Why are celebrity memoirs all about scandals?

The tell-all stories of the rich and the famous often highlight titillating details of their lives than their stellar worth

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 9 Nov 2023, 8:29 PM

Celebrities are baring it all this season, with Prince Harry’s Spare, Pamela Anderson’s Love, Pamela, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Worthy, and Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me making the headlines. There’s even a rumour that Britney Spears’ book secured a place among the top five most lucrative book deals for memoirs with a jaw-dropping $12.5 million advance. And it has certainly lived up to the hype, consistently topping bestseller charts. It’s so juicy, it’s practically dripping off the shelves.

While delving into Britney Spears’ honest memoir, I couldn’t escape the sensation it provided with the perspective on the intricate dynamics of celebrity life, shedding light on the toxicity of fame and fortune. However, it’s the tantalising tidbits of the book that have captured the spotlight and boosted the book’s buzz. Since the book’s publication, much of the news coverage and articles have been fixated on the book’s ‘biggest revelation’: that Spears became pregnant at 19 while dating fellow pop star Justin Timberlake, and had an abortion at his urging. This revelation is followed by her candid accounts of Justin’s infidelity and her own brief involvement with choreographer Wade Robson. Most of the ‘leaks’ from Spears’ memoir as well as the excerpted portions have primarily centred around this abortion episode, or her first sleepover with Justin Timberlake. Then last week, news broke that Justin Timberlake had left the country, seeking refuge in Cabo amidst the backlash generated by Britney Spears’ memoir. This scandal-driven coverage consequently shifted the focus to this episode of her life. It’s essential to emphasise a crucial point: that this bombshell ‘revelation’ has overshadowed other significant and profoundly poignant themes in the book.

In reality, the most moving and powerful aspects of Britney Spears’ story revolve around the incredible journey of a talented teenager, her immense fame, her experiences as a mother, her battles with postpartum depression, and her struggles with spiralling mental health. Recalling her infamous head-shaving incident, she writes she was “out of my mind with grief”. She also talks about more pressing issues of constant judgement and body shaming, “I’d been eyeballed so much growing up, I’d been looked up and down, had people telling me what they thought of my body since I was a teenager. Shaving my head and acting out were my ways of pushing back.” Her story also includes the bitter divorce, the fear of losing access to her sons, two stints in a psychiatric hospital, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and ultimately, her survival and journey to rebuild her life. This is where the book truly shines.

Unfortunately, the primary focus of discussion remains on selectively salacious and scandalous details, especially when it comes to memoirs by female celebrities. Women’s memoirs are frequently expected to be candid accounts of their pain and trauma but with a dash of drama, titillation, and juicy revelations. The marketing of Jada Pinkett Smith’s recent memoir Worthy leaned too heavily on the ‘slap incident’ and the revelation about her and Will Smith living separate lives for the last seven years. Isn’t it interesting that the biggest revelations in the life story of Jada and Britney happened to involve their celebrity relationships?

I highlighted these recent memoirs by women because, even before their books hit the shelves, stories of their struggle, talent and massive achievements are always overshadowed by discussions on their relationships, affairs and scandals.

Celebrity memoirs aren’t a recent phenomenon. In fact, the tradition dates back to 1899 when the renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt penned her memoir, My Double Life, often regarded as the first celebrity memoir. But in the world of publishing, celebrity memoirs were conventionally far from being classified as literature. They were akin to masala movies, serving as a guilty pleasure aimed at achieving substantial sales figures and supporting the industry. In recent years, there has been a transformation in this narrative. Once seen as voyeuristic and superficial, these books are now more frequently regarded as reflective and contemplative. They are heralded as tales of courage, candour, and astute insights into the lives of public figures.

Now celebs around the world are choosing to publish memoirs in the midst of their careers. They have come to realise that it serves as a strategic tool to shape their image and perception, and a deliberate means to regain control over their own narratives. When Paris Hilton uses her memoir Confessions of an Heiress to dispel the public image of her as a spoiled and shallow socialite, or when Britney talks about owning her past as well as future, they are also challenging the way they are perceived by the public.

As a biographer, I believe celebrity memoirs are more than just scandals and juicy revelations. They are introspective reflections on the lives of stars who are often seen as enigmas. These books humanise celebrities and show that they have feelings and struggles just like us. That’s the reason when the focus shifts solely on scandal and headlines, the point gets missed. They reduce stars to their most sensationalistic moments.

Returning to the core question: Why do marketing efforts always focus on the ‘explosive’ when the ‘introspective’ is just as compelling? Is it because the media prioritises selling sensational headlines over telling nuanced stories? Or is it because readers are inherently drawn to the drama of celebrity scandals? I’ll leave the answer to you.


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