“Justin definitely wasn’t happy about the pregnancy,” writes Britney Spears in her new memoir, The Woman in Me, reminiscing about her short-lived relationship with fellow musician Justin Timberlake.
“And so I’m sure people will hate me for this, but I agreed not to have the baby.”
The Woman in Me doesn’t stop the whiplash reveals there. Following a description of the “excruciating … unbelievable” pain caused by the abortion pills, Spears writes of wanting more than anything to go see a doctor. But instead of getting her medical attention, Spears claims Timberlake took a different approach.
“[T]hey didn’t take me to the hospital. Justin came into the bathroom and lay on the floor with me,” she wrote. “At some point he thought maybe music would help, so he got his guitar and he lay there with me, strumming it.”
That raw and shocking admission is typical of a celebrity memoir. But while excerpts like that helped propel Spears’s book to the top of the Amazon bestseller list after its release this week, it’s simply set dressing. Just a few pages later, she gets into her real focus: clashes with reporters; the media’s focus on her body and sexuality above her musicality; and the shame and guilt her family caused her.
The book, like the tidal wave of others coming from famous faces, serves a different purpose than the prior generation of celebrity memoirs and autobiographies. In the past, memoirs operated as a sober reflection on a full career at its close. Now, influential figures are putting out memoirs often in the middle of their careers, as a tool to regain control of the narratives of their own lives.
“Celebrities, public figures, the media is always writing things about them — people are always speaking about them,” said Tobi Nifesi, a Vancouver-based ghostwriter. “And so sometimes they want to take back that control by changing the narrative, or putting out the accurate stories — and a book is a way for them to do that.”
Supremacy of memoirs
Nifesi, who says he has worked on several memoirs for public figures, says the vast majority of celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten. He said he used to receive job offers for mostly business and psychology books, but in the past couple of years, it has shifted so much to memoirs that they’re almost exclusively what he works on.
He said the reason for that, especially for celebrities, is the immense value of controlling their own story.
The celebrity memoir is about as old as celebrity itself — French actor Sarah Bernhardt, often considered the first modern celebrity, was also arguably the author of the world’s first such book, My Double Life, published in 1899.
Since then, the memoir has virtually taken over non-fiction publishing. BookNet Canada, a non-profit trade organization, doesn’t specifically track celebrity memoirs, but a 2016 study found that biography sales had consistently risen even as non-fiction sales fell — as of 2022, biography and memoir was the best-selling category of non-fiction.
Meanwhile, the six most expensive book deals ever have been for memoirs, according to Statista. (They include Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Amy Schumer’s The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo and Spears’s The Woman in Me.) As of this week, three of the New York Times’ non-fiction bestsellers are memoirs.
John Stamos’s memoir If You Would Have Told Me was released the same day as Spears’s, and similarly dominated headlines, with revelations about his alleged sexual abuse as a minor by a babysitter and the TV career of his ex-wife Rebecca Romijn.
Jada Pinkett Smith’s Worthy was released last week, and we can expect memoirs from Barbra Streisand, Henry Winkler, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patrick Stewart and Julia Fox in the coming weeks.
“People would never guess how many celebrity memoirs are out,” explained Claire Parker, a comedian and co-host of the podcast Celebrity Memoir Book Club. “Whenever someone says, ‘Are you going to run out?’ We go, ‘Tori Spelling has six.’ And, like, that’s where we’re at.”
The actor and reality TV star’s actual memoir count is closer to four or five, depending on how you classify this notably porous genre. But it shows the allure of publishing these books.
Spilling the goods
Spears uses much of the 270 pages in her memoir to litigate the time she spent in the spotlight, from growing up in Louisiana to her father’s infamous conservatorship over her — a period in which every aspect of her fashion, musicianship and sexuality was called into question and critiqued.
But the book was nonetheless marketed with salacious details out of context.
“That’s the case recently,” explained California-based writer and memoir coach Brooke Warner. “Britney Spears, certainly Prince Harry’s memoir, Kerry Washington’s memoir — there has to be some sort of headline-grabber.”
Like the stories about Spears’s abortion, the content of other public figures’ books has been overshadowed by titillating previews before they were even published. In the case of Prince Harry’s Spare, it was a scant section where he referenced frostbite on his nether regions. With Matthew Perry’s Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, it was a pre-publication leak referencing his negative opinion of Keanu Reeves (which Perry has since apologized for and removed from the book, after a backlash).
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Warner says memoirs have always been about dishing personal information, but the requirement to mine personal trauma has only gone up — especially for celebrities.
“More and more, the deeper memoirists go, they set new bars, new levels of expectation for what the next set of writers should do,” Warner said. “And if that … tumult that is happening inside their relationships isn’t great enough, a lot of fans will be disappointed, because they feel like they’re being set up for something revealing.”
Risks and rewards
If celebrities see memoir as mandatory brand management, it could prove to be more damaging than beneficial.
“As we see more and more celebrity memoirs coming out and the genre being more popular, the stakes are getting higher for women,” said Lisa Whittingon-Hill, publisher of This Magazine and author of Girls, Interrupted: How Pop Culture Is Failing Women.
A memoir that sets the record straight may be beneficial to celebrities like Spears, Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton, whose careers have been largely defined by media judgment. But the way those memoirs are critiqued and shared has the potential to replicate the damage they’re seeking to undo.
Anderson released both a memoir (Love, Pamela) and a documentary (Pamela, a Love Story) shortly after an HBO mini-series made without her consent; she had publicly disapproved of it due to its portrayal of intimate details of her relationship with rocker Tommy Lee, and the theft and dissemination of a tape of the two having sex. While intended to tell her story her way, Anderson’s memoir received criticism for not including enough soul-baring facts
In Spears’s case, Whittington-Hill said a memoir that was really a reckoning with her relationship with fans and the media was largely only noticed for the details about Timberlake’s alleged infidelity, their breakup and her abortion.
“Women can spend pages and pages talking about their awards and their accomplishments,” Whittington-Hill said. “But still, it always comes back to, you know, the sex, the scandal, the bombshell reveals.”
Those conflicting impulses, Whittington-Hill said, make it difficult for a memoir to curate the boundaries of a life in the spotlight. At least, when it comes to women.
“With women, there is really this expectation that they will bare it all,” she said. “That they will talk about their pain and all the kind of the trauma, the drama, all the juicy revelations.”