OVER THE LAST few weeks we’ve learned a lot about Will Smith and Justin Timberlake, perhaps more than we ever wanted. We learned that after Britney Spears had an abortion, Timberlake attempted to soothe her pain and anguish by whipping out his guitar. We learned that Will and Jada had been separated for seven years at the time Smith infamously slapped Chris Rock and uttered the immortally memed line: “Keep my wife’s name out your motherfuckin’ mouth.”
We learned these things because they were divulged in interviews given to the press ahead of the release of memoirs—Britney’s The Woman In Me and Jada’s Worthy—that publishers hope will fly off the shelves.
Earlier in the year there were similarly scandalous titbits from Prince Harry’s book, Spare. The trickle of gossip began about six weeks out from release and reached saturation point about a week out when the Prince appeared on an ITV special called Harry: The Interview and then sat down with CBS’ Anderson Cooper for an interview with 60 Minutes.
More recently, we learned that Barbra Streisand did her own makeup for the screen test for Funny Girl. Julia Fox says dating Kanye West was “unsustainable” because it felt like having “two babies”. We’ve learned that Henry Winkler is dyslexic and found Happy Days table reads “miserable”. And back in 2018, we learned the secret to the mechanics of Donald Trump’s hair from Michael Wolff’s incendiary book Fire and Fury: “An absolutely clean pate—a contained island after scalp-reduction surgery—surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the centre and then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray.”
On each occasion these titbits have made for great content for media sites but you have to wonder if there was too much thunder ahead of publication? Would the book be short on subsequent narrative pyrotechnics? Have memoirs become the new movies?
The balance between how much of the juiciest details of a book to release before publication has become a delicate balancing act that recalls the line studios tread with previews for films. A good preview whets the appetite for a film without giving away too much plot. A bad one tells you the whole freakin’ story. In some cases you no longer feel that you need to see the film.
Could the same could be said of memoirs? Do we need to fork out $30 or $40 for a doorstopper that, sans the anecdotes already circulated, might be a bit of a yawn? Even if the book does contain more you can rely on early reviewers to spill anything that wasn’t already leaked. Given the anecdote about Timberlake and the guitar, you do have to wonder if there’s anything else in Britney’s book that might trump it?
So, what’s driving the scandal and gossip machine that memoirs seem to rely on these days? It’s a pair of familiar culprits: the double-headed gargoyle known as the internet and social media. Given the extent to which many celebs already peel back the curtain on their personal lives online, it ups the ante for a memoir to deliver the kind of gossipy blow-by-blows that many would normally take to the grave—and those involved, Messrs Timberlake, Smith and Prince William surely wish they had.
“A celebrity memoir really better deliver something deeper, richer and more profound than 10 years ago,” David Kuhn, a literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management told The Guardian.
For a tell-all memoir to be relevant it has to offer something that hasn’t already been given away for free. “Social media is a promiscuous medium, so celebrities are on a minute-to-minute basis trying to maximise their audience. So they have to do something they’ve held back and that’s a tough thing to do,” says Robert Thompson, media professor at Syracuse University.
Of course, there’s also a danger in going too deep into the more lurid details of your personal life, to the extent that you repel your audience. One reviewer of 1985’s Priscilla, Elvis and Me, a kiss-and-tell by Priscilla Presley’s boyfriend Michael Edwards confessed they had not finished it “for the same reason I didn’t finish a roast beef sandwich that contained a hair at lunch yesterday; it was simply too disgusting to continue”.
Harry’s memoir was described as a “barf-bag” by one publisher, however, all of the pre-release gossip did not appear to impact sales, reportedly selling well against its reputed $20m advance.
So, based on the recent output of celeb memoirs, is there a formula for success that you can employ should you get famous enough to pen your own? Yes, but it’s tricky.
1. Become Famous
It doesn’t really matter how you achieve this; it can be by birthright, as it was in Harry’s case. It can be by being born into wealth and fortune as was the case with Paris Hilton, whose memoir Paris: The Memoir was a high-concept delight. You can also do it the old-fashioned way by practising a skill for 10,000 or so hours until you reach genius level then using said skill to entertain the world—let’s give Britney credit for this, all those hours on The Mickey Mouse Club paid off with hits like ‘Hit me Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops I Did It Again’.
2. Stay famous for a while
Next, occupy the limelight and inhabit the cultural zeitgeist for at least nine months. That should be enough time for a hungry publisher to come calling, though it’s important that during that time you do something at least a little bit grubby. Even better if someone does something sordid to you. Getting fucked over by someone always makes for good copy. Developing drug or alcohol dependencies is a given as fame and its attendant glare should screw you up enough to hit the bottle or develop a drug habit.
3. Have an affair
Shouldn’t really need to spell this out but not everyone ‘gets it’. If you want your book to sell, then you’ve got to drop your pants.
4. Detonate a few relationships
If you have a good relationship with your parents, do something to sabotage it. You are creating a narrative that must not only titillate readers but inspire sympathy as well. This is your life remember, you are writing the script as you go, so make sure you cover the bases of fame, scandal, sex, drugs, emotional repression and/or psychological maladaptation.
5. Get a therapist
This might seem like a waste of time in the moment, but the practise you’ll get in spilling your guts will help later when you need to unload to a ghost writer.
6. Write the book
Just kidding, an underpaid hack will do the writing. Tell the poor sod everything. Don’t worry about being too eloquent. Someone like J. R. Moehringer (author of Spare and Andre Agassi’s Open) is going to make you sound like Wordsworth. Just pour it all out.
7. Kick back
You’re free to chill while the ghost writer labours away turning your dirt into diamonds. This should be a nine-month process but because the publisher wants the book out by Chrissy, the ghost writer will probably get six weeks if they’re lucky.
8. Flog the thing
Finally, get ready to hit the publicity circuit. Your publicist will line up puff-pieces and interviews with talk show hosts and breakfast TV. You want someone who will elicit the carefully agreed upon anecdotes but won’t start probing where they shouldn’t—probably avoid Leigh Sales.
9. Publication day
Watch your book either walk off the shelves or quickly be relegated to the bargain basement bin. If your book does well, expect film rights for a biopic. If not, well, you can either go back to step 1 and rinse and repeat or head straight back to step 5.