catherine mcneil, fashion's favourite comeback kid

At the height of her fame, Catherine McNeil dropped off the fashion map, but now she's back fronting newsagent windows, bagging campaigns for D&G and teaching us Australian in our latest episode of Model Mother Tongue.

by i-D Staff and Felicity Kinsella
27 May 2014, 6:05pm

Photography Collier Schorr. Styling Michelle Cameron. Catherine wears jumper Céline.

Watch Model Mother Tongue: Catherine McNeil.

It took a good couple of weeks to pin down the elusive Catherine McNeil. If we hadn't spotted her lining the magazine stands in the local newsagents we might have begun to think she'd gone AWOL again. In 2009, at the height of her fame, when hers was the name on everyone's lips, Catherine was a no-show on the runways, possibly sparking exactly the type of controversy she'd left the fashion world to escape in the first place. Just as quickly as she had risen, booking campaigns for Jean Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton and Versace, walking for Dior, Chanel and Givenchy, and dating some of the hottest girls in the industry, she disappeared. But now Cat's back walking and the fashion world has fallen in love with her all over again.

When I was 14, I applied for a motorbike mechanic apprenticeship, but the guy just looked at me and said, 'You don't look like the mechanic type,' and sent me away.

It's 8am when we call her in her New York apartment, but she doesn't mind, she's already awake. Today is her first day off in weeks and she's going to have a quiet one: "At the moment I'm re-organising my closet! Then I'll go to the gym and walk my dogs, that's what my days off are like." She's softly-spoken with a sweet Australian accent, not entirely what you'd expect to hear after seeing her super fierce stride and tomboyish street style. She used to want to be a motorcycle mechanic, applying for an apprenticeship at the age of 14, "The guy just looked at me and said, 'You don't look like the mechanic type,' and sent me away. So that never really happened," she laughs.

Catherine won Australia's Girlfriend model search at the age of 13, and was flown to New York as part of her prize. But because she was so young she had to return to Brisbane to see out her school years. When the mechanic career path was stopped in its tracks, she waited until she was 17 before returning to the Big Apple to take her place on the list of most talked-about models. She hung out with and posed alongside fellow tattooed babes Abbey Lee Kershaw and Freja Beha Erichsen, the latter of whom she was romantically linked to for over a year, with photos of the two beauties (wearing all black everything) popping up all over the fashion forums.

I need to stop getting tattoos. My agency is not happy. One of my best friends did the 'MEOW' on my hand, so I gave him a 'MEOW' too.

Catherine was "a bit of a nerd, a tall lanky kid" at school, but still prone to that rebellious phase every teen has to go through before they come to terms with themselves. "I was a little shit to my mum!" she confesses. "I didn't want to go to school, so I feel a bit sorry for her, and I'm apologising for it now." It was around this time that she also got her first tattoo. Which one was it? "I actually can't remember, it was either the '13' on my wrist, or the star behind my ear. I got one the day before I turned 18 just to see if I could, and the other one the day after, when I was 18." No one knows exactly how many tattoos Cat's got, she likes to keep that to herself, but the ones we can see include 'The day that I die will be by far the most beautiful day I ever lived' rolling over her ribs, a cobweb in her ear and a broken heart on the palm of her left hand. "I should stop! My agency's not happy, but if I get them in places you can't see then it's fine. One of my best friends did the 'MEOW' on my hand, so I gave him a 'MEOW' too."

So what else did she do in her two-year hiatus from modelling? "I was in London for two years. I love London, it's a great place! I lived in Islington, so I hung out around there a lot. I used to just hang around in my house or the park or Bermondsey!
I just needed a break, I'd been working for a long time and I wanted to do absolutely nothing, have a break from fashion and have some time to myself, which I think is important." Having worked from the age of 13, we don't blame her for wanting to let her hair down, although the fashion world was clearly missing her more than she was missing it. The autumn/winter 13 shows saw a meteoric return for Catherine as she strode out from the wings of every runway from New York to Paris and Marc Jacobs to Saint Laurent, bagged a Prada campaign alongside former flame Freja, and looked slicker than ever with a new cropped mop, making sure everyone knows that Catherine McNeil IS BACK. "I got a bit bored and just needed some mental stimulation. I missed the people I was working with, so I thought I'd keep it going and see if they'd have me back. It turned out alright and I'm having fun again. I'll stay around for a while as long as you'll have me! For now I'm just enjoying it, going along for the ride. I think if you go away for too long, people won't forget you but there are always people who want it more and work hard for it." But fashion is frivolous and in the two years that she didn't pick up a single fashion magazine a few things changed: "Designers had moved houses and a lot of the girls that I started with were married and having babies and weren't there anymore, but it's still fun," and she's always got her new backstage BFFs, Suvi Koponen, Bette Franke, Julia Nobis and Eliza Cummings by her side.

Catherine has a grown-up beauty - modest and mysterious. She gives us the clues to her life, loves and tattoos, but never gives too much away, preferring to let us speculate. We can't get enough of Catherine, but for now we'll let her get on with cleaning out her closet.



Text Felicity Kinsella
Photography Collier Schorr 
Styling Michelle Cameron
Hair Holli Smith at Total Management
Make-up Lisa Houghton at Tim Howard Management
Photography assistance PJ Spaniol, Siggy Erik
Styling assistance Michael Beshara, Jessica Zamora-Turner
Digital technician Benedict Brink
Production Katie Bell Moore
Retouching by David Moran
Model Catherine McNeil at The Society Management

Collier Schorr
Michelle Cameron
fashion interviews
felicity kinsella
catherine mcneil