Not all that long ago, Michael Korda, the famous former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, warned the reading public to stay away from celebrity memoirs (“celebmoirs”) since the majority of these books were “dull, homogenized, bland and sanitized”. Harsh words coming from a man who spent much of his professional life trying to persuade celebrities to write their autobiographies yet there exists an undeniable truth to his words that can’t be ignored.
Once upon a time, a “celebrity” meant a film star, a television star or a well-known singer/rock star. With time, the concept of celebrity has evolved to include sports stars, politicians, heiresses, reality TV “stars” and those who have become famous for no discernible reason whatsoever other than by capitalizing on the accessibility of social media to make a name for themselves. It’s this latter group of “celebs” who are poised over their keyboards, ready to share their not-so-unique experiences in the hardly uncharted territories of parenting, overcoming addiction and weight loss. A spate of these recent celebmoirs have included Jennifer Hudson’s I Got This: How I Changed My Ways and Lost What Weighed Me Down, Jessica Alba’s The Honest Life (which included her daughter’s “favorite meatball recipe”) and let’s not forget Luc Carl’s (that’s Lady Gaga’s ex) The Drunk Diet: How I Lost 40 Pounds…Wasted. The utter lack of compelling titles aside, the point of this is not to diminish in any way the discoveries and personal strides these “celebs” may have made – it merely begs the question whether they had something publish-worthy to say so that the average reader would feel compelled to shell out their hard-earned cashola for the so-called privilege of reading these memoirs. You be the judge.
Now let’s examine the more famous, highly-touted and highly-anticipated celebrity “tell-all”. According to writer Sarah Oakes, a celebrity “tell-all” is an easy grab for cash that generally occurs at one of two points in a celebrity’s “fame cycle”; the memoir that’s written at the peak of a celebrity’s fame cycle; where it’s clear that the celeb doesn’t have the talent to sustain a long career or the one that’s “written to bookend, if you will, a career as a star slowly fades in to old age/obscurity”; where reliance is made on “two critical factors to succeed – a reader’s sense of nostalgia and a deeply personal and press-worthy revelation that will get them booked on the morning television shows” such as Keith Richards’ proclamation that “Mick has a tiny todger” or where Rob Lowe disses about “that sex tape” or where Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame discloses that “my son was a drug addict”.
And despite Korda’s dire warning to stay away from celebrity memoirs, it should be noted that the ones penned by rock stars are especially hot right now, fueled in part by the publication of Keith Richards’ blockbuster autobio, Life. Jo Piazza, the author of Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money rationalizes their popularity by pointing out that the typical rock star has more tales to tell than the average movie star. Richards’ book has sold over a million copies which has presumably helped pay back the reported seven million dollar advance to the rock legend. But not every rock legend is salivating to “tell all” and a few have even gotten cold feet, thanks in part to their publishers’ demands for “dirt”. Back in 1983, Mick Jagger accepted an advance, purportedly over a million pounds from a British publisher, but later returned it. Jagger recently told the British magazine Q, “They wanted me to talk about people close to me and divulge all these secrets. I realized I didn’t want to do that.” Similarly in 2012, Billy Joel returned his advance from HarperCollins, allegedly because the publisher wanted tales of his sex and drug exploits, as well as dirt on his ex-wife, Christie Brinkley.Sounds like two celebs taking the high road?Perhaps…but then they can certainly afford to.
The biggest problem in the saleability of the celeb memoirs relates to those penned by reality TV stars.How do you get a saleable tell-all from a reality TV star when Joe Public already knows every boring, intimate detail of that so-called star’s life as it’s played out every week before the cameras?Add to that Facebook, Twitter and the meteoric rise in popularity of selfies and you’ve got a huge case of over-exposure which does nothing for memoir sales.
Despite these positives and negatives, it’s also important to remember that part of the allure of celeb memoirs is not necessarily the anticipation of a satisfying literary experience but, rather, to experience vicariously that celebrity’s stardom.Book signing tours are practically de rigueur with celeb memoir publications.Many readers will fork out the fairly substantial cost of the book for the fleeting opportunity to rub elbows with their idols.In some cases, they’ll even put up with, and abide by the ridiculous demands imposed by some so-called celebs like the Olsen twins (of Full House fame) when they released their book Influence in 2008.Over 2,000 fans showed up at the NYC Barnes & Noble store to get an autographed copy of their book – only to find out that they had to follow a long list of demands, among them not speaking to the Olsens, not questioning them and not taking pictures of them, with the requirement that all cameras and cell phones be put away prior to the fan approaching their signing table.Hardly endearing demands for their adoring public who had lined up for countless hours to get a glimpse of the famous twins.
On the flip side is Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former First Lady and former U.S. Secretary of State and arguably one of the most famous women in the world stage of politics, who signed copies of her new book Hard Choices at the Indigo Bookstore in Toronto on June 16, 2014.The lineup to see Clinton was huge, with some waiting as much as 20 hours to get a glimpse of the former First Lady.However, rather than playing diva to the hilt, Clinton made her entrance amid enthusiastic applause before matter-of-factly stating, “We’re going to get to work signing some books for some very nice people who’ve waited a long time.”Without further preamble, she sat down and got right at it, signing her name on each book and exchanging a few pleasantries with her fans.Assembly-line-esque?To be sure.A class act?Without a doubt.While it remains to be seen whether Clinton’s memoir will sell enough copies to pay off her undoubtedly huge advance, it’s clear that the Olsen twins and their celeb counterparts could learn a thing or two from the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a seasoned veteran of the celebrity forum.