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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Considering celebrity memoirs in the age of Pop Crave

As bloggers churn out sprawling “top 10” lists, the celebrity memoir has become less news purveyor and more mind-study.

Barbra_Streisand_1962.jpeg

Barbra Streisand is pictured in 1962.

Did you know that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have been separated since 2016? Or that Chris Rock had asked Jada out pre-Oscars slap, thinking she and Will were getting a divorce?

These bombshells heard ‘round the internet became incessant, with dueling Twitter accounts Pop Crave and Pop Base racing to post quicker updates. The magazine web bloggers jumped, publishing standalone scandal write-ups and “top revelations” listicles. For one week, Jada and her marital ongoings were the biggest story in celebrity media.

Lost amongst the fervor was Jada’s actual memoir, “Worthy” (2023). And once you’ve read the countless online updates, many of which were released before the memoir even hit shelves, why spend that $32 at Barnes & Noble for a hard-copy brick of knowledge you already know?

In the age of fast-paced news bites, the value of the celebrity memoir as an arbiter of scoops has diminished. The memoir has taken on a new meaning: They are bounties of voice, providing unlimited access to the body and psyche of the star. Once a long-form vehicle for short-term thoughts, the memoir is now a character study.

Barbra Streisand has been a news magnet for decades, from her heavily reported romance with and divorce from Elliott Gould to her more recent dog-cloning escapades. Her behemoth of a memoir “My Name is Barbra” (2023) certainly had some flashes of gossip, with Streisand detailing Marlon Brando’s incredibly direct pickup line: “I’d like to f--- you.” 

Still, no one’s reading 992 pages for quick pangs of gossip. It is Streisand’s voice that is so distinctive, that obsessive and warm tone that finds intrigue in the smallest minutiae. Consider when Streissand pauses to detail her deli order: “I also liked going to the deli. Not the Jewish delis. They gave you too much meat. I couldn’t get my mouth around those sandwiches. I would go to the Gentile ones and order my favorite … a roast pork sandwich with mayonnaise on soft white bread. Delicious.” Can’t you just hear her? Can’t you hear Babs?

In many contexts, the voice supersedes the newsflashes. While writing about her experience recording “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” (1979) with disco legend Donna Summer, Streisand recounts holding that triumphant final note of the opening melody, after which Summer tumbled off her stool. “My head was back, my eyes were closed … it was a challenge, but I held that note. And then I opened my eyes and … Donna was gone!” It is Streisand’s charm that shines through. The reader is a friend of Streisand’s, tilting their head back alongside and imagining that final belted “tear.”

Even bigger in the gossip rags is Britney Spears, whose memoir “The Woman in Me” (2023) broke headlines for its vivid descriptions of the cruelties she faced. Spears certainly had a lot to write about: A public who abandoned her for “golden boy” Justin Timberlake, devastating battles for child custody against her conniving ex-husband Kevin Federline and a family-imposed conservatorship which stripped her of physical and financial agency.

Yet, while describing these emotional atrocities, “The Woman in Me” maintains its warmth. Spears has always had a knowingly-blunt, down-to-earth nature — who remembers that classic I really do like Pepsi” interview? That kind-hearted honesty persists, describing the paparazzi as an “army of zombies” or herself and Paris Hilton as “fairy-dusted idiots” as they ran shoeless around a casino. 

It’s the frivolous anecdotes, the ones that won’t be picked up by Pop Crave or TMZ, that provide “The Woman in Me” its sparkle. Taking a moment to thank the queer community for standing with her, Spears details a night out on the town with her dancers: “One time in Europe we went to a gay club where I felt like everyone around me on the dance floor was so tall. The club played great electro dance music and I loved it.” Only Britney Spears would look around a gay club, think everyone was strikingly tall, and write it into her book. Only Britney.

Even for more niche celebrities, smaller than Streisand or Spears in scale, memoirs are an exercise in entering the psyche. For Julia Fox, “Down the Drain” (2023) was an opportunity to detail those grimy details that led her to her higher-profile escapades, like a short-lived romance with Kanye West or a longer stint as a New York it girl.

Still, West is barely in the book (only referred to as “the artist”) and describing the romance seems second-thought. Rather, Fox uses her snarky voice alone to bring power to those less highly publicized moments, like a revenge plot enacted while working as a dominatrix. Filling an enema bag with her own “piss” and “s---,” Fox sprayed the odorous mixture into her rival’s locker. “The room starts to stink but I can’t wipe the demonic grin off my face,” Fox writes. This, it seems, is more important. This is the internal processing of Fox, someone who plots with an exacting force and who calculates each and every step. It’s more powerful than any half-witted Kanye West story could ever be.

A new era of memoir has cracked open, one less tied to those flaming blips that readers used to browse for. Of course, this dwindles their buying audience — a far smaller share of consumers want to experience Streisand’s voice than want to hear about her scandalous affairs. But maybe it’s a sigh of relief for these figures who constantly overexpose themselves in the limelight. They don’t need to indulge in the gossip; a brief encounter with their personality, even for just a couple hundred pages, will suffice. And for readers, the personality is everything.