“The bubble of reality was blown up big, and I found myself floating around…it was then that Cartoon Lily was born”.
Cartoon Lily, the bogus persona created by the tabloid media, has haunted Lily Allen (the real Lily) since its conception in July 2006, when Smile knocked Shakira’s Hip’s Don’t Lie off the number one spot. Cartoon Lily has also haunted every one of us who has read anything about Allen in mainstream media, and her book, My Thoughts Exactly, is largely an effort to rectify that. Whether you’re a fan of hers or not, this memoir is essential reading for our generation. It’s a stark reminder to take the proverbial pinch of salt when consuming media (and perhaps we should grab a fistful).
After being misrepresented and gaslit for years, Lily puts forward a powerful retort in My Thoughts Exactly. During an interview for the Observer, and at her Guardian Live event, Lily says that the reason for writing her book was, for the most part, to provide her children with a true version of events. There are too many false, yet very loud, accounts of Cartoon Lily, but very few of the real person. And so she sets out by identifying the purpose of her writing – “When women share their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change – for the better. This is my story.”
The nature of her memoir is unsurprising, given her candid style. And her musical lyricism translates well onto the page. She’s outspoken and honest, and it’s perhaps due to this refusal to mould herself into what everyone expects of a young female celebrity, that’s got the communal shackles of the music industry and media up. She hasn’t had an easy ride, nor was she given the ‘daddy’s coattails’ leg up that she has so often been accused of. Even if she had, her experiences are real, poignant, sometimes harrowing. There are, quite honestly, tear-inducing moments in her book, and it was apparent at her Guardian Live event that her feisty facade put forward in her music isn’t always there. It’s easy to believe what we read, and forget there’s a real person behind the stories.
Pursuing this sentiment further, My Thoughts Exactly explores the extent to which the fame bubble can warp one’s sense of self as well. When your words are distorted and your actions taken out of context, you can end up unsure of your lived experience versus what’s claimed by the tabloids. The most striking example of this was when The Sun discovered Lily was pregnant before she did; a sequence of events that would surely prove discombobulating to the most straightforward and stable-minded. As she writes,
“I was dumbfounded. Why would The Sun think I was pregnant? Even if they’d been going through my bins they couldn’t have found a pregnancy test because I hadn’t done one…. Then, a week or so passed and I missed my period. I was, in fact, pregnant, and I freaked out on many levels. How on earth did The Sun find out I was pregnant before I did?… My paranoia went into overdrive.”
The more I read, the more apparent it became that fame is a dehumanising experience. Privacy and dignity go out of the window. Celebrities are treated like puppets; their lives manipulated to make a snappier headline, a meatier column, a juicier article. Allen’s book is just one testimony of this situation. It’s rife, and most of us are caught up in it in one way or another – somehow, it’s addictive.
One aspect of Lily’s writing that I particularly enjoyed, was the way she wove her songs into her narrative – signposting the stories behind her music. (The only thing missing was a soundtrack to accompany it). As she said at her Guardian Live event, music is the only way she’s really good at communicating her thoughts and feelings – and god doesn’t she do that well? Her music, and her fashion, is all about mixing it up – the hard with the soft, the rough with the smooth. It adds to the sense of realism she injects into her work. As singer-songwriters go, she does a damn good job of evoking feeling in her music. Whether that be a feisty Fuck You or a more tender Chinese; or the desolation in Lost My Mind. The way she has developed her music, to carry strong threads of her first two albums into the new musical dimension that is No Shame, is stunning and captivating. Is it a cruel irony, or a bittersweet solace, that someone so afflicted with anxiety and isolation, as is all too apparent in her lyrics and melodies, can provide a remedy to just those things for someone else? As she says, part of what makes the fame worth it is when her words touch and relate to someone else: ‘when women share their stories…things begin to change.’
My Thoughts Exactly is an important antidote not only to Cartoon Lily, but to the many ‘Cartoons’ out there – perhaps her experience has been worse than some others, but it’s in no way an isolated case. It’s a vital exploration of her as a person, and takes you intimately on her journey thus far. Like Lily, this book stands up and talks loudly about reality. It’s a shame that it needed to exist – but I’m glad that it does.