Britney Spears’s The Woman in Me: The celebrity memoirs that reveal the truth

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As news spread of actor Matthew Perry’s death on Saturday,tributes from colleagues and fans flooded social media. Many made reference to his iconic role as Chandler Bing on the sitcom Friends; those who knew him personally recounted the qualities that made him a friend. And some used Perry’s own words to memorialise him, quoting from his bestselling 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, in which he discussed, with raw candour, his years-long battle with alcohol and opiate addiction.

Perry’s memoir provided fans a uniquely personal view into his psyche, and for many it changed their perception of the actor. He wasn’t just the sarcastic character from television who made them laugh over the decades – instead readers were privy to his struggles, his opinions on Hollywood, and even his thoughts on what the future held.

“Love and courage, man – the two most important things. I don’t move forward with fear anymore – I move forward with curiosity,” the actor wrote in the book.

These are things we rarely see or hear from the mega-famous, whose lives and public personas are carefully honed by teams of managers, stylists and publicists. Even celebrities who are active on social media provide fans with only snippets of their personal lives. But over the past decade a slew of extremely personal memoirs penned by a diverse set of stars including Keith Richards, Julia Fox, Jessica Simpson and Prince Harry, have become bestsellers, won literary awards,  and changed the way we think about the nature of celebrity.

“We know what they’ve been working on, which galas they’ve attended, who they had dinner with… and so on,” explains Dr Marcia Layton Turner, founder and executive director of the Association of Ghostwriters. “The ‘what’ is already known. What the public doesn’t generally know is the ‘why’ or the ‘how’.”

And in memoir form, with space to craft a nuanced narrative, celebrities are able to provide those answers on a deeply personal level.

From rags to riches

When Britney Spears’ much-hyped autobiography,The Woman in Me, went on sale in October, it instantly became the bestselling book on Amazon, thanks to presales from eager fans. This week it debuted at number one on the New York Times Bestsellers List (memoirs from actors John Stamos and Jada Pinkett Smith also earned spots on the coveted list).

In her book, Spears recounts, with a kind of fevered urgency, her rise from small town Louisiana to mega-stardom. Even before she gets to the subject of the infamous 2008 court-ordered conservatorship,which gave Spears’s father power over her finances and daily life, the reader feels intimately familiar with the singer. Some of the more salacious details from the book made their way into the media in the weeks before the memoir’s publication: the painful at-home abortion endured as her then-partner, the singer and actor Justin Timberlake strummed an acoustic guitar; the night she shaved her head in front of a throng of camera-toting paparazzi; even the menacing hiss of the giant snake she bore aloft at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.

But other events, like the birth of two sons in two years with ex-husband Kevin Federline, are transformed by Spears’s telling, as she describes her struggles with depression and the loneliness she felt at the height of her fame. And those details are causing readers to reexamine their feelings about the celebrity.

“I hope any new mothers reading this who are having a hard time will get help early,” she writes. “Because I now know that I was displaying just about every symptom of perinatal depression: sadness, anxiety, fatigue. Once the babies were born, I added on my confusion and obsession about the babies’ safety, which was ratcheting up the more media attention was on us. Being a new mom is challenging enough without trying to do everything under a microscope.”.

It’s this kind of intimate detail that draws readers in, making them feel as if they alone are privy to the secrets of the ultra-famous. And for many, that connection challenges their preconceived notions of celebrity authors.

Amelia, 39, a copywriter who lives in New York, says she is “obsessed” with celebrity memoirs, especially those written by women who were notorious during her teenage years. She says The Woman in Me has caused her to re-examine her adolescent feelings about Spears. “Britney was one of the stars who taught me the rules of being a woman, but it was through the lens of gossip bloggers like Perez Hilton,” she explains. “Now, as an adult and a mother to a daughter I am doing my own internal correction. I think, ‘whoah, I grew up during a toxic time’. Hearing from Britney Spears herself is just really nice. It’s not just nostalgia, it’s almost like an apology for participating. Like yeah, I’m really sorry we gossiped about you in such a nasty way back then.”

A lucrative partnership

Celebrity memoirs have existed in some for as long as people have been famous: stage actress Sarah Bernhardt published hers, My Double Life, in 1907. Now, as social media has allowed A-listers to connect more intimately (or at least para-socially) with fans, many celebrities are keen to continue that connection, and to wrest the larger narratives of their lives from tabloids and gossip blogs. And fans are eager to read all about it.

Layton Turner says that feeling of connection is common and intentional. Many of the most successful celebrity authors of the last decade have chosen to collaborate with a ghostwriter, a professional who can help create a riveting narrative arc that is faithful to the source material. Layton Turner notes that even while working with a ghostwriter, celebrities themselves are still doing a great deal of literary and emotional heavy lifting. For many of the mega-famous, writing a book may be the first time they’ve had a chance to sit and reflect on the experiences that shaped them – and that sense of raw emotion is what makes them so popular with readers.

“I think there are some new misconceptions about how much power the ghostwriter wields in shaping the narrative,” she says.” I heard this repeatedly with respect to JR Moehringer and Prince Harry’s book. People gave Moehringer a lot of credit for how stories were framed when I’m not sure he deserves all the credit or all the blame. Yes, ghostwriters are professional storytellers, but they are hired to help the celebrity tell their story.”

Still, this level of collaboration between celebrities and powerhouse ghostwriters – former Vibe and Essence editor Michaela Angela Davis worked with singer Mariah Carey on her 2020 memoir, and New Yorker journalist Ariel Levy co-authored Inside Out with the actress Demi Moore – has elevated the form.

It speaks to the power of these books that sales surged of Perry’s Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing following the news of his death, even unseating Spears for the number one spot on Amazon. In trying to process the untimely demise of a celebrity to whom many fans felt a deep kinship, it makes sense that Perry’s own words would become a source of comfort. The celebrity memoir, after all, is the closest many people will get not just to fame, but also to the inner life of someone who has, from a distance, been a source of entertainment, inspiration, and even, in some sense, a constant companion.