Best celebrity memoirs to buy this Christmas 2021, from Brian Cox to Will Smith

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·17-min read
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Oh, the celebrity memoir. The chance to commit your best anecdotes to legend, show how many starry pals you have, share your hard-won wisdom, or settle some scores? Sometimes, happily, it can be all those things at once.

We’ve delved into the crop of this years offerings to find out which is the gossipiest - and which ones aren’t bothering with.

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox

This wildly enjoyable survey of Brian Cox’s six decades on stage and on screen takes us from his early life growing up in a Dundee tenement, working as a sort of odd-job kid at the local rep theatre (fulfilling useful tasks like retrieving and re-styling Lynn Redgrave’s wig after the actress had accidentally thrown in into her dressing room bin post-performance) through his storied theatre career and various attempts at cracking Hollywood to his late-career renaissance as the Roy family’s expletive-loving patriarch Logan in Succession. Much like his famous alter ego, you get the impression that the straight talking Cox does not suffer fools, or indeed method actors, gladly. (“Perhaps he realised how silly it all was,” he spikily notes of Daniel Day Lewis’s retirement). Johnny Depp and action star Steven Seagal get even shorter shrift, but Cox does write warmly and perceptively on the collaborators he most admires, from Spike Lee (“simply one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with”) to Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong. His stream of delicious anecdotes is relentless: from Glenda Jackson’s icy reaction to a director telling her she “does a funny thing with her head” when performing to his great friend Alan Rickman taking Cox to task for speaking too slowly (His response? “Alan, do you realise how long it took you to say that?”). Buy it here

In a nutshell: An endearingly unguarded and indiscreet gallop through an actor’s life, full of sneaky potshots at pretentious celebs

Biggest name drop: A strange encounter with Princess Margaret or a run-in with a pre-fame David Bowie on a TV set (a “skinny kid and not a particularly good actor”)

Best anecdote: His wedding morning, when his Othello cast mates proceed to get so plastered that Michael Gambon gets stuck in some double doors and no one bar Cox can function during the subsequent matinee performance.

Who to buy it for: Your nosiest, showbiz goss-loving friend

Katie Rosseinsky

Will by Will Smith

We’re used to seeing him star in blockbusters and play the joker on Instagram, but Will Smith delivers some shocking and surprising revelations about his childhood, relationships and career in his 412-page mega-memoir. Sex, jealousy, a marriage in crisis and visit to a tantric sex therapist, all feature - though this isn’t a juicy tell-all account of his open marriage with Jada Pinkett Smith. It’s a sensitive story of his complicated relationship with his father; feeling like a “coward” as a young adult, and battling with guilt, fear and even suicidal thoughts at one point. He discusses dealing with racism growing up as a middle-class kid in Philadelphia and straddling two worlds: the “black world” at home and “the white world of school.” All of this, he says, have contributed to his relentless work ethic “of uncompromising intensity.” It’s co-written by Mark Manson, of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck fame, so expect a heavy dose of self-help jargon and plenty of inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout, but because it’s Will, he gets away with it. Buy it here

In a nutshell Part self-help bible, part chart of a Hollywood icon, with plenty of Fresh Prince nostalgia thrown in.

Biggest name drop Tupac, Jazzy Jeff, Arnie, the list goes on.

Best anecdote Will going on 14 ayahuasca trips with a shaman in Peru after he and Jada temporarily split in 2011.

Who to buy it for The movie lover in your life.

Rosie Fitzmaurice

Will She Do? by Eileen Atkins

This memoir from Dame Eileen Atkins, subtitled Act One of a Life on Stage, only takes us up to 1966. I really hope she’s planning to write a few more volumes. She’s a gifted storyteller, who writes evocatively about her childhood on a Tottenham council estate in the Second World War, and has a knack for a sharp anecdote. And oh, those anecdotes! In her early career, she was sacked by Peter Hall, went on a weird holiday with Vanessa Redgrave (who taught her about a ‘clever innovation’ called Tampax), walked out of an audition with Noel Coward and had her part in George Devine’s production of Exit the King saved by Alec Guinness. She makes her years of trying to break into the world of acting, which featured dozens of walk-on parts in regional Shakespeare plays and lots of ‘resting’, always sound funny even though it must have often been dispiriting. The book ends with her Broadway bound for her breakthrough performance in The Killing of Sister George (which won her an Evening Standard Theatre Award, of course). Buy it here

In a nutshell: A rollicking ride through the early career of one of our greatest acting dames

Biggest name drop: Laurence Olivier - who gave her a lift to Victoria every night even though she lived in the other direction

Best anecdote: the time she dried on stage while performing a notoriously tricky speech in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, fearlessly ordering the curtain to be brought down so she could look at the book

Who to buy it for: your luvvie friend who re-watches Nothing Like a Dame every week

Jessie Thompson

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

Actor Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada, The Lovely Bones, Big Night) really likes his food. It’s got to the point, he says, where he’d rather eat, drink and cook than do his day job - something that becomes as clear as his beloved stirred (never shaken) Martinis throughout the book. His memoir weaves its way from childhood in Westchester, New York with his immigrant Italian parents and their exceptional family meals, to the traumatic death of his first wife, his wedding to new wife Felicity Blunt (they bonded plucking pheasants) to today and his recent battle with mouth cancer which left him unable to eat and taste for several years (particularly cruel for such a gourmand). It’s funny, charming, self-deprecating and, above all, will make you ravenous. Buy it here

In a nutshell: one very famous man’s life as told through delicious food (especially Italian)

Biggest name drop: The Hollywood actor met his wife at George Clooney’s house and is BFFs with Colin Firth – the namedropping, cheerfully, doesn’t stop

Best anecdote: Eating horse penis in rural France with Meryl Streep

Who to buy it for: your foodie friend

Suzannah Ramsdale

Solid Ivory by James Ivory

A languid, enjoyably gossipy memoir from one half of Merchant Ivory (Ismail Merchant, Ivory’s long-term business and life partner, died in 2005) that after a fascinating exploration of well-off, small-town American life in the Thirties and Forties, quickly gets eye-opening - I’m not sure I was expecting so many coolly considered descriptions of penises from the man behind so many famously buttoned-up films (though not, curiously, that of Merchant, the true emotional intimacy of whose relationship with Ivory remains unexplored). Cobbled together from interviews, magazine features and programme notes, the book has a slightly frustrating, chopped-up structure but just as you’re getting a bit bored by a weirdly long passage on a now-obscure event, Ivory grabs you with a hilariously snooty remark or a striking description, such as his observations on producer Dorothy Strelsin in Benares: “Her showgirl energies and blonde Broadway looks were a vivid contrast to the sinister backdrop of the holy city, with its cremation ghats at the water’s edge, and its half-burned bits of bodies floating past the film crew.” Buy it here

In a nutshell: Lavish rooms with excellent views

Biggest name drop: Vanessa Redgrave, who comes out of this looking like a ghastly political bore and Raquel Welch, of whom he devastatingly writes: “She wanted to be an actress, not just a star, so I treated her as an actress, and not as a star. That was my fatal mistake.”

Best anecdote: Not, interestingly, one of the many celebrity meetings but a bizarre encounter at a Rajput dinner party during which the half-brother of a Maharaja threatened one of his female relatives with a sword. The striking part is how the servants melt away as soon as he draws it, and rematerialise as soon as he drops it - so fast that one of them catches it before it hits the floor.

Who to buy it for: the glamorous elderly family friend who is said to have spent the night with a once-famous actor after meeting him in a Swansea curry house in 1974 but nobody’s quite sure who.

Nancy Durrant

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo

When Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker Prize in 2019 for the exquisite Girl Woman Other, she seemed to many to be an overnight success. In fact, she’d won the highest accolade in the literary world at the age of 60, after several decades of hard graft and having already published eight other boundary-pushing novels. In her memoir, she traces how she was shaped into the artist she is today, along with masses of indispensable wisdom about the resilience and determination needed to live a creative life. There’s a real openness to her storytelling that is also imbued with her own infectious sense of curiosity. Buy it here

In a nutshell: A generous and indispensable guide to how to live a creative life

Biggest name drop: Evaristo is not a serial name dropper, but does mention very casually that she lived down the road from the boy who grew up to become Boy George

Best anecdote: The moment Evaristo goes to collect the Booker with joint winner Margaret Atwood: “two women, two races, two nations, two generations - two members of the human race...it was a landmark historical moment for literature and the sisterhood”

Who to buy it for: your inspiration-seeking pal who wants to finally write that novel next year

Jessie Thompson

One: My Autobiography by Peter Schmeichel

Fergie! Becks! Ole’s golden goal! Peter Schmeichel’s autobiography - complete with foreword by Eric ‘Anger Management’ Cantona - is a rollercoaster ride through the life of the Danish and Manchester United goalkeeper, but mainly through the travails of a full-strength, treble-winning Man U team who, like them or hate them, made the Premier League the brand it is today. And no, you don’t need to be a Red Devil to enjoy it (I’m Arsenal til I die, etc), although you definitely need to care enough about the vagaries of late goals scored, “interesting” 0-0 draws, and cold rainy nights in Stoke. Sir Alex Ferguson obviously looms large. Some of Schmeichel’s insights into the firebrand Scot are a slightly ‘punter on a phone-in radio show’ (“what Fergie was really good at was understanding what a team needed”) but there are also (surprisingly) touching insights into the man who shaped Schmeichel’s career; not to mention the psychologies, strengths and weaknesses of teammates like Cantona, Becks and Scholesy. And in fact, some of the most striking anecdotes areabout his wild Danish childhood, climbing mountains and “dare-devil sledging”, attending school after school (“I was quite an unruly boy”); feeling like an “outlier” in their small neighbourhood, with his Polish jazz musician father and Danish mother; and a childhood illness that could have stopped him playing altogether. He also writes of his pride in playing for his country and in his son Kasper, who like him plays in goal for his country and at Leicester City. He pays tribute to his son’s “resilience”, recalling moments when Kasper was bullied by other kids (“they stood shouting at this little boy: ‘Hah, you think you’re as good as your dad... but you’re s***’”), and devotes plenty of space to Kasper’s own title-winning season. “My son, a Premier League champion - believe me, oh I am proud of him.” Blub. Buy it here

In a nutshell: A (fairly) measured take on the beautiful game by one of its allstars.

Biggest namedrop: Posh Spice - sure, he went to the wedding of the decade (but what did he wear?!)

Best anecdote: The time they all turned up to play after an all night party celebrating Man United’s league win the previous day (“the night before was still in our system”)

Who to buy it for: your mate who spends all their time talking about how “money has ruined modern football”

Phoebe Luckhurst

Coming Up for Air by Tom Daley

Tom Daley’s best-selling new memoir, Coming Up For Air, is packed with insights into the physical and mental challenges of being an Olympic diving champion. The 27-year-old gold medallist opens up about winning gold at the European Championship at the age of 13, losing his father at 17, and becoming a father himself in June this year, but the most memorable moment comes at the end of his second chapter, Courage, when he revisits the “terrifying” decision to come out as gay. “There were car chases and we were followed down the streets from every angle,” Daley writes, of the day he announced his relationship with now-husband Dustin Lance Black in a video and later on The Jonathan Ross Show. On a lighter level, the book also addresses another key subject Daley’s fans will be desperate to know more about: how he became the overnight face of knitting in Tokyo this summer. “It might sound ridiculous but I am so happy that I discovered it,” Daley says of his new hobby, which he uses for meditation. Since the book was released, he’s brought out his own knitting line. The perfect stocking filler?Buy it here

In a nutshell: Britain’s most decorated diver writes candidly on fame, fatherhood and forging an identity outside being a diver

Biggest name drop: Kate Moss, who Daley was photographed with in Rome for Italian Vogue in 2009 (and agreed to take part in his school photography project afterwards)

Best anecdote: Telling his grandmother he was gay. “‘OK, but what’s the big deal?’ Grandma Jenny said,” Daley recalls in an emotional scene after his paternal grandparents struggled to accept his relationship with Lance (“‘Come on, Tom. Do you think that is even natural? What would your dad think?’ Grandad said”).

Who to buy it for: Your knitting-obsessed grandma who could do with a (soft) education on LGBTQ relationships

Katie Strick

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl

It may be weird to read that one of the world’s greatest rockstars is sweet, but this is Dave Grohl we’re talking about - the nicest man in rock. The Grammy award-winning artist proves himself an author in The Storyteller, a candid ride through three decades of music written in lockdown, from his Wonder bread Virginia childhood, raised by his school teacher mum and tutted at by his Republican father, (a “tight ass” who regarded coffee as a Class A drug), to the roaring lip of the stage first as Nirvana’s drummer, then as Foo Fighters’ frontman. At first, reading it feels like being gathered on a nursery school carpet as milk is handed out: warm and comforting, snug in a blanket of (his) nostalgia. Then comes the rock ‘n’ roll part, surviving on $7.50 a day, sharing a filthy one-bed with Kurt Cobain until one day, he caught Nirvana’s seismic single Smells like Teen Spirit on MTV (“Dali’s melting clocks had nothing on this”) and shot into superstardom. As we know, dark days followed Cobain’s overdose and Grohl gives an inner circle perspective on the man who had become a brother, open about his grief and ultimately the road that led him to Foo Fighters. Through it all, from a little boy with a guitar and a dream to rubbing shoulders with world-famous legends, Grohl credits his mum, his best friend, for moulding him into the man he is today. Told you: sweet. Buy it here

In a nutshell: have faith and you could strike gold

Biggest name drop: having Paul McCartney over for dinner

Best anecdote: discovering the pairing of KFC and champagne backstage after a gig - sublime, apparently

Who to buy it for: the soft-hearted ageing rocker in your life

Abha Shah

How to Be a Rock Star by Shaun Ryder with Luke Bainbridge

Styled as an extremely loose guide to being a rock star, inspired by the Happy Mondays frontman’s own career, Shaun Ryder covers all the big topics — haircuts, band names, interviews, record labels, festivals, drugs, rehab and more. It’s typically breezy, and doesn’t take itself too seriously (ingesting heroin as a pre-gig routine probably isn’t the soundest advice).

Ryder has more rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes than you’ve had hot dinners, and he manages to pack a fair few of them into this book — everything from eating a Chinese takeaway out of Bernard Sumner’s bin, to being so high that you don’t even remember headlining Glastonbury. Buy it here

In a nutshell: Mad stories and career tips (good or bad) from a legend of UK music.

Biggest name drop: Paul McCartney

Best anecdote: The time Ryder took temazepam, only to wake up naked in a restaurant basement beside two similarly starkers waitresses, with a gun that had three bullets missing from the chamber — and no clue what had happened.

Who to buy it for: Your Happy Mondays-loving relative who has a pretty hazy memory of the Nineties.

Jochan Embley

And Away by Bob Mortimer

The much loved comedian tells his life story in entertaining and poignant style, switching effortlessly from relatable jokes to how his brush with death in 2015 after he was diagnosed with a heart condition made him reassess his life. There are plenty of funny starry stories, a bit of Mortimer talking about his imposter syndrome and a few broader lessons for life. The book is a goldmine of nineties showbiz moments. Buy it here

In a nutshell: Pure cheer.

Biggest name drop: In 1996, Mortimer and Reeves were asked to present a trophy at the Brit Awards - the one where Jarvis Cocker was arrested for mooning Michael Jackson. It so happened that they were sharing a dressing room with Cocker so we are treated to them hearing that he had been arrested, the cabal of police and lawyers and them asking Cocker what he had done. After he was released, they celebrated with Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit. Gallagher and Reeves had an arm wrestle to prove which of them was more working class. Reeves won effortlessly.

Best anecdote: When Mortimer, Vic Reeves and Jools Holland met Sinead O’Connor at a comedy entertainment show in the nineties. This being Mortimer he is self-deprecating about it. He had such a crush on her that the only thing he could think of to say was “Do you have a shop locally to you?”

Who to buy it for: Anyone who needs a bit of a mood lift. It’s an easy win too for fans of the golden era of Reeves and Mortimer and Shooting Stars or later converts to their joyful fishing programme.

Susannah Butter

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