by Courtney R. Hall
Celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are nothing new. They act as a fruitful branch of a celebrity’s branding arsenal and are a cash cow for publishers. Spanning decades, it’s been a commonly held belief that many, if not all, of these memoirs were written by an unnamed third party, a ghostwriter. These publications would be seen as a piece of PR material created for super fans, full of fluff like a celebrity's go-to salad that they would consume daily on the set of the television program that made them famous. However, there is a shift occurring in the world of celebrity memoirs and those with fame taking control of their own narrative. Some celebrities have raised the bar for what constitutes a great celebrity memoir in an era where social media blurs the distinction between privacy and publicity and shortens the gap between stardom and the unfamous. In a post #FreeBritney culture, the public is aware of how destructive and misleading both the paparazzi and media are towards celebrities, especially those that are women. Fans are tired of being spoon fed fluff. What they now crave is authenticity.
As a writer, I am naturally enamored by storytelling, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I especially love hearing them straight from the source. For this reason, and an amazing introductory offer from Audible (not sponsored), I started listening to audiobooks to accommodate a new routine involving a lengthy commute. This provided me with the opportunity to listen to a book written and voiced by an actress from one of my favorite television shows, Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls. Before I knew it, I fell down a rabbit hole of wanting to learn more about the other celebrities I had built parasocial relationships with over the years.
I loved Jessica Simpson's music when I was younger and she is a celebrity that I hadn’t kept up with, so I was excited when I learned that she had recently come out with a memoir—more so when I heard that it was good. As I listened to Simpson tell her life story in her own voice and words, deflecting the narrative that always seemed to hover around her, I began to appreciate her even more than I had when I was younger. Her vulnerability and willingness to be raw and real, to own up to all of her previous mistakes, to admit that she was once in love with Johnny Knoxville, showed her in a completely new light. Who knew that Jessica Simpson was just like me! Jessica Simpson, whose public persona was perfectly crafted and monstrously picked apart by Hollywood producers and big recording studios, was denouncing the Jessica the world had known and was reintroducing herself—her real self. She stripped herself of the fear that once crippled her, the fear of public opinion, and put it all on the table. And in return, she received record-breaking sales of her book and a scripted television series based on it.
Jennette McCurdy, a former actress famously known for her role as Sam Puckett on the children’s television series iCarly, released her memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died this year. It sold out within 24 hours. McCurdy’s memoir details her above and beyond co-dependent relationship with her mother and how it was her mother’s desire for Jennette to become an actress, not her own. Losing her mother was, as expected, a horrible time of her life, but as the title suggests, it freed McCurdy from the chains that bound her for as long as she can remember. Reception from the public has been unbelievable, mainly because no one can believe the off-camera happenings in McCurdy’s life while she made millions at home smile in front of their television screens. McCurdy’s mother had controlled every aspect of her life down to the number of calories she consumed. This book, which started as a one-woman show, is her way of taking control of her public life for the first time ever. In turn, her authenticity and vulnerability have been rewarded. In addition to being sold out within 24 hours, it became a number one New York Times Best Seller for non-fiction in both hardcover and eBook that same month, selling over 200,000 copies across all formats in its first week of release.
This newfound level of authenticity in celebrity memoirs is not limited to those that write their books without help. Prince Harry was followed by paparazzi since he was in the womb, lost his mother to a car crash while the driver was fleeing the paparazzi, and lived such a public, curated life that it led to him and his wife famously stepping down from their roles as senior members of the royal family. There have been numerous biographies on his sibling drama, television shows about his family, Lifetime movies about his relationship, and countless news exclusives. I have seen his face plastered on tabloids in the grocery store checkout line for as long as I can remember. In 2021, he and his wife, Meghan Markle, took an unprecedented step toward taking ownership of their story with a now famous interview with Oprah, and he will take another step in January of 2023 with the publication of his memoir Spare. What was not part of that announcement is that “the man channeling the Duke of Sussex’s voice for the book, J.R. Moehringer,” will be helping Harry to craft his narrative. Ghostwriting, now commonly referred to as “collaborating,” requires the writer to wear many hats: investigative journalist, writer, editor, confidant, and maybe even therapist. For someone with notoriety and a history that predates his own life, Harry needs the help. While he may have many talents, crafting a tell-all memoir that encapsulates the truth, media perception, false narratives, and more requires work beyond his means—beyond simply putting his story as he knows it down on paper. It requires research and analysis, knowing how to write for your audience, and knowing how to write for a publisher. What some may see using a collaborator as “cheating” when it comes to writing a memoir, having a collaborator can actually help celebrities reach the authentic truth that they, and the public, so strongly desire.
As celebrity memoirs begin to turn into a race of who can “tell-all” the most, I can’t help but wonder if this shift is sustainable or the climax of celebrity memoirs as we know them. While the walls built by celebrities are seemingly crumbling for some, they have also been built up higher by others. The Kardashians, lauded for being “master marketers” who once televised every fight, breakup, and riff in the family, have evolved to meticulously curating their lives and narratives for public consumption. After the Astroworld Festival crowd crush, the family famously edited their story, television program, and their social media pages in an attempt to rewrite history. The public knows where particular Kardashians were at the time of the tragedy, yet they painted their narrative to say otherwise; to assume no involvement and protect their brand. Social media provides a direct line of access for celebrities to be raw and unfiltered, but it can be a way for master manipulators like the Kardashians to make reality whatever they wish.
We live in an age where two things can be true: reality can be whatever we want it to be, and almost every memory can be backed up by digital receipts. While celebrities such as Simpson, McCurdy, and Prince Harry are embracing this newfound way of being complete, authentic individuals with a voice, others like the Kardashians are shying away from it, despite the public demanding for substance and paying those that deliver. The success of these books show that audiences are eager for raw, honest storytelling from the celebrities they love (maybe even loathe), and could indicate that this contemporary era of celebrity memoirs is just getting started.