I used to think you were really glamorous and cool, but now I just think you’re a tragic noodle slave.’ And then I spend the next ten minutes wiping up the soy sauce they spill everywhere.”
She certainly doesn’t look tragic in the photo above the post, reclining on an antique car in the woods, wearing plaid short-shorts, suggestively biting a pair of glasses.
But such is the je ne sais quoi of Karley’s appeal: the trials and tribulations of the anti-glamour babe. Here she is on May 15, 2007, in “My Ephiphany,” her first-ever blog post: “Goodbye hard drugs. Goodbye mindless sex with Mexican bus boys in back alleys. Goodbye to eating out of garbage bins.” She’s 21 years old. The next post details an MDMA- infused mishap with an overweight lesbian’s “moon cup”—a tampon alternative that’s basically a reusable plastic cone— in a rank club bathroom. Karley takes her exit “covered in blood.”
Perhaps more surprising than the failure of her life cleanse is how, two years earlier, an American college student spending her first semester of college abroad in London ended up living in a squat until she was deported in 2010.
She arrived at Kingston College, began studying drama, and “immediately got a boyfriend on [her] floor. He was in a band called Mystery Jets.” Karley was on tour with the band when they “played one of Matthew’s earliest squat parties.” Matthew Stone was four years older, an artist putting on squatted art shows in South London, and a founding member of the artist collective/“scene” !WOWOW!. (For the 2011 Art Basel Miami Beach, Stone’s sculptures were poolside at the Mondrian Hotel.)
By second semester, Karley was commuting regularly from Kingston to South London, crashing with Stone after parties and gigs. Stone was squatting in “an abandoned lift factory in southeast London” with nine other people. “Eventually, he was just like, ‘Why don’t you move in with me.’ So I did.” She stopped going to school. “I didn’t take my finals. I didn’t even check the grades.” She lived in a stairwell landing at the “Lift Factory” for almost a year.
On Slutever, Karley remembers it as “something between a European hippie commune and a sordid, queer sex dungeon.” A partial catalog of roommates attests: “a gay asylum seeker from Iran, a Russian lesbian goth with no eyebrows, a Swedish hat designer, a leather-wearing German kid who was apparently some sort of amazing artist (though all I ever saw him do was sell drugs).”
Karley had nothing to be saved from, per se, but she was saved in a way. Her “boyfriend’s manager’s girlfriend”—a staff writer at Dazed & Confused—began hounding her at parties and gigs, “in this rather motherly way,” asking what she was doing in her free time. She insisted that Karley would be a good interviewer. Karley, thinking that the magazine culture could be cool, took an internship at the publication. She was involved with magazines for the rest of her time in London, interning and later freelancing at publications like VICE and TANK Magazine.
Karley left the Factory to squat a small room in an apartment building. Six months later, she moved into Squallyoaks, a new South London squat that Stone opened. It was Squallyoaks that spawned Slutever. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that while she lived in the squat, Squallyoaks was Slutever.
“We were all blackout. No one had a camera,” explains Karley. “I was writing it for our amusement. Almost.”
Almost, because it would have been impossible to mistake the material for anything other than a gold mine. A photo from the first post shows two boys with longish black hair and skinny jeans peering through a largely punched-out sheetrock wall onto a room littered with debris. But it’s the captions that do much to explain the “tone” of Slutever, precisely because it isn’t there: “We have parties and smash walls,” “The basement looks like a crack den,” “We play loud music.”
Karley had pictures similar to those of other famous bloggers, like Cory Kennedy—whose blog is a photographic catalogue designed to make you feel privy to social information—but hers were of anonymous subjects. Yet the content of the very first post was structured around an imagined audience that wasn’t Karley’s housemates. This may have been merely an amusing way to write, but it was also a stroke of brilliance.
Each post weaved a working introduction to the culture and activities of Squallyoaks with whatever anecdotes had been gathered since the last post:
“[Squallyoaks] was the sort of house where it wasn’t out of the ordinary to come home to a living room full of naked people on DMT having ritualistic sex, or a homeless Romanian family baking bread in the kitchen.”
Three months after its creation, Matthew Stone jokingly comments below a post “so that you get an email ... so that you remember that you have a blog ... so that the world continues to laugh.”
Two years later, in the summer of 2009, Karley writes that the blog is “the bane of my existence. Along with being the foremost reason my ex boyfriend and I broke up.”
Her sign off?
“I don’t write with the intention of hurting my family and friends. I do it to trick strangers into thinking my life is more interesting than it actually is. Why does no one understand this?”
Marie: Nom de Plume or Nom de Guerre?
To view photos of Marie is to look at the highly controlled Facebook profile of any self-conscious co-ed with bangs. (This is partly due to her never having been posed by photographers for a magazine.) Pursed-lipped selfies and reclining-bed poses are the standard, as are black turtlenecks. A photo of her smoking in midtown, wearing mismatched black and carrying a Coach purse, is charmingly suggestive of a Midwestern having just arrived in her city, working out an affect. Yet she sent to me—unsolicited, in an otherwise logistical Gchat—a photo of herself kneeling in profile, wearing nothing but underwear, her hands tied together with rope suspended from a fixture above. Taking the photo in a mirror was a recognizable New York female sex blogger. In the New York Observer, Kat Stoeffel, writing the first definitive profile of Marie, described her as “Anna Karina meets Wednesday Addams.” I would add only that her breasts are larger.
“[Marie] Calloway working through her ‘expression of subjectivity’ affects people,” argued Roxane Gay on the literary website HTMLGIANT in December. “There are consequences.” Gay—one of many writers with an internal barometer tuned to New York media gossip—had learned of the college student three days prior when the New York Observer ran Marie’s coming-out profile.
“Meet Marie Calloway: The New Model for Literary Seductress is Part Feminist, Part ‘Famewhore’ and All Pseudonymous.”
In May, Marie had traveled to New York to sleep with a 40-year-old male writer whom she had been emailing. She left the city with a story and a cum-shot (he took it per her request using her cell phone). The writer knew she might post about the weekend they spent together; he wished only that it could not be found on Google. The story ran six months later on her personal Tumblr, with the attached photos and the names of all bit players.
Then Marie sent the story to Tao Lin—New York’s de facto internet publisher for the alt lit crowd—and he offered to run it online at MuuMuu House, his small D.I.Y. publishing company. In an email to me, Lin said that Marie “was apprehensive about [using] the name of the person ... I said she could change it to a celebrity name.” He also capitalized the beginning of each sentence. The story was filed as fiction.
In the hands of a more self-deprecating writer, Marie’s honesty—which takes the form of fastidious documentation of every conversation, text, and passing emotion—could be construed as humor or sarcasm. Instead, Marie’s writing often suggests a sort of perverse naiveté.
In an email, she expressed frustration that readers misunderstood “Losing Your Virginity,” another Thought Catalog piece, as being a reflection of her own feelings. In fact, she wrote it “entirely from the perspective of me being an 18 year old ... I didn’t directly add any sort of insight or thoughts I had about it looking back.”
It is a strength of the story, perhaps, that one has an impression of being inside the head of the “narrator,” 18 year old or not, who loses her virginity to an older boy she just met: “i thought about how he seemed very nice and gentle, but remembered hearing about how rapists and murderers often came off like that. but i wanted more than anything to do this very adult thing ...”
Our discomfort stems from the sincerity of tone with which Marie renders her past sexual encounters. Implicit to her narrative structure is the belief that every thought she has is important and relevant.
But interest in Marie extends beyond this definitively youthful style. Despite coming into the public eye for exposing others, she maintains an aura of mystery—perhaps an indication that she is, in fact, in control of her own image.
Her early Thought Catalog pieces reference a troubled childhood growing up in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. She told The Observer she’s been using “LiveJournal and Tumblr [as] her diaries” since she was a teen. In this profile, she is introduced as a college student in Portland. In an early story, she writes she studied “art and design,” and moved to Chicago mid-way through college. On Facebook, she mentioned transferring between big state schools, but never mentioned which ones. As of two weeks ago, advance from Tyrant Books in hand, Marie said she was dropping out of college altogether.
And then there’s the business of the pseudonym. When I asked about her real name, Marie emailed me, saying, “everyone in real life has called me marie since i was nineteen. i think of myself as marie.”
A source close to Marie refused to share the information, offering only that a Google search of her real name elicits “almost nothing, not even a Facebook.”
I Am Lady, Will Lady Blog
“There is a certain mechanism by which people are turned into microfameballs, finding their lives forever altered,” writes Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan on Marie Calloway. Nolan goes on to compare Calloway to others propelled out of obscurity by “writing about oneself or oversharing online,” arguing that “in many cases, yes, they were practically begging to be exploited, though often they find that they hate this sort of fame.”
But exploitation cuts both ways. The spotlight is not given to anyone just because they offer details of their personal lives. These women capture our attention because they inhabit very American poles in the imagination: the “downtown disaster,” the pin-up girl next door, and the Internet girlfriend. That their lives are often cast as moralizing fables or, conversely, elevated to living manifestos, speaks only to their power as mythmakers. So, again, are they playing the game, or getting played?
In her post on Marie, Roxane Gay goes on to ask, “What stories do we, as writers, have the right to tell?” And then, in a not so subtle reiteration: “What are the limits of good taste?” Implicit in Gay’s interrogation is when a writer deserves her fame.
In other words, is she cheating by using herself as source material, especially if that material can be considered lurid?
Yet in an email, Jessica Coen, the current editor in chief of Jezebel, offers up a cool reality check. Coen explains that “the calloway story was ultimately about a girl with a blog, blogging about sex, and blogging about sex with someone who actually wasn’t famous—not even nyc media famous. what’s special there? nothing.”
The morality question represented by Gay’s analysis is rightly pushed aside in Coen’s summation. But how to explain the very real allure of Marie? Or her ability to capture a platform despite being the only writer in this piece who didn’t come of age interning in the media? She’s interesting precisely because she isn’t a ladyblogger—because she herself doesn’t exist in this “NYC media” world.
For Cat and Karley, this is less an exclusion from ladyblog land than a chosen departure. In Cat’s words, “I’m not some girly blogger that’s part of a sugar and spice and everything nice community, okay?”
Community or not, they still get page hits.
For an inside look at Karley Sciortino's apartment, check out an original Eye video tour: http://youtu.be/DxT82t2U9mk
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