In 1982, when she was 16, Justine Bateman landed the role of Mallory Keaton in “Family Ties.” In the era of three networks and “appointment television,” tens of millions of viewers saw Bateman every week; she became instantly famous. As she writes in “Fame: The Hijacking of Reality,” it was heady stuff for a teenager: backstage passes, freebies, a helicopter ride to the Super Bowl to skip traffic.
What was especially intoxicating was that an adoring circle of adults listened intently to everything she said — nodding somberly when she made an “interesting” point, laughing “quickly and heartily” when she said something amusing.
“[Was I] worthy of being listened to as if a river of holy wisdom is pouring through my mouth? No. NO,” she writes in this visceral, insightful dissection of celebrity. “But, the feeling. Oh, it felt good. At that age, to be heard, to be taken seriously.”
Because this little scenario occurred all the time, and she grew so used to the urge to “perform, deliver,” Bateman stopped asking anyone else about themselves. Her transformation had begun.
Bateman addresses the reader directly, pouring out her thoughts in a rapid-fire, conversational style. (Hunter S. Thompson is saluted in the acknowledgments.) Cascading along in this stream of consciousness is a torrent of sentence fragments, f-bombs, myriad points made in ALL CAPS.
But her jittery delivery suits the material — the manic sugar high of celebrity and its inevitable crash. Bateman takes the reader through her entire fame cycle, from TV megastar, whose first movie role was alongside Julia Roberts, to her quieter life today as a filmmaker. She is as relentless with herself as she is with others. Her current fame, she notes, is “less, far less,” adding: “I made it that way, I guess, or is that just what we tell ourselves?” She also has an eye for the telling detail. She recalls her fear of speaking her mind at the age of 20 because she’d be labeled “difficult.” At the time, she writes, she didn’t know the truth — “that everyone in power, or who you assume has power, is afraid of you.”
Over her decades in the spotlight, Bateman has observed the peeling away of the layers between fans and celebrities, from the ’80s, when the act of writing and sending a fan letter was a more civilized act, to today’s Twitter pile-ons. Prior to the 1990s, she says, fame was “not coveted by everyone you met. There was not this shame that people seem to absorb now, that they or their business isn’t ‘famous.’ ” She is on firmer ground when she shifts from cultural analysis to simply recounting her own experiences, such as articulating her thought process when a fan approached. “I was on edge, on guard, on,” she writes. “Antennae up, all senses pumping, looking, watching, waiting, primed, tense.”
She describes one squirmingly uncomfortable scene after another, until the only thing the reader envies about celebrities is their bank accounts. There is the father seeking an autograph for his young daughter who suddenly leans in and says, “I read that you don’t wear underwear.” (Bateman’s actual, more pedestrian, quote was that she wore pantyhose under her jeans on camera so there would be no panty lines).
At least once a month, she writes, “some guy would come up, or guys in work situations — writer/producers at auditions, maybe — and tell me I was the first person they jacked off to.” She gets into an elevator with three people, who assess her as if she is a hologram (“Her hair is darker on TV.”) Finally, she breaks in — “You know I can hear you” — to their evident surprise. She tries to get into a club at the age of 21 with a legitimate driver’s license only to be denied because “Mallory’s not 21.”
Her experiences grow more disheartening as her fame recedes. A photographer urges her to step aside on the red carpet so he can photograph a more famous person. In a chapter tartly titled “LEPER,” Bateman describes an event in which more well-known celebrities “lean away from me. . . as if getting near me would contaminate their still-ascending Fame.” A Google search in 2009 auto-completes her name with “looks old.” Masochistically, she reads the online vitriol — “sea hag,” “Meth addict.”
Some of this veers into rambling, and a few of her theories, such as the acceptable roles women can have when their celebrity fades, feel half-baked. And her feelings about her brother Jason Bateman’s still-thriving television career go unmentioned.
But she doesn’t owe us that, does she? Now she is “free to never people-please again,” comfortable with renown rather than celebrity. Along with filmmaking, she got her pilot’s license and a degree in computer science from UCLA in 2016. “The pursuit of Fame will shut your true self off,” she writes. “Don’t feel bad if you never ‘get famous.’ Don’t freak out if you have less than 300 Twitter followers.”
Jancee Dunn’s latest book is “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.”
By Justine Bateman.
208 pp. $26.95