Hilary Liftin Reveals Secrets of a Celebrity Ghostwriter
Americans are gluttons for celebrity culture.
We gorge ourselves on Cara Delevingne’s Instagram feed and the Daily Mail’s so-called “sidebar of shame,” an index of every “makeup-free” celebrity blemish and every “worse for wear” star spotted after a breakup or a night of partying.
We consume Hollywood gossip with such voraciousness that Hilary Liftin, a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs, has penned a fake one appealing to our insatiable appetites.
As ghostwriter to the stars (Miley Cyrus, Tori Spelling, Tatum O’Neal, Mackenzie Phillips, and three others who didn’t give her official credit), Liftin brings considerable insight into celebrity life to her first novel, Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper.
The book tells the story of a young, naive, indie actress, Lizzie Pepper, swept off her feet by Hollywood royalty Rob Mars.
Rob is the best-paid actor in the business and credits his success to a new-agey, pseudoscience-based religion called One Cell Studio.
Lizzie begins attending One Cell’s meditation and acting classes and quickly assimilates the “practice,” with its Whole Body Principles and meaningless rhetoric. “Emotions are a chemical reaction,” she recites to herself whenever she’s tempted to indulge her feelings.
A whirlwind, superficially-romantic courtship culminates in a contrived proposal on a yacht in St. Maarten (“You don’t say no to Rob Mars,” Lizzie tells herself as he gets down on one knee) and wedding in a 13th-century castle in Ireland. But their marriage is more of a business merger than an equal partnership, with One Cell Studio managing their affairs and orchestrating their every move.
Anyone who followed Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s seven-year relationship will see parallels in Movie Star.
In a scene that mirrors Cruise’s couch-jumping episode on Oprah, Rob serenades an embarrassed Lizzie on top of their car in downtown Beverly Hills.
“Everyone knows what happened, and I realize now how it looked to the world, but if you will, please try to see it all through my eyes,” Lizzie writes of “the infamous ‘Love of my Life’ serenade.”
Rob has a secretive, bizarrely close relationship with a David Miscavige-like character, Geoff, One Cell’s “most high-profile practitioner” and the “public voice of the Studio.” Lizzie is “America’s Girl Next Door” and Rob is “People’s Sexiest Man Alive.”
Indeed, Liftin dangles these parallels generously throughout the book, though she strenuously denies that Movie Star was inspired by TomKat’s saga.
Readers can speculate all they want—and that’s the benefit of spinning tabloid conjecture and media reports into a novel.
Fevered speculation drives sales, so the more anecdotes that seem to mimic juicy details of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s relationship, the more Lizzie Pepper’s memoir will sell.
When I meet Liftin, she assures me that the whole book was “in the can” before Alex Gibney’s Scientology documentary Going Clear came out, and that One Cell Studio isn’t based on Scientology or “any real cult or community.”
Likewise Lizzie and Rob, whose characters are an “amalgamation of celebrities,” she says.
“As a ghostwriter, the main thing that I bring to this book is the obvious but frequently forgotten notion that no one is born a celebrity,” Liftin tells me.
“It’s something that comes upon them externally and that they want but also can’t imagine. So I tried to make these celebrities very human and, even though they’re in this rarefied world, to make their problems accessible to readers.”
Liftin, 45, worked in publishing in New York during her 20s (“I was working on e-books before e-books were viable”) when she got a book contract for Candy and Me, a “memoir of my life told through different candy.”
“It was very much a book of my 20s,” she says with a self-deprecating smile.
Liftin married a TV writer in 2002 and moved to Los Angeles, where her agent put her up to ghostwrite a book by “a big TV actress” at the time.
The client asked that her ghostwriter candidates write a chapter in her voice without having met her. Liftin got the job.
“In the course of working with her and other clients I realized I was totally meant to do this,” she says, adding that she’s “not in it for the glory.”
Liftin recalls one of her clients joking with her after returning from a wildly successful book tour: “Guess how many people asked about you? None!”
She politely refused to dish out anecdotes about specific celebrities she’s worked with, though she cited a line in Miley Cyrus’s memoir where the 16-year-old star of Hannah Montana said she’s not as “mainstream” as people think.
“I think [Miley] knew she had a responsibility to her fans who were young, and as she got older she’s gotten to be the person she always knew she was,” Liftin says.
Does she keep in touch with her clients?
“I’ve tried, but it’s hard to redefine the relationship once the process of working together is over,” Liftin tells me, explaining that her role as ghostwriter is equal parts therapist, editor, and close friend.
“It’s a very one-sided relationship from the beginning. They’re telling me stories and I’m listening and helping them shape these stories. But we develop a bond that never goes away.”
One imagines that ghostwriters have to pressure their clients to spill secrets, but Liftin says she’s not in the business of manipulating people.
Liftin has worked with clients who, after turning in the manuscript, decided they didn’t want to hurt people by exposing their relationships. She would then be forced to cut “huge swaths of the book,” she says.
Such occupational hazards made writing Movie Star all the more liberating.
The book is really about what happens when a marriage collapses and the challenge of raising children in Hollywood, she tells me.
“Celebrities are still real people even as they’re assaulted by paparazzi cameras, but when they have children they begin to think more about their own childhood and how to re-create the best of it for their kids.”
As for our own insatiable consumption of starry tittle-tattle, “we like human stories about attractive people,” Liftin reasons. “They can be plucked from obscurity or extremity, like the Kardashians, but once we shine a light on them and good storytellers turn their lives into a narrative, we’re totally invested.”
And social media has affirmed our curiosity, even if celebrities signed up to mitigate it—to show us the “real” person that we don’t see in the tabloids.
“By going on Twitter and Instagram, celebrities are saying to us, ‘Yes, you have a right to know me; yes, there’s something to know; yes, I’m willing to share it,’” says Liftin.
But they’re giving us carefully curated versions of themselves in 140 characters.
“That’s what I love about ghostwriting memoirs, because my clients feel like they can actually get into the nuance of something instead of worrying about soundbites,” Liftin says.
To write Movie Star, Liftin had to imagine that she’d landed her dream job. “What would the person across from me say? What would she confide in me?”
But don’t assume Katie Holmes is her dream client. Liftin says her heart is set on Stevie Nicks. “I love the whole rock fairytale,” she says, though she’s drawn to “anyone who has lived a long, rich, complicated life of talent and boldness.”
For someone who’s never written fiction before, Liftin did a bang-up job of ghostwriting Holmes’s story without ever meeting her, capturing all the nuances of a fairytale romance to an aging heartthrob that sours when he proves more devoted to a cult-like religion than to his wife and child.
Until Holmes decides to tell it in her own words, Liftin’s version of her story will have to do. Much like the colorful, fantastical narratives crafted by the tabloids and gossip magazines, her version is probably better than the real thing anyway.