'Celebrity Book Club' Celebrates the High Art of Ghostwriting
by Carrie Wittmer
28 January 2021
When you're a celebrity of any kind — Oscar nominee, restaurateur, someone who was on America's Next Top Model once — you can, seemingly, do anything. Such as write a memoir regardless of life or writing experience.
Comedians and childhood friends Lily Marotta and Steven Phillips-Horst recently launched the podcast Celebrity Book Club, which dives deep into all kinds of famous person memoirs, from actors like Gabrielle Union to restaurateur Danny Meyer and real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran.
Marotta has appeared in shows like "High Maintenance," and worked full time as a cleaner in Manhattan to fund her comedy career. Phillips-Horst has a column in Interview and until recently worked in politics (more on that soon).
The memoirs Celebrity Book Club celebrates and analyzes aren't the kinds of books that would be in consideration for the Pulitzer Prize (but maybe some of them should be?). They're splashy, silly and sometimes terribly written. But Celebrity Book Club takes them seriously, with a mixture of gossip and hard-hitting analysis done by two people who have known each other for most of their lives.
PAPER spoke to Marotta and Phillips-Horst about their podcast, the best and worst celebrity memoirs, the book signings they attended in the early 2000s and the one celebrity who needs to write a memoir (spoiler alert, it's Tara Reid, who we desperately hope is reading this).
How did you get to this concept for a podcast?
Lily: We wanted to do a project together that would showcase our raucous friendship, but also have a subject that we love. We've always read celebrity memoirs. That's one of the only types of books we've read throughout our life. We've talked about it for years, and then it just happened.
Steven: There was a point where, as Lily said, we only read somebody's memoirs because we're proudly anti-literate and celebrity memoirs are super accessible for the common man, as we consider ourselves. At some point we realized that having something that you really want to chat with your best friend about that you haven't gotten a chance to talk about yet, is really this giddy joy, right? It's the urgently giddy gossip session that we all crave. The books are a vehicle for us to just to talk, which we are addicted to.
Lily: Finally there was something to talk about where we could hold ourselves back until we finished it, because I feel like we're so unfiltered with each other.
These celebrities feel really random, and you're covering memoirs that I didn't even realize existed, like the Barbara Corcoran one [If You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons On Your Pigtails]. I completely forgot that she was a person. How did you pick some of these memoirs?
Lily: We love a C-Lister. We love being like, "Wait, who was that fabulous woman in episode three of this show or was the best friend in that?" We love that naturally, but it's also a move so we're not just doing the big people and so we can surprise people with a diverse group of celebrities and not just the normal, classic gay icons.
Steven: That last part is really true for me. We want to pick things that maybe you wouldn't think would come from two Us Weekly-obsessed queer folk.
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I completely forgot who Danny Meyer was but as I was listening to your podcast about his book [Setting the Table], I was just like, "He fucking owns this town that I live in."
Lily: Right? It's like he made this town. You're like, "Wait, who's Danny Meyer," and then you're like, "Hold on. Every corner, he started Union Square. Shake Shack, any restaurant."
Steven: We're New Yorkers, honey. Okay? We love anyone who's made it in this town. When you make it in New York, it's a particular kind of story that you need grit. Right? I think that makes for a good book, even if the person writing is not a good writer which, most of the time, they're not.
Have you noticed any trends in the type of writing in these memoirs? Is it mostly bad?
Lily: There's always the American story, the American Dream aspect of, "I grew up and grand mammy fed me a cracker, if we had them. Then I got on the bus and then this thing happened." And it's always like, "Luck doesn't just happen. You gotta work hard. Yes. Things happen in life, one in a million, but also pedal to the metal, feet on the ground." I think memoirs are getting more vulnerable because celebrities — I feel like people are getting better ghostwriters, honestly.
Steven: They're getting better ghostwriters, but also, you've got to have trauma. Listen, even on The Bachelor, the most recent season, every single guy was like, "I'm anorexic, I'm bulimic, I was beaten. My husband died. My dog has cancer." You've got to have trauma these days. Everyone's really revealing everything. One thing I will say also that I've just noticed, I may have mentioned this in a recent recording, but I feel like a lot of celebrities do this thing where at some point in the book they go, "Yeah, it's my book, so what?" There's always this aside to the reader to just be like, "Yeah. You know what? In my autobiography, I can do whatever I want."
Lily: Probably my favorite part of memoirs is the use of parentheses. It's always, "Walking down the street. Yeah. My street. Okay? So what, I was wearing boots that day and it was June." These asides that are so random. It's all about making you feel like you're friends with them.
Do you think those are coming from the ghostwriters or from the celebrity?
Steven: No. Those are the celebrity. That's where you can really see the celebrity. Now I'm remembering a memory, to use my phrase that I recently said, that I ghost wrote a chapter of a book once for a certain mayor's wife, shall we say. The current mayor. I used to work for him. That was that process exactly where she would just tell me a story and I would sit there and I would just talk to her and record the whole thing and then turn that into a little book report about her life, about that chapter. That book was never finished or made, which I think was a good idea.
You have known each other for a long time. What were the celeb memoirs from when you were younger that you read, that made you fall in love, I guess, with the genre, so to say?
Lily: I remember reading the Marilyn Manson bio [The Long Hard Road Out of Hell] at the bookstore, because my parents, they let us watch this and watch that, but for some reason, they're like, "You are not going to get the Marilyn Manson bio for Christmas. That is where we draw the line." I was like, "Okay, I need to go to the bookstore and just do my reading here of Marilyn's bio."
Steven: I remember going to a Goldie Hawn book signing in downtown Boston for her book.
Lily: It's Wild Flowers or something?
Steven: No, no, no. It's called, Down Came the Rain. No, wait. Oh, maybe it's not called that. Maybe it's called, A Puddle of Water*. Well, someone can fact check that. I remember going and I didn't buy the book and I was just there to see Goldie Hawn, which was another theme of our high school experience. I remember she was being so fabulous. She got up on the Barnes and Noble display table full of books on her hands and knees and was posing like a wacky cat. I was like, "Oh, she's literally the most fabulous person alive." I remember it was so fun.
*Goldie Hawn's book is called "A Lotus Grows in the Mud"
Lily: I skipped school to go see a Veronica Mars signing. That Veronica Mars autograph is now sitting framed in Steven's bathroom. We still have these artifacts.
Steven: Signed by the entire cast. That's going to be worth a lot of money.
It probably is already, but I would sit on that for a few years, maybe wait until they have to do another movie or season. What are your favorite memoirs?
Lily: I think the Janice Dickinson memoir [No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World's First Supermodel] is probably top five. That was one we read in high school and probably also started this interest. Teri Hatcher, Burnt Toast. That, I would say, is the epitome of the parentheses use. Someone who was very famous in the early 2000s, late '90s, but by no means got it to movie star level.
Steven: I thought that Andre Agassi's book [Open] is very well-written. I feel maybe he did do some of his own writing there, but I don't know. He's weird. Obviously, there was a ghostwriter in there, but it's really beautifully written. I know this is so cheesy and neo lib, but Barack Obama's first memoir, Dreams From My Father, is very well-written. His later books are absolute trash and meaningless and they have no substance at all, but that first book is really exquisite.
Are there any celebrities, particularly D or C-list celebrities, who have not written a memoir that you wish had written a memoir already?
Steven: One that just came to me was Tara Reid. I don't know. I would hope that someone would help her write a really good one that would actually be really juicy, because her life is completely insane. She, at this current moment, is shooting seven movies with the sketchiest Ukrainian producers and she's dating half of them and they're all insanely low budget. She's super random and her career is super random and she's actually secretly made 300 movies you've never heard of. I'd love to dig in, but I fear with that one is it would be really, really lightweight.
Lily: Maybe triple spaced. She'd be like, "I did a movie. It was really fun."
I could see it going both ways. I feel like she's become really unhinged. I don't know if she always was.
Steven: She always was.
Lily: Robin Antin, the creator of the Pussycat Dolls. I would love it. I feel like she wouldn't have trouble going no holds barred. She would go off and there would also be dancing tips in it as well. Maybe a companion video.
It seems like you'll probably never run out of material because there are so many random memoirs.
Steven: There's always more celebrities. The way that they're handing out celebrity these days left and right... I feel like maybe the bar is the person has to at least be more famous than we are.
What is the worst celebrity memoir you have read? Just boring or horrible writing, something that stuck out because it was so dumb.
Steven: I will say something that comes to mind is one we read for the pod, and who knows if this episode will come out, but Kim Stolz [Unfriending My Ex: Confessions of a Social Media Addict], who is a former America's Next Top Model. She's a lesbian and she's always getting married again to a new wife and she's just really rich and literally works for Goldman Sachs. Her book is absolutely not a book. It's just vaguely about social media. It's just her writing about the fact that she's writing a book about social media and just being like, "My dad is on his iPad, I'm on my phone. This is our world." This is just simply not a book.
Lily: I'll say the most annoying memoir is Anna Kendrick's [Scrappy Little Nobody]. Every page was just like, "I'm the weirdest person on earth. I was so awkward and weird to Leonardo DiCaprio and so awkward and weird to Tobey Maguire. I'm so embarrassed, but then Tobey Maguire was actually like laughing at all my jokes." Every sentence.
Steven: It's just a ton of humble bragging wrapped up in this just absolute C-list theater girl, nerdy BS. It's upsetting. It's also worth the read and it's funny and you can make fun of her and there are a lot of flubs. There's a lot of content.
Lily: Right, it's good in that way where there are definitely some slip on words where you're just like, "This is so boring," and it's just a list of dates and movies she's done. It's a hate to love to hate. We will be un-reading it.