Monday, October 29, 2012

Nicky Pellegrino reviews Pamela Stephenson's autobiography

We’re into “biography season” with publishers releasing a slew of memoirs by or about the great and the late in time for your Christmas shopping pleasure. Often it seems the subjects of these books haven’t led lives worth recounting but that’s not a criticism you can level at Pamela Stephenson. Actress, comedian, wife to Billy Connelly, mother, Hollywood hob-nobber, clinical psychologist, writer, adventurer, she’s crammed a lot into her 63 years.
What is different about The Varnished Untruth: My Story (Simon & Schuster, $37), is that it is conducted as a therapy session with Stephenson adopting two voices – as both patient and shrink – as she tries to find the answer to the question she asks throughout, “What is WRONG with me”.
This seems an unnecessary device. Stephenson is insightful and candid enough for the memoir to have worked without the therapist’s occasional butting in and progress notes.
In fact, candid doesn’t begin to describe the tone of this book. The first chapter opens with an account of Stephenson bursting one of her fake breasts at a New York jive club and by its end she has confessed both to being hooked on cosmetic surgery and being the product of an unhappy childhood…and we’re still only on page 22…
The memoir continues with the same odd but appealing mix of the frivolous, the profound and the dazzlingly frank. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Stephenson pins most her adult angst back to the relationship she had with her parents, both academics who were low on affection and high on expectations. Since they are now dead she can say what she likes about them and she does.
Kicked out of home as a teenager, she ended up prey to the pimps and drug pushers of Sydney’s seedy King’s Cross and from there into an abusive relationship that pushed her close to ending her life.
Performing was what saved her. Having won a place at Australia’s National Institute of the Dramatic Art, she went on to act in theatre, television and movies.
Despite all the professional wins – from her role on UK satire show Not The Nine O’Clock News to a her more recent third place on Strictly Come Dancing – Stephenson continues to suffer from a sense of worthlessness, a fear of rejection, a need for adrenaline etc that she believes is rooted in her parents’ inability to give her the love and attention she craved. This introspective blame game does start to wear a teensy bit thin eventually.
So thank goodness for all the name-dropping! From dinner with Peter Sellers to parties with Elton John and Sarah Ferguson’s hen night she serves up a small feast of celebrity titbits, all of them harmless fun mind, and the only famous person she ever depreciates is herself.
There are times in The Varnished Untruth when Stephenson is discreet, particularly where her children are concerned. The memoir is also gappy at points as she glosses over episodes like her sailing adventures that have been covered in previous books.
So what is Pamela Stephenson. An outrageous ego? A fierce intelligence? A funny woman? Possibly all of those. But she knows how to write and knows how to live and those two things add up to an autobiography worth reading.

Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 28 October, 2012.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950s Italy and was published last month.

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