There has been a new emerging genre from celebrities in the past twenty years; instead of writing or co-writing autobiographies at the end of their careers, many celebrities have taken to essay writing. Mid-career, or in the height of their fame, a celebrity will publish a book that is not a biography, nor quite a memoir. It is not the linear story of their life, it does not expose long-hidden secrets, it does not deal truthfully with their inner struggles. It is not partisan and it only shares what the celebrity feels comfortable with at that point in their career. It is published as another way to a) make money and b) control the narrative that is being told about about them. Neil Patrick Harris’ own pseudo-biography even speaks to his desire to manage his narrative in the cheeky title, Choose Your Own Biography!
Chelsea Handler seems to have started this trend with her books titled things like: Are you there Vodka? It’s me, Chelsea (2007). Since the early 2000’s, these cheeky memoirs/essays are on the rise. (side note: why do celebrities love so much punctuation in their titles?) From Fey’s Bossypants to Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, these collections of essays and thoughts from television and film stars have separated themselves from other types of autobiographies and memoirs to become a genre in their own right. Poehler even references this onslaught in her preface to Yes Please. “I read and reread wonderful books by wonderful women: Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks into a Bar… , Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl (…) They are all superb and infuriating,” Poehler writes while explaining her prep for her own collection of celebrity essays. Whether or not I would call Dunham’s book “superb,” this is a genre that has very quickly rooted itself into our modern culture. On average (and trust me, I have read a bunch) these books of essays, including the ones Poehler referenced, are split into three sections. They usually start with the origin story.
In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling shares sweet stories from her past and silly photos of her and her brother as children. These stories are cherry picked and organized in a way to showcase humble origins and make the author relatable. Even if the childhood was difficult, the author finds the warmth and humor in their childhood. Since much of this genre is written by comedians, their books often open with self-deprecating humor about their ugly duckling looks, or precocious young antics. Why is it that all celebrities were convinced they were ugly as children? Anna Kendrick and Amy Poehler both open by sharing their experiences in elementary school theater. What amazes me about so many of these essays on childhood is how many celebrities knew they wanted to be on stage/be famous from such a young age. I still barely know what I want to do.
They tell other strange and charming stories. In Seriously… I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres, she tells a story about how she was a pen pal with a man in prison. In Bossypants (in which the first chapter is actually titled “Origin Story”) Fey tells the story of how she got the scar on her cheek as a child, which remains visible to this day. This section of the celebrity memoir is usually my favorite. As sappy as it seems, the energy and drive that so many of these people had as children amazes me, and what they did with that energy is even more confounding. Sometimes I think of young Amy Poehler dressed as a The Cowardly Lion in her fourth grade play, and I pause. What happened to that young girl? And is she really happy with her success? What do children who have a flair for the dramatic want in this life? Why does acting go along with fame and public exposure, unlike any other career? These origin stories give warm and funny sound bites, but they also build an interesting juxtaposition between the young child you just met – and the sarcastic celebrity you are about to encounter in the next few chapters.
The next section that all these celebrity memoirs include is on… well… being famous. Kendrick’s section is called “Hollywood.” This part is there because I think that celebrity authors assume that the reader is most interested in their stories of Hollywood. Filled with infuriating name dropping, this is where a famous person will talk about how starstruck they were when meeting George Clooney. I wish George Clooney would write one of these books, so I could learn who he was starstruck with. It’s where Tina Fey tells you what it was like to meet Sarah Palin, and where Amy Poehler tells you what it was like to meet Hillary Clinton. This is, by far, the least interesting or enduring part of the collection of essays, because its where the author sounds the least sincere.
I do not doubt that for some readers this is what they are looking for, but as far as writing and style goes, it’s clunky. Instead of a linear story about their career, or a detailed look at one particular aspect of it, it jumps around telling too much at once, like a collection of tweets. In Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can, she manages to pull it off because she mostly just talks about Gilmore Girls. In Fey and Poehler’s books in particular, they both seemed to write as fast as they could, bouncing from one SNL skit story to the next, covering too wide a breadth of costars and stories. It never quite sounds sincere. Again, it’s a way to control the narrative of their fame and their projects. For Poehler, it is a way to control the story of her divorce. For Fey, the 2008 election. In Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, she tells the story of her grandmother’s death while she was in Louisiana shooting Pitch Perfect. She had to fly directly from set to the funeral and got picked up from the funeral by a car to fly her back. She had less than 6 hours home, and all for a film. This was one the first Hollywood stories I read which felt sincere. Kendrick wasn’t trying to control her image. She admitted guilt over the situation in a way that was kind of heartbreaking, and as a reader, I bought it.
At some point in these books, the author will break outside of their childhood and career to discuss any relevant social issues. This part is like the more intellectual version of the People Magazine page “They’re Just Like You.” Feminism, parenthood, religion, politics. Lena Dunham calls this section of her book “Big Picture.” Poehler digs into some of these topics in her book’s section, “Do Whatever You Want.” Kaling’s second book has a section titled “All the Opinions You Will Ever Need.” This is where things get interesting because I never know what this person is going to tell me and why. One example of this genre which I found refreshing and unexpected was I Don’t Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer, an actress who has spent most of her career as a co-star. Her book was refreshingly different. It was split into the typical sections “Early Life,” “Hollywood Life,” and “Real Life.” Despite theoretically following the formula, her book turned into a fascinating story about falling in love, being a stepmother, and handling young children while working full-time. By sharing more honestly about her relationship and children, her advice and her beliefs felt credible. She shared her story honestly, and I believed her.
When other celebrity authors carefully pick the parts of the story they want to share and then give their opinions, I just don’t believe them. I believe that they have their opinions and want to share them, but I don’t necessarily feel like they gained my trust. Tina Fey especially. When she tried to share her struggle as a working mother, I didn’t know exactly what she was trying to tell me. Was it just to justify her decision? Instead of sharing her struggle, she defended her position. Again – it’s all part of controlling the narrative. There are very few books by celebrities that really depart from the norm. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari for example, breaks the mold completely. It’s not anything close to a memoir, even though it’s marketed as such. It’s a nonfiction highly researched book written by an actor who has no research background. Carrie Fisher’s memoirs are unique as well, but as a novelist, Fischer had the added talent of actually being a writer and being able to share her story in a more literary style. All in all, the question is: why do Fey/Greer/Fisher think their stories and beliefs deserve to be shared? Why do we think it’s worth listening to them, especially on topics that they really don’t have any expertise over? And yet I think it is worth it, because I read them. And they keep writing them.
Most of these books are, as books, not great. Though one or two might be funny, after awhile they all run together. Still, I find them fascinating. I’ll keep reading them. When Rachel Bloom publishes her book, I’ll be first in line. In a world where celebrities are more watched and heard than ever (thanks, Twitter), it is both easier for them to speak and harder for them to be heard. Although I am sure there is still scandal enough, the days of secret abortions and hidden gay affairs are over. If celebrities find it harder and harder to keep secrets, then they must get better at using their voice and controlling their public image.
In these collections of essays, comedians and dramatic actors alike can share their struggles to a certain extent. Most don’t push the boundaries or leave their comfort zone. Most all of them have moments where the author begins to write, “As I am writing this, I am in a hotel room in Boston…” or “I am writing this on my phone in a cafe, and the Golden Globes were last week…” They are trying to share in an immediate way. Celebrity memoirs are not really memoirs. They are essays and present snapshots of the current highs and lows in a person’s highly exposed career. They are controlling their narrative in the moment, and a few years from now, they might do it again. I don’t think these books will age well, but I love reading them in the present because I can feel the restraints. I can see where I am being lied to, where things are missing. It’s a harsh reminder that I am not privy to everything this person does in their life.
Sarah V Diehl