Janet Jackson’s “True You” boasts alluring packaging: It’s printed on the kind of ultra-white paper you rarely see in books anymore, chock-full of photos and beautifully designed. Fans of pop-star nonfiction will inevitably be drawn to it. But despite its sheen, it’s no revealing “Life” (Keith Richards) or “Chronicles” (Bob Dylan). Instead, it’s a mash-up of celebrity tell-nothing, dysfunction memoir and Oprah-ready self-help.
Its biggest revelations? Jackson loves rainy days, hopes she’s finally conquered a long-standing body-image issue, and calls her late brother — who had body-image issues of his own, though they go unmentioned — “Mike.”
Clearly, the publisher of “True You” assumes that a slight book by a sometimes not-so-slight superstar will still sell to Jackson fans, and though that’s cynical, it’s also true. Despite its lack of narrative heft, it’s bulked up with reprinted fan letters, sob stories from Jackson friends, a 14-page memo from her nutritionist and 70 pages of recipes.
Here’s the gist of her message, repeated like a disco beat: Despite wealth and fame, she was always miserable. Even as the world thought she was beautiful and talented, she thought she was a fat disappointment, and her loving family, though they instilled the fearsome Jackson work ethic in her — and she loves them for it — never addressed or even acknowledged her issues. “Because ours was a show business family, we were pretty much on our own,” she writes in a devastating off-hand admission. “Other than the extremely rare holiday dinner, we didn’t have regular sit-down meals.” So she became “the kind of kid who ate anything and everything. . . . Food was everything warm and wonderful.”
Food was, in fact, a facsimile of family. “My parents were overwhelmed with responsibilities.” Yet, in her telling, they were quite irresponsible. “My siblings and I grew up with the belief that you don’t let people know what’s going on inside. . . . Fans paid hard earned money to watch us perform, and our job was to make them happy. End of story.” Until she realized, all on her own, that it was only the beginning.
Janet’s long-sought solution? Look in the mirror like Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley and repeat, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” When my attention flagged during the sort of anecdotes politicians use to connect with the masses, the thought of Smalley’s faux earnestness kept me reading. Unfortunately, Jackson is serious.
To be fair, she sends a clear signal on the second page: “This is not an autobiography. It’s a journey that I am still taking to love and to accept myself just as I am.” Alas, almost from the start of her career on the sitcom “Good Times,” outside forces conspired to make the then-10-year-old hate herself. “I was told,” she writes, “I needed to bind my breasts. . . . For a girl so young, this was confusing [but] there was no room for personal confusion.”
“Please believe me: my struggles are real,” she continues on page four. “Depression leads to overeating.” Luckily, by page seven, she subtly foreshadows a happy ending. “In 2008, I lost . . . sixty pounds, but gained something far more valuable: a love and appreciation for myself that I will never lose.” Bless you, Dr. Smalley.
What Jackson most wants us to know is that really, she’s just like us. As a child, she compared herself unfavorably to her sister and was teased by that Mike guy, who gave her ample posterior — often referred to as her booty — “pet names.” Not Bubbles, I hope.
But I’m being churlish. Three decades ago, a giant marketing firm studying book-buying in America concluded that the more people read, the more they will read. In other words, if a book, no matter how empty of calories, draws people in, they might buy another and another, and maybe try one with some nutritional value. So please, Janet Jackson fans, ignore all the above. I heartily recommend “True You.” Buy it. And more books like it. And maybe some that are unlike it, too.
A Journey to Finding and Loving Yourself
By Janet Jackson with David Ritz
Gallery. 259 pp. $25.99