In her new book, former sitcom star Justine Bateman explains how being famous completely altered her reality.
In the early 80s, when she was a teenager, Justine Bateman was cast on the NBC sitcom Family Ties. This was back in the days before streaming services and hundreds of cable channels, so tens of millions of people would tune in to each episode, making Bateman mega famous.
In her new book, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, Bateman writes about that experience, as well as the topic of fame in general. It is the scariest book I’ve read all year. It reads like a horror novel, with fame as a sinister entity that can distort reality, make you question yourself, and turn friends, family, and the public against you.
There are, obviously, a lot of good things that come with fame. In the book, Bateman (the sister of Jason Bateman) talks about helicopters and limousines, backstage passes, and being let out of tickets by cops.
But she devotes more words to the bad side. She describes fame as being like a “parallel universe laid over this one.” A universe where her presence would change the mood of rooms she entered. Where people would stare and talk about her as though she wasn’t there.
Thanks to a run in with a stalker, she was unable to relax in public, and people drove past her house at night, screaming the name of her TV character, making her feel unsafe in her own home. Newspapers printed false information about her, and, years after the height of her fame, typing her name into Google led her to forums where people were discussing a photograph of her, saying she looks like a sea hag, a meth addict, and “Eric Stoltz in the film Mask.”
“You’re separate and you’re not real, even,” Bateman writes. “You’re not there, even. You’re not there. You change everything when you walk into a room, but you’re not there. We can talk about you like you’re not there, because you’re not-a-person. We can rip into you because you’re not real. It’s like in a film, when you’re killing a lifelike robot, a replica. Should we feel bad about it? Morally?”
I spoke with Justine about the book, her fame, and what it was like to lose it. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Was being famous as awful as the book made it sound? Like, people were coming up to you in grocery stores and saying they’ve masturbated to you, you had people stalking you, you had people talking about you as though you’re not present, [you write that] it’s like occupying a different reality to everyone else. Was that unpleasant? Justine Bateman: I mean everyone’s experience is gonna be different I guess. I never felt like I was riding it. It was riding me. I was just trying to keep up. [I was] quite young. At 16, 19, 20, you’re just kinda going along with whatever’s happening. You’re not as proactive as you become when you’re older. And particularly something like fame that’s happening so quickly—the requests are coming so quickly for you to do interviews or photo shoots or you’re getting work opportunities or whatever, it’s happening so fast. It’s like Lucille Ball with the chocolates on the conveyor belt. You’re just trying to keep up. I mean there’s some great things. People listen to what you’re saying. You get opportunities, and when you’re in your 20s, getting into any club you want to get into is a great consequence of fame. But because I was dealing with all these other things at the same time, it was hard to get perspective to enjoy it. It would be like running a marathon in 100-degree heat while somebody’s showing you beautiful photographs or something. It’s hard to focus on one when you need to focus on the other.
It’s sort of frowned upon to complain about being famous. Did it make you nervous to write this book? There’s some apologizing throughout where you mention you don’t want to be seen as being like, Poor me, I can’t get the good parking spot anymore.
Well that’s just because I’m familiar enough with certain sectors of the public’s reactions to know that some people are going to be reacting like that. And that’s fine. So yeah, it was definitely not my aim to write anything that was complaining about things. Like I said, I don’t even really experience it anymore. It was really to show people what it is like to have a great deal of fame. My theories on why the public reacts the way they do when there’s a great deal of fame and some sociological theories that apply to that moment and then all of the other moments within the lifecycle of fame. To really talk about this lifecycle and to examine why we even hold fame up at the level we do.
You’re still around famous people, and obviously have a sibling who is still very much in the public eye. How do you think fame and the treatment of the famous has changed since the time when you were super famous?
Well. When I was super famous there was definitely a distinction between how one was treated if they were on TV and how one was treated if they were on film. I don’t know that that distinction exists as much now. Because there’s so much crossover, and nowadays—and like I said I’m not famous now so I don’t really know what it’s like—but just from what I’ve observed, a lot of this adulation seems to present itself online. Again, back then you didn’t have the online. The only way you could see fans, see any of that adulation was in person [or] snail-mail fan mail. So you see a lot of it online, right? “I love you so much heart emoji heart emoji heart emoji.” And then probably an equal amount of message boards and websites dedicated to hating you.
I think one of the more horrifying parts of the book to me was the time when you googled yourself and there was the predictive [search queries].
Yeah that was really fucked up. I made a mistake that, you know, I wish I could go back in time and not have done it. And that was to google my name and the autocomplete came up, and it was “Justine Bateman looks old” and I was… I forget how old I was.
I think [the book said] 44. OK. And I would always look young for my age. And look, at the risk of sounding arrogant, but, my looks—I just feel like that’s something I got in my deck of cards. You know, like brown hair. And more specifically it’s a look that society decided was beautiful. That’s kind of a trend, right? My look 100 years ago might not have seemed as attractive as a different type of look at the time depending on what society decides is beautiful at that moment, right?
So I’d always been referred to as attractive. I’d never been criticized for my face is what I’m getting at. And I’d always looked young for my age. Starting in my 20s, I couldn’t wait to look like Anna Magnani or Isabelle Huppert, all these great European actresses—Charlotte Rampling—the cheekbones and the heavy lidded eyes and the dark circles under the eyes, you know. So around 42/44, I started getting a little character on my face and I was so glad. Unbeknownst to me, what I thought was attractive, society was going in the opposite direction. Just like, through plastic surgery or makeup and now Instagram filters, just erasing all character. Looking as close to your baby pictures as possible.
So when I googled that and the search came up I was like, Wait, what? And then I clicked on it. Huge mistake. Because I didn’t understand what they meant. Because I didn’t think I looked old or unattractive. Like I said, I’d never really thought a lot about my looks because like, everybody thought they were good. I looked at what they were saying and it was worse than what I thought it would be. I thought it was just going to be: “Oh she looks old.” But it was horrible. Horrible horrible horrible. And I was really stunned. I was really surprised. And I was especially surprised when I looked at the photo they were referring to because I couldn’t see what they were seeing.
Yeah. And I would look at the photo and look at the photo and look at the comments and I just could not understand what they meant. It’s kind of the gold/blue dress and somebody says, “That’s gold” and you’re like, “I don’t know?” But it was even worse than that. It wasn’t just that half the people see gold and half the people see blue.
There’s this great study. They brought a guy into a room and they showed him a series of lines. Line A was a very long line and then lines B, C, and D were all shorter. And they asked him which one of these lines is the longest and he said line A, and then they brought in other subjects and each of the other subjects said that line C was the longest. And then the man conducting this experiment turned to that first guy and said, “Which line is longer?” and now the guy’s really confused, and he says, “It’s A,” but now he’s not so sure. And they go back to the other guys and the other guys are like, “No it’s C.” They go back to the first guy, they’re all in the same room, and now the guy changes his answer, because he can’t understand how it is that he’s seeing something different to what three other people are seeing. And that’s what I did. I couldn’t understand how it was that they could all see something that I couldn’t see. I decided that I had been deluding myself and so I adopted what they had been saying about me. I went ahead and saw it their way. And that fucked me up for a really long time.
How did you get past that? Because you said it lasted for years, right?
Yeah it did. My root fear was just that all this portion of my reality—”fame” in this case—was gone. And it wasn’t like, “Oh no I’m not famous anymore!” If a close relative dies, or you have to move suddenly to another city, or you lose your job—those things were part of your reality and that’s been removed and for many people it can be traumatic. So if you look at something like fame which is another overarching component of an individual’s reality if that’s what they’re experiencing, you start to devolve that and it’s very unsettling, to say the least.
What was it like to go from being mega famous to the level of fame you’re at now? Was it a gradual process? Or was it something you noticed one day like, Oh, that’s gone?
It was definitely gradual. But in the beginning it felt like one of those things where you go, “Oh this is understandable.” You still have a high, high level of fame but it’s not the frenzy it once was and you’re like, “Oh, well I’m not on a show that’s in the regular lineup, Thursday nights, or whatever anymore.” And you just go, “That’s fine.” [You think] you’ll do some other project that hits some high note and your fame or notoriety will rise again. It’s like a stock market or something. It’ll dip down and go up but it’s not going to fall. It just never occurs to you that it’s ever going to just fall to the bottom of the chart.
The descent is when it’s just like, sand through the fingertips. You can’t stop it. It’s like a go-kart coming down a hill, there’s no motor, there’s no brakes, no reverse, you can try and steer it but try not to crash. As that go-kart’s rolling down the hill, you’ve got to toss certain things off of it. Your self-identity, how you see yourself, your ego, your self-worth, your concerns about your career. I just had to do a lot of work. A lot of writing. Whenever something came up that pushed my buttons, whether it was being at a party where I felt like suddenly I was the “fame leper,” you know. Those who currently had a high level of fame like I used to have were kind of talking to me with tight smiles and stuff. Like they wanted to move on. And because fame is so unpredictable and something that one can’t control, I think there is a fear, and because so much of your livelihood can depend on it, I do think that for some people talking about fame or leaving fame or being around people for whom fame has faded, is uncomfortable. Perhaps a little frightening.
One of the journalists I spoke to said, “Well what would happen if this book made you, suddenly, really famous again?” Because, I said, the odds of me becoming famous for anything, my writing or directing or producing, all this stuff I’m doing now, are like, extremely low. But when she said that I immediately felt a little dread. I said, actually, “I don’t want that.” If somebody said, “Here you go…” Like, for what? What would I get from that?
Fame: The Hijacking of Reality is out October 2. Bateman’s directorial debut, the short film Five Minutes, will be on Amazon Prime from October 1.