x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

The case of the premature celebrity memoir

From Wayne Rooney's "autobiography" to Justin Bieber's memoir - at the ripe age of 16 - some stories just aren't ready to be told.

The Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney with his autobiography, which was published in 2006 when he was barely out of his teens.
The Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney with his autobiography, which was published in 2006 when he was barely out of his teens.

In 2006, the author Hunter Davies pondered the news that HarperCollins was to publish Wayne Rooney's "autobiography", even though the footballer was only just out of his teens. "Did the young Mozart get a five-book deal for £5 million [Dh30.2m] when he was only 20?" he wrote in The New Statesman. "Course not. He was just a run-of-the-mill genius. Or Shakespeare? No chance."

Wise words, brought back into sharp focus again last week when the pop star Tinie Tempah announced the story of his life would be published in October, and the footballer Theo Walcott released Theo: Growing Up Fast. Both are at the ripe old age of 22.

Strictly speaking, an autobiography is a first-person account of an entire life - or a substantial chunk of it (obviously, it can't be written after it's over). Tempah's addition to the canon promises such incredible revelations as when the writer of Written in the Stars had his first kiss - and whether he still keeps his clothes at his aunt's house. The most interesting part of Walcott's effort appears to be his criticism of England's football manager Fabio Capello as "cold and clinical".

Still, they're not the youngest culprits. Last year, the singer Justin Bieber "wrote" his first memoir, First Step 2 Forever: My Story as a callow 16-year-old. The actress Drew Barrymore and the singer Charlotte Church were just 15 when they published theirs. Bieber's, though, is particularly anodyne, telling his adoring "beliebers" that "every one of my fans is so special to me ... It all happened because of you. I wake up knowing I have the best fans in the world". Fans, indeed, who will spend their precious pocket money on his book.

Of course, such child-friendly memoirs are not meant to be the apogee of literary excellence; they're specifically for the very fans who have propelled their heroes to the top. So it wasn't surprising that Bieber's effort dominated the American bestseller lists last year, or that Miley Cyrus's 2009 memoir sold more than two million copies. At least the title of Cyrus's book, Miles to Go - she was also 16 at the time - appeared to recognise the inherent ridiculousness of the whole enterprise.

At the time, Cyrus told NBC's Today Show that the book was intended to make her readers "feel what I feel; the emotion and power". It probably didn't hurt, either, that it was obviously going to make Cyrus and her publishers a huge pot of money - which is clearly why many of these premature autobiographies are embarked upon. They specifically cash in on said star's current fame - in case it comes to pass that he or she suddenly disappears down pop's dumper. Which, to be honest, would probably make for a better story.

Still, celebrity memoirs are not always a licence to print money. HarperCollins paid Rooney a £5m advance but sold only 50,000 copies. Another England footballer, Ashley Cole, signed a £250,000 deal for My Defence in 2007, but only 4,000 people decided they wanted to read about the excesses of a man earning £60,000 a week. True, all the interesting bits were serialised in the newspapers, but the lesson appears to be that the star peddling his life story has to be at least slightly likeable.

It's interesting, too, that these autobiographies were aimed at a slightly older age group than the "beliebers". Most people who have grown out of screaming at pop stars are more than aware that not only are these books likely to be hagiographies of immense proportions, but they're not even written by their subjects. Hilariously, after deriding the Rooney deal, Hunter Davies found himself answering a call from HarperCollins asking him to ghostwrite the actual book. In an interview with The Independent two years later, Hunter admitted: "Wayne is very young, and he's not in the team because he's a fluent talker ... I know things about [him] that I've picked up on my travels and can't reveal."

All of which is hugely depressing. Nobody reads an autobiography to find out exactly how a celebrity got to the top. We want to be amused, entertained, told secrets. Perhaps even change our opinion of the subject or the field he or she works in. It's why Keith Richards's memoir is one of the most intriguing of recent years - a swaggering, no-holds-barred story of many decades at the heart of the Rolling Stones. Tellingly, it's called Life, and the ghostwriter is a novelist who knows how to tell a good story. Sixty-seven years worth of stories, in fact.