“A journey down the rabbit hole of LA's most subtly toxic industry ... funny, brilliant, coy, playful, and wise.” — LENA DUNHAM, author of Not That Kind of Girl
Musician Hayley Gene Penner tells all in this harrowingly honest memoir.
Singer-songwriter Hayley Gene Penner's memoir takes a brutally honest yet humorous look at the dark, intimate truths we spend our lives running from. Like a map of beautiful mistakes, Hayley’s stories of questionable sexual encounters, artistic aspirations, and emotional abuse trace her coming of age in the music industry.
Hayley explores all her relationships — from her childhood as the daughter of a celebrity, to the destructive and coercive relationship with her boss, to her encounter with the actor we all know but who mustn’t be named — and brings them together in a series of sharp, touching vignettes. People You Follow straddles the delicate boundary between ethical and unethical behaviour, self-protection and self-destruction, power and weakness, giddiness and despair.
About the author
Hayley Gene Penner is a singer-songwriter who grew up sharing the stage with her father, renowned children's entertainer, Fred Penner. She writes with some of the biggest artists and producers in the music industry. Her debut album, and her memoir's namesake, People You Follow, will release in July 2020. She splits her time between Winnipeg and Los Angeles.
Excerpt: People You Follow: A Memoir (by (author) Hayley Gene Penner)
Drinking the Kool-Aid
A couple weeks before I moved to Los Angeles, I found a drawing I’d made when I was six. It was at the bottom of a box labelled Goodwill? The unintentionally abstract illustration shows a long, sparkling, red convertible, with a somehow dripping Hollywood sign in the distance. A tall, dangerously thin, flowing-haired young woman leans against the shimmering hood, her hand holding a cellphone to her ear. At the top of the crumpled piece of construction paper I’d written Hayley, 21-years-old?.
I turned twenty-six a few weeks before coming to L.A.
I definitely did not have a convertible; I tossed a Honda Civic rental onto my buckling Visa. And my cellphone barely worked in the U.S.
I had been in L.A. for forty-four days. Tal’s company put me up in a sketchy basement apartment. If I hadn’t been living underground, I bet I would have been able to see the Hollywood sign from my window.
I pushed all the cheap furniture up against the poorly painted walls in the living room and devoted two hours every morning to P90X. I was determined to at least appear as though I’d made it, and that started with a rigorous workout regimen. My goal was to have at least a few people say they were worried about me when I went home to Winnipeg for Christmas.
Tal was this charming, vibrant, extraordinary writer. He almost instantly became my new favourite person. He was funny and tall and dark and took up all the space in every room, and I was convinced that if he thought I could make it, I could.
My first two months in L.A. consisted of driving to the studio every morning at 8:00 a.m. and spending four hours alone in Tal’s vocal booth before getting booted into the tiny, fluorescent-lit storage space in the back of the building. I would sit at a desk that was dwarfed by a horrendous neon mural and wait for him to pop his head out of his room, perhaps offering me an opportunity to write something with him.
It felt like a sort of long-winded audition, and I thought I was doing well. He would dip into my little incubator every few hours to see if I’d written a hit or to say, “Come on. We’re walking to the grocery store.”
He made me laugh on the way while casually lecturing me about songwriting and the industry and who to trust. Then he’d buy a watermelon, a pound of cold cuts, and a bag of almonds and we would walk back together. And he trusted me. He told me about the two women he was in love with, how deeply he loved them both, how he didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know about each other, but that didn’t make me think less of him. I felt welcomed into his inner circle. I felt like his confidant and friend. I saw him as a struggling man and I was glad he had me to talk to.
We would drop the food in the fridge, then we’d head outside, where I’d watch him play basketball alone with his shirt off for half an hour before we got back to work.
He had a two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood and decided to rescue me from the Hollywood basement he’d put me in. I thought living with him would be fun. I’d get rid of my rental car and commute to the studio with him. He understood that I didn’t have money and couldn’t really make any, since I was officially a tourist, so he’d feed me and take care of me in a way that made me feel like I’d found a little home.
At the studio, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I didn’t need to use it. I just didn’t really feel like writing. I’d go and look in the mirror for ten or fifteen seconds, decide whether I loved or hated my body that day, then flush the toilet with nothing in it, run the tap to suggest I was washing my hands, and walk out. Maybe take an ass selfie for whatever guy was getting my ass selfies at that time. I somehow felt that by taking multiple bathroom breaks, I would at least seem productive. Like these pee breaks were the result of hard work and perseverance.
One morning of a long weekend, when most of the producers were with their families, it was just the two of us in the building. I came out of the bathroom and looked for Tal. He wasn’t in the common room or shoving cold cuts into his mouth in the kitchen. There was almost no noise coming out of his studio room, so I knocked without expectation.
He said, “Come in. I wanna play you a new song.” He opened his computer. I paused in embarrassment for him. On the screen a girl with long black hair was getting fucked from behind while she sucked off some Tarzan-looking dude in front of her.
Tal left the screen open long enough for the man in her mouth to finish on her rosy-pink cheeks and lips, sealing her eyes shut like he was planning on making her a papier-mâché mask. Then he said, “Oh shit. That’s embarrassing,” and closed his computer.
He pulled out a guitar to play the song live. He sang with his whole heart, all emotional and generous with the intimacy of his performance. It felt like an invitation into his private self.
We just sort of casually moved past the accidental porn mishap, though I guess I suddenly knew what he liked. And suddenly he knew that I knew what he liked. It felt like this weird shared moment actually brought us closer. Like walking in on somebody masturbating. You can’t unsee it — you can only decide together to pretend like you didn’t or, at the very least, pretend it didn’t leave a totally indelible imprint.
He took me for Korean barbecue, then moved me into his apartment. _
Hayley's journey to find self-love is both heartbreaking and humorous. I recognized my own younger self and how we, as women, struggle to find our value through the eyes of others. While Hayley's story may be more dramatic than others, we are rooting for her as she finds herself and the power of "no."
A good songwriter is someone who makes the listener feel like the words were stolen right out of their mouth, and Hayley has that same quality as an author. People You Follow left me feeling colorful, excited, empowered, completely vulnerable, a little heartbroken, and incredibly inspired.
Charlotte Lawrence, singer-songwriter and model
People You Follow is a fucked-up Alice in Wonderland journey down the rabbit hole of LA's most subtly toxic industry, and it's also funny, brilliant, coy, playful, and wise. I feel so lucky that Hayley is here to express how hard dating in Hollywood is for the bunch of us, and I'm also glad that young women can read about her emotional pratfalls and save themselves the same pain as they work to become artists as skilled as she is.
Lena Dunham, author of Not That Kind of Girl
Singer-songwriter Hayley Gene Penner’s memoir is a coming-of-age story steeped in the music industry... Penner recalls her artistic inspirations, abusive bosses, questionable decisions and more.
Winnipeg Free Press
This is Hayley in book form. So perfectly written, with her humor giving a light to situations that don’t always have one. Beautifully written words for a good laugh and the occasional necessary cry.
Kaia Gerber, model and actor
Reading Hayley Gene Penner’s memoir felt like I was with my funniest, naughtiest friend, who came over to drink tequila and tell me secret stories. Each cautionary tale is full of dark humor, desire, and sexy sex in the most vulnerable and authentic way. I loved every minute.
Honesty is powerful and vulnerability is even more so, and Hayley wields her power in spades. Her writing pulls you in, keeps you company, and forges a connection that most authors can only dream of creating, and her words reflect her profound and unique gift of self expression. To be privy to her stories and her storytelling is a privilege, and one that will resonate with anybody who's battled with their truths, their pasts, and the way they see themselves.
Anne T. Donahue, author of Nobody Cares
Hayley’s memoir masquerades as a comedic take on a young woman discovering and defining her sexuality. You are so distracted by the breezy comedy of the insane true-life stories that you don’t see the gut punches coming.
Bill Lawrence, writer/creator of Scrubs, Cougar Town, Spin City