How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran review – sex, drugs and Britpop

Who cares if the hero’s too good to be true? The bestselling poptimist has rewritten her past in heroic terms, creating a rollicking fantasy which leaves a rosy afterglow

These days the concept of Britain as a creative meritocracy is retreating as alarmingly fast as the polar ice caps, as libraries shut, youth centres are defunded, record companies retrench and London is made uninhabitable for the young by dodgy money from the Wild East. In the 1990s, it was a different story. There was still plenty to get upset about – the aftermath of the Gulf war, for starters – but some things were occasionally all right. A relative nobody, even a female person, could rock up and live somewhere cheap in Zone 2 and – with the generous application of chutzpah, some bat-wing eyeliner and a well-lubricated social life – careen their way into a journalistic career.

This past London was not so much a foreign country as “a game” you could play – or so reckons Caitlin Moran’s alter ego, Johanna Morrigan, in How to Be Famous, the sequel to Moran’s autobiographically inspired first novel, How to Build a Girl. That book laid out Mor(rig)an’s idiosyncratic childhood and love of masturbation, and Moran’s default candour continues here, too. A lodestar quote from US poet and activist Audre Lorde swapped between characters in How to Be Famous illuminates Moran’s approach to sex, among other matters: “Your silence will not protect you.”

There are many reasons to read Moran – the demystifying glee around the squelchy stuff, her helter-skelter verbiage, always barrelling towards a zinger of a phrase, her bottomless fount of ideas – but one of the less headline-grabbing is a love of literature, which Moran wears lightly. A cynic might wonder whether her enthusiasm for writing dirty helps keep her on the bestseller lists. In more repressive times, Morrigan reflects at one point, writers had to encode their sexuality. Moran no longer has to. If nothing else, you’ll come out of How to Be Famous looking at the start of Moby-Dick in a fresh light: “basically Melville crushing on the hotness of Queequeg”.

Moran riffs gleefully on the femininity of the Beatles – the kind of thing that would turn Liam Gallagher’s hair white.
Moran riffs gleefully on the femininity of the Beatles – the kind of thing that would turn Liam Gallagher’s hair white. Photograph: David Magnus/Rex/Shutterstock

Such are the unadvertised bonuses of the book. The main focus, though, is all peak Britpop, smoking indoors, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine promotional condoms, comedy being the new rock’n’roll, going to gigs at the Astoria (RIP), bad sex with worse men, booze and some cocaine cut with strawberry Nesquik. Like Moran herself, Morrigan lands in Camden at a tender age. Moran wrote for Melody Maker; Morrigan writes for an organ barely fictionalised as D&ME. Because it is the 90s, when certain music journalists formulated tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms, Moran’s alter ego’s alter ego is “Dolly Wilde”.

The sexual politics at D&ME turn toxic when Morrigan’s fluttery feelings for up-and-coming singer-songwriter John Kite are weaponised against both of them. There’s another rising star in Morrigan’s circle – Suzanne Banks, a shame-free zone who is part Courtney Love (“Eat less cheese,” Banks advises, as Love once told Moran in an interview) and part Miki from Lush, perhaps. Her semi-recorded debut album is slowly bankrupting another friend, Zee, a teetotaller of Iranian descent who runs an indie record label. Fictional bands are so very easy to get wrong, but Moran nails the milieu. Kite is possibly too good to be true, a gallant gentleman songsmith on the brink of fame whose progress is threatened by cocaine and the pressures of divergent audiences: the writer chaps who want him to stay tortured, and the teenage girls who love his new pop songs.

How to Be Famous could be subtitled in a number of ways: A Fairy Tale of Camden, or What the Men Don’t Know the Little Girls Understand (except Moran doesn’t strike you as a Howlin’ Wolf fan, much less a Doors aficionado). Moran is, at heart, what Americans call a poptimist – one who stands up for the tastes and fandom of pop-loving young women, against the we-know-better preening of male rock journalists and their canon. She puts her foot on the monitor and riffs gleefully about the essential femininity of the Beatles, whose two central motherless creatives grew their hair and wrote “She Loves You” from a female perspective – the kind of thing that would turn Liam Gallagher’s hair white.

Ultimately, How to Be Famous is less a roman-à-clef than a rollicking fantasy, where everyone is always witty, princes whisk their loves away in business class, and Moran is able to play out some very satisfying 2018 scenarios in 1995. A comedian called Jerry Sharp is preying on young women, abetted by the wider lad culture. In the ladies’ loo, a young woman whispers “Me too” to Morrigan and Banks, and Morrigan must conquer any vestige of shame to turn the tables on him.

As in her previous volume, Moran is at pains to emphasise the fictionality of her work. But How to Be Famous rewrites a familiar near-past heroically, dispensing justice and leaving a rosy, satisfied afterglow.

How to Be Famous is published by Ebury. To order a copy for £11.99 (RRP £14.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Kitty Empire

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