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Vulnerability is the new currency of stardom

The celebrities are trying to be human once more, one memoir at a time. They are revealing their heartaches and scars—downsizing their larger-than-life personas

Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith in Baltimore, US, last month, promoting her new memoir.  Jada Pinkett Smith has talked about ‘drowning in a tidal wave of sadness’.
Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith in Baltimore, US, last month, promoting her new memoir. Jada Pinkett Smith has talked about ‘drowning in a tidal wave of sadness’. (AP)

If I thought getting criticised about my body in the press was bad, it hurt even more from my own father. He repeatedly told me I looked fat and that I was going to have to do something about it. —Britney Spears, The Woman In Me

Every morning, waking up was like walking the plank of doom—could I make it to 4pm? If I could, I had survived the day. I always wanted to sleep, but I never slept well. —Jada Pinkett Smith, Worthy

Now, all these years later, I’m certain that I got famous so I would not waste my entire life trying to get famous. You have to get famous to know that it’s not the answer. And nobody who is not famous will ever truly believe that.  —Matthew Perry, Friends, Lovers And The Big Terrible Thing

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I love my Mother Country, and I love my family, and I always will. I just wish, at the second-darkest moment of my life, they’d been there for me too. —Prince Harry, Spare

The celebrity memoir excerpts buzzing around social media all seem to make the same point. It’s no fun any more to be a star. There’s no stardust, it all tastes like sawdust.

In order to sell, memoirs have to promise to reveal all. Once, that meant juicy gossip about affairs and indiscretions. That’s already out there thanks to tabloids and social media. Now we need to see the raw pain of what it takes to be beautiful/rich/famous.

In Spare, Prince Harry writes, “Grief is a thing best shared.” And while he did not intend it in quite that way, the celebrity memoir excerpts seem to have taken that mantra to heart.

In 1959, the bombshell actor Mae West published her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. “I enjoyed my success with no false humility and no coy hiding of my ego under a basket,” she wrote. In fact, the book’s title comes from one of her famous quips. When she sashayed into the frame for the first time while shooting the film Night After Night, the studio attendant exclaimed, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” West is supposed to have shot back, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

The story may or may not have been true. A memoir is self-serving after all and West, even in her 80s, was acutely conscious of her image, ensuring all the lights were on her when she walked into a restaurant. But while memoirs like hers were meant to burnish that image, the new set of celebrity memoirs appear more interested in telling the poor-little-rich-star story. We have to see the rags behind the riches. Instead of blowing up the star larger than life, it needs to blow them to smithereens.

This is not to say the pain and trauma are faked. As the recent death of Friends star Matthew Perry shows, the price paid for a life under brutal spotlights is all too real. Perry writes about all his stints in rehab, his coma, his near-death experience, his addictions and substance abuse, erectile dysfunction, colostomy bag in detail. He told The New York Times that after he recorded his audiobook, he thought, “Oh my God, what a terrible life this person has had.” Then he realised, “Wait a minute, it’s me! I’m talking about me!”

Perry hoped his candour would help other addicts, even those without $9 million (around 75 crore now) in resources, which is what he estimated he spent trying to get sober and stay that way. Britney Spears told PEOPLE magazine that the message she wanted to send out was, “speak up. Be loud. Know your worth. Inspire people, and most of all, just be kind.”

All of them lament the unfairness of a world that is routinely unkind to the stars who shine bright to entertain them.

Harry understands that pain only too well. The paparazzi chased his mother to death in a Paris tunnel, a ride he himself relived at the age of 23, hoping it would bring some closure, a cessation, however brief, to a decade of pain. “Instead it brought on the start of Pain, Part Deux.”

Spears had to go to court to get her father off her back and regain control of her life from a conservatorship that had deprived her of any agency. Perry craved anonymity, a life where every weight swing was not splashed all over the tabloids. Jada Pinkett Smith talked about how “on paper” her life looked grand “beautiful family, the superstar husband, the lavish lifestyle, fame and fortune”. But in reality she was “drowning in a tidal wave of sadness”, unable to “unthink the image of slitting (her) wrist” and looking for help everywhere “from Goddess gatherings, silent yoga retreats, backpacking alone, studying every religion you can think of”.

It seems that vulnerability is the new currency of stardom. The public wants to see the scars.

Even the latest season of Koffee With Karan is all about vulnerability, Karan Johar’s vulnerability. In the promo, Johar is having a tête-à-tête with his Kconscience, who roasts him for meh jokes with nepo babies, saying the previous season should have been called “Cold Koffee with Karan”. In the first episode of season 8, Johar stole his own show with a minute-long monologue about the loneliness of watching Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone’s romance and knowing he didn’t have anyone special in his life. “ It just makes me feel like what I am losing out in not being in one... And every day I wake up and a little part of me feels that vacuum…” he said. “I felt so happy for you and I felt so alone yet.” Johar won more plaudits than his star couple guests for exhibiting naked emotions instead of laying on the snark.

The other recurring refrain is lonely stars who crave a life outside the glare of flashbulbs. Spears told PEOPLE she finds joy in everyday moments—playing with her dogs, watching episodes of Friends and belly-laughing. “I am a simple girl,” she said. Of course, it’s ironic that while Friends was the epitome of the simple pleasures of wisecracking friends hanging out together, its star Matthew Perry was fighting his demons all along, just like Spears. After the famous episode where Perry’s Chandler marries Monica, he went straight from the shoot to rehab.

Celeb memoirs are of course more than the excerpts that are drip-fed to the media. Jada Pinkett Smith, for example, has a lot to say beyond the Oscars Slapgate, about being black in Hollywood. Spears shows courage in putting her own mental health under the scanner. But the PR machine seems to have decided to spin their stories as a sort of cautionary showbiz tales. Perhaps they calculate that’s what it will take to have them taken seriously. Or that will make the stars more relatable to readers.

They might be right. Spears’ memoir is already a best-seller. Harry’s Spare sold 1.43 million copies in just 24 hours in the UK, US and Canada, the largest first-day sales figure for any non-fiction book his publisher, Penguin Random House, had ever put out.

One doubts that despite all their good intentions, they will truly serve as cautionary tales for millions of kids who want to be the next Britney Spears. A casual scroll through Instagram and TikTok reveals the hunger for fame is only more insatiable. In fact, while the mega stars are revealing their heartaches and scars and downsizing their larger-than-life personas, it’s the Instagram influencers who doggedly package their daily life as a drool-worthy parade of 24x7 uninterrupted fabulousness.

The actor John Barrymore once told Mae West, “Actors are people, but not human.” It seems the celebrities are trying to be human once more, one memoir at a time. But there is always the danger that when you are worth millions and billions, these confessions will all come across as just old whine in new bottles.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr

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