Still Reeling from My Loss

Andrew O’Hagan

  • I Don't Want to Fight by Lulu
    Time Warner, 326 pp, £17.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 316 86169 3
  • Billy by Pamela Stephenson
    HarperCollins, 400 pp, £6.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 00 711092 8
  • Just for the Record by Geri Halliwell
    Ebury, 221 pp, £17.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 09 188655 4
  • Learning to Fly by Victoria Beckham
    Penguin, 528 pp, £6.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 14 100394 4
  • Right from the Start by Gareth Gates
    Virgin, 80 pp, £9.99, September 2002, ISBN 1 85227 914 1
  • Honest by Ulrika Jonsson
    Sidgwick, 417 pp, £16.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 283 07367 5

If you want to be somebody nowadays, you’d better start by getting in touch with your inner nobody, because nobody likes a somebody who can’t prove they’ve been nobody all along. Today’s celebrities hack their cloth to suit the fashion of the times: the less you do the more you are doing, the less you know the more you are knowing, the less you wear the more you are wearing, and so say all of us. God loves a chancer more than he loves a trier, and the tabloid newspapers – who recognise no higher power than themselves – speak every day for a Britain that is perfectly in love with its cellphone democracy. This is William Cobbett’s country no more, so let us sling a troubled thought among the Christmas books.

The sufferings of a celebrity, despite the enjoyments, despite the privilege, are supposed to embody the sufferings of us all. They remind us how we are all the same, that even Christ suffered pain, and suffered it for our sake. Is that why we all cried for the Princess of Wales? Is that the only sainthood we can know? You see it everywhere now: on EastEnders, in Heat magazine, on television chat shows and movies produced by Miramax. Pain is one of the new pleasures, abuse is the new nurturing. A hummable, weepable, narcissistic self-pity, hitherto only available in the speeches of Billy Graham and the recording work of Tammy Wynette, has, over the last few years, taken Britain by storm, and it is nowhere more evident than in the new style of celebrity autobiography.

Many modern celebrities call everyday people ‘normals’, and it was a proper normal, Dave Pelzer, who gave these plot-losing self-describers their narrative arc and their sad tone. Since it came out in 1993, A Child Called ‘It’ – a whole book of seismic wallowing – has inspired the famous with the notion that a brutal life story generously told could guarantee unlimited book sales. Suddenly, people didn’t experience their childhoods, they survived them, they didn’t live their lives, they ‘came through’ them, and right there, one small step for the mangled, one giant leap backwards for mankind, these authors grasped a powerful rationale for adult self-obsession and the eternal hungers involved in fame. They found they could set themselves up as a principality of wounds. Here’s Pelzer:

Standing alone in that damp, dark garage, I knew, for the first time, that I could survive. I decided that I would use any tactic I could think of to defeat Mother or to delay her from her grisly obsession. I knew if I wanted to live, I would have to think ahead. I could no longer cry like a helpless baby. In order to survive, I could never give in to her. That day I vowed to myself that I would never, ever again give that bitch the satisfaction of hearing me beg her to stop beating me.

And then, a hundred pages of thick ears and italicised selfhood later:

I’m so lucky. My dark past is behind me now. As bad as it was, I knew even back then, in the final analysis, my way of life would be up to me. I made a promise to myself that if I came out of my situation alive, I had to make something of myself. I would be the best person that I could be. Today I am. I made sure I let go of my past, accepting the fact that that part of my life was only a small fraction of my life. I knew the black hole was out there, waiting to suck me in and forever control my destiny – but only if I let it. I took positive control over my life.

There was a point not long ago when Dave Pelzer’s self-rescue manuals held the top three spots in the bestseller charts. In Britain, it is likely that one out of every 15 adults will have read a Pelzer book, and the ‘inspirational’ style in general, with its page-turning mix of the brutal and the banal, its triteness of phrase and sentiment, has changed the memoiring business for good. ‘Making something of yourself in the world’, as Pelzer sees it, is the only way to rob a sad childhood of its dark victory over your experience. For the newer kind of celebrity, the contemplation of the Nobody years becomes a guaranteed way of justifying the Somebody years and all the excesses that Somebodyhood might involve. Fame finally gets to have an essential moral component: it is the work of self-preservation, a summit of reason, a resounding answer to the riddle of life, a compact of exemplary human capabilities, a reverie of the perfect comeuppance, the ideal riposte to familial abuse. Being famous comes to seem like the natural order’s premier reward for martyrdom.

The relationship between sainthood and stupidity – think of Charles Bovary, a fool raised by what he endures, or Princess Diana, the patron saint of non-swots – is a connection that lies too deep for tears in these biographies. Yes, they are simple-hearted bids for approval, but there is also something vicious in the journeyings of self-glory that they represent, something rapacious and nearly vengeful in the attempt to position famousness as a corrective to the unfair balance of power in the average childhood. In every one of these books, the dedication is the key: in most cases they tell you everything, a hard haiku of explicitness, set before the swirling poetry of the difficult life.

The Scottish singer Lulu is Pelzer in a feather boa. ‘To ma mammy and ma daddy,’ she starts off. ‘This would not have been possible with you here, but would never have been possible without you.’ As dedications go, this is pretty scruffy, but you soon see how beautifully it encapsulates the trouble at the centre of our Lulu’s life. Right away, before you’re halfway down Garfield Street, the demons are stalking the tenements, made to appear in a puff of psychoanalytic smoke:

Even when cut and bleeding, my mother kept goading him. I don’t know what she wanted to prove. Maybe she was looking for attention. Or maybe she wanted to be punished. Some people would rather be beaten and abused than ignored, particularly when they are lonely and hurting. There were nights when the fights would wake me, but I was always ready to be woken. I slept with my muscles taut and my teeth clenched. My heart would fly into my mouth. Blinking into the darkness, I’d look across at Billy. I didn’t want him to cry. We’d huddle together, flinching as the fists landed. Neither of us wanted to believe our parents could hate each other so much.

And, of course, not long in bringing up the rear is the neediness, the attention, an obsession with fashion detail the like of which we haven’t seen since Patrick Bateman was looking out his tie in American Psycho, and, then, of course, there’s the friends. Lulu has more than your average head for vertiginous name-dropping: it’s Elton this and John Lennon that, insecurity all the way, but this doesn’t stop the portrait from becoming something of an anthem to Little Me-ism. Lulu is a Sixties being: one of the first of that generation of pop stars to be found cool on account of their class, their vowels, their cheek and their style. But thrillingly, Lulu – unlike so many of her starry pals – has held onto her hunger, and every paragraph of her autobiography is a battle to win ground from the hurters: every sentence sets out to convey the message that success is an essential part of the revenge strategy for the abused and the self-abused, all of which makes her a very contemporary kind of self-revealer. Lulu is a Scotch egg: ginger on the outside, hard-boiled on the inside, and a favourite at the parties of the resolutely unposh. Yet, in her own account, her life has been a rather sophisticated battle with her own gigantic feelings. Celebrity writers are obsessed with feelings:

I just had this innate understanding that I had to keep working. With hindsight I can see it was a mishmash of Protestant work ethic, a sense of responsibility for people and a desire not to be forgotten. I didn’t ask myself what I could do differently. That sort of introspection came years later when I learned how to get in touch with my feelings and learned how to look after the world inside me, not just the world outside. John was working harder than ever. He had a growing client list and was making a real name for himself as a celebrity crimper and ‘top London hairdresser’ as the papers referred to him. I used to get annoyed with him for never being home. I wanted more of his attention.

Following some bad times with the crimper and the loss of her record company, Lulu has found popularity again by singing with the boy band Take That, and now she is the beautifully nipped and tucked grande dame to a whole new generation of self-seekers, kids who, all over again, are in love with the idea that someone from nowhere can take everywhere by storm. Her new manager is the teen-wrangler Louis Walsh, who can be seen making and breaking young hopefuls every Saturday night on the television show Popstars: The Rivals. Out of her troubles – and the overcoming of her troubles – Lulu has become poster-girl for a new generation of the enduringly ambitious. Her latest album went straight into the UK pop charts at number four.

Self-hagiography – and its popularity – probably has more to do with needs than choices, but what happens when those needs are shared by the people who know you best? In literature this sort of thing has a heartbreaking history, if one thinks of, say, Jane Welsh Carlyle, or Mrs Tennyson, or Vera Nabokov; but what if Pamela Stephenson, the clinical psychologist married to Billy Connolly, is the modern version? Here is a woman who never fails, in her ultra-bestselling biography Billy, to take advantage of her domestic arrangements, so that every semi-recumbent position poor Connolly might assume becomes an opportunity for the wife to conjure with the old psychic woes. Dedication: ‘To the Connolly and McLean families, in the spirit of healing through understanding; and to all families who are divided by religious differences, or who struggle with abuse, poverty or addiction.’

Of course, there must be advantages in living with a saint, and spouses must get something out of it for themselves, but Pamela Stephenson so effectively Pelzer-ises Billy Connolly that you begin to wonder what it is about the lives of talented people that lends itself so readily to a thoroughly banal account of themselves. Stephenson gives us a Billy Connolly whose rage is no longer enjoyable; he is no longer the working-class guy who was a careful listener and a wry observer of shite and toil, but a thoroughly broken adult who is constantly running into the limelight as a way of escaping the emotional starvations and sexual abuses of his childhood. He is not really at home in Glasgow or Los Angeles; the stage is his only home, and it is not any joyful platform either, but a place where demons are routinely confronted, where voices from the past are finally (but repeatedly) given their answer, and for Stephenson, as for all these writers, the whole of showbusiness is something larger than itself: it is not a job, but a display of courage; it is not to do with a developed gift, but a grievous vocation; it is not a wonderful effort to be good and special, but a fleeing from badness and a fight to be normal. If John Bayley made the world an unsafe place in which to be a spouse, then Pamela Stephenson goes one step further: she takes a person famous for his character and gives him the psychological boilwash of his life, leaving him damp, colourless, wrung out, and softened; dragged into a basket waiting at the base of her hungry machine.

Like many sentimental narrative-makers, Stephenson is addicted to flashbacks that begin to kick in from a position of apparent glory: Billy is standing on a stage surrounded by applause; he is in attendance at a flash Hollywood party; he is negotiating the corridors of his vast castle, the centre of a world he has made for himself; and yet, as his biographer has it, the terrors of the past are always ready to encroach on his achievements, making them sickly and hysterical. Childhood has everything to do with the problem of fame, of course, but more subtly than this, and often in ways that offer permission to the talent rather than force depletion on the character. If fame is a kind of freedom for some people – a kind of release, and a revenge – it needn’t mean that every interesting element of that person is a form of falsification, a deranged refusal of everything that was handed down. Stephenson turns Connolly into the sum of his abuses, a product of darkness alone, and she helps us to lose sight of his native defences and imaginative leaps, his power of communication, his handy way with blasphemy, his light-conducting naturalism in the face of some pretty bad odds. Connolly is funny, and his funniness is not merely some sensational consequence of his sadness. He has more versions of himself than his biographer can live with: his ability to inflect society and inflect himself derives from a culture much larger than the culture of drunk fathers who like to put their hands down their children’s pyjamas.

But in the mind of celebrity survivalism, nothing could ever be so interesting as that:

It’s hard to know exactly why William molested his own son. He had the experience of being extremely religious and, since the Catholic Church was very strict about the sanctity of marriage, he saw no possibility of divorce from Mamie or remarriage at any point: however, that doesn’t really explain why he chose this particular form of sexual expression. It wouldn’t be the first time extreme sexual repression in an ostensibly religious person led to ‘unspeakable’ acts. As Carl Jung explained, denial of our shadow side will often cause it to rise up against us. Perhaps William himself had been sexually abused in childhood, as is so often the case with perpetrators. In fact, historical accounts of that culture and time would suggest that, in those overcrowded conditions, incest was extremely common.

And when Stephenson first meets Connolly, ‘it felt as if we were joined at the wound.’ The comedian is now surrounded by people who are hungry for his seriousness, and who have detained themselves with enough Jung to render all good comedy an illness. In a performer, rawness is not necessarily the enemy of polish, but Connolly’s loved ones clearly want him to smarten up his ideas about himself, as if he was negligent before, as if solving the past in conventional ways requires much more of him than his genius. As psychic rescues go, Billy is the perfect modern celebrity’s kind of thing; it might not be evident – not in the following paragraph anyhow – that low-fat self-regard is no less poisonous than self-doubt.

It is August 2000 and the heavy green dining-room curtains at Candacraig, our Scottish home, have been drawn to hide the bright evening sunshine of a northern summer night. A few close friends, some of them known to the world as very funny people, have just seated themselves with us around the dinner table. The conversation gravitates to an uncomfortable discussion of the impetus for comedy, in reply to a question from one of the non-comedians at the table.

‘For me,’ interjects Billy at one point, ‘it’s about the desire to win. My audience becomes a crowd of wild animals and I have to be the lion-tamer or be eaten . . .’

‘Oh, is that so?’ Steve Martin challenges him. ‘You don’t think it’s about a little hurt from Daddy?’

When you want everything, and get everything, maybe the fantasy of having nothing becomes your luxury. In showbusiness, that kind of thinking has always, at the same time, been part of the reality and the campness of the industry. ‘Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a million dollars for a kiss and ten cents for your soul,’ said Marilyn Monroe, someone for whom adult fame could seem like a poor betrayal of the richness of girlhood dreams.

These people’s books always tell you what they’ve got – the cars, the attention, the castle, the hotels – but this is really just a kind of throat-clearing for the main announcement: I Have None of the Things that Normal People Have. As vanities go, this one is pretty hot, but it’s now widespread enough to have become a pop cultural commonplace. Sentimental as a lollipop, no doubt, but at one stroke it turns the audience’s envy into pity, the star’s excesses into privations, and makes the generally bloated star feel like someone who lives at the very centre of the world’s suffering. There’s a price to be paid for fame, you see, and only the famous would understand. It’s a Judy Garland-style balance sheet of profit and loss, now scripted into the deepest self-dramatisations of our celebrity culture; when you have everything you are insufferably lonely in your view of things on our small planet; and slowly, photogenically, you become a victim hounded by ‘demons’ and ‘parasites’.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in the earlier days of British light entertainment and pop music and television, this was a hidden, unknown process, where worlds of dissociation and distraction engulfed young people before they knew what was happening to them, and the journey through famousness for someone like the singer Lena Zavaroni seems to me an entirely different order of drama, a properly personal disaster that involved a notion of community and a postwar idea of domestic life, leisure and the good society. She was the last gasp of the entertainment world that existed before global corporate sponsorship and MTV. But the meaning of publicity has changed everything: there is a new sort of narcissism in the dramas promulgated by the famous, an explicit revelling in fame for its own sake, in the branding of personality, and it is a development the world finds compelling.

‘This book is dedicated to the walking wounded,’ Geri Halliwell writes. (Halliwell too can now be found acting as a judge on one of the Saturday-night talent shows that have changed young Britons’ notions of what it means to be alive.) And yet, despite the millions, the gear, the house in Hollywood, her story happens not to be an account of all the luck and the fun she is having.

It would take a whole book on its own to really explain the recovery process I have been through. All I can do is try to convey how profoundly it affected my life . . . I can honestly say it has been the most painful thing I have ever done, and the most rewarding. I didn’t know it at the time but the moment I picked up the phone and asked for help, I took my first step on the road to recovery. That simple step marked the end of years and years of denial because I was confessing that I was powerless over food and that my life was out of control as a result.

I began to realise how dishonest I had been to myself and to my friends and family for so long, I was living a double life, giving the impression that everything was fine and that my eating problems were over when I knew that I had been controlling and bingeing. Now I just wanted to be honest. The first person I had to be honest with was myself. I had accepted I was powerless over food but now I had to look for the reasons. And when I did, I realised that my addiction was not the disease, but the symptom. Insane as it sounds, I even found a reason to be grateful for my problem.

Well, not as insane as all that. We have to assume that Geri is part of the generation that likes to think success is the answer to the principal questions of a young life, and that, after success, the only answer is failure, which serves to deepen the notion of success. She wants normality but also wants to say normality is a curse:

I came from a poor family and a broken home and had always felt like I was the odd one out, the token working-class girl in Watford Grammar School. But these things alone can’t really explain my eating disorder. They do help to explain why I was so hungry for fame from an early age – after all, they are the classic conditions needed to produce a wannabe. I think the real explanation has its roots in the death of my father in November 1993 and the fact that six months later – still reeling from my loss – I walked into a London rehearsal studio and auditioned for the group that would become the Spice Girls.

Every one of these books should be called ‘Still Reeling from My Loss’. Waterstone’s ought to have a wall for them: ‘Still Reeling after All These Years’. The problem, you might imagine, is less to do with the ordinary to and fro of free school dinners and dad being partial to the odd snifter, and more to do with the modes of behaviour common to a tribe of people who take more interest in the media’s interest in them than they take in themselves or the people around them. Most of these celebrities spent too much time staring lovingly (then hatefully) into the media pond: if it’s not the mirror it’s the Mirror, and modern celebrities are covered in vanity, low-mindedness and deceit when it comes to the tabloid press, to say nothing of the press’s own behaviour.

Geri Halliwell’s old chum from the Spice Girls, Victoria Beckham, has a thing or two to say about the push-me-pull-you mechanics of the British press, but, first off, she’s in a class of her own when it comes to dedications. She feels sorry for herself too, but she manages quite deftly, in dedicating the book to her family, to remind us all how effectively her sense of self has obliterated their reality:

Mummy, Daddy, Louise and Christian. Over the last six years I have turned your lives upside down. And I don’t just mean having to live behind security gates. As difficult as it has been for me, it has been even more difficult for you – not just coping with my personality, with its ups and downs, but your whole lives have been changed. While I have fame and the money that comes with it, all you have, apart from being proud, is the upheaval.

That’s all I’m having to do with Victoria Beckham, except to say that she and her husband, David, in their relationship with the press, have taken the notion of abuse, the abuse of one set of human beings by another, to levels that make Billy Connolly’s childhood seem like a chapter from The Swiss Family Robinson. They may be right to feel hunted by the press, but feeling hunted by the press is an aspect of self-hunting too: their famousness is an occasion for grief, and their grief is a constituent part of their fame.

The newspapers love abuse stories and they love the mixture of celebrity and populism that marries so easily in the culture now. People can vote these celebrities into being, they can read about their horrific lives in the papers, they can buy the books that give more details and which speak of the terrors of the press, they can move quickly onto the next serving of success and pain, voting new people on and new people off, and to Tony Blair and culture-surfers everywhere, it can seem like a nice way of having a democracy. Tony Blair asked for a meeting with one of the judges on Popstars, Pete Waterman, and sought his advice on how to harness the five-minute convictions of that generation. Not long ago, the winners of a previous talent show, the pop group Hear’Say, broke up in a welter of tears and recriminations, speaking of horrific media manipulation, destroyed personal lives and abuse on the street.

Celebrity means nothing now without the notion of suffering. Fresh off the block, aged only 18, the Popstars runner-up Gareth Gates is here with his autobiography, already hooked up with a ghost-writer of his former self, already reeling from the difficulties of being a success. These books know their market: again, this is not a youthquaking story of hard work, sheer pleasure, tradition and talent, but a tale of how Gareth struggled to make it with a speech impediment:

I had a stammer from the moment I tried to put sentences together, which my parents recognised because my dad had a stammer up until he was 18, which he grew out of (my sister Charlotte has one too; sometimes it’s hereditary). My stammer got worse over the years and at five I was referred to a speech therapist, but this didn’t really help me. My stammer would make me completely unable to say a sentence properly, but I didn’t want this ever to get in the way of what I wanted to do.

You would think talent was enough, but talent nowadays is not enough: it must answer a grievance, it must canonise its bearer. At the most visible end of tabloid fame, no talent at all will be fine, so long as the body itself is lovely, and makes itself available for whipping and anointing and self-explaining. Here’s the facts. Ulrika Jonsson used to be the weathergirl on TV-am. She had an affair with the England football manager. Over the last year she has had more newspaper and magazine stuff written about her than was devoted to the war in Sudan, the elections in Brazil and the future of the Common Agriculture Policy combined. But Ulrika is familiar with her own agony and she is ready to share. (Dedication: ‘To Cameron and Bo. Remember, if the worst comes to the worst, being screwed up can sometimes make you more interesting.’) And so the past comes reeling back. The book is called Honest:

I have been married, divorced, faithful and unfaithful. I have battled with depression and enjoyed moments of bliss. I have had an abortion, I have been raped and I have stripteased. I have loved myself and loathed myself. Throughout my life, my exterior and interior have done battle – not just on account of being born one nationality and living quite another, or indeed of having parents at opposing ends of the personality spectrum, but also on account of having lived my life very publicly for some fourteen years. At the age of 32 what had surfaced was a crisis of persona.

And that’s where the story ends: you don’t have to be good at anything, and you don’t have to have done anything, except to have somehow been a celebrity and known what that costs. Readers will forgive you anything except your uncomplicated success.