Heavily tattooed and unafraid to buck the rules, Catherine McNeil is a force of nature in front of the lense and on the runway. She has a career at the top of the industry, has been photographer Mario Testino’s muse, and graced the covers of Vogues and V’s, Catherine is a pillar of the contemporary fashion world.
Success hasn’t dampened her passion for the rebellious lifestyle. We caught up with her in her Brooklyn apartment which she shares with her beagle, Harvey, and got her word on growing up in the bush, dreams of being a motorcycle mechanic, and her no bs commitment to making beautiful photographs.
Hey Cat, hey Harvey. What qualities do you love in dogs?
The fact you can leave the house mad at them, but you come back and they love you no matter what. It’s unconditional.
What about men?
I guess just the fact that they are so low maintenance. Guys can just have a laugh and not give a shit. I have a lot of guy friends but I don’t really date any guys. My favorite thing is to go out with the boys.
They are sensitive and emotional and know where you are coming from, but at the same time batshit crazy. I still don’t get women and I’m a woman. It’s just different. There’s a sensitive, softer side that men don’t have.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from a small town near the Gold Coast called Logan. In the sticks. I thought I was coming to New York for a short trip, and 8 years later I’m still here.
How was growing up in the sticks?
You would go play in the bush with your friends and just sit in a mud pile. Me personally? I miss it. I went home recently and was like ‘this is great.’
Did growing up in the bush prepare you at all for the urban jungle of New York?
I don’t think anything will prepare you for that. It’s completely different. Even fashion in Australia and fashion here are on different levels. Not in a bad way. Just different. Growing up in such a laid back environment and not giving a shit about anything kind of helps you stay down to earth, whereas other girls are not like that.
Does that always go over well?
When my mum and grandma went to meet Mario Testino I was like “Who the fuck is that?” The first time we met him, he was shooting Demi Moore at The Ritz. I had no idea who any of these people were. And he was like “I am going to book you on this job, just stay,” and I was like “no you need to ask my booker,” and he just burst out laughing and was like, “I think it’s going to be OK.”
So I won’t ask you whether you had your sights set on modeling from a young age.
I wanted to be a vet, then I wanted to be a forensic pathologist and then I wanted to be a motorbike mechanic. Obviously all of those things never happened.
You could totally pull off a motorcycle mechanic..
Being in a car gives me anxiety. Put me on the back of a bike and I’m the happiest person in the world. I grew up with boys who were motocross riders. My friend broke her femur on a little 90cc when she was nine.
That’s the freedom of growing up in Australia. Mum and Dad bought me a motorbike when I was 11 and an air rifle when I was about 12. They would tell me just go out the back of the farm and take your gun and motorbike for a few hours. Be back for dinner. What about your fears? Any major ones?
One of the biggest fears is that I am going to fail on my job, that’s why I’m so hard on myself. Obviously there’s insecurities that come with this job. People looking at you judging you all the time. But basically in my head I just want to do the best I can.
But you escaped the scene for a few years didn’t you?
It got to a point where I was working so much and shit would come out that I didn’t even remember shooting. I took two years off and didn’t touch a fashion magazine and cut all my hair off. I was kind of doing my teenage years in those two. I lived in London and did nothing. It was great.
Taking a break to make sure the work didn’t suffer seems like a testament to your work ethic.
Do you play hard?
Do you consider yourself rebellious?
So, the tattoos. Tell us about them.
I really like the art of tattooing. It tells a story. I’d never get any removed because it’s a part of who I am.
When did you get the first one?
The day before I turned 18 I think I got the star behind my ear. The next day I got my sister’s birthday and it kind of went downhill from there. I don’t know how many I’ve got now.
Thanks for the talk, Cat. Any words of wisdom for the kids out there?
You just gotta run with it and it will all work out. You have to laugh at yourself. You’ll go insane otherwise.