Pop Culture

Jennette McCurdy Is Ready to Be the Main Character

On the day of her mother’s funeral, Jennette McCurdy found herself laughing. It was 2013, and Debra McCurdy had succumbed to a recurrence of the cancer she was first diagnosed with when her daughter was just two. The now 30-year-old recalls sitting alongside her brothers—Marcus, Dustin, and Scottie—as pallbearers struggled to get their mother’s casket into the viewing room. The edges of her casket bumped into the doorframe, chipping its paint. “My brother leans over and goes, ‘How much do you want to bet they’re going to drop the casket, mom’s body’s going to roll out, and she’s going to start yelling at all of us?’” McCurdy tells Vanity Fair with a chuckle. “And we all started laughing because we needed to. I think that’s so often the case, certainly in my life, when there’s those more tragic moments.”

Mining life’s tragedy for humor is at the center of McCurdy’s explosive debut memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, out August 9. In it, the former Nickelodeon headliner delves into the toll child stardom and a fraught relationship with her mother took as she achieved the height of her fame on high-energy sitcoms iCarly and Sam & Cat.

The book’s provocative title and cover, which features McCurdy wryly smiling as she cradles a hot pink urn overflowing with confetti, is purposefully attention-grabbing. (Based on the strength of preorders alone, it has already become a number one best seller.) But McCurdy argues that her sentiment is justified by the book’s pages. “I stand by the title and I believe in it. It was a tough thing for me to come to terms with,” she explains. “And the things that are difficult to come to terms with are often the things that need to be said the most.”

McCurdy has lived a life that could fill five memoirs. Born in Southern California, at age six she was pushed into the entertainment industry by her mother (“You want to be Mommy’s little actress?”). She had to orient her entire existence around Debra’s manipulation and mood swings. Looking over the glow of candles on her sixth birthday cake, McCurdy writes, “I lock eyes with Mom so she’ll know I care about her, that she’s my priority.” When I ask about this scene, an early indicator of what will define their abusive dynamic, McCurdy notes that it’s “often those tiny little micro human interactions that carry the most significance.” She trails off. “Now, I’m literally just thinking of various facial expressions of my mom.”

After years acting in commercials and TV shows including Malcolm in the Middle and Law & Order: SVU, McCurdy broke out in 2007 when she was cast as the scene-stealing prankster Sam Puckett in Nickelodeon’s iCarly. She spent six seasons on the series about a wacky weekly web show—sharing her real-life first kiss in an episode that was watched by nearly 6 million people and enduring abuse allegedly perpetrated by her boss, who is referred to only as “The Creator” in McCurdy’s book.

“I chose to name him ‘The Creator’ because I find it entertaining and sort of fitting for the person,” McCurdy says of the man who allegedly offered her alcohol when she was underage (“The Victorious kids get drunk together all the time. The iCarly kids are so wholesome”) and gave her a massage. Writes McCurdy, “I feel similarly around The Creator as I feel around Mom—on edge, desperate to please, terrified of stepping out of line.”

Behind the scenes of her star-making vehicle, McCurdy suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety about her newly acquired celebrity, and a crippling anorexia that was introduced by McCurdy’s mother as “calorie restriction.” She was also subjected to “breast and vaginal exams” from Debra, who would shower with her until age 16, under the pretense of checking McCurdy for cancer. “The vignette that came to me last, that was toughest to write about, was the showering vignette,” McCurdy says. “I went through quite a few drafts before even writing a first draft of that. I didn’t feel quite…” she pauses. “Let’s see here…It was just a more difficult and uncomfortable vignette to write about for me.”

McCurdy and her mother, Debra, in 2009.

Alexandra Wyman

However painful to recount, McCurdy was committed to plainly detailing the ways in which her mother controlled her body. “For me, it was really important to write about eating disorders with as much frankness and bluntness as possible,” she explains. “I didn’t want to tiptoe around anything. That would be a disservice to my own recovery and to anyone who has struggled, or is struggling with eating disorders. I think people who experience eating disorders are intuitive, sensitive people, and they know if something’s being skirted around or not being said honestly, or being romanticized.”

In the latter years of iCarly, both McCurdy’s mother and The Creator dangled the possibility of a spin-off—one that McCurdy was led to believe she’d headline solo. Instead, she wound up sharing top billing with Ariana Grande, who reprised her Victorious role for Sam & Cat—a project McCurdy writes she was “humiliated to be a part of.” Tensions rose when McCurdy says that Grande was permitted to pursue her pop star aspirations, while she was prevented from accepting movie offers.

On top of it all, McCurdy’s mother was dying, hospitalized for a portion of the show’s run. “I’d go from slinging a buttersock and shouting my cheesy lines on the brightly colored, overlit, Sam & Cat soundstage to sitting in a hospital bedside chair with outdated upholstery, surrounded by the smell of sanitization and the feel of death,” McCurdy writes.

In the months following Debra’s death, Sam & Cat would meet its own demise after releasing just 35 episodes. By the end of the show, The Creator had “gotten in trouble from the network for accusations of his emotional abuse” and was “no longer allowed to be on set with any actors,” McCurdy writes. Instead, he would bark orders from “a small cave-like room off to the side of the soundstage, surrounded by piles of cold cuts, his favorite snack, and Kids’ Choice Awards, his most cherished life accomplishment.”

McCurdy and Grande in 2013.

By Mark Davis/Getty Images.

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