Back to books of the summer, and if you’re looking for a change of pace from Mark Steel, another entertaining volume is The Secret Diaries of Abigail Titmuss. Sadly, this is a book that I feel is unlikely to find its audience. Abi Titmuss’ image is such that I imagine many buyers will be priapic lads looking for a one-handed read. These guys are going to be sorely disappointed if they expect the book to be wall-to-wall shagging. On the other hand, I can’t see the book being a big hit amongst feminists, who might actually be interested in it. Because we’re not talking about Inside Linda Lovelace here, what we actually have is quite a sharp treatment of celebrity culture and in particular society’s expectations of women.
You already know the outlines of the story. We have here a respectable nurse, with ambitions of becoming an actress, who meets a bloke off the telly and winds up in a relationship with him. Things are going reasonably well, until he’s accused of rape. And, although he’s exonerated in court, he ends up becoming unemployable. Meanwhile, his photogenic girlfriend suddenly gets propelled into the media spotlight, for no apparent reason other than being photogenic and in the news. And so we have the birth of an unlikely celebrity, one of the type who you could only really have in our postmodern age where “fame” is a commodity in itself, divorced from actual accomplishments.
It’s to Abi’s credit that she’s aware of the absurdity of her own position. You get this at an early stage where she’s asked to take part in Hell’s Kitchen alongside established entertainers, and feels a keen sense of her pointlessness, dreading anyone asking her what she actually does. She’s dependent for her celebrity on the tabloids, yet they still keep printing shit about her. Soft-porn red-tops denounce her as “sleazy” for, er, having sex with her long-term boyfriend, but at the same time clamour to run saucy pictures of her, trading on her image as a bit of a goer. The papers are full of columns wondering why she’s in the papers all the time. She hires photographers to take “candid” snaps that she’ll profit from, gazumping the paparazzi. (This, by the way, is quite a common tactic in Celeb World. Liz Hurley does it all the time.) She hopes her raised profile might get her acting work, but it’s offset by a total lack of credibility. And so on. Baudrillard would have loved this – we really are talking about the simulacrum raised above reality.
Of course, with the meteoric rise goes the downward spiral. I remember Debee Ashby talking about this quite a few years back, apropos of so many Page Three girls going off the rails that there was talk of a curse. Nonsense, said Debs. You take young women and throw them suddenly into an environment of fame and wealth, of swanky nightclubs and free booze (these days, one might add free coke) and it’s no wonder that some of them went off the rails. I might add that, if a smart woman like Debs could go a little off the rails, it could happen to anybody.
And so it is with Abi. She’s caught in this strange celebrity bubble where you can’t trust anyone, where everyone has an agenda. You can’t form relationships – it’s difficult even to form friendships with anyone, there are so many agendas flying around. She develops an obvious drink problem. More interesting, perhaps, is the body image issue, where the pinup of millions can’t see herself as attractive. In fact, you’ve got a woman weighing less than ten stone constantly worrying about whether her photos make her look fat. This isn’t helped by female pundits calling her fat all the time. (A particular offender is the ghastly Carole Malone, who’s built quite a career out of deploying the f-word against women half her age and half her size.) And this all serves to humanise someone who you might not have expected to find sympathetic.
And, naturally, following the downward spiral hitting rock bottom, we have the redemption. This is where Abi rediscovers the things she puts real value on – family and girlfriends – while knocking the booze on the head and getting out of the crazy celeb bubble. And she even gets some theatre work, which is all she really wanted in the first place. Which forms a nice postlude.
A most enjoyable read, I must say. You’ve got a classic narrative arc as your structure, yes, but you’ve also got some acute observation, a fair amount of wit and an engaging authorial voice. The absurdity runs right through the book, to the point of creating its own pathos. And it works pretty well as a dissection of media-celebrity culture. This is a book that needs to be put on the Media Studies curriculum immediately. And handed out to any young woman who thinks that “being famous” is a viable ambition.