Discover more from mixed feelings
celebrity memoirs create the perfect "redemption arc"
and despite knowing they're manufactured, I love them
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. In today’s strong feelings, writer Caelan McMichael goes behind-the-scenes on the celebrity memoir.
“I’m the artist in the role of a lifetime playing Me,” Julia Fox writes in the final pages of her new memoir, Down The Drain. As an actress known best for her brief, media-frenzied romance with Kanye West, Fox reclaims her story to highlight that there’s more to her than the media has portrayed. As it turns out, her unfiltered recollection of thrills and near-death experiences spanning her 33 years proves that this romance was actually one of the least interesting things about her.
Occupying long stints on bestseller lists, the celebrity memoir has not only become a rite-of-passage, it’s become a calculated opportunity for a rebrand. Buzzwords like “tell-all,” “in their words,” “highly-anticipated,” and “like you’ve never seen them before” are catchphrases that hook readers hoping for humanization — and a deepening of their parasocial relationship. Just look at the recent fervor surrounding Britney’s The Woman in Me.
The humanization of our idols is a brilliant tactic in publishing. The medium reveals a side of the subject that is calculatedly manufactured for readers' enjoyment while also facilitating the betterment of the celebrity’s public image. In other words, these memoirs are a lucrative way to exploit our relationships (and lack thereof) with idols. But despite knowing how it works on the backend, I still read them all.
The heightened popularity of the celebrity memoir drove Claire Parker and Ashley Hamilton, the Brooklyn-based duo behind the Celebrity Memoir Book Club, to launch their podcast in 2020, during which they promised to “read celebrity memoirs so you don’t have to.”
“We first came up with the idea for the podcast when Jessica Simpson’s memoir Open Book came out, followed by the release of The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” Parker says. “We noticed this change in the air. Celebrities, especially women, who were maligned and degraded by the media in the early 2000s were allowed to tell their story from the other side, having survived it.”
Women in the ‘90s and early ‘00s were victims of tabloids, paparazzi, and all other forms of biased media. “The memoir is a long-form way for celebrities to clean the slate and start again as the controller of their narrative,” Parker and Hamilton say. Paris Hilton’s new memoir Paris feeds into this idea, claiming that the industry had told her story for the past two decades. Now, it’s her turn to “get real and tell her truth.”
It’s like a second era of life where celebrities can shed their constructed personas while engineering new ones. “With memoirs, we see that celebrities popularized in their teen years or early 20s are given another chance,” Parker says. Functioning as a form of strategic communication, a well-crafted memoir can kickstart a new phase of life, says TikTok’s PR expert Molly McPherson. “While celebrities may have been typecast or boxed into a particular persona, a memoir allows them to share the complexities and dimensions of their career and personalities that weren't previously visible to the public eye. It offers social capital to exist in ways that may have been previously inaccessible or unthinkable,” McPherson says.
But, with book sales dwindling and social media offering a direct-to-consumer method of communicating one's "truth" with their fans, why the uptick? Well, it’s a big paycheck for one. Prince Harry was allegedly offered $20 million for a multi-book deal — the first of which, Spare, set a Guinness World Record as the fastest selling non-fiction book ever.
So it’s no wonder celebrities flock to the page in droves. The memoir — in contrast to the ephemerality of social media — lives en permanence. What's elaborated on in print will endure longer than any caption or Tweet ever could. (Or, so many of them of them hope.)
To harness a celebrity’s story, ghostwriters are often brought in. Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Prince Harry’s Spare and Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life are all built on the backs of ghostwriters. “The ghostwriter will help midwife your story. The book's authenticity comes from how much you’re willing to be vulnerable; it’s almost like therapy. They can’t get out of you what you're unwilling to give,” Parker and Hamilton share. Which is perhaps why the more hollow memoirs ring so… hollow.
Ghostwriter, who has written for celebrities, comedians, entrepreneurs and reality stars, reveals that most people with stories to tell aren’t storytellers themselves. “When people hire a ghostwriter, they hire a collaborator, impersonator, and a listening ear,” she says. “Celebrities have described it as therapeutic since retelling your story and having a writer find patterns and ask questions can help you better understand your life.”
But what makes people — like me — love these memoirs so much? Grischow believes memoirs feed our intrinsic desire to feel connected and acquainted with the people we idolize. “We like feeling as though we’re accessing something that’s behind the scenes or exclusive. Since they’re written in first person, celebrity memoirs let the reader feel like their favorite actor, athlete, or bachelor runner-up is speaking directly to them,” says Grischow.
Humanizing the ideas of people we have in our heads has an alluring pull. This “connection” can feed or starve fans, especially when gossip is intellectualized through the vessel of a novel. At its core, a memoir's engine illuminates the dark shadows of pop culture that are not so easily forgotten or swept under the rug. The whirlwind of secrets, Hollywood, vulnerability, and mistakes can be an intoxicating cocktail to digest and, when poured from a pedestalized subject, can feel euphoric. I see these books for what they are, and yet I still can’t get enough of them.