Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Former heartthrob Leif Garrett recounts his wild downfall in Idol Truth

Illustration for article titled Former heartthrob Leif Garrett recounts his wild downfall in Idol Truth
Graphic: Allison Corr

It’s hard to think of a fall from fame more dramatic than Leif Garrett’s. He was one of the hugest teen idols of the 1970s, his face plastered all over teen magazines like Tiger Beat and 16. Unlike teen stars who were promoting their musical groups (Donny Osmond) or TV shows (like The Hardy Boys Mysteries’ Shaun Cassidy), Leif Garrett was one of the first instances of becoming famous for being famous, and in a pre-internet, pre-social media age. He had only appeared in a few minor movie and TV roles, but teenage girls across the country couldn’t get enough of the young star’s blond Californian good looks.

Garrett’s rise to stardom before he was old enough to drive continued throughout the ’70s, though his unsupervised nightlife of drugs, alcohol, and women was a far cry from his squeaky clean image. His career crashed and burned once he aged out of the teen idol bracket, and after a bad breakup, he fell into an addiction to black tar heroin. The kid who bought his own Hollywood home at 17 was now a thirtysomething selling his possessions to fuel his $300-a-day habit.


Garrett’s familiar Hollywood riches-to-rags story is unusual due to its extremes, as his teen-idol popularity was nearly unprecedented. The now 58-year-old former star has chronicled that rise and fall in a new memoir, Idol Truth. Co-author Chris Epting has also helped John Oates of Hall & Oates and Def Leppard’s Phil Collen with their memoirs. The reader can’t help but wish that Epting had taken a firmer hand in editing his subject’s retellings of his formerly glitzy life and the squalor that followed. As it stands, the book’s disparate chapters read like transcripts of Garrett talking into a reel-to-reel tape recorder. His style is a little too conversational, with many repetitions:

Teen idols don’t get comebacks. Your moment in the sun is fleeting. Teen idols are like shooting stars; they are stunning for a moment, but then blink and they are gone. Teen idols are not like planets. They don’t linger. We are there and then we are gone.

And yet as every simply titled chapter unfurls (“Becoming A Busy Actor,” “Masturbation”), one realizes this couldn’t have been an easy story to tell—from predatory managers to the 1979 car crash that paralyzed his passenger when Garrett was just days from turning 18 years old. Even elaborate hotel suites sound desperately lonesome when you consider Garrett was just 15, away from his family, surrounded by handlers who gave him everything he wanted, and to his detriment. Garrett may not be pulling for a Pulitzer, but he’s bravely candid, offering a photo of a piece of foil in which he carved out the word “help” into his drug residue.

The name-dropping chapters—e.g., “The Outsiders” and “1997: Chris Farley”—border on sensationalistic, but they are also undeniably fascinating, as when Garrett parties with John Belushi in the same Chateau Marmont bungalow where the SNL star would receive a fatal speedball just a week later, or when he calls an ambulance for Robert Downey Jr.’s wife, but the star refuses to get in the ambulance with her. Some are cute—a date with Brooke Shields!—while others are woefully incomplete. The book contains a photo of Garrett and Jodie Foster, captioned “my first crush” with no follow-up.


Ultimately, Idol Truth reads like a disjointed cautionary tale: Don’t sign anything without a lawyer looking it over, don’t let your teenage son go off for months without supervision, don’t believe your own hype. When Garrett fell off the cover of those magazines, it was all the more devastating because he had no backup plan. “When most kids my age were graduating from college, I was graduating from being a teen idol. There was no diploma; there were no companies coming to recruit me,” he writes.

The back half of the book is devoted to his many ensuing drug relapses: He reveals that he was on heroin for much of the filming of his 1999 Behind The Music episode, so VH1 put together an update that including his possession arrests in the 2000s. There’s a troubling sense of uncertainty at the end of the book, with Garrett unapologetic about his past but still attempting to look forward: “As I look down the road now, I know what I want to do.” His co-author stresses, “You are the real deal. Please don’t ever forget that.” For Garrett’s fans, Idol Truth is bound to be an uneasy read—but hopefully for the author himself, it’s another step on the road to redemption.


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