The Trashy, Uncomplicated Beauty of the Celebrity Memoir

Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)

I once thought of, “Shut the fuck up,” as one of the nastiest things one could say to another person; now I say it to myself regularly. This is progress: I have spent so long building myself in my head, only to realize that there is great happiness and calm in quieting the near-constant internal narration that accompanies my every action and inaction. Science agrees: The brain’s default mode network system is thought to be responsible for your inner monologue; an overactive DMN has been linked to depression and anxiety, and too much chattering inside can mean rumination, self-critique, and/or an inflated ego.

There are many ways in which we can attempt to untether the self from ourselves. Meditation and psychedelic drug therapy are two. During this pandemic, I believe I’ve stumbled upon another: Listening to celebrity memoirs on audiobook.

This year, it’s been therapeutic to put myself on hold and inject Elton John’s thoughts on voyeurism directly into my head, effectively watching him watch: “That was where my sexual pleasure came from, getting a bunch of people who wouldn’t normally have sex with each other, to have sex with each other.” And to hear about Val Kilmer’s process, theories on why acting is essential, and repeated references to his alma mater as “The Juilliard.” And to trace Leah Remini’s trajectory with Scientology from believer to effective prisoner to Tom Cruise-smearing apostate.

To be clear, this is not a scientifically proven method of dismantling one’s ego, and I realize that it’s perhaps a temporary fix. It involves merely supplanting one narrative—your own—with another in the highly curated and idealized form of a celebrity talking about their life and accomplishments. “I never felt pretty enough, thin enough, or good enough; my fans disagreed,” beamed Belinda Carlisle straight into my brain. I can’t relate, but now I know such a thought exists.

Entertaining particulars aside, the reason why the celebrity memoir—as opposed to just any audiobook or podcast—is such an effective monologue transplant lies in its similarity to one’s own inner monologue. Both are narratives that build and explain identity from a single source. Furthermore, the relatively uncomplicated form of the celebrity memoir, which is typically engineered for mass consumption and thus rarely formally experimental, makes it even easier to digest. Should the mind wander briefly while listening to one of these memoirs, the clarity and simplicity with which the majority unfold allow for a very easy switch back on track. Celebrity memoirs, then, are serious fluff. They massage a certain area of the mind without taxing the overall mechanism. They are the protein bars of literature: Candy that’s maybe actually good for you, depending on the sugar content.

And so, I spent a lot of 2020 gorging on idiosyncrasies. “I depended on sartorial boldness to camouflage my interior vortex of pain, insecurity and doubt,” said André Leon Talley in his typically florid verbiage in this year’s The Chiffon Trenches. Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights contains a story about his father resuscitating a cockatiel from death, three recaps of wet dreams (none of them had specifically sexual content), and exclamations packaged as notes to self and bumper stickers. In Chasing the Light, Oliver Stone describes the attractiveness of other men with more frequency and specificity than I’ve ever heard from an assumed straight guy; the men he compliments in his book include Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, his mother’s gay date to the Oscars, his commanding sergeant in Vietnam, and Warren Beatty, twice. Debbie Harry devotes almost an entire chapter of Face It to thumbs—general musings on them, expressions containing them, observations on their usefulness.

Drug stories abound. Flea shot up acid. Keith Richards snorted his father’s ashes. Belinda Carlisle once purchased three ounces of cocaine from what she assumed were drug lords in Brazil. Mackenzie Phillips first got high at age 10 and was dropping acid in seventh grade in school.

Beyond experiential wisdom and the (rather predictable) complaints about fame, there are sometimes lessons in these stories, and, more frequently, fun facts. In her extremely animated memoir, simply titled Patti LuPone: A Memoir, Patti LuPone describes how in the ‘70s, bomb scares were a common occurrence during opening nights on Broadway. “You didn’t have a proper opening night unless you saw the bomb squad and their dog sweep the theater before the 7 o’clock curtain. It was kind of good luck for a show,” she writes. Never knew that. Keith Richards writes of heroin addiction with uncommon clarity and poignance. (“It was never in the front of my mind until I was truly hooked. It’s a subtle thing. It grabs you slowly. After the third or fourth time, then you get the message. And then you start to economize by shooting it up.”) David Chang, the famed New York City-based restauranteur, says something that I found incredibly insightful about his experience with cultural appropriation, as a Korean-American chef:

I think the reason why minority chefs in America find cultural appropriation so upsetting is that we feel obliged to uphold these arbitrary prescriptions while white chefs do whatever they want. We’re following the rules and they’re not. Most of the time they didn’t even bother to learn the rules. I decided that I should just start playing the same game.

Here are some more fun facts, genuine insight, and generally quirky declarations from books I listened to this year:

The stories in celebrity memoirs that are the most fun (slash harrowing) often involve other celebrities. After all, celebrities have incredibly intimate access to their kind. Talley describes Andy Warhol sexually harassing him in public by frequently putting his hands in Talley’s crotch, Madonna greeting him for the first time by asking him if he wanted a blowjob, and, in the passages that garnered the most press around his book’s release, Anna Wintour’s frostiness (“She decimated me with this silent treatment so many times”). Mackenzie Phillips says that before having sex with Mick Jagger, he told her he’d been wanting to do so with her since she was 10. According to director/cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld in Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother, Will Smith loves to wipe his ass with Tucks pads and doesn’t care who knows it. Christopher Ciccone, in his book that focuses on his relationship with Madonna, Life with My Sister, describes how years after becoming blood brothers with his sister’s former husband Sean Penn, he ran into Penn at a party and Penn asked him, “You don’t have AIDS, do you?” Jessica Simpson alleges the toxic ways that John Mayer attempted to keep her hung up on him after they broke up, including attending her family’s functions. (“I was a pet bird. He would throw me into the sky and watch me catch air and soar long enough that it meant something when he pulled a gun from his back pocket to shoot me down, expertly aiming to graze a wing, never a kill shot to end the misery.”)

Elton John talks about taking on drag names with some of his friends (his is Sharon) and Rod Stewart gamely joining in the fun (Rod is Phyllis). John paints Stewart as such a good sport (through the years they have routinely taken the piss out of each other when one is beating the other in the charts) that I felt legitimately disturbed when the story of their falling out made the rounds earlier this year. I really liked them together!

Generally, the prose of these books is merely functional, but every once in a while, I come across an indelible sentence. I keep returning to something Liz Phair wrote in her Horror Stories: “Loss is part of telling the truth.” I love how that complicates the venerated act of public confession, and that it’s coming from an absolute master of the medium. “As long as you’ve got a gig, life is wonderful,” says Keith Richards, speaking both for rock stars and anyone living a capitalistic existence. “Work is the last socially acceptable addiction,” writes David Chang, quoting his friend, artist David Cho. “In my experience at least, the more isolated you are from reality—the more removed you become from the person you’re naturally supposed to be—the harder you’re making your life and the less happy you become,” declares Elton John of the pitfalls of celebrity.

The just-quoted John section provides welcome perspective. While any celebrity memoir is an inherent meditation on fame, and many of the genre’s offerings explicate complications that come with it, it’s rare to encounter rigorous interrogation on whether being famous is in fact the gold standard of living that it is generally accepted as in Western culture. It’s taken as a given: Something virtually everyone aspires to, something to be grateful for and proud of. Unquestioning acceptance of fame’s goodness yields admissions that signal a sort of disconnect from reality. In Inside Out, Demi Moore smarts at a Vanity Fair article that portrays her as, in her words, “selfish, egotistical, and pampered,” as if fame doesn’t guarantee some degree of each of those qualities in its recipients. In The Meaning of Mariah Carey, its author writes of the unyielding trust she places in her fans, as if sycophants offer absolute truth.

Even as their voices drone on and on in your head, you can accept all of this at a remove—there’s often truth even in delusion, an indication of a person’s unique perspective if nothing else. That said, I find it particularly heartening when a celebrity is honest about the shortcomings of their memory: Debbie Harry openly struggles to remember good times (“When we used to go out, I know we laughed a lot. What were we laughing at?”), while Mackenzie Phillips ruminates directly on the source of her lapses (“I can’t tell whether my memory lapses are the fault of years of drug use or whether they mark memories so painful that I’ve hidden them from myself”). This kind of admission can foster such a sense of trust that it strikes me as good strategy, if nothing else.

For believability is still a factor, even in such a transparently self-serving form as the celebrity memoir. Failing flashes of honesty and humility that disarm in a rippling effect, I find parameters to be particularly useful. The first line of Carey’s book efficiently indicates that we’re not in Kansas anymore: “I refuse to acknowledge time, famously so.” Anyone with a working knowledge of her career can spot the holes she leaves—there’s not a word about her bipolar diagnosis, the stepchildren she acquired that were near her age when early in her career she married the boss of her label, Tommy Mottola, the reality show she did, the billionaire she planned to marry—but her orientation of her readers on her distinct wavelength make a lot of this understandable, if not forgivable. It helps that her prose is tight and her anecdotes are strong. It helps that the described life is extraordinary, that the book has a distinct stranger-than-fiction feeling to it—here, just about anything goes. In the absence of a close examination of one’s warts and all, a clear voice with a deliberate perspective does a lot of heavy lifting. It asks a reader not, “Accept me as I am,” but, “Accept me as I would like to be accepted.” That’s a tall order, but if taken on, it yields the ultimate in approval. Literature makes these mental leaps possible, and direct prose makes extending this service to the writer feel like not very much work at all. In fact, for helping me take mind off things during a particularly shitty year, the pleasure is all mine.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

snide-o-mite
Snide-O-Mite

Most of the memoirs aren’t very well written or interesting, I assume, because the celebrities themselves don’t hold those qualities. There’s no requirement for them to be interesting people so I don’t know why we’re surprised when they’re not.

That said, the anecdotes about other celebrities do a public service in that they undermine the prepackaged, artificial personas.

Leah Remini’s story about Tom Cruise wanting to play hide and seek and losing his shit over cookie dough confirmed that he’s crazier than we thought. Jessica Simpson’s story about Justin Timberlake kissing her and then bragging about how he won a bet with Ryan Gosling was really disgusting. Not surprising though.