In Catherine Cohen’s world, it can be glamorous to wear the same Lululemon leggings for five days in a row. It can be glamorous to meander across downtown Manhattan while streaming true-crime podcasts through an Apple Watch with a rhinestone band. Baths are glamorous, as is the idea of journaling. (“Not so much in practice.”) Likewise, there is intrinsic glamour to the idea of living in a cabin near the sea. The little bird lamp in Cohen’s living room is glamorous; really, anything with feathers. Cohen wants her apartment to feel like “a haunted library, but sexy and cozy,” the kind of place where someone might roast a chicken and throw a long, discursive dinner party. Even errands can be glamorous: “You can imagine someone looking at you and being like, ‘Look at that woman just like running her errands,’” Cohen tells me over a Zoom call in February. A woman running errands has her shit together. She has things to do. “It's like when you see someone holding a baguette, you're like, ‘What’s her story?’”
What, then, is Cohen’s story? “It's very woman-about-town who's seen it all, but wants to know more,” she says. Our call finds her on the couch at home in New York City, wearing sweatpants and costume jewelry, having just finished a conversation about freezing her eggs. “It's a very exciting morning,” she jokes.
The 30-year-old chanteuse’s first Netflix special The Twist?...She’s Gorgeous premieres March 15 and is the culmination of five years’ worth of comedy performances across New York, Los Angeles, and Edinburgh, where she performed the show for 26 nights in a row during the 2019 Fringe Festival. Though the pandemic pushed the special back over a year, Cohen says shooting it last September was all the more surreal because she “actually got to do it with a live audience, all tested, without masks,” at Joe’s Pub, her favorite venue in New York. “I was like, I've waited my whole life for this moment. And it was the best day of my life,” she says.
Cohen was born in New York City but grew up in Houston, Texas. Her childhood was “lovely, normal.” At an early age, she realized that she loved attention, so she did musical theater and played sports and wrote sketches and recorded music videos using a camcorder she got for Christmas one year. In a way, the special has allowed her to rediscover the playfulness of performance and experiment with her wardrobe. (In Cohen’s world, there is no such thing as too many jewels.) “I think it's about returning to that place where you just are excited to be alive. The world tries to rid you of that. But you have to reclaim it,” she says.
The Twist?...She’s Gorgeous finds humor in Cohen’s cringe-inducing adolescence. Her most well-known song, “Look at Me,” features the refrain “Boys never wanted to kiss me / so now I do comedy.” As a teenager, she remembers, “I was so crazy-looking, just uncomfortable in my body. I've always struggled with my weight, and liking myself.” Braces and frizzy hair didn’t help matters. “It's just so hard being a woman and being told you have to look a certain way,” she says. “I feel like I didn't even begin accepting myself until I was in my twenties.” (Even today, there are times where she believes she is “the most beautiful woman alive,” and others when she hates looking in the mirror. “I think it's about finding that balance and being able to laugh about it that helps me get through it,” she reflects.)
Despite bungled attempts at flirtation, sobbing in her dressing room, having “screaming fights” with her mother, and not finding any Abercrombie clothes that fit, the teenaged Cohen pictured herself a few years into the future, martini in hand, feather boa draped around her shoulders as she chatted up “interesting people” at some fabulous event in New York.
After college, she moved to New York City and lived in Brooklyn for five years, including at a Williamsburg apartment that was so close to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, she says, she “could literally touch the highway off-ramp.” Her New York years are marked by the venues where her friends performed, since many have opened and closed in the last decade. Cohen still acts, but started performing stand-up and writing her own material because she didn’t want to “sit around and audition and wait for someone to want me to be in something.” She has made good on that promise to herself: aside from her comedy work, she has published a book of poems with Knopf titled God I Feel Modern Tonight, co-hosts the podcast Seek Treatment with her best friend Pat Regan, and pens W magazine’s advice column, The Truth Lies in Jest.
Her writing has a stream-of-consciousness quality to it, and most pieces explore one of four recurring themes: “Body image. Love. Success. And then worrying about if I'm just gonna get hit by a bus or some shit.”
While writing the songs in her set—which evolved into The Twist?...She’s Gorgeous—she would bring voice memos and a notebook to composer and accompanist Henry Koperski’s apartment, and recite “weird, hilarious poems” while he riffed on the piano.
“I would try different styles and rhythms out, and soon, she would start singing on top of what I was playing,” Koperski says. “If we started laughing, we knew it was something to work with. And then we’d see how we could shape it.” Koperski has performed with Cohen since 2016, and played an integral role in launching a cabaret series at Club Cumming, the East Village bar co-owned by actor Alan Cumming. The pair had been performing at piano bars across the city when Koperski heard about Club Cumming’s opening, so he proposed a weekly show. “Working with her there was the most magical New York City experience you could ever want,” he says. “We would write songs, but onstage we would both really experiment and try new things. Catherine would improvise for sometimes 10 minutes on one song and just go off, but the audience would be completely rapt with attention, watching her kind of unravel to music.”
After every performance, Cohen stays late at Club Cumming, has a drink, and chats up the audience. “I meet so many interesting people,” she says, “like my best friend Pat, who I do my podcast with. He just makes me laugh in a way that no one else does. I feel so seen by that kind of connection, and I wouldn't have met him were it not for the comedy scene in New York.” She remembers what it was like when she was just starting out, boosted by her friends Patti Harrison and Mitra Jouhari, and often invites novice comics to take the stage. “It makes it a better show for one, but it's also just fun to see what younger people are doing now that I'm 30 and an old hag.”
Cat wears Dress and Belt by Michael Kors; Corset by Agent Provocateur; Shoes by Manolo Blahnik; Sunglasses by Yves Saint Laurent; Bracelet and Necklace by Mondo Mondo; Necklaces by Rebecca Price; Necklace and Earrings by Oscar De La Renta; Tights by Spanx.
During our interview, Cohen makes a point of shouting out the team who collaborated on her Netflix special, including the director Steve Brill, the “genius” who reached out after watching her YouTube videos, and her friend Kelsey Randall, who designed her costume and had 25,000 rhinestones hand-embroidered onto a romper. Her manager Cait Taylor has been with her since her first solo show at the Duplex. “I definitely remember every single person who put me on a show when I was just starting, or who helped me out,” she says. “It goes such a long way.”
Despite the facetiousness of her writing, she says, “I'm bad at irony or being cool or being sarcastic. It doesn't really interest me.” What does interest her? “Being raw and disgusting and embarrassing.” (An example: making a specific, unprintable sex joke while her parents were sitting in the audience…next to her boyfriend.) “I just try to be as honest as possible,” Cohen says, because she wants the audience to feel seen. In making a weird, gross joke, she believes, “I'm not crazy for thinking this. You're not crazy in the audience for feeling the exact same way.”
Lately, while reading submissions for her advice column in this magazine, Cohen has noticed an uptick in questions about mid-pandemic re-entry, focusing on topics such as meeting people in real life, loving your post-quarantine body, and realizing that your personality might be different than it was two years ago. “I feel like we're all figuring out how much reality we can handle,” she says.
Levity has never been more relevant. “I just want people to enjoy their lives and be nice to each other and celebrate what good there is in the world for a second,” she adds. “Because why not? It's been hard enough.”
Makeup by Allie Smith; Hair by Junya Nakashima.