Justine Bateman's Fame might be the most scathing take on celebrity you'll ever read
Celebrity memoirs have become a genre unto themselves, with actors, comedians, musicians, and politicians of all stripes lining up to share their stories. And for Justine Bateman, who catapulted to fame in the ’80s with starring roles on Family Ties and Satisfaction, it’s safe to say she has enough material to fill out a book of her own.
There’s just one catch: She hates memoirs.
While Bateman’s new book Fame: The Hijacking of Reality (out now) touches on the former teen starlet’s experience in the public eye, it’s not a memoir. Far from it, in fact — it’s instead an intense meditation on the nature of fame, and a glimpse into the repercussions it has on both the individual experiencing it and the society that keeps the concept alive.
“I started out with the academic version [but felt] that is not the right style for this,” Bateman tells EW. The book’s conversational tone pulls the reader in, taking them along for the ride. “If you read the book,” she says, “you truly know what it’s like to be inside.”
EW spoke with Bateman about her inspiration for her debut book, who deserves fame, the importance of cultivating your talents, and much more. Trust us: You haven’t read a book quite like this.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first get the idea for Fame?
JUSTINE BATEMAN: I’d been thinking for a while that it seemed like around the year 2000 that there was this explosion of an interest in fame, and also an explosion in the capacity to accommodate it. A lot more outlets wanted fame-related stuff, and then we had a lot more people becoming famous for not much of a reason. [With the introduction of] reality shows and things like that.
I had also been thinking about that thing that happens in a room when a famous person walks in, and if fame is a social construct of society, then what is that kind of mist that comes into the room that is almost tangible? So I wanted to explore those two things, and what I didn’t know was going to happen was that I was going to process a lot of — or re-process, rather, on a deeper level — a lot of the things that I’ve gone through, particularly on what I call the backside of fame, post-fame, when it starts to fade. But those were the two things that I wanted to really explore, and wanted to find a way to talk about what I think is very detrimental in our country in particular, with becoming famous.
I wanted to find a way to intelligently argue that we should be valuing our own skills and talents instead of valuing the number of people we can get to look at us.
There’s a moment in the book where you equate being in a room with a famous person to that feeling you get when you see your crush walking down the hallway at school, and that feels like such an accurate description.
I experience it too, and my brain has to force its way into the situation and say, “Do you even really like their work?” And I say that I had that one incident where I lurched forward and tapped someone on the shoulder and said how much I liked their work, and then as I was sitting back in my seat, I’m just going, “I don’t, though. Why did I do that?”
Why did you feel this book needed to be written now?
I think I was just lucky with my timing. When I started writing the book, I was an undergrad at UCLA a few years ago, so I started writing it in the summer of my sophomore year, and when the course load got going at the beginning of the year, I couldn’t look at it. When I started writing it, it was 2014. I had no idea that our love of fame was going to display itself in a high political office on a world stage. So I just had luck with my timing.
What was it like to experience the arc of fame?
I don’t know if you can remember your first day of school, where you have no history yet with the teacher or the other students, and maybe you feel kind of weird because other people don’t really know you, but everyone’s being really nice, particularly the administration and your teachers there at the school. It’s like that all the time.
That first-day feeling that everyone loves you just increases. It gets manic. It doesn’t end, and it stops mattering, if it ever did to begin with anyway. But it stops mattering who you are at all, because then you’re just famous and everybody is just seeing the fame.
There’s an attention paid to the fame, the sort of sheath that’s on you, this sort of cloud that’s covering over you, and that’s what people want to touch. It’s not even really you that they want to touch. That’s what that’s like, and then you’re sort of absorbing this as part of your reality because it’s not something that just happens one day and then goes away, but it does get woven into the fabric of what your reality is. Just like for anyone else it would be what job they have, or what city they live in, or who they’re married to, or anything like that. You grow accustomed to it, and you find ways to sort of work with it.
And then when it starts slipping away [like losing anything else in life, it can be] very traumatic for a human.
I have to say, doing all the press for this is sort of a meta-performance or epilogue to the book itself, because I’m finding that a lot of things that I talk about in the book are actually occurring while I’m doing press because I haven’t talked to these kinds of outlets in a while.
Oftentimes we’ll see someone on their first press tour, and they’re so excited and they’re kind of just on a high from it, and then you watch that excitement fade as they do subsequent press tours. There’s an awareness that fame is not just a moment, but part of their life. It’s clear that it becomes very tedious for the stars, yet as a society, we still crave fame so much. Why do you think we’re so obsessed with fame when it’s not always a positive experience for those who have it?
I think we still crave that from those who seem to be weary of it — I don’t know, I haven’t thought of that. When somebody looks like they just don’t want to be a part of it anymore. I don’t know. That’s a good thing to think about. Maybe it’s wanting to return to that moment where the fans were really happy to see them and they were really happy to be there and it was fun, it was exciting, and let’s just get back to that. Let’s just do that again.
Maybe the public doesn’t want to know that it’s not 100 percent fun up there. Maybe they want to keep believing that there is this sort of seat you can sit on in society where all your dreams come true. That big lottery ticket. It’s not just money — it’s position, it’s love, it’s fun because you get invited everywhere, and maybe it’s a desire for that to be true, and maybe when somebody’s fame first starts and they’re sort of happy that they’re getting recognition for their work, maybe the public feels that there’s confirmation there, that that seat, not only does it exist, but it does fulfill everything, and maybe it gives the appearance of that.
What was it like becoming famous at a young age? How do you think it’s different from becoming famous as an adult?
It was really was just mostly trying to manage myself in it. It’s like you’re in a canoe or a raft and you’re going down roaring rapids, and it’s not that you’re going to be able to control the roaring rapids, but you can control how you’re sitting in the raft so you don’t get tossed out of it. You can control that you’ve got a life vest on or something, so it’s really just a lot of that. And then on the backside of it, when it was going away, managing myself within that meant a lot of writing and talking to a lot of people and getting to whatever my root fear was every time a button was pushed when I’d be in some situation that really made me feel like s— and I knew it was related to that fame continuing to be removed from the foundation of my reality. So I just had to be writing about it and find out what that root fear was, and kind of get rid of that fear. That’s how that process went.
In both cases you just try to manage yourself in it, and when it’s rising or it seems very high, you’re managing how you’re dealing with all the stuff coming at you so fast, with such consistency. And on the back side of it, it’s how do you rearrange your reality? How do you fill in these spots that have now been vacated? How do you process this so that you can emerge with new muscles built to take the place of where fame used to sit in your reality?
What happens when fame is given to the wrong person?
I think to have that much attention — and it’s a very frenzied level of attention — to not have a foundation of whatever your skills and talents are that for which the fame is being bestowed, if you don’t have those things, you don’t even have foundational skills as part of your identity. I think it has a lot to do with identity.
There’s a confusing message that we’re sending people now, that lots of money can made off of simply having a lot of followers and having no discernible skills or talents. I don’t know if I’m in a minority or if it’s just a guilty pleasure for people, but I think the preponderance of reality shows is of great detriment to human beings. I don’t think it helps people.
In your book, you equate the impact of internet comments to someone stabbing an artery. Can you go into how social media and internet trolls have impacted you and impact the experience of fame?
On the one hand, it’s a great way for a famous person to immediately counteract anything that is said about them in the press. For years — I love the press, I have nothing against the press, but back when my fame was its thickest, if there was a journalist who wanted to paint you in a particular fashion in an article, they could do it and you really had no recourse. There was no way to come back to tell the people who were reading it, “Wait, wait, it didn’t go that way. I’m not sure why they’re trying to portray me like that, but that’s not me.” And here’s a video of me skiing, or this more truly represents me than what they said about me. You had no way to answer to that until you had your next interview. So it’s a great way to connect directly to fans, and there are some very intelligent, thoughtful people out there.
But to your other point, here’s my theory on the aggression that is on display between some fans or haters or trolls or whatever and the famous: It’s something that I call intimacy through injury. One of the fastest ways to have an intimate connection with somebody is to injure them, either physically or emotionally, and I think that’s a lot of what’s going on. I think people want to connect, and a celebrity will answer an aggressive tweet — and it’s sorry to say, but they’ll answer that faster than they’ll answer someone who’s like, “Hey I really enjoy your work,” and people know that. The people who are willing to go in at that level, I believe that that’s why they’re doing it. They really just want to connect.
You say in the book that before 1990, there was no frenzy to be famous. Why do you think that frenzy is so prevalent now, and how can we, as a society, move away from that?
I’m not sure that people want to get back to that. I think it’s a great question. I would like them to. When we look at people literally dying because they’re trying to get the perfect Instagram shot so they can increase their followers, and it’s not only physically time-consuming, but it’s so mentally consuming. How can anybody keep up? I think it’s a very individual thing, and people have to be willing to look at their own basket of skills and talents. There’s this one Instagram account by a florist, Lewis Miller, who has been flower-bombing New York City. I don’t know him, but he has, from what I can see, an incredible talent with flowers. Him and his co-workers, incredible talent with flowers, and they’re using it. And what happens when you develop your own basket of skills and talents like Lewis Miller has, it makes the world better.
When people develop their own skills and talents, it makes their own lives better, and it makes the whole society better.
Do you still Google yourself?
First of all, I have autocomplete turned off. I just type my name, I don’t look at the screen. I just type my name and hit enter.
This interview has been edited and condensed.