Sam Lansky: the ghostwriter who helped bring Britney’s troubled story to the page

First-time ghostwriter Sam Lansky  (Getty / The Independent)
First-time ghostwriter Sam Lansky (Getty / The Independent)

Britney Spears is free... to tell her story. Or, more specifically, to tell it to a ghostwriter of her choosing – and according to reports, that ghostwriter is the American journalist and author Sam Lansky. Spears, a star whose story has been told every which way but hers, will offer her side in her highly anticipated memoir, The Woman in Me, released this week, and Lansky is believed to be the man tasked with pulling it all together.

“I’m writing a book at the moment and ... it’s actually healing and therapeutic”, mused Spears on Instagram back in April, appearing to confirm earlier reports that she had inked a book deal with Simon & Schuster, reportedly worth $15m (£12.3m). “It’s also hard bringing up past events in my life ... I’ve never been able to express openly.” That is putting it lightly. The Woman in Me, out this week, arrives almost exactly two years after one Judge Brenda Penny in Los Angeles put an end to the conservatorship that saw Spears’s life – her career, her words, her finances, who she saw, and even what she did with her body – dictated by her father, Jamie, for 13 years.

So distressing is some of the material in Spears’s book, we’re told, that she has opted to read only a small portion for the audiobook – leaving the rest to Oscar-nominated actor Michelle Williams. “Reliving everything has been exciting, heart-wrenching, and emotional, to say the least,” Spears told People magazine last week. “For those reasons, I will only be reading a small part of my audiobook.” The announcement prompted surprise from some fans – but the use of a ghostwriter was less unexpected.

Many know that behind (almost) every celebrity memoir is a ghostwriter – the spectral hand that rests on a subject’s pen, gently guiding them in literary ways beyond their actor-singer-politician-athlete remit. For a star as bright as Spears, and a story as sensitive as hers, you might expect to find a veteran behind the byline. JR Moehringer (aka Prince Harry), perhaps? Joni Rodgers (aka Paris Hilton)? Hilary Liftin (Tatum O’Neal) or Ariel Levy (Demi Moore)? Instead, Spears is said to have selected Sam Lansky: journalist; novelist; (as far as we know) first-time ghostwriter.

His bylines, though, are extensive and impressive. While studying for a bachelor’s in literary studies at the New School, a liberal arts college in New York City whose alumni include Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Jennifer Benkau and Tennessee Williams, Lansky, now 35, blogged about music. He took up the hobby professionally after graduation, becoming a freelance music critic before venturing into the world of celebrity gossip. He has written for publications including New York magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the LGBT+ magazine Out. Notably, he is no stranger to the celebrity interview. In his tenure as west coast editor of Time magazine, where he remains a contributing editor, Lansky profiled a rarefied who’s who of A-list stars. What do Adele, Nicki Minaj, Timothée Chalamet, TJ Osborne, Johnny Depp, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bradley Cooper, Lorde, James and Dave Franco, Andrew Garfield, Meryl Streep, DJ Khaled, Carly Rae Jepsen, Madonna, Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue all have in common? They’ve all been interviewed by Lansky.

His interviews are polite and respectful, shuttling between career and personal life. Speaking to Adele in 2015, he elicited moving answers about motherhood. “[My son] makes me so proud of myself, and he makes me like myself so much,” the “Hello” singer told Lansky in 2015. “And I’ve always liked myself. I’ve never not liked myself. I don’t have hang-ups like that. But I’m so proud of myself that I made him in my belly. Cooked him in my belly and then he came out of me!” Last year, Lansky interviewed Jennette McCurdy about her book, titled I’m Glad My Mom Died, which chronicles, among other things, her mother’s myriad abuses, including encouraging anorexia and pushing her into acting. Like Spears, McCurdy was a child star who suffered the consequences of fame.

Lansky interviewed Jennette McCurdy about her troubled childhood (Getty)
Lansky interviewed Jennette McCurdy about her troubled childhood (Getty)

Born in 1988, Lansky was 10 years old when Spears, then 16, released her debut single “...Baby One More Time”. He was 13 when she draped a yellow python around her neck and performed “I’m a Slave 4 U” in one of the most iconic VMA moments of all time; 14 when she made her big-screen debut in the Shonda Rhimes-directed drama Crossroads; 15 when she tangled tongues with Madonna on stage in yet another history-making VMA appearance; 16 when she married Kevin Federline; 18 when she divorced him; 17 when she became a mum for the first time; and 19 when she had her very public breakdown and shaved her head in front of the cameras. All this is to say that Lansky grew up alongside Spears; by the time she was freed from her conservatorship, he was 33 and an established journalist in the entertainment industry. He lived her highs and lows as they happened in real time, his age and interests putting him in prime position to write a book that does its best not only to understand Spears, but also to situate her experience within the tabloid culture in which she grew up.

While it is Lansky’s first time publishing under someone else’s name, The Woman in Me isn’t the first memoir he has written. In 2016, at only 28 years old, he released his own – and while his story may not be as high-profile as that of Spears, it is similarly filled with harrowing hardship. At 17, Lansky, a self-professed child of privilege in his final year at an elite prep school in New York City, was a straight-A student whose Ivy League aspirations were waylaid by a worsening drug addiction (prescription and otherwise), which in turn was compounded by a string of reckless affairs with older men and a partying lifestyle. After failing to get into Princeton, Lansky wound up at Vassar, where his dangerous behaviour continued to spiral.

It was only after a near-fatal overdose that he got any help, first at a wilderness boot camp in the outback of Utah (the prose dedicated to this section of his memoir is superb) and then at a psych ward in New Orleans. The Gilded Razor is a graphic, frank and dizzying account of an addict’s journey to sobriety at 19 (Lansky remains on the wagon to this day). It was well received; one critic called it “the addiction memoir for the next generation”, with Lansky’s writing praised for its candour and humour – two adjectives, incidentally, that also crop up on the jacket of Spears’s new book.

‘The Woman in Me’ is released on 24 October (Getty/The Independent)
‘The Woman in Me’ is released on 24 October (Getty/The Independent)

The Woman in Me is a brave and astonishingly moving story about freedom, fame, motherhood, survival, faith, and hope,” reads the book’s tagline. The same – bar motherhood and fame – could be said of The Gilded Razor (not to mention 2020’s Broken People, a novel that initially began as a memoir, about a sober, single gay man who works in media and turns to hallucinogens in hope of curing his self-doubt and crushing insecurities). While the circumstances of their lives are wildly different (for one thing, Spears grew up poor in Kentwood, Louisiana), there is some comfort, I imagine, to be taken in the knowledge that the person writing your memoir knows a thing or two about facing terrible times themselves.

Moehringer, the seasoned pro behind memoirs from Andre Agassi and more recently Prince Harry, said that a ghostwriter’s primary job is having a big mouth. “You have to keep pushing, not unlike a demanding parent or a tyrannical coach,” he wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. Moehringer quoted the 18th-century poet William Blake: “True friendship is opposition.” One can’t help but think, though, that in the case of Spears – a woman whose boundaries have been pushed past breaking point countless times before – true friendship is, well, friendship. And even better than a sympathetic ear is an empathetic one.

‘The Woman in Me’ (Simon & Schuster) is available to buy from 24 October, £25