The Enduring Appeal Of The Celebrity Memoir
Becoming a writer has never been more popular, so it's not surprising that every celebrity is writing a book. But we also can't stop ourselves from reading them.
By Olivia Allen
In the age of oversharing and #relatablecontent, one literary form reigns supreme: the celebrity memoir. With Julia Fox's Down the Drain seen on every esoteric Christmas gift guide and in the hands of every hot guy or girl on either side of the Atlantic, there is no escape. Despite the current bout of salacious celeb media, the appetite for drama is nothing new, with the prying masses craning for further information behind the glitz and glamor for years gone past. From fading Hollywood starlets to the all-American stars of the aughts and up to the insta-icons of today, the appeal of the tell-all endures, weaving its charm through the tides of evolving culture.
As humans, we’re always desperate to know more, desperate to be in on the drama. The intrigue of the celebrity story is a tale as old as time and as long as there’s been a spotlight, people have been keen to see into the shadows. However, as with any art form, the genre has its trailblazers. One of the first to lay it all on the line, the glamorous and dramatic Tallulah Bankhead paved the way with her snappily titled Tallulah: My Autobiography. In it, Bankhead narrated the ups and downs of her drama-filled life against a backdrop of run ins with Cary Grant and Joan Collins, interjecting iconic musings such as “I sniffed stardom, but my nose betrayed me” while reflecting on the fickle beast of show business and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
To a modern audience, au fait with knowing the ins and outs of every celeb’s sex life, Ms. Bankhead's account may not be particularly scandalous, but her candid writing laid the groundwork for the countless My Storys to come. At the conception of the modern “celebrity,” Bankhead demonstrated that famous people are just like us! They’re fallible and fuck up, she shed the facade and spelt out the grisly truth behind the glam.
Leap forward sixty years or so and biopics flood our screens, with every actor, musician, model and muses’ struggle being turned into some variation of an all-singing, all dancing spectacle. Although, as a lowly Brit, I haven’t had the chance to see Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla”, the Lana-coded clips and hazy compilations clog my timeline, with Priscilla Presley’s unintentional Elvis exposé seeming more captivating and relevant than ever.
Based on Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me, Coppola’s adaptation offers an in-depth examination of the myth behind the magic, presenting an insightful portrait of the era and humanizing the problematic and very rocky duo behind the carefully curated image of Priscilla and Elvis Presley. Like Bankhead, Priscilla's memoir was ahead of its time, the vulnerable and raw account of an abusive relationship exposing the reality behind the fairytale. With her long lashes and babydoll dress, Priscilla Presley helped set the stage for the sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll celebrity memoir we’ve come to love, her willingness to reveal authenticity amidst fame proving that, like us, the rich and famous are just going through it.
Similarly, Britney's The Woman in Me made waves when she shattered the illusion and divulged that Justin Timberlake has a small dick. While she may have been criticied for being tacky in her tell-all, why shouldn’t Britney have the chance to reclaim her narrative and "speak her truth”? Rising to superstardom with a Lily-Rose-Depp-in-The-Idol level of insanity amidst the intense tabloid scrutiny of the mid 2000s, Britney endured criticism and misogyny in a way that we seem to finally be moving on from. By putting it all on the page, she’s able to shed some light on the story of the small-town girl behind the conservatorship and Instagram vids. She might be spilling the tea in a way for all to see, but it’s with a sense of control and self-possession that feels genuine, proving that she’s the one in the driver’s seat rather than the one smashing in the car window with an umbrella.
Entering the modern day, oversharing has become the norm. Whether it’s manic posting on your story or loudly discussing everyone you know and who they’re sleeping with over an oat flat white, we can’t keep it to ourselves. Everyone seems to know everything about everyone else and the thirst for more persists. Social media has turned us all into memoirists, and fame isn't solely for the 1%. With minimal effort, a YouTuber or TikToker can amass a devoted cult-like following, translating their digital personas into print overnight.
Julia Fox's Down the Drain is the perfect example of this phenomenon, with her brutally honest memoir chronicling her batshit crazy life and experiences with addiction, sex work, and abuse against the backdrop of early 2000s New York. She intertwines memories of 9/11 and My Space’s rise with deadpan recollections of her time in a psych ward and pissing on patrons in the dominatrix dungeons. Like the iconic starlets of old Hollywood, these Instagram-age memoirs, along with their creators, have become cultural touchstones, satisfying an online population looking for authentic insights in an increasingly digitized world. The modern-day memoir blends mythical narratives, historical events, personal insights, and, in Julia Fox's case, the reality of being Josh Safdie’s muse.
Examining our unrelenting appetite for the celeb memoir reveals that we’re all greedy for more. We’re nosey and invasive and the internet encourages this. We’re all too familiar with the lives of the rich and famous and their daily habits and routines have become essential to our societal fabric, with the densely knotted threads of authenticity and performance permeating every part of the culture. We’re all living in stories to a certain extent, picking out the juicy bits and self-mythologising with every caption and post. In 2023, we’re all writing our memoirs in real time, some of them are just interesting enough to make it onto the bestseller list.