It’s quite possible that we’re living in the time of peak celebrity memoir. Revelations from the pages of books by the likes of former Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy and Friends actor Matthew Perry commanded a ton of media attention this year. The industry is dissected on a weekly basis on the popular Celebrity Book Club with Steven & Lily podcast, and the churn of star-written memoirs is unceasing. In this post, we run down the 10 best examples of the genre released in 2022, which are all some combination of vivid and harrowing.
No. 10: Jennette McCurdy, I’m Glad My Mom Died
You can’t discuss the year in celebrity memoirs without mentioning the shock from former child star Jennette McCurdy, which came in the form of her book I’m Glad My Mom Died. (At the time of publication, it was No. 2 on the New York Times’ Hardcover Nonfiction Bestsellers list, holding strong 18 weeks after its release.) As McCurdy details the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her now-dead mother, the title’s seeming cheekiness coagulates into something grimly straightforward. Among the horrors detailed are a hard-to-shake eating disorder that her mother encouraged to keep her looking young and marketable, as well as the greater emotional impact of fame at such a tender age.
I’m Glad My Mom Died moved people so much this year that you may wonder why it isn’t higher on this list. While McCurdy’s narrative is unquestionably effective, some of its impact is undercut by her decision to write in the present tense, which gives it a blow-by-blow sensibility—down to the towel selected during an argument and exactly what sentence was said exactly where and when. This presentation either suggests a photographic memory (unlikely) or a synthesis more befitting of a novel or screenplay than a work of nonfiction. It’s a certain version of “well-written” whose veneer clashes with the gritty details it presents.
Knowledge drop: On the set of Nickelodeon’s Sam & Cat, McCurdy found herself jealous of her co-star (one Ariana Grande), who “didn’t exactly try to hide her successes” during her ascent to A-list fame.
No. 9: Molly Shannon, Hello, Molly!
Given all that she’s been through, it’s no small feat that Molly Shannon has the sense of humor that she does. For starters, her mother, sister, and cousin were killed in a car accident when she was 4 (her father was driving). That’s just one of the stories she tells in Hello, Molly, which also details her time on Saturday Night Live, her father’s coming out, and the so-called Mamet Scam that helped her break into showbiz (she and her friend would pose as people from David Mamet’s office when they’d call agents recommending each other for auditions—and it worked). Shannon’s writing is almost cartoonishly upbeat—sometimes her commentary coasts on “greatest day ever” or “so fun!” But her abruptness can create narratives that are hilarious in their bizarreness, like this one of childhood socializing:
I liked staying up all night with the Foy girls. We would listen to “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross and the older sisters would smoke cigarettes and we’d all stay awake till the sun came up. At dawn, Wendy and I would push our babydoll around the block in strollers and look at the maggots in trashcans. She was a great friend.
Fun fact: Shannon persuaded Whitney Houston to appear in a now-iconic Mary Katherine Gallagher SNL sketch by giving her as few lines as possible and making her role mostly a singing one. After the show, Houston found her in a hallway backstage to tell her, “Girl, you are so crazy. That was so fun!” Shannon continues: “She was so happy and excited and sweet. And I could tell she had a really good, silly sense of humor. Silly, you could tell. I knew that.”
No. 8: Selma Blair, Mean Baby
Selma Blair’s Mean Baby explores yet another difficult mother-daughter relationship. But this one has grace and nuance to spare. Blair writes of her mother as her “first great love.”
“There is always one person who gets under our skin, who knows our weak spots and neuroses and can’t help but go in for the kill. They are the people who wound us the most, because we care so much about what they think. …For me, that person is my mother.” Elsewhere, Blair’s book is as eccentric as its title—do not miss the section where she discusses her predilection for biting people, including fellow celebs like Sienna Miller (who was amused), Seth McFarlane (who was not), and Kate Moss (who bit her back). Blair also assess (often in her trademark dryness) her time as a muse for fashion designers like Karl Lagerfeld, her drinking problem that go back to when she was 7 years old, awkward social encounters with other celebrities (not involving her teeth), and her massive crush on Jason Schwartzman.
Fun fact: Her Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro calls her “Monkey Brain,” “because my eyes cross when sleepy.”
No. 7: Matthew Perry, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
The other Big, Controversial Memoir of the year has already commanded its share of headlines, thanks to Matthew Perry’s revelation that he spent upwards of $7 million on rehab, was doing 1800 mg of hydrocodone a day at one point, in addition to a disparaging comment he writes about Keanu Reeves: “River [Phoenix] was a beautiful man, inside and out — too beautiful for this world, it turned out. It always seems to be the really talented guys who go down. Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us?” (Perry apologized for the comment, saying he chose a “random name”—though Reeves’ name appears again in his book in a revisiting of the same observation.)
The thing is, Perry comes off as kind of a dick throughout his book, which is equally bold and off-putting. (Regarding some pain after dental surgery, Perry writes: “I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words to the dental surgeon who was in charge of all this: Fuck off, you big piece of nothing fuck. Fuck asshole loser fucking fuck face. Now I feel better.”) He spares no one, including himself, saying that he’s convinced the disease of addiction will kill him. Perhaps there’s nothing more chilling on the matter than the book’s opening lines: “Hi my name is Matthew, although you may know me by another name. My friends call me Matty. And I should be dead.”
Fun fact: Perry’s mother, Suzanne Marie Morrison (née Langford), was the press secretary to former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. At one point in his youth, Perry beat up the PM’s son and future PM himself, Justin Trudeau.
No. 6: Geena Davis, Dying of Politeness
With clarity and wit, Davis shares her quirky tale of movie stardom, often through the lens of representation, a cause she has taken up via the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her interest in the subject is not just for the sake of making the world a better place; it has made her world a better place: “I think the big task of my life is to close the gap between when something happens to me and when I react authentically to it. And miraculously, the characters I’ve played have helped transform me slowly, in fits and starts, into someone who can stand up for herself and who on occasion knows how she feels about something right in the moment.”
Anecdotes abound about her time on the sets of some of the most fondly remembered movies of the ’80s and ’90s, like A League of Their Own, Thelma and Louise, Beetlejuice, and The Fly. She has nothing but kind things to say about her ex (and frequent co-star) Jeff Goldblum and credits her Thelma co-star Susan Sarandon for teaching her how to stand up for herself on set. This is a mature and clear-headed book that isn’t afraid to go to dark places. (Davis writes about being molested when she was a young child, and of Bill Murray screaming at her as part of an act “to make sure I knew my place” on the set of Quick Change.)
Fun fact: Davis’ mother chose the unique spelling of her daughter’s name instead of “Gina” so that no one mistook it for being pronounced as the “-gina” in “vagina.”
No. 5: Harvey Fierstein, I Was Better Last Night
Earlier this year, Harvey Fierstein talked to Jezebel about writing his memoir during lockdown. He was guided by a bit of advice from his friend Shirley MacLaine, who’s no stranger to writing about her life/lives: “Let your memory guide you even when you’re writing about someone else.” And what memories they are. Fierstein writes about knowing he was gay from age 5, his cruising during pre-liberation Manhattan, working with members of the Warhol factory at the East Village experimental theater La MaMa, and his eventual ascendency to becoming one of Broadway’s biggest stars as the star and writer of Torch Song Trilogy, Broadway’s “first openly gay play with an openly gay lead.”
This guy was friends with early queer iconic activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and though his presence in pop culture has long been inherently political, he takes a compassionate approach when recalling an infamous 1983 interview with Barbara Walters, who asked him a bunch of dumb questions about being gay. “Credit Barbara Walters,” he writes. “She could have edited that interview to make me look like an asshole and for her to come off as a brilliant reporter. Instead, she made me look great, while she appears uninformed. She aired a discussion that to us seems conventional but back then was groundbreaking.” What a class act.
Fun fact: “Of the three legendary queens of Warhol,” Fierstein writes, “Holly [Woodlawn] was always my favorite. I could never catch what Candy Darling was talking about, and when I did, it wasn’t worth the effort. Jackie Curtis was a genius—absolutely—but she’d steal your lipstick, eat your sandwich, smoke your last cigarette, and get pissed that you didn’t have more to swipe.”
No. 4: Colton Haynes, Miss Memory Lane
This slim memoir from former Teen Wolf/Arrow heartthrob Colton Haynes at times reads like real-life JT LeRoy. He details growing up poor, but nothing from his youth is more harrowing than Haynes’ account of a relationship he had with a cop when he was way underage: “It was my first time going all the way, although he didn’t know that. I stared up at the popcorn ceiling, the fan slowly oscillating. It was still daylight. His cum was inside of me. I was 14. He was 42.” Haynes writes about the cop (“Damon”) with the kind of clarity that acknowledges his lopsided teen perspective about the fucked-up situation: “If I had been forced to tell someone what was happening between us, I would have insisted that I seduced him. I was the aggressor. I wore him down. That’s a feeling I still carry with me to this day. I wasn’t a victim. He saw my worth. Did it matter that in the eyes of the law he was a predator who groomed me and took advantage of me?”
Elsewhere, Haynes discusses the profound influence America’s Next Top Model had on his life (when one agent noticed his strange gait as a result of the lifts in his shoes, he explained it away as his “signature walk”) and the toll that physical admiration has had on his psyche: “I spent my whole life selling my body to get attention because it was the only thing people wanted me for, that nobody wanted to hear me be funny, nobody wanted to hear me speak. They just wanted to get me naked and leave.” This eloquent book of uncomfortable truths rendered with nuance is Haynes’ revenge.
Knowledge drop: Haynes made $12,000 per episode on Teen Wolf (at least the first season). But expenses like commissions to his team, taxes, and a $4,000 monthly publicity fee ate much of his earnings. “After that I was lucky if I had anything left,” he writes.
No. 3: Constance Wu, Making a Scene
Instead of a point-A-to-point-B narrative of her entire life, Constance Wu makes the unique formal choice of telling her life story in a series of recreations of pivotal moments, a technique that allows her to go deep on the stuff that really mattered to her. It’s a brilliant choice, as Making a Scene achieves a vividness that most celebrity writers can only aspire to. In addition to some key relationships, she tells the story about being accused of plagiarism in grade school because her teacher simply could not believe she was such a good writer, which knocked her off her course to becoming the author she aspired to be. (And now, in fact, is.) She writes about crying over an orange, realizing loss through a cheeseball, her adoration of “peni” (yes, she means the plural of penis), her love of the radio host Delilah, and the Fresh Off the Boat renewal controversy for which she received so much blowback that she attempted suicide and landed in a mental health facility. Wu’s range as a writer is titanic.
Fun fact: “On Fresh off the Boat, every time you saw my character writing on a legal pad, signing a check, or making a grocery list, I was writing the word ‘penis’ over and over again,” Wu recalls. “I wasn’t discreet about it either. Everyone knew. There’s even video evidence, because at the end of a scene or a take, I’d always show the camera my ‘penis’-strewn paper and giggle. The proof was everywhere. ‘Penis’ was written all over my character’s props.”
No. 2: Jennifer Grey, Out of the Corner
Jennifer Grey’s story is one of contradictions: She was told she wasn’t getting work because of the size of her nose, but a nose job effectively flatlined her career by rendering her unrecognizable. (In the extended sequence that opens her memoir, Out of the Corner, she reports that the nose-job death knell was actually a second nose job to correct a complication from her first, less-altering procedure.) She helped define ‘80s pop culture as the star of one of the defining films of the decade, Dirty Dancing...and that’s about it.
As the daughter of performers Joel Grey and Jo Wilder, she spent her young life surrounded by Hollywood royalty, yet she couldn’t afford to buy the dress she wore to the Oscars after Dirty Dancing hit big. She tells it all and more with candor and self-possession in her book, spending a lot of time on Dirty Dancing and the difficulty she had with her co-star Patrick Swayze. She had gone into the movie wary about working with him after pranks he played on the set of their previous movie together, Red Dawn. He had resented her for not being as good of a dancer as him (though she had been cast in Dirty Dancing because she could move, she was an amateur compared to Swayze, who had 15 years of dance training). The sexual tension on screen, explains Grey, was the product of very real interpersonal tension. Rarely does a page go by that isn’t full of fascinating, very specific details put perfectly into perspective. For an actor whose legacy was somewhat lost in the shuffle, this is a bold, highly successful reclamation.
Fun fact: People who went to Studio 54 back in the day, as Grey did in her teens, either called it “Studio” or “54” but never “Studio 54.”
No. 1: Viola Davis, Finding Me
The thing about celebrity memoirs is that they generally kind of drag until they get to the point where their writer achieved fame. Not so with Viola Davis’s Finding Me, whose early pages examine the extreme poverty she experienced growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. An excerpt:
We had to go to the laundromat to wash clothes. But having no money, five kids, and freezing cold weather meant that most of the time laundry would go unwashed for weeks. That, compounded with the bed-wetting, made for a home with a horrific smell. Closets and space underneath the beds would be stuffed with shoes, dust, miscellaneous items. We were afraid of even cleaning for fear rats would be lurking underneath all the “rubbish.” On the first day of the month food stamps would come and we would make a huge grocery run at BIG G market. In less than two weeks, the food would be gone.
Her courage to describe what was such a shameful period of her life (she was taken aside by the school nurse at age 14 because she routinely went to school smelling like urine) is nothing short of astounding. The writing is as lucid as in any novel on the subject and it makes her ultimate success that much more of a triumph. I’ll never look at Davis the same after reading her story and experiencing her literary bravery.
Fun fact: “‘Cocksucker motherfucker’ was my favorite expression and at eight years old,” Davis writes, “I used it defiantly.”
Very honorable mention: Rob Delaney, A Heart That Works
While this is a memoir written by a celebrity, it is not technically a celebrity memoir. A Heart That Works does not trace Rob Delaney’s ascent to fame or detail much of what it’s been like to work on shows like Catastrophe. Instead, it’s a short account of living through the death of his 2-year-old son, Henry, in 2018. Not a word is wasted as Delaney describes the experience, attempting to soak in the mundane moments of his son’s brutally short life. This book details the desperation that comes in the absence of normalcy, with alternating poignance, humor, and rage. Read it and be devastated.
Fun fact: Sorry, none of the facts here are fun.