Proclaiming oneself “truly humbled” often signals that one could use much more humbling, preferably via a knuckle sandwich. Yet self-serving announcements of humility have become the posturing trend of the moment among celebrities. Leo DiCaprio is “deeply humbled” by his Oscar nomination. Kanye West is humbled by the love of his fans. Ridley Scott is “truly humbled” by his recent knighting. In modern parlance, humility is the natural outcome of a crowdsourced tongue bath.
C. S. Lewis wrote that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” Try telling that to the surge of celebrities determined to translate their superior lifestyle choices into a brand, one that might include jewelry or recipes or fragrances or even startlingly optimistic euphemisms for divorce. Nothing is less humble than urging people to dress like you and smell like you and cloak their painful rites of passage in your awkward catchphrases of choice.
And perhaps the least humble trick in the Truly Humbled celebrity bag of tricks is the celebrity book. Not only do most such titles expound upon the marvelousness of their subjects, they’re also usually written by professional ghostwriters—i.e., people who are paid to follow celebrities around, listening to how truly humbled and truly blessed they feel, and then to translate that rambling positive self-regard into a coherent narrative that makes its subject sound faintly humanlike and mortal-ish.
Good ghostwriters are magicians, in other words. And if there were justice in the world, reviews of a celebrity book would award extra points for degree of difficulty, based on the odiousness of the book’s subject. But ghostwriters are rarely credited and almost never congratulated on the magic they work behind the scenes. Moreover, ghostwriters usually find themselves ghostwriting because they can’t make a living wage from writing their own books, often because publishers would prefer to publish, say, a cookbook by a nonchef like Gwyneth Paltrow, or a photography book by an amateur shutterbug like Drew Barrymore, or a collection of “humiliating” tales by a handsome, popular actor who chummed around Malibu with Charlie Sheen as a kid, like Rob Lowe.
Oddly enough, though, Rob Lowe successfully defies the celeb-book stereotype. And of all the celebrities in the world, Lowe seems the least likely to do so. Despite his fine comedic performances in Behind the Candelabra, on Saturday Night Live, in Parks and Recreation, and in the Austin Powers trilogy, Lowe has always seemed to embody everything that was adorable and reckless and therefore noxious about the so-called Brat Pack. He was one of the first celebrities to make a sex tape, and although that sounds groundbreaking and modern now, it was not well received back in 1988, when it made its world premiere. Even his convincing turn as Sam Seaborn on The West Wing was undermined slightly by the continual presence of his relatively unpretty and therefore presumably more wholesome costars.
In fact, one of the real pleasures of reading Lowe’s 2011 autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, and his follow-up, Love Life (Simon & Schuster, $27), is marveling at how many times one has, over the past three decades, unfairly assumed that vanity and a raging ego must lie behind such a pretty face. Where average-looking contemporaries like Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez persuaded audiences to give them the benefit of the doubt (often despite ample evidence that they hardly deserved it), Lowe drew our ire. He was just too beautiful, we all believed, not to be rotten to the core.
Once you get through the first chapter of Stories I Only Tell My Friends, in which the author shows a cringe-worthy fascination with JFK Jr., Lowe—who seems genuinely to have put cursor to page without a ghostwriter’s assistance—goes on to paint a very convincing portrait of himself as an insecure, attention-seeking, lonely young man. He’s admirably reluctant to cast aspersions either on his father, a ladies’ man who missed out on most of Lowe’s childhood, or on his mother, who comes across as a self-involved woman prone to ignoring her kids’ best interests for the sake of her own rarefied New Age journey. Lowe is not only forgiving of his parents’ recklessness but also refreshingly honest about his own failings, taking responsibility for them every step of the way.
Love Life is less coherent than Stories I Only Tell My Friends, but the anecdotes are livelier. Somehow Lowe manages to describe a visit to the Playboy Mansion and an unpleasant grade-school sleepover next to the manatee tank at SeaWorld with equal enthusiasm. Lowe is a little too enthralled with his many celebrity interactions—he describes being present at the surprisingly subdued moment when Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered he’d been elected governor of California, a tale that seems to have no substance or discernible point. But he makes up for these egocentric passages with lovable Diary of an Emo Kid interludes in which our hero is overcome by his surging emotions. On a flight to visit his son during his freshman year at college, for example, Lowe is forced to wear sunglasses and hide behind his newspaper to mask his copious tears. “I am amazed that so much water can come out of the eyes of someone who dehydrates himself with so much caffeine,” he writes, wryly deprecating his sentimental foolishness while also indulging a telltale celebrity Angeleno focus on maximal body maintenance.
Throughout Love Life, Lowe seems attracted to his most demeaning stories: Jewel wipes her mouth with the back of her hand after she’s forced to kiss him while shooting the short-lived drama The Lyon’s Den. He dresses up as Bigfoot to scare his kids while camping, and ends up getting kicked in the balls. He visits Warren Beatty’s house with his girlfriend; Beatty lightly informs him that he’s been sleeping with her.
Mostly, though, Lowe’s books are a great example of the power of confounding expectations. You wouldn’t think a face off the pages of Tiger Beat magazine would revel in his own humiliation as much as Lowe does. When, in Stories I Only Tell My Friends, a young Lowe goes to a screening of The Outsiders and discovers that his central role in the film has been reduced to an afterthought, it’s impossible not to feel sad for this needy teenager, who desperately hopes for some proof that his big dream hasn’t been a waste of time. Instead, he is humbled, truly.
Drew Barrymore also wrote her own book, Find It in Everything (Little, Brown, $18). How can we be sure of this? Because it’s filled with photographs of heart-shaped things—heart-shaped bagels and heart-shaped rips in T-shirts and heart-shaped cacti. The jacket cover calls this “a very personal collection of images.” And they are very personal, in the sense that these kinds of photos might be found on one of thousands of personal Tumblr and Flickr and Instagram pages. Fittingly, Barrymore’s book also features the sort of prose that fills the diaries of high-self-esteem preteens nationwide. When Barrymore discovers a heart-shaped hole in a plastic bread clip, for example, she writes: “I have seen these for so many years. / I have handled them—twisted things and clamped these on. / One day the heart appeared. / It has been there all along. / It was waiting for me to find it.”
This penchant for grandiosity might explain why so much of Barrymore’s text calls to mind Neil Diamond lyrics. Next to a photo of a straw wrapper making a heart shape, Barrymore writes, “Even in the trash, you can find hope where you least expect it.” We are also informed, rather solemnly and with a faint air of clinical detachment, that hearts “have no negativity.” In fact, a heart is “nature saying, ‘I love you.’”
Nature loves Drew Barrymore, anyway, to judge by how many hearts she stumbles across in her day-to-day life. Flipping through her collection, though, it’s hard not to feel a sense of dread and anxiety about a culture that conflates photography with fuzzy cell-phone snaps, and confuses New Age Post-it poetry with literature. It’s tough to blame Barrymore herself, who overcame reckless parenting and drug use and now seems content to drop her hard-won wisdom in a wide array of celebrity and beauty rags, proclaiming her love for lucky pennies and pizza and “rocking” a coral lipstick. Clearly, Barrymore has always been so stuffed full of rainbows, ponies, and moonbeams that it’s impossible for her to keep them all inside. Where fellow celebrity brand Gwyneth Paltrow tends to sound at once pretentious and out of touch when uttering somber statements about her superior lifestyle choices, Barrymore bumbles through with unselfconscious bluster and wins the day.
That studied sloppiness is Hollywood’s latest pet trick, of course, dovetailing neatly with the bogus image of a perennially self-refreshing humility. No wonder professional ghostwriters, stylists, and publicists are now gradually ceding ground to the James Franco DIY school of image management, in which blunders and Twitter stunts are on par with professionally crafted press releases—and a jumbled mess of short stories, journal entries, and poems about River Phoenix can be called “a novel,” as Franco’s Actors Anonymous is.
It’s easier to appear humanlike and mortal-ish than the ghostwriters and the professional handlers let on. Today, you can casually own the sun and the moon and the stars, as long as you never say as much. We will publish your Neil Diamond–esque lyrics and your mediocre recipes and your blurry cell-phone photos and your poetry about bread clips and River Phoenix, and your scraps will upstage literary works painstakingly crafted by writers resigned to toiling in poverty and obscurity.
Drew Barrymore has said she’s “humbled” by her book hitting the New York Times best-seller list, by the way. So are we. Truly.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).
More from Bookforum's The Best-seller List