How to be Famous by Caitlin Moran

published 2018

How to be Famous 1

[It is 1995, and narrator Johanna Morrigan lives ‘in the epicentre of Britpop’]

HOw to be famous 4

And so at nineteen, here I am in London – and London, it turns out, is the right place for me. I was right. I was right that this was the place to go to.
I moved down here a year ago, to a flat in Camden, to pursue my career as a music journalist. I brought three bin bags full of clothes, a TV, a laptop, a dog, an ashtray, a lighter in the shape of a gun, and a top hat. That was the sum total of my possessions. I didn’t need anything else.

London provides everything else – even things you’d never dreamed of….

I wake at noon, and stay out until 3 am, and then I have a bath, when I come home, because I can.

My phone is regularly cut off, because I forget to pay the bills – they come so often!

How to be Famous 2

commentary: This is the strangest book imaginable.

There is a blog entry here on the first novel featuring her heroine Johanna Morrigan, How to Build a Girl (now being made into a film, and apparently there will be a trilogy) and I am going to quote from it to describe Moran:
This is Caitlin Moran’s brand new novel, as opposed to the anthology of her feature pieces (Moranthology) or her memoir/feminist tract (How to Be a Woman) or her sitcom pilot (Raised by Wolves). Of course this one is fiction, and the narrator has a different name. But it’s clear that Moran takes her material where she can find it, which is in her own early life. As everyone (in the UK anyway) must surely know, she grew up on benefits on a council estate in Wolverhampton, in a loving but dysfunctional family: father on Disability, no money at all, random education, endless siblings. She was obviously extremely bright, and well-read (via libraries), and she became a music press writer very young, and is now one of the best-paid journalists in the UK. (For an illuminating interview with her, click here.)
The story is probably a very good picture of life in London in the mid-1990s for someone who was working in the music business, and is nicely nostalgic about life before widespread internet coverage and mobile phones. (She was doing well to have a laptop in 1995: it would have been quite expensive, and there wouldn’t have been much networking on it.)

So Johanna has family troubles – an annoying father who comes to stay – and she can see that the atmosphere where she works is very anti-women, and that the whole world of sex and relationships is complicated. The story rumbles along – the man she fancies, the horrible man whom she sleeps with, the new friend she makes, a wild potential popstar with some idea of mentoring Johanna.

It is all very readable, but somewhat rambling. And, the thing about Moran is that she normally has a clear idea which parts of her life are deeply relatable, and which aren’t. But here she doesn’t seem to realize how very exceptional her late teens were, and how very different from everyone else’s. She has Access All Areas at all the best pop concerts, and it’s a metaphor for her life: she may moan on about having no money, but she has a very lucky time. (Of course Johanna is fictional, but if your name is Moran and you give your heroine the name Morrigan, you can’t really complain about people drawing conclusions…)

She fills the book with what she’s good at: funny articles about life, about people, about relationships, and sex, and music and the people who make it. It is very entertaining, though very slightly feels like recycling when she fills pages with Johanna’s articles and other writings.

Then there is a sudden dramatic swerve – finally signs of a plot - into the results of some not very good sex with a not very nice man (I am trying not to spoiler here, but it is not the top 3 bad-results-in-novels you would think of). It is a form of slut-shaming, and this is really unusual and different, and not something I have seen in a novel before, and Moran handles it well, if in an increasingly bonkers and unlikely way. She has a thesis in there about young women and pop music and sex that I found very interesting: it is not complete or polished, but I have been thinking about it on and off ever since finishing the book.

There are some nice clothes:
There she was. Cigarette in mouth, dressed in junk-How to be Famous 3shop glam – leopard-skin fur coat, pearls, thighs, blue suede boots – striding across the stage as if she were about to start a fight.
Suzanne finally emerges, fully painted, in jodhpurs, riding boots, ornate Victorian blouse and ratty sheepskin coat. She looks like Virginia Woolf managing a football team….She applies lipstick with her cigarette still in her mouth – something I’ve never seen before or since.

Red curlytoed Moroccan slippers, a black silk jumpsuit unbuttoned to show a denim bra, and dark purple eyelids.
Today I am wearing a floor-length, red-and-gold-sequinned sari skirt bought at a jumble sale in Wolverhampton for 50p, a black polo-neck jumper, a leopard-skin fake-fur jacket, and my forehead is covered in stick-on bindis. I look like the drag queen Divine, trying to get cast in a Bollywood movie.

[this outfit is for a JOB INTERVIEW, and makes it clear that cultural appropriation hadn’t been thought of in 1995.]

I ripped through the book: it is absurd and weird, very readable, and likely no-one would have got it published if not her with all her success to give her a platform. But I don’t mean that as an insult: there should be more different ways of writing books, and publishers can seem to have a limited view.

How to be Famous does not resemble the way anyone else writes their novels. But then maybe she is creating a new kind of book… good for her.

The top 2 pictures (apart from the book cover) are from a website called Britpop News, quite the archive of the era. The first picture includes Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker; the second is a band called Lush.

The third photo, also from the era, is of Kate Moss and is that Naomi Campbell?


  1. It does sound like a very unusual book, Moira. I like the eye to detail in the snippet you shared, and it sounds as though it takes a different sort of look at late-1990s London. I agree with you that it's good when authors take different - even strange - approaches to their subject matter. It keeps things from getting too 'samey.'

    1. Thanks Margot - yes, I thought it wasn't a perfect book: but it was also very original, she wasn't following anyone else either in her subject matter or style. Good for her.

  2. I picked up on her having a laptop in 1995 too, because I had a Government grant for a laptop for University in 1999, and I remember how scary expensive it was (the grant was for a few thousand) and ultimately what a sodding waste of money it was. Our PC guy actually said we ended up with a complete dud, because everything went wrong with it, to the extent that it became permanently known as the crap-top after the first year, and of course with it being a Toshiba, I also referred to it as the Gone-Toshita. To this day I won't consider buying any Toshiba computers after that experience because it was just torturous by the end, having to use a remote keyboard, having to keep the damn thing on a cooling rack to avoid it shutting down from heat exhaustion in 30 minutes, literally everything you don't want from a laptop you got from the CrapTop.

    When it finally gave up the ghost and had to be taken to the tip I took unholy pleasure in taking a sledgehammer to it in the back yard before the final journey. I'd forgotten about that actually until I was writing about my memories of my first laptop....

    1. That's both shocking and funny at the same time!
      Technical history is yet another thing that I get fussy picky and pedantic about (along with clothes, obv, character names, popular culture history etc). For various reasons my partner and I were fairly knowledgeable about these matters. So it is yet another aspect of life where I address books out loud like a madwoman: 'No you *didn't* - you couldn't possibly have emailed from the train/ watched a film on your computer/ bought shares in Microsoft/ tweeted/ on that date in recent history.'

  3. Moira: The title and self-absorbed author reminded me of a book I still have on the shelf next to me, How to Marry Super Rich by Sheilah Graham. Published in 1974 it recounts the real life stories of women and men, mainly women, marrying rich. Her primary opening advice:

    "You must go where the rich are - Palm Beach, Newport, Dallas, St. Moritz, Marbella, Cannes, or Kuwait - if you can stand the smell of oil. A tip. Those aging oil kids prefer young blondes."

    Still sound advice on principle and location over 40 years later.

    1. Oh blimey, that does all sound familiar. As an idealistic lefty feminist in the 70s and 80s we thought all that stuff would disappear. How wrong we were...
      Sheilah Graham such an interesting person - when I was in my teens I read her memoir of life with F Scott Fitzgerald - it was on my parents' bookshelf - and as a result started reading FSF himself, so I have something to thank her for.


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