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What celebrity memoirs and documentaries taught us in 2023 — from Jada Pinkett Smith, Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears and more

This year a number of revealing documentaries and celebrity memoirs offered glimpses into the personal lives of stars like Jada Pinkett Smith, Prince Harry, Britney Spears and Pamela Anderson. While many of them used the opportunity to reclaim their narratives on their own terms — often through shocking accusations or candid confessions — the trend raises a compelling question: When it comes to a celebrity baring their soul, how much is too much?

“You gotta give people what they want, and people want to feel connected to their celebrities,” Liza Anderson, Hollywood publicist and founder of Anderson Group Public Relations, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They want to feel a part of their lives, and I think celebrities like that too.”

Three copies of Britney Spears’s autobiography on the shelf at a bookstore.Three copies of Britney Spears’s autobiography on the shelf at a bookstore.

Copies of Britney Spears’s autobiography on the shelves of the Casa del Libro bookshop in Madrid in October. (Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

Readers certainly didn’t have a problem with that this year. In The Woman in Me, for example, Spears revealed that Justin Timberlake encouraged her to have an abortion during their relationship in the 2000s. She also shared her take on the 13-year conservatorship battle spearheaded by her father. In her own memoir, Worthy, Pinkett Smith disclosed that she and husband Will Smith have been separated since 2016, later opening up about Will’s infamous slap at the Oscars in 2022.

Others, like Anderson’s Love, Pamela, Paris Hilton’s Paris: The Memoir and Prince Harry’s Spare, as well as documentaries like David Beckham’s Beckham and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Arnold, shined a light on feelings of being misunderstood, the high cost of fame and the uphill battle of turning one’s pain into purpose.

The cover art for Jada Pinkett Smith’s memoir shows the actress in profile.The cover art for Jada Pinkett Smith’s memoir shows the actress in profile.

The cover art for Jada Pinkett Smith’s memoir. (HarperCollins)

Still, writing a bestselling memoir is easier said than done, says Carrie Thornton, vice president and publisher of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Thornton edited numerous celebrity memoirs this year, including those written by Pinkett Smith, Pamela Anderson and Hilton. She believes reading a celebrity’s life story — with their unvarnished mistakes, revelations and triumphs — inspires readers to apply that level of strength in their own lives.

“There needs to be teachable moments in these books,” which are strategically mapped out with an editor while developing a memoir, Thornton tells Yahoo Entertainment. Most of those moments arise from writing about painful experiences.

Reliving those experiences is “difficult for any writer,” she adds, but the payoff is worth it in the end.

Finding the ‘teachable moments’

After identifying the book’s overarching theme, which Thornton describes as the “coat hanger,” authors will skillfully drape their “teachable moments” around it to help sculpt the book’s unifying message.

This allows readers to have several “takeaways” that are thoughtfully linked instead of feeling scattered. It also has other benefits, she explains.

For starters, leading with teachable moments rids authors of a “prevailing mythology” attached to their public image, making them more relatable to readers. It also shows vulnerability, which is paramount in earning a reader’s trust. More importantly, it allows celebrities to reclaim their stories with proper context, using their past to explain how they became the person they are, and made the decisions they did.

Paris Hilton, seated, touches the arm of a fan standing next to her at a book signing in the United Kingdom.Paris Hilton, seated, touches the arm of a fan standing next to her at a book signing in the United Kingdom.

Paris Hilton signs books for fans at the U.K. launch of Paris: The Memoir in March. (Dave Benett/Getty Images for Selfridges)

“In Paris Hilton’s book, for example, she went into graphic detail about the abuses she suffered at reformation schools: sexual abuse, physical violence and the way in which she felt deeply abandoned by her parents,” Thornton explains. “They were very hard for her to write and extremely painful for me to edit.”

Hilton’s story on paper is the opposite of the person you see in the public eye. As was the case for Pamela Anderson, Pinkett Smith and Jessica Simpson, she continues, opening up in such a vulnerable way helped reshape public attitudes toward them — for better or for worse.

“Jada’s book really did show who she was,” which was the goal all along, Thornton explains, noting the “divisive campaign” that came with the star’s book tour accusing her of being too candid. “She fought a valiant fight, and some people really came on board with her and other people didn’t,” she notes of the experience. “Of the people that didn’t, I think 99% of them hadn’t even read it.”

Taking back the narrative

The idea of “taking back the narrative” manifested in various ways this year, explains Anderson. Sometimes it was by “righting a wrong,” other times it was by reclaiming one’s image. The most memorable moves, however, were by those who returned to the spotlight after years of being away.

To that end, the publicist says readers have a keen sense of an author’s true intentions. That can play a huge factor in what they take away from it.

“If you compare Pamela Anderson to Jada Pinkett, it’s like night and day,” she says as an example, noting that Pinkett Smith’s book appeared more “self-serving” than anything else.

“It seemed like [Pinkett Smith] was a heat-seeking missile, looking for more attention by writing about shocking revelations to cause headlines and want people to buy the book,” she explains. “Whereas somebody like Pamela Anderson was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been hanging low for the last 20 years. What the hell? Want to dig up some old dirt? Let me tell you how it went down. Let me take control of my story.’”

The cover of Pamela Anderson’s memoir shows her looking directly at the camera.The cover of Pamela Anderson’s memoir shows her looking directly at the camera.

Pamela Anderson’s memoir and Netflix documentary helped revitalize her career and public persona after the Baywatch star took a break from the limelight for several years. (HarperCollins)

The same can be said for stars like Schwarzenegger, who spoke of his experience with body dissatisfaction in Arnold after being away from the spotlight for years, and Barbra Streisand, who wrote her first memoir in November after being under the radar for a while.

A break from the spotlight can be anxiety-inducing, Thornton notes, especially when a celebrity is desperate to reclaim a negative story in the press. If that’s the case, she says, honesty is the best policy.

“When somebody goes away for a long time, [their public] narrative takes hold, and sometimes a bad narrative is really hard to overcome,” says Thornton. “Don’t pretend like it doesn’t exist: Write it where it is, meet it where it is, answer the questions, own the bad points of it and then tell the full context of it,” she explains. “Then you can flip the narrative around. Usually it works.”

Scandals sell, but are they worth the cost?

An impactful celebrity memoir isn’t just about “ax-grinding” and “score-settling,” notes Thornton. Those books tend be remembered only for their negativity, rather than for being something of substance.

“I’ve had to shy people away from that because I don’t think that’s the right intention,” the publisher explains. “I think that’s dangerous.”

There’s a difference between “setting the record straight” and “leaving a path of destruction” while writing a memoir, Anderson says. “That’s the point where you have to really weigh the consequences to say, ‘Is this really worth it?’”

She points to John Stamos’s memoir, If You Would Have Told Me, as an example. In it, he accuses ex-wife Rebecca Romijn of infidelity and of treating him poorly during their six-year marriage. Her current husband, actor Jerry O’Connell, defended her by calling Stamos’s accusations a “betrayal.”

Rewriting their own story

Just because someone is famous doesn’t mean their fans are going to spend money on a book, says Thornton, which is why a winning approach for modern-day memoirs is to deliver a story that stands alone, that will be appealing to an audience as a piece of literature, with or without the author’s fame.

“What is the sort of larger gift that this book can give someone? What is the larger lesson this book can teach someone? What are the ways in which this book can change the narrative around an issue that this person represents or feels really strongly about?” she says of her methodology.

It’s certainly a winning strategy. Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, both published by HarperCollins, are among the publisher’s bestsellers years after their first printing.

“Patti Smith’s book will be in print forever. It tells a really important story about a place and a time, and youth and evolution and identity,” Thornton says. “Amy Poehler’s book is about to be 10 years old, and it’s still one of our bestsellers. I’m incredibly proud of that.”

When executed masterfully, memoirs have the power to give celebrities a new act, she says. Once a book is out there, it’s out there forever. The responsibility of owning their whole story is up to the celebrity.

“The book could be something they’re promoting for a very long time because it’s changed the public’s perception of them,” Thornton says. “And that’s a great thing to happen.”

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