This week saw the release of the first major, large-scale biography on one of pop music’s biggest and most guarded stars: Beyoncé. The product of hundreds of hours of interviews from dozens of sources, J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Becoming Beyoncé aims to be the definitive chronicle on the creation of an icon. It also suggests that virtually everything Beyoncé has told the public checks out. You won’t find any credence given to pregnancy conspiracy theories or Illuminati affiliations. Beyoncé is portrayed as someone who was deeply secretive from the time she was a child (as one of her elementary school classmates attests), and a shrewd business woman who severs ties not out of vindictiveness but for the sake of her career. If you go into the book thinking Beyoncé is perfect, you will find your suspicions confirmed.
It’s a long way from Taraborrelli’s iconic 1989 Diana Ross biography, Call Her Miss Ross, the kind of mass-market paperback for which the word “juicy” was invented. The Village Voice referred to that book as a “marathon bitchfest”; Becoming Beyoncé isn’t even a field event in bitchiness. (The oddest moment occurs when teenage Bey moons teenage Usher at Beyoncé’s childhood home before he insists that she and her friends watch The Crying Game.)
Taraborrelli told me yesterday by phone that the more compassionate approach in Becoming Beyoncé illustrates his evolution as a writer. A career biographer, he’s chronicled the lives of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, the Hiltons, and the Kennedys. I was most interested in his process—when he feels it appropriate to assume the role of omniscient narrator (as he often does), how he is certain that what he’s printing is true (especially long exchanges of dialogue), how fairness figures into his work. A condensed and edited transcript of our chat appears below.
Gawker: I just read Call Her Miss Ross this summer.
J. Randy Taraborrelli: My first bestseller, and I think the book that defined a whole era. The 1980s were such a different time in publishing. Pretty much 75 percent of what’s in Call Her Miss Ross I would never, never write today. I think as you get older as a writer, your standards change. When I was a kid, my standard was very simple: If it was true, I put it in my book. That was it. There was no wiggle room to that. I’ve been through enough in my lifetime to realize there has to be more of a standard in biography than just the truth. There has to be an eye toward empathy. There has to be and eye toward understanding interpretation. There’s a lot of nuance that goes into a biography that is bigger than whether or not something is true. When I was a kid, it was a simpler time. Today, I weigh everything on a moral compass. It has to do with: Is it fair? Is it hurtful? Is it going to cause people pain? That’s a big part of my process today that when I was a kid, I never considered.
Call Her Miss Ross is juicy in a way that Becoming Beyoncé is not. I think that has to do with its subject, but also what you’re getting at: Your current, more fair-minded approach.
It does have to do with the subject, because Beyoncé lived her life in an entirely different way. But, I think what people don’t understand is that a biography is as much a reflection of the author as it is the subject. I think that’s true of all writing, but I think it’s really true of biography. When you read my books, you hear my voice. What a lot of readers want to believe is that a book is just the facts and only the facts and those are the facts, but it’s not true. It’s filtered through the interpretation and the prism of the guy sitting at the keyboard analyzing this information and then putting it into narration. You get me all over Becoming Beyoncé. You understand how I feel about pop music, what my influences were. When I talk about her music, you see my Motown background.
There are times in this book where you play the role of an omniscient observer. You talk about Beyoncé’s inner workings. I wonder how you make those calls. You write, “Beyoncé had never asked to be the center of attention,” which is an impossible thing to be certain of unless you’ve been with her every second of her life.
Or unless you talk to a hundred people who she has said that too. Or unless you have a hundred instances where she has demonstrated that. This is the trust that you hope to have established with your reader over a period of 18 books. I’ve had like 14 New York Times bestsellers. You’re taking a leap when you make those kinds of statements. You have to trust your readership knows that you’re not going to make these statements unless you know what you’re talking about. You’ve been down this road with so many subjects. Hopefully my readers have read more than one of my books and hopefully they realize I’m going to be that guy who’s going to try to explain the inner workings of a very private person in the best way that I can, based on my research and based on what I believe to be true. Whether or not you’re going to go with me on that journey is really up to you as a reader.
I just don’t think it’s fair to the reader to write about somebody you don’t admire. You don’t want to bring that animus into your work. Some people would disagree with that. This is a personal code of mine. Some people feel that the personal feelings shouldn’t be in any way vested in their work, but when you spend years writing a book, it’s personal. At least it is to me.
As much as you respect Beyoncé, the fact that this book exists at all is a violation of her ethos which is, as you write, separating the business and the personal. “It’s a clever way of guaranteeing that her public focuses on her artistry and is not unduly distracted by any details of her personal life,” you say. How do you negotiate your respect with your violation?
I decided a long time ago that it was my responsibility as a biographer to invade a person’s privacy. [Laughs] Once you cross that threshold, your’e good to go. But I also know that she—I have to say, stroking my own ego—she’s so lucky to have me as a biographer. I’m sorry, it’s just the case. I know what I put into my work. I know what my standards are, and I know what the options are in terms of other people who might have written about her. I’m the first guy to do this, to really unpack her life. And I’m doing for her what I did with Michael Jackson. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé were completely new terrain prior to my tackling those subjects. It sounds terrible for me to say that she’s lucky that I’m her biographer, but what I’m trying to say to you is that she could do a lot worse. I really care.
The message that this book sends ultimately is that her story checks out. Everything that she’s asserted in public you more or less back up, aside from maybe a puff of pot here and there.
That’s what I found. We called the book Becoming Beyoncé because I wanted to figure out how she became who she is. In tracking down the people who had never before been interviewed. People who discovered her, Deborah Laday and Denise Seals; the family of the woman who managed her, Andretta Tillman; Tony Mo, the guy who wrote her first song; Harlon Bell, who taught her how to dance. These were the early pioneers of her life, the chief architects, and they all said the same thing about her, which really fascinated me: At such an early age, she was a co-partner in creating with Mathew Knowles, everything that they did together. That story of her at 11 years old sitting with Mathew at the kitchen table, making a decision as to whether or not LeToya Luckett should stay in Destiny’s Child or not is so astonishing to me. Even at that age, she was the kind of person who was so focused and so directed. You only see that in people like Michael Jackson. People who are child stars who are able to distinguish between friendship and business at a very early age.
Anything negative about Beyoncé that a reader could glean from this book still has the fundamental justification of, “Well, of course she did that—it was for her career.” There aren’t any vindictive moments—there’s not even a whole lot of ego on display. I wonder if she’s that hard of a nut to crack, or if she’s just a perfect person.
I love the comment that she’s quoted as saying in the book: “I don’t need to be bitchy; I have my talent.” I think that’s fundamentally what this is about. It was Mathew who wanted to push her forward as the lead singer of the group. It wasn’t Beyoncé. When she finally had the opportunity to have a final say in how this was going play out, what did she do? She wrote and produced songs that featured the other two [Destiny’s Child] girls on all the songs. I think when you live that kind of life and you’re actually true—it’s not bullshit, it’s not saying, “Oh I don’t want to be the star, but yet you manipulate in the backgrounds to be the star”—that’s one thing, but when you actually believe that you’re just one of three and you put that into motion by making sure the other girls are featured, that’s rare. When you’re that kind of woman and I’m your biographer, you deserve the acclamation. She didn’t have to be that person. She could have been a very different kind of person and it would have been entirely understandable. It would have made a lot of sense if she were the kind of person who said, “Kelly and Michelle will not be singing lead on this album.”
When you sit down to write a book like this, do you go into it saying, “There’s no way that Beyonce’s going to participate, I’m not even going to try,” or do you think, “Maybe this will be an official biography and I will write her memoir with her”?
We usually go into these projects with, “There’s no way the person’s going to participate, but I’ll try anyway out of courtesy.” And then they don’t. And then I keep my head down and do my job. I’ve had a couple of experiences along the way of celebrities wanting to be involved in the process and it totally ruins the process. My book isn’t just Beyoncé’s story. It’s the stories of so many people who have never told their stories before, who deserve the opportunity to tell their stories. Celebrity is a very twisted road, and if you’re going to be writing authorized biographies, you can pretty much expect that it’s not going to be your point of view, or the points of view of all the people who were invested in that person’s life. It’s going to rightfully be the point of view of the celebrity. That’s why it’s authorized. I just don’t want to write that kind of book.
I love that comment from the reviewer that said, “You pull back the curtain only to find there’s another curtain.”
And she’s still puzzled at the reaction, per your book.
It’s hard for us to completely comprehend the mind of a person who has been famous since she was 15 years old. You have to give her some benefit of the doubt because she’s insulated and isolated, and she doesn’t get a lot of criticism. I think her heart was in the right place with that documentary. She really was at a point in her life when she thought she wanted to open up. But wanting to and doing are two different things. The cool thing about Beyoncé, the reason I wanted to write about her, is that as much as she’s in the public eye and as high-profile as she is on social media, prior to this book, we didn’t know anything about her. She compartmentalized her life in such a way that [none of the subjects interviewed for the book] knew everything. She was a child when she was in Destiny’s Child and the other kids in school didn’t know she was a singer. It’s just been her way.
You print long, back-and-forth passages of dialogue, but memory is faulty and people rarely remember conversations verbatim. What’s your philosophy for publishing exchanges like that? How do you vet them?
My philosophy is this: We put our sources through hell. I have 40 hours of tape on [Beyoncé’s first boyfriend] Lyndall Locke. I’m not exaggerating. This was a guy who was with her for 10 years. We go back over and over and over these stories and have him repeat the same story so many times. If I see variations in it, if it looks to me like his memory isn’t clear, if I talked to other people who have an entirely different memory of a situation, then we’re going to act appropriately. We don’t just do one quick interview with a source, and we’ll ask, “Who else knows this story?” They get offended: “Why don’t you believe me?” We’re in touch with our sources right now to make sure everybody is satisfied and nobody has any problems. In my entire career, I’ve never had a source turn on me. We do everything we can to make sure they’re happy, they’re well represented, because we put them through a lot of work and they don’t get paid. They have nothing to gain except maybe grief in some cases, from the celebrity.
And yet, there are minor factual errors that made their way into the book: You call Ginuwine a “rapper,” you describe Xscape as a trio, and you call Nelly’s second album, Nellyville, Nelly Dilemma.
Here’s the thing: I’m just a guy writing a book. At the end of the day, I’m not a computer. I make mistakes, and man, I’ve made some great ones. We have fact-checking like you would not believe. Do you know how many people fact-check my books, from the publisher to the people I personally hire to the people the publisher hires outsides of the publishing house? There are so many people fact-checking these books, but at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility. My name’s on it. I take full responsibility for the fact that I often don’t know some of the smallest details. There are probably close to half a million facts in a book, and if I can only have three of them wrong, I feel like I’m in good shape. And then we go back and correct them in the paperback edition and hope for the best. I think people need to understand that I’m not an expert on Beyoncé. She’s a great subject of mine, but I’m not part of the Beyhive. I cannot claim to be an expert on her or anything else. I just do the best I can.
What do you make of the controversy about Beyoncé’s age—as recently as last week, Mathew Knowles seemed to suggest that Beyoncé is 36, not 34, and there are many instances in the book of people saying something happened at one age, only for you to correct it in parentheses. [Example: “‘I was nine the first time we performed,’ Beyoncé has said. (Actually, she was eight.)”]
I’m telling you the truth: Age in this book was our issue. We had to change ages so many times because everybody had a different memory of an age. I kept having to go back and say, “Actually…” We did the work he had to do, we pulled her birth certificate and that was the end of that. My interpretation of Mathew’s comments is he was just being off the cuff. He didn’t know that P!nk is two years older than Beyonce.
Do you fear lawsuits or the Beyhive more?
I don’t fear either of them. I know in a lawsuit I would prevail. If one of the Beyhive members came at me at my front gate, I might not prevail quite as well. But I get the Beyhive. When I was a kid, it was all about Diana Ross, man, and if someone had written a book about Diana Ross and I wasn’t happy about it, I would have gotten out my typewriter and my carbon paper and I would have shot off a letter. And then in about six to eight months, I would get a postcard back that would say, “Thank you for your interest.” Today, they have instant access. Believe me, I know it, ‘cause I am bombarded by the Beyhive. More power to them. They’re supposed to be protective of her, that’s their job.
You had a personal relationship with Diana, right?
I did. I ran a fan club for Diana Ross and the Supremes when I was a kid.
Did writing the three books you wrote about her effectively end that relationship?
Yeah, it really did. It’s part of my journey and the lesson that I learned. It’s part of the reason I feel the way I do about biography today: trying to balance my interest with the story I want to tell. Diana Ross is not my biggest fan, for sure. She had a great line to Larry King when Call Her Miss Ross came out: “They told me he would go away with the first [book], but he didn’t. He just got worse.” I wrote the third book, Diana Ross: A Biography, to redefine the story. It’s an evolving story in my mind. It evolves as I evolve as a writer. The third book is much more who I am today than Call Her Miss Ross, but I guess it’s worth saying that the third book was certainly not as successful as Call Her Miss Ross. But the third book is the one I’m proud of.