11.11.09 11:08 PM ET
Catching Up With the Hipster Grifter
Her sensational Internet fame over, Kari Ferrell—now in a Utah jail for fraud and forgery—displays her reflective side in a wide-ranging chat with The Daily Beast about the realities of jail (food, masturbation, and the guards' nickname for her), how she will change when her sentence ends—and why Steve Jobs should send her a check.
Kari Ferrell, the 22-year-old Internet sensation, is serving out a six-month jail sentence plexiglass pod in Utah for mail fraud and forgery.
In April, Doree Shafrir wrote in The New York Observer about Ferrell’s felonious escapades in Brooklyn. In the story, she was christened “The Hipster Grifter,” because she preyed upon skinny-jeaned Williamsburg sorts. It chronicled Ferrell’s seduction of some eager boys in Brooklyn, whom she allegedly swindled out of money, her stint as a check forger in Utah, and her unsuccessful bamboozlement of her employers at Vice.
The story catapulted Ferrell into unlikely media infamy that has been kept at a steady pitch ever since. Just recently, in Manhattan dives and L.A. night clubs you could see dozens of girls dressed up like the Hipster Grifter for Halloween: The costume only required American Apparel leggings, and black top mop, and a sharpie to transpose Ferrell’s giant chest tattoo onto your sternum.
“Sleep is, at this point, a foreign concept.”
Ferrell has been in a snail-mail correspondence with Animal New York’s Bucky Turco. Throughout her writing, she’s reflected on her bizarre folk-hero fame (she credits it to her being “charming and smart”) and what cell life has been like with a tough-looking blonde named Jerzy. Willingly, perhaps, Ferrell has come off as flip, insincere, and too intentionally ironic. This of course is the self-prescribed social disposition of a hipster, an aloof—but meaningless—swagger.
Nevertheless, Ferrell is a young woman in a savage system and we felt the need to overcome the most tired trend of the year: hipster bashing. The aim here was to penetrate through that too-cool-for-school facade that she's embraced (or self-stylized?). While the jail population is by no means monolithic, Kari is clearly an outsider. The details of life in a system that is so alienating—particularly for a girl who is from a sunny and safe suburb—are compelling. Added bonus: She's famous. All those elements together are a pretty intriguing mixture.
The Daily Beast: What has been the most surprising part of prison?
Kari Ferrell: The most surprising part of jail (contrary to popular belief, I am in jail, not prison. Big difference) has to be the wide variety of people that come in. As with most of society, I assumed that the only people incarcerated were individuals who R Kelly’d little boys, and those who like freebasing crack cocaine out of human skulls. There have been girls in here for such things as unpaid parking tickets, driving without insurance, jay walking (seriously! And it was her only charge—spent four days in here) and giving a blowjob to her partner (by marriage) at a park. (Hello, who hasn’t done that?) Obviously there are those in here for more serious crimes, and that is unsurprising, but jay walking? Come on. Maybe it’s a Utah thing?
The Daily Beast: What is just like you imagined it to be? The food? The beds?
Ferrell: On the opposite side of the spectrum; the most unsurprising thing is that it’s exactly how I thought it would be: It’s the Orwellian nature of jail itself. We are housed in cells that resemble fish bowls, [with] large plexiglass windows, so that the guards are able to look in at any time; no privacy whatsoever. I also expected boredom to be exactly how it is: mind-numbingly unproductive. You can only work out, read, attempt to educate a cellmate on metaphysics, masturbate, and draw so much y’know?
Though they’re not as I expected, I’ll say the food and beds for you. The food is comprised of complex carbohydrates and starches. I try to eat only lunch—I found out that the breakfast and dinners have about 1,000 calories each. It’s like they want us to have to drag our bloated bodies out of here.
The beds are…well, let’s just say that sleeping in the mountains with an 18-year-old Spider-Man sleeping bag that you bought at Goodwill in a state of drunken decision-making is more comfortable than the Styrofoam mats and paper sheets we have here. Though I am advocate of animal rights, a down comforter sounds pretty fantastic right now.
The Daily Beast: Can you describe the colors inside the prison? From my own stint in jail, I remember that everything was painted a dull green. With the exception of the blue prison scrubs, the colors made everything more depressing.
Ferrell: As far as colors go: Dude, there has to be a group of psychologists who deemed pale yellow (and dull green) as the only acceptable hue for any institution—whether that be a hospital, jail, or retirement home. What is it with the pale fucking yellow? The rest of jail is gray. Gray floors, gray tables, gray rec yard, gray toilets, gray everything.
The Daily Beast: Do you have a cellmate? Tell us about them.
Ferrell: My former cellmate, Jerzy Mitchell, was phenomenal. We had the same interests (I highly doubt any other female in this jail listens to Felt and Chris Garneau), similar tastes and an affinity for men with facial hair. She was with me for three months, and when she left I felt like I lost a significant body part. Jerzy Mitchell is my runaway spleen. Shut up. That’s significant enough. My new cellmate is, uh, different. It’s hard to relate to a heroin-addicted prostitute who is offended when you ask, “So how much did you charge to gum their meat?” (In case you’re curious, the answer is $40.) When you’re locked down for 24 hours a day with someone (the pod I am in is a minimum/medium custody pod. Even though I am minimum, we are only out for three hours a day—alternating mornings and evenings—you have to get along.
The Daily Beast: Who do you take your lunches with?
Ferrell: We eat our lunch in our cell, so the answer would be my cellmate.
The Daily Beast: How do the guards treat you? How do they treat other inmates?
Ferrell: The guards treat me slightly different than the other girls; some ask me for autographs, some only refer to me as a “celebrity” or “New York,” some seem worried I am going to say something on national television, but must of them are just normal toward me, whatever that means. We do get terrible guards, sometimes ones who treat us like we’re animals, who tell us we’re no longer human and so to not expect any compassion, those who call us names and tell us we’re fuckups, etc.
The Daily Beast: Which part of the day do you most look forward to?
Ferrell: I look forward to the three hours out where I’m able to interact with people who aren’t my cellmate and call friends and family. I also look forward to the library (once every two weeks, and we only get six books). On weekdays I look most forward to the end of the night when they pass out mail. It’s like Christmas, and usually it’s a fat white man in a suit passing it out.
The Daily Beast: Are there moments when you are afraid? What makes you the most fearful?
Ferrell: There aren’t moments where I’m afraid of the other inmates. Most are here for drug-related charges, and most are nonviolent, though they sometimes talk a big game. What makes me most angry, however, is having everyone believe I stole hundreds of thousands, faked cancer, was a prostitute, have children (good God), screwed people in New York, etc. when I am actually here for a couple of bad decisions (see checks) I made while young and still living in Utah. If I really stole all of that money, why is my restitution less than $4,000, and the reason it's that high is due to having to pay for extradition. OK, maybe angry is the wrong adjective, perhaps frustrated is the right one.
The Daily Beast: Is it difficult to make friends?
Ferrell: I get along with most everyone. It’s not hard to talk to anyone, or Internet with them, but I wouldn’t consider many “friends.” I guess you could say that, yeah, it’s hard to make friends, just based upon the fact that I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. That may sound harsh, but honestly, jail is not the place to be forming life-long relationships. I was lucky with Jerzy, and a couple of others. But one is good for me.
The Daily Beast: How do you sleep? Are your dreams different now that you are in such a strange place?
Ferrell: Sleep is, at this point, a foreign concept. With the cacophony of pipes, keys, doors opening and closing, screaming inmates, etc. I can rarely stay asleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. My dreams have changed in the sense that the actual concept of them is pretty normal, just the way I view them has been altered. Before I was just dreaming of everyday things, now they are semblances of how it was, and what I miss. Also, it’s a strange phenomenon to dream about being arrested and waking up in the clink.
The Daily Beast: I found that I was very protective over a frail and jittery 19-year-old girl during the incarceration. Even to the point where I shared my bed with her for fear of her getting harassed by the inmates. Have you noticed this kind of pairing? Can you describe it?
Ferrell: There isn’t really a need to protect anyone, as there isn’t too much violence (in my pod, at least) around. Even if there were, we couldn’t be able to do anything about it, unfortunately. You can’t even hug here, if you do you will pick up a new charge. I can’t imagine what they’d do if they saw someone trying to comfort someone in a physical way. Of course people “pair” up, there are small cliques here, but not in the way described.
The Daily Beast: If you could have one thing sent to you in prison what would it be?
Ferrell: Ooo boy. Definitely my iPod and a way to charge it (Steve Jobs should pay me mass quantities of scrilla for that endorsement). I miss music more than anything. I am the “Hipster Grifter” after all, what do you expect? I commonly call people and convince them to play “Holland, 1945” over the phone. If we’re talking about things I can actually have here, probably books. The library selection here isn’t terrible, they just don’t have many "obscure" or contemporary authors. JPod by Douglas Coupland would be nice (HINT HINT).
The Daily Beast: What do you think will be different about you once you get out?
Ferrell: I will be much more humble. I will not take people or things for granted. I will, obviously, not partake in any illegal activities besides, y’know, (consuming organic produce). I will look at freedom and time in a whole new light. I hope to show people how truly sorry I am for the terrible mistakes I’ve made.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the Los Angeles corespondent for The Awl. Her book Mad Men: Unbuttoned will be released by Harper's studio in 2010.