At age 13, Catherine McNeal began her modeling career and by the age of 17 she had skyrocketed into supermodel status. Now 26, the Australian beauty has graced the covers and pages of the business’s best magazines, including Vogue, W, and Harper’s Bazaar, and continuously works with top labels like Givenchy, Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel. But having so much fame at such a young age takes its toll, as high fashion modeling is not always what it seems. Like many models, Cat was forced to grow up faster than normal, navigating her way through an adult world from a child’s perspective. On two occasions she stepped away from the fashion industry entirely because otherwise it would’ve broken her completely. Rejection, as she now knows, is a hard pill to swallow and it’s the one the industry most frequently prescribes. When it comes to balancing this rigor with a healthy personal life, she says “I am still learning. It’s getting better with age, but I think that’s true for most things: knowledge comes with experience.” When she went on her most recent hiatus four years ago, the model lived alone in London, where she experienced a new emotion: severe loneliness. “Sometimes, I like a few hours here and there to be alone, but for the most part I like to have people around,” she explains. Having grown up with many animals, Cat adopted a beagle named Harvey in London, which provided a way to reconnect with fond childhood memories and cope with being alone. Harvey even helped Cat find that balance, including discipline and routine, which was previously missing in her life and career. With her dog by her side, she became involved with the charity Beagle Freedom Project as soon as she discovered it. Recently, the BASTARD fanzine caught up with the model in New York, where she now lives, to learn more about her history, her involvement in the Beagle Freedom Project, and who saved whom in this tale of love.
Written by The BASTARD Child
You entered the business through a modeling contest. Was modeling something you thought you would just try or had it always been a dream?
I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but I thought I would go and give it a try. If you look at pictures of me at that age I look the same as I do now. I was super tall, lanky, and kind of weird. No one wanted to play catch and kiss [a playground game] with me. (laughs) I remember all the kids used to laugh at me when I told them that I wanted to be a model. I went to the agency and tried to blend into the wall, but here I am…
“In the beginning I really had no idea what the hell was going on.”
In 2006 you were under an exclusive six-month contract with famed photographer Mario Testino. That opportunity introduced you to high fashion. What was that experience like? What did you learn working so closely with Testino?
In the beginning I really had no idea what the hell was going on. I kind of got whisked to places and met a lot of people. I didn’t know where I was or any of the people I was with, but in a way, they were like family for me since my grandma had left. Mario taught me so much that it is almost too hard to explain. He taught me how to feel comfortable with myself, how to feel sexy and to have confidence in myself. I was scared at that age. I was 17.
You mentioned your grandmother. Did she play a big role in your life?
Yeah she is the most amazing woman in the entire world. She has always been there and helped me whenever I needed things. She travelled with me early in my career. As a child, she showed me how to nurse animals when they were sick. Her and my mom raised me together. My mom was very young when she had me and they were very close, the whole family is very close. My grandmother and my grandfather have had a big part in my life.
“Knowing when to say no when you are tired is important.”
What are some of the personal struggles you’ve endured and how did you or are you working to overcome them?
Finding myself as a person. That’s hard, because at that young age when I started modeling, I think it is important to be around family and friends and school. So when you are put into this industry, the only people that are supposed to take care of you is your agency. Knowing when to say no when you are tired is important.
Why step completely away from the industry and not just take a few days off?
I didn’t want to know anything about it because, for a while, you get so engrossed in that lifestyle—you live and breath it, you get so upset if something doesn’t happen or you don’t book a show or a job—and you can’t put that much time into it because it will destroy you. You have to learn to step away.
What is it like to live your life on option?
I was talking about this the other day with a friend. You will have slow seasons and you will have amazing seasons. It’s having something to do in your free time that you need to know, but you live life on option, so sometimes you make plans and you can’t do them. Its difficult, but you have to learn to deal with it as well.
“In the past, I let rejection bring me down so hard that I would sit and cry alone in a room.”
There is a lot of rejection in this industry. How do you deal with that?
Being able to deal with rejection comes with time. In the past, I let rejection bring me down so hard that I would sit and cry alone in a room. I had to realize that at the end of the day, it’s not up to me. There can be millions of different reasons why I didn’t confirm the job. You just have to be grateful for the things that you do get and look at the jobs you don’t book as being able to have a few more hours of sleep.
Your rise to fame happened just as social media was being integrated into culture. Now with social media giving individuals a platform and voice that connects directly to their fan base how important do you feel it is to use it in a positive way?
I think it is very important because people can use it to promote themselves and causes they believe in. They can also use it for bad. So I think if you can put something out there that you believe in and those people are going to listen, then that is important.
In maintaining separation between your public and personal lives, how do you deal with the media when they try to exploit the personal side?
That is something I got in trouble for a few times because I did not realize there are a lot of people viewing my life. I have posted things that have been taken in the wrong context. Sometimes you have to give into it. It’s your job.
How do you think you’ve managed to maintain your status as an in-demand model in an industry that cycles through models faster than a dog can chase a cat up a tree?
To be honest, I have no idea. I don’t know how half these people’s heads work. I’ve been hired to do a job. I go to work and do the job. I do it well, and people want to work with you again. I don’t complain unless it’s absolutely necessary, maybe that has something to do with it. I’ve been with a few different management teams and I can’t fault any of them. They have all been so amazing and instrumental in my career. The people that are behind me now are incredible and have helped me get projects like this.
You are known to have a number of tattoos. What do your tattoos symbolize?
They all have different meanings, and there are a lot of them. Some of them are from different places around the world, some of them I don’t even remember. I have them in some of the most painful spots, and I guess I kind of like the pain. I always get tattooed when I feel a bit shitty. I think a lot of it has to do with so many people in this industry telling you that you have to look like this and do this, that you can’t dye your hair that color, and you cant eat that. For me it was a rebellion against that, being like, “You know what? It’s my body.”
Do you have any that you regret?
I don’t have any that I regret and that’s funny because the one on my back says “never look back.” I woke up and didn’t remember that I got it, but I couldn’t be mad at it because of what it said.
“You just have to be yourself.”
What words of advice would you give to a young girl who wants to pursue a career as a model?
If it is something you want to do you should go and try to do it, but realize that the majority of the decisions in this industry are not up to you. You just have to be yourself. If you really want to do it, just keep trying. Who or what inspires you most in life? There are a few things but mainly people that can find complete balance in their life inspire me. My grandma is also a very inspiring woman, with all the crap she has been through and the stories she tells me. Let’s talk about your love.
What was your reason for getting a dog and how long have you had Harvey?
I was alone and I wanted a little someone. We always had animals when I was growing up. I remember, like, five cats, 19 chickens, a dog, a horse—we even had some birds. I enjoy having Harvey around. It’s nice coming home to this presence that is always happy to see you. You can leave the house angry and it’s still happy to see you when you get back. I love cats as well, but for me I have more of a connection with a dog. I got him in London and I flew him here to New York so he has an English passport. (laughs)
In what ways has Harvey benefited your well-being?
Once you have to take care of a dog, you are not going to go out as late because you have to go home and feed the dog. Even in the morning when you don’t want to get out of bed you have too get up to walk the dog. He has been good for routine in my life and I feel like I am not by myself when I am with him.
“It was horrible. I knew then that I wanted to do anything I could to get involved.”
Why is the Beagle Freedom Project so important to you?
About two years ago, I came across a post from a friend of mine on Facebook about the Beagle Freedom Project. Immediately I was interested, so I clicked on it. I actually cried when I watched a few of the videos. It was horrible. I knew then that I wanted to do anything I could to get involved. The Beagle Freedom Project rescues beagles and other animals from labs after the labs have done testing on them. They then foster them to homes and put them in better places. They do trips to rescue animals from labs in other countries too, and it takes money for them to be able to rescue, shelter, and of course feed the animals. It’s an amazing project so I speak about it in order to raise awareness on animal testing, especially the beagles, and also raise money to help them continue. There is also an app you can download called Cruelty Cutter that allows you to scan products in supermarkets that will tell you if it’s been tested on animals. Having a beagle myself, I can see that they are so trusting of humans and more docile than a lot of dog breeds. I think that’s why labs use them so much.
What lies ahead for you?
So many people have been asking me this lately. I’ve never had time to pursue other passions because I’ve been working the majority of my childhood. Right now I am doing something that I really like to do so hopefully I can continue modeling for a long time. I don’t know anything else. (laughs) I would love to house a million beagles.
Supermodel, Catherine McNeil is Being Accomplished at Selfless Tasks And Righteous Deeds by donating the proceeds from the sale of her fanzine to the Beagle Freedom Project, which rescues beagles and other animals from labs after the labs have done testing on them. “It’s a shame that humans have to use any animals to do these tests but at the moment there is no real alternative. I think it’s going to be quite hard and take a long time for them to stop testing on animals. It’s great to have the support of the fashion community, especially with BASTARD fanzine launching this project, to help me raise money by donating the proceeds to the Beagle Freedom Project.”