This month, the memoirs of two female artists have been gaining traction in the media. Thanks to explosive details revealed there, the memoirs Worthy by Jada Pinkett Smith and soon-to-be-out The Woman in Me by Britney Spears have dominated the news cycle with shockers concerning their very infamous lives.
Celebrity memoirs have existed for decades. However, the last decade has seen an explosion of celebrities – everyone from Hollywood A-lists to obscure stars of popular shows or movies from 10-20 years ago – releasing their own tell-all books.
What’s behind this heightened interest in publishing memoirs? Why are these people who typically strive for privacy daily agreeing to air their dirty laundry to the world?
The main answer is quite obvious: people get paid a lot of money to do it. To date, the five largest deals for individual books in history have all been memoirs. Among those five, four were released within the last ten years: Amy Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo (2016, $9 million), Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016, $10 million), Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices (2014, $14 million), and Spears’ aforementioned memoir (due out October 24, $15 million). Really in-demand public figures could command even more astronomical numbers, like The Obamas’ $65 million multi-book deals (which included Michelle’s Becoming and Barack’s Promised Land) and Prince Harry’s rumored $20 million deals.
Unlike other books like novels or self-discovery, memoirs don’t need to be Pulitzer-worthy or offer any specific knowledge to sell copies. They only require a well-curated recounting of said celebrity’s life stories, even better if it includes never-before-known facts. These celebrities don’t even need to know how to write since they would hire ghostwriters or freelance writers.
Behind the Scenes of Memoir Releases
For celebrities who have been out of the limelight, it can also be a way to regain fame and remind the public of their stardom. As of late, there have been memoirs published by the likes of Tom Felton of Harry Potter fame (aptly titled Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard) and Matthew Perry, best known for playing Chandler Bing on the sitcom Friends, who published Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing in 2022.
For some celebrities, a memoir can also be a vehicle to take back the circulating narratives about them. The celebrity gossip machine can be so unforgivingly harsh in the name of clicks that even a public statement might not suffice. Memoirs serve as an outlet to voice their truths in great detail while earning profits.
The pattern of a memoir release is more or less the same. In the weeks leading up to the publication date, there would be snippets of the book released to drum up interest. It would usually be some salacious details that entice people for more. The more controversial, the better. These celebrities would then go on an extended tour to promote the book. They would address the controversial bits but tease only enough so people would buy the books.
Controversies are often at the crux of memoirs release. The release of Prince Harry’s memoir Spare was preceded by an allegation of a physical altercation between him and Prince William concerning Meghan Markle. Another remark Harry made about Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ wedding in 2006 reignited a decades-old scandal between the now King, Camilla, and Harry’s mother, the late Princess Diana. In 2017, Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life divulged disparaging details about the Kardashians, whom she had famously been a reality star with for years. Both resulted in very public feuds with the subjects of their books: Harry with the British royal family, Jenner with her former wife and stepdaughters.
Indeed, publicly revealing their inner life can improve a celebrity’s reputation or backfire.
In the case of Jennette McCurdy, best known for Nickelodeon teen show iCarly, her scandalously-titled 2022 memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died gained massive attention thanks to brutally honest accounts of her relationship with her deceased mother. In it, McCurdy detailed the lengths her mother went to coercing her into child stardom and its effect on her upbringing. Her harrowing story resonated with the public, sending the book straight into the New York Times Best Seller List.
How Memoirs Can Spark the Public Opnions
Just this month, Spears’ upcoming memoir generated substantial buzz due to an excerpt revealing the pop diva had an abortion with ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake in the early 2000s. The timing of the release couldn’t have been more ironically strategic: ex-Timberlake is currently staging a comeback with his early aughts boyband N*Sync. The perceived public opinions work in Spears’ favor and drum up interest in the book.
The same couldn’t be said for Pinkett Smith, who received backlash after comments about her unconventional marriage to Will Smith became public. Perceived as a betrayal of the couple’s public persona, the controversy swiftly turned opinions against her. Likewise, Perry’s book was lambasted for including a passage that read: “Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us?” It backfired on him completely, given Reeves’ squeaky-clean reputation. The actor had to apologize and retract that part of the book in future editions.
Regardless, controversies are often expected, desired even, for the sole reason that they sell books. Spare sold 1.43 million copies in its first day, becoming the fastest-selling non-fiction book in history. Even McCurdy, a former teen idol who’s retired since 2017, managed to sell over 2 million copies of her memoir worldwide.
The Popularity of Celebrity Memoirs
Memoirs are at the intersection between entertainment and authenticity. They reveal both the sordid details behind glamorous celebrity life and the universal experiences of being human. In fact, it is perhaps the current generation’s penchant for authenticity that truly drives this current boom in the memoir business. More than ever, people gravitate toward relatable imperfection rather than cookie-cutter images, especially from celebrities. With even more memoirs in the works – Barbra Streisand and RuPaul’s books are due out next year – it seems that this trend will last for a long time.
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