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Celeb Books

“Who’s that knocking at the door? It’s all your friends, you filthy whore. Your husband’s gone and we’ve got books and a bottle of wine to kill!” So goes the giddy opening jingle of Celebrity Book Club with Steven & Lily, a podcast hosted by comedians Steven Phillips-Horst and Lily Marotta, who review celebrity-penned memoirs, children’s books and manifestos. Phillips-Horst and Marotta marry silliness and pleasure with sizzling analysis and the podcast’s magic lies in its balance of parody and nuance. It’s also, according to The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme, “dripping with good chemistry”, with the hosts (who grew up as best friends in Boston) as likely to poke fun at each other as the contents of the texts. Their keenly observed commentary consistently skews clever rather than snide as they offer laugh-out-loud takes on social mores, queer subtexts and literary methodologies in memoirs by the likes of Prince Harry, Helen Keller, Andy Cohen, Tina Brown, and Ulysses S. Grant. The result is an acerbic, self-aware podcast that has attracted a cult following and brought a revitalising frisson to the lit-crit sphere.

Interview by Esmé HogeveenPortrait by Krista Schlueter


ESMÉ HOGEVEEN I really appreciate the space for dissent on Celebrity Book Club. Whether it’s details from your personal lives or takes on subject matter from the books you read, there’s a lot of well-meaning callouts that happen as part of your rapport. How do you approach that space of dissent and how do you keep it real with each other? 
LILY MAROTTA Calling each other out is the best part of the podcast, especially when the other person doesn’t expect it. When one of us is telling a story about something that we think is amazing or sentimental and the other one says something a little sassy – you know, just razzing each other – it brings you out of the moment in a good way and gives you the opportunity to analyse what you’ve been saying.
STEVEN PHILLIPS-HORST It’s never in a nasty or schadenfreude way, but I think we both enjoy seeing each other get mired in a little bit of hypocrisy. Since we’ve been friends for so long, we have incredible access to a deep well of shared memories so we can say, “I know you used to hold this other opinion” or “Didn’t you say such-and-such at lunch?” The enjoyment isn’t about your friend being wrong, it’s about noting the layers. I think we both subscribe to the Socratic method of inquiry, and I love being challenged because it forces me to take a side and that’s where the more exciting opinions live.
LM I also think, in the context of a podcast, you sometimes want to take a stronger opinion so that listeners can engage more actively. Recognising those moments and little inconsistencies lets the listener into our lives and dynamic.

EH Speculation is a key ingredient of Celebrity Book Club. Each episode ends with you answering the questions “What does she eat? What does she wear? How does she live?”, applying them to that week’s author. Do you feel compelled to query the veracity of the texts themselves or how honestly celebrities represent themselves in memoir?
SPH Everyone does this to some extent, but we constantly question why people say the things they say, why they dress the way they dress, and why they do the things they do. I love to say that our podcast is un-fact-checkable; The New Yorker could send their best stringer over and they wouldn’t know what to do with us. We had a moment once after we called an American blogger’s husband “gay” and the lawyers at our production company got worried. But in the end, they decided the content technically falls under parody and the language is so hyperbolic that it can’t be perceived as slander or defamation. On the podcast, we see the world as a place imbued with performance, and we try to get to the core of things through slightly more nebulous language than cross-referencing a celebrity’s Wikipedia.
LM We like to speculate about the nitty gritty, but we’re obviously drawing on our imaginations. My mother once overheard Steven and I talking with some friends, and she was like, “You guys love labels. Let people be free.”
SPH And we were like, “No!”
LM We’re always trying to find subcategories within subcategories to put people in and that’s the fun of it. We’re never not speculating.
SPH It goes without saying that the memoir is an act of mythmaking. Of course the writers cast themselves in the most flattering light, perhaps especially when they’re revealing the darker sides of themselves. Memoirs always include redemption – as texts, they’re a very self-conscious form. I think that’s why we also like reading non-memoirs, because whether it’s a children’s book or a diary, they reveal so much about how the author sees the world.

EH Have you noticed other major commonalities within celebrity memoirs?
LM One of the main myths or arcs we see is “whore child” – or maybe not whore child, but an abused child or someone who grew up really Christian and had a horrible childhood – who was made fun of for their looks. Typically, they’re incredibly attractive but their small town didn’t appreciate their beauty.
SPH We recorded an episode yesterday about Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs from the 18th century and even he used this framing at the beginning – “I was puny” or “I had arms so thin that couldn’t possibly excel in sport”, or something. There’s always a description of the childhood self as weak. But all children are weak!
LM The actresses are often like, “I was so tall and thin and gangly and tiny.” Then they grow up. The memoirs usually hit a midpoint around the author’s peak fame and then there’s a drop, maybe drugs, and then the redemption where they find themselves. As Steven said earlier, that’s why reading children’s books or manifestos by celebrities can be fun, because it forces us out of bio-land, which can be repetitive, at least in structure.
SPH Even the children’s books are still usually about the hero’s journey or the Jungian path to self-actualisation. The kids’ books by Ricky Martin, Elizabeth Warren and Natalie Portman are all about empowerment.
LM They’re childhood versions of the American dream.
SPH The child protagonist always has something they’re not confident about, but then they realise they must be their authentic self to be successful. There are a lot of political and cultural signifiers in those books.

EH Speaking of politics, there’s been a real effort to re-examine the 1990s and 2000s media landscapes in the past few years. I’m thinking about You’re Wrong About, the podcast hosted by Sarah Marshall and formerly Michael Hobbes, and the recent Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Pamela Anderson documentaries, for example. Are you interested in media histories and how the historical books you read were initially received? Or in how today’s celebrities may calibrate content relative to their particular media contexts?
SPH My first thought is no, because I love to interpret the texts as primary sources and to view them as objectively as possible. Most recent celebrity memoirs are overtly reparative projects wherein a contemporary celebrity claims to tell their story in their own way to challenge or retake power back from commentators, and the books are almost always received in an incredibly laudatory, almost treacly, way. Many of these books include very sanitised takes on something dark that happened to the author and they often have very similar narrative arcs that involve diagnosing misogyny from the early 2000s or addressing another form of invisibility. I find the repetition of this format a little uninteresting.
LM When a new celebrity memoir comes out, there’s often so much anticipatory coverage that the public hears all the traumatic details before the book is even released. Rather than caring too much about that side, I tend to be more interested in the weirder elements of a book’s past. For example, we read this one memoir [Falling With Wings: A Mother’s Story, 2018] by Dianna De La Garza [Demi Lovato’s mother] that was ghostwritten by a woman [Vickie McIntyre] who works for a Pennsylvania tourist magazine. Imagining B- or C-list celebrities contracting a semi-random person to ghostwrite their book interests me, because it’s like, how did you guys meet?

EH A lot of contemporary lit crit misprioritises narrative content over style, and I appreciate that Celebrity Book Club plays close attention to style. Are there any traits that specifically appeal to you in a celebrity-authored book?
SPH As a writer, I think that style is content. Whether you’re writing a personal essay or a political treatise, if the text doesn’t have a sense of humour and lightness or it’s not clever, then your points aren’t going to come across effectively. I’m drawn to all kinds of style – it just depends on how it’s executed. Jessica Simpson giving so many insanely banal details [in Open Book, published in 2020 and ghostwritten by Kevin Carr O’Leary] gives the reader so much information. She’ll write something like, “We entered through the east entrance of the US Bank Arena on March 10th,” and it’s like – why are you talking about the side of the arena that you entered from? The fact that she thinks that’s important and adds colour and texture to her memoir is very revealing.
LM That tells us more about Jessica Simpson than her saying, “I was born in this town in Texas”, because you can imagine her opening up her diary and noting what hotel she’s staying at and where the parking lot is so she can reference it in the future. These details are obviously important to her.
SPH I think good writing is good writing. We talk about J. R. Moehringer a lot on the show because he ghostwrote Open [Andre Agassi’s 2010 memoir] and Spare, Prince Harry’s book. Spare is a really good read – it’s a great example of content that reveals the celebrity to be an idiot and an unsympathetic figure, and yet the book is riveting because of the emotional arc that Moehringer creates.

EH Are there any individuals whose voices have really stayed with you after reading their books?
SPH Recently, Nora Ephron for sure. She was a writer in New York and she loves food and I feel like we share so many of the same desires and insecurities as her. Her book [I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman, 2008] was just so poignant, and that’s been quite impactful for both my writing and how I live my life.
LM Tina Brown is another fabulous writer, but I relate more to Nora Ephron as a screenwriter talking about relationships.
SPH I want to be Tina Brown and cultivate her energy, but I’m never going to be not drinking at a party, which was kind of Tina’s whole thing. I love all the New York media women.
LM They’re probably more relatable than [Henry David] Thoreau or [American interior designer] Joanna Gaines.

EH Are there any non-human celebrities – famous objects, pieces of architecture, or animals – whose memoir you’d love to read?
LM That’s a really good question! I’d like to read a memoir by a piece of Marie Antoinette’s furniture – her bed or a fainting couch maybe.
SPH The stories it would tell! The stories it wished it could tell. It’s interesting you went to furniture, Lily. My mind went to history and the “great men” and monuments, so I’m thinking about Cleopatra’s Needle in London, which was taken from Egypt. Rushmore. The Arc de Triomphe. I bet the Tour Eiffel has a lot to say. I’m feeling very French with all my monuments right now, but I also want to know about the Scrub Daddy Sponge – what’s her story?
LM Yeah, like what’s the drama with the magic eraser?

SPH I think you could overlay the same questions we bring to people’s lives to the lives of objects, and those lives don’t necessarily have to be grand to be interesting. Hearing the stories of infomercial products could be juicy, and of course, old objects and clothing. The Shroud of Turin’s very famous – does she really exist? That would be a blockbuster memoir.
LM I’d also love to hear from Socks, the Clintons’ cat. ◉