Welcome to the messy clean world of Jolie Kerr: Cleaning has never been so funny or filthy

Amid a plague of influencer parasites who claim to be cleaning experts, Jolie Kerr is the legit "Clean Person"

By David Obuchowski

Published August 4, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)


Jolie Kerr and I sat down at a small table at a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was eager to get a cold beer in me, as it had been a disgustingly hot walk in the dead of summer, when New York is at its muggiest. I’d just been a guest on her wildly popular podcast, "Ask a Clean Person," where she had me — a writer of automotive-adjacent essays and creator of the podcast called "Tempest" — provide insights about car-related problems and messes. 

I’d never met Kerr before, though I was familiar with her work, which is funny, smart, effective and profane. She’s one of the reigning queens of clean, and she has a New York Times bestseller called “My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag ... and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha,” a wildly popular podcast and a slew of columns for publications like Esquire, Deadspin, the New York Times and others. During that 15-minute walk from the studio to the bar, she leaped seamlessly between the subjects of booze and depression and sex and media and protein-based stains. I decided I needed to profile her and she agreed on the spot. 

But as soon as we sat down at the bar, it was impossible to talk. A woman seated nearby was wailing and sobbing.

I lived in New York for almost 10 years, and I grew up right just outside the city in New Jersey. There’s only one acceptable way of dealing with situations like this: You pretend nothing is happening.

But Kerr recognized this person, as it turned out. Before I knew it, she’d invited the crying lady to our table, and was coaxing the story out of her: She was two months late on rent, in debt to her parents, and had just bombed a important job interview that she so desperately needed to nail.

Kerr got her a few $20 bills from the ATM, telling her it was for food for a few days. She paid the woman's bar tab in advance. Then she said, “You happen to be sitting at a table with two professional writers, so let’s write you a follow-up letter to the person you just interviewed with.”

Fifteen minutes later, the woman was smiling, thanking us and feeling better about her prospects. We got on with our evening, but first I asked Kerr why she had done what she had done. 

She knew the woman worked at a nearby restaurant and she'd met her before. They had even taken an Instagram photo together. But that wasn't the important part. It was a problem that needed to be solved.

*  *  *

Another day, another interview with Jolie Kerr. We’re at another bar in quite a different setting: a Cheesecake Factory in Glendale, California. It’s barely noon. Kerr’s working on a Chardonnay on the rocks. I ordered a Mai Tai because I figured it was an appropriate drink for such a ridiculous place. 

Kerr is also appropriate to this environment, in a strange way. She's colorful — not just metaphorically, but literally. Her hair is blonde with streaks of pink, and her makeup is electric. 

Her writing is more popular and higher-profile than ever, her following on social media never bigger. Her agent can’t wait for her next book proposal. It would seem things are going well for her. And they are.

“I’m a wreck,” she says.

The person who makes a living teaching people how to clean anything and organize everything, and who comes to the rescue of all her friends and acquaintances takes another sip of her wine, the glass sweating as the ice melts. “I’m a wreck,” she says again.

Kerr is at the vanguard of a new wave of experts and advice-givers who approach cleanliness with more than encyclopedic book-based knowledge. These professionals come to it with experience. Along with guidance on how to make a bed, clean weird stains from your sheets and  deal with smelly upholstery, there’s a real and stark admission that life, if nothing else, is a complete and total mess.

*  *  *

Jolie Kerr wakes up on a Sunday morning. She navigates to her inbox. There’s an email from someone with the subject line “Cat Diarrhea on Silk Carpet.” There’s another one titled “Menstrual cup Qs.” In other words, it’s a typical Sunday — or really any day of the week. 

These are the queries she gets. In fact, the messes get so, well, messy that it can occasionally be a problem for the publications she writes for. Tim Herrera, her editor at the New York Times, says, “I will admit, there are rare occasions when I have to tone it down a little. But those occasions are never not hilarious and ridiculous.”

Like the column she wrote about dog messes. “She still gives me shit about cutting the phrase ‘released her anal glands,’” Herrera tells me.

That particular description may have been a little too vivid for the Gray Lady, but whatever the venue, Kerr doesn't hold back. She has written or discussed how to get all sorts of alien substances out of clothes: deodorant, urine, vomit, lube. On her podcast, nothing is off-limits. Sex of all varieties is a frequent topic, for instance. She did an entire episode about how people wipe their butts.

“I'm the Clean Person who knows how to get mascara off my pillowcases because I've smeared mascara all over my pillowcases while facedown getting drilled by whoever I'm fucking at the moment and I'm gonna tell people that's why I know how to get mascara off the pillowcases!” she wrote me in an email.

Does this put Kerr into some fringe or niche category? It does not. One key to her success is that her appeal is universal. We all use the bathroom. We all eat messy food occasionally. We all get sweaty. Most of us have sex, with unpredictable consequences. 

As Tim Herrera of the Times puts it, Kerr "takes a topic that a lot of people think of as one of the more mundane necessities of life, and she gets people actually excited about it.”

Meredith Haggerty, Jolie's editor at Racked, says "I think cleaning is sometimes thought of as a niche topic, which is ... wild? Cleaning really is about the most universal topics: human mess, the consequences of owning or using things, the ravages of time. An actually-niche thing is people who never have to clean up after themselves."

*  *  *

Messiness is a general term. For some people, it might refer to the papers strewn on a desk or the shadow of a stain where olive oil once soaked into a T-shirt. For others, it might mean blazing self-confidence, which is then followed by a weeks-long sheltering from friends and social media because life suddenly feels so brutal.

Kerr is definitely not the type to walk around with olive oil stains on her shirt. Her childhood friends indicate she’s always been well-kept and orderly. At first, her career followed a similarly neat and upward trajectory. Jolie pulls on her Chardonnay and explains that she once pulled down a lucrative salary as the content manager at a white-shoe law firm. 

“It wasn’t Jolie doing the job," she puts it now. "It was just some person who was qualified to do the work.” Kerr started writing her "Ask a Clean Person" column in 2011 (first appearing in The Hairpin), when she was 34, while still working full-time at the firm. Even when she got a book deal the following year, she only dialed down the job to part-time — and actually went back to full-time legal marketing in 2014. This is a woman who can multitask. 

She describes the genesis of her column as a desire to help other people, without offering the kind of unsolicited advice that drives people away. “I felt like the only way I can make sense of it in my mind," she tells me, "is to make it an advice column where people are actually asking me for the help, rather than me barging into someone’s life and being, like, ‘You need help!’’”

This was an important revelation. “By that point, I had realized that I mean well but people don’t always want your help," Kerr says. "It’s not always a good quality to just offer to help people. It could come across as condescending, it can come across as judgmental, it can be just fuckin’ annoying. When I was starting 'Ask a Clean Person,' I didn’t want to be any of those things.” 

Kerr calls herself a "Clean Person," but her friends call her “a fixer.” She accepts that title, too, telling me she has “a need to be a fixer.” She can fix it when you've spilled  an entire takeout container of curry on the passenger seat of your new car. Or when you’ve slept over at you girlfriend’s parents’ house and woken up from a drunken sleep to discover that the mattress is soaked with ... well, you figure it out. Or if you've discovered, as the bachelor party is winding down at 2 o'clock in the morning, that the furniture in the Airbnb you rented is now covered in spray tan that was formerly on the bodies of the strippers you hired.

These things seem funny, but they’re real messes, which are real problems with real consequences. Jolie Kerr has real solutions.

That’s why her friends know her as Mrs. Wolfe — a borderline-troubling reference to Harvey Keitel’s character in "Pulp Fiction," Winston Wolfe, the ultimate fixer.

*  *  *

So who fixes the fixer? I wonder if Kerr has created her own occupational hazard. Her entire career and identity has become Jolie Kerr, professional fixer and Clean Person. But life, as we know, is messy. Including her own. She doesn’t pretend otherwise.

On Sept. 9, 2017, Kerr wrote on Twitter, “Anxiety has left me sleep-deprived for months and all of a sudden, I can feel a 3 [year-old]-style fatigue meltdown coming on for no reason hoo boy.”

In August 2018, she tweeted about her workout achievements, noting she managed to get through her routine “despite the trifecta of a crushing hangover, crushing depression and crushing anxiety.” A week later, she posted a screenshot of the music she was listening to, saying “Extreme Anxiety requires Extreme Measures …” 

These were not exaggerations for humorous effect. Over the years, followers of Jolie will notice that she goes dark on Twitter from time to time. They’ll notice that she references a difficult breakup in 2018. They’ll notice that she occasionally mentions a marriage, as well as a divorce.

But it’s difficult, even for her closest friends, to get her to open up about these episodes. “She’ll isolate during her depressive phases or when things aren’t going well,”  her friend Phil Daniels explains.

Kerr says that she knows she can call her friends when she's down. “But I don’t want to. When I’m down, I don’t want to. I don’t want to talk, because I have nothing good to say. I have nothing helpful to offer. I’m no fun.”

She won’t talk on the record about her ex-husband, or what went wrong that led to a clearly painful divorce. She won’t discuss why the Cleancast once had a co-host, and no longer does. For one thing, it’s not helpful. But there’s another reason. 

"I’m happy to tell almost anything about me," Kerr says. "But I don’t talk about things that involve other people where it’s not fully my story to tell. To talk about it would mean telling someone else’s story for them. I have to recognize that if I talk about something that involves somebody else who’s a private person, I’m dragging their lives into the public and that may not be fair."

Does this apply equally to friends and enemies, I ask her?

"Yes," she answers, quickly and firmly. So even in her most depressed and angry moments, Kerr does something that’s difficult for her.

She stays silent.

*  *  *

Jolie Kerr is thriving at a time when an entire movement is pivoting to a philosophy that's almost the polar opposite of hers. It’s happening right on your phone: social media influencers, and the people who want to be them.

You’ve seen them in your Facebook and Instagram feeds — maybe selling something, or maybe just showing off. There are a lot of selfies from odd, high angles, the image tortured by high contrast, blown-out lighting and one of a myriad filters. 

Perfect skin. Spotless homes. Happiness. They have it figured out, it would appear. All you have to do is buy the product. Or sell the product. Or, really, be the product. 

Those people are "selling a fantasy,” Jolie says. ”I'm not interested in doing that.” 

Life is messy. Life is stressful. Difficult. Depressing. We get old. We age. Ultimately, we will die. But until then, our bodies, our clothing and our habitats will keep getting dirty. We have to get off our asses and clean up the mess. Constantly, and over and over. That's the reality Jolie Kerr confronts.


David Obuchowski

David Obuchowski is an essayist whose work has appeared in The Awl, Jalopnik, SYFY, Gawker, Longreads, Deadspin, The Daily Beast, and others. He is the host, writer, producer of the podcast, TEMPEST.

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