The Sharon Osbourne identity

Times Staff Writer

"Sharon Osbourne Extreme: My Autobiography" by Sharon Osbourne Springboard Press: 384 pp.,$24.99

Unless you watch a lot of Sky TV, subscribe to The Sun, or have been waylaid at Heathrow lately, you may not know that famed rock spouse Sharon Osbourne is now one of the biggest celebrities in Britain. She owes most of it to her three seasons as a talent judge on Simon Cowell's ratings giant "The X Factor," but she also stars in her own afternoon talk show with a guest list that includes the likes of Becks, Fergie and Minnie. Moreover, she has now published "Sharon Osbourne Extreme: My Autobiography," a surprise hit that has now sold an astronomical 2 million copies in the UK, making it the best-selling autobiography by a woman in the country's history.

In recent years, Osbourne, or Mrs. O as she's now adoringly known, has banked more and more on her matronly image — the good-hearted, middle-aged family woman who has defied the odds to beat cancer, hold together a troubled marriage, and raise three rowdy children — all while looking great and remaining eminently rich. The popular appeal of this motif, which her "X Factor" bio calls "housewife superstar," is not hard to fathom — and neither is its appeal to advertisers. By becoming Mrs. O, the real-life Sharon Osbourne (hard-nosed entertainment exec and talent promoter) has staked out a valuable onscreen niche as the warm-hearted mum next door.

Blurring the line between reality and fantasy is what made Osbourne a superstar to begin with. "The Osbournes" broke ground by being the first show to focus on the everyday lives of celebrities. The concept intrigued viewers so much that not only did the show become MTV's best-rated program ever, but it sparked a reality TV gold rush that has permanently changed the face of television. The Osbourne family portrait supplied by the show was, of course, a heavily edited illusion — cut, bleeped and sanitized for public consumption. But that's beside the point. The show was never presented as objective or exhaustive, and no one thought it was. People just liked the novelty of watching a weird, famous family bicker about dog crap and curfews and what tossers the neighbors were. Everything from the show's tongue-in-cheek opening sequence, to its obsession with potty humor, to its studied avoidance of serious topics suggested that "The Osbournes" was more of a sitcom than a documentary.

With "Sharon Osbourne Extreme," Osbourne has borrowed a page from "The Osbournes" and gone with an almost whimsically unserious approach. "Extreme" was coauthored by Penelope Dening, sought-after writing helper (Posh Spice, Twiggy), and literalist when it comes to Christy Walsh's first rule of ghostwriting: Don't write the way your celebrity talks, but the way the public thinks she talks. Just so, we're never allowed to forget how chatty we think Sharon is, or how much cursing we think she does — which is a lot, apparently. The prose could be from an issue of People where the writers were told to experiment liberally with the F-word.

The combination of the pulpy prose and the glancing treatment given to heavy subjects makes for pretty low-impact reading. When a chapter ends, it's the same feeling as when an episode of "The Osbournes" ends: You're sure something amusing (or maybe unsettling?) happened, but it went by so quickly it's hard to remember the details.

Ironically and unfortunately, Osbourne has chosen to reveal as little as she can get away with. Famous incidents are rehashed (we hear firsthand accounts of both bat and dove stories), music biz names are dropped, and an absurd amount of jewelry is lost, stolen (often by the help), or just thrown out the window. The book does devote quite a bit of attention to Sharon's tumultuous relationship with Ozzy, and to a lesser extent, her eating problems and estrangement from her parents. But these events are merely recounted, never explored. There is little contrition here, and no self-examination.

When she reflects on a marriage that has at times been psychotically abusive (Ozzy once strangled her nearly to death), the tone is wistful: "We were completely and utterly nuts. We beat each other to such a point and loved each other to such a point. Half the time we would start to laugh halfway through." Further down the very same page, he slams her head into a wall and breaks her front teeth. "The next morning," she confides, "I was back on a plane to Los Angeles to get them fixed."

While some difficult episodes are underplayed, others are left out entirely. Glaringly, she never mentions her infidelity with Ozzy's former guitarist, Randy Rhoads. In "Ordinary People," a series of autobiographical interviews the family published a few years ago (and a much more readable and revealing book), Sharon described the Rhoads dalliance as a no-biggy, one-time thing. Then why not mention it here and avoid the appearance of whitewashing?

More befuddling yet is the way the book treats the children as noncharacters. The number of pages they're given is suspiciously close to zero. Besides being interesting people in their own right, each has admitted to battling depression, and Jack in particular has had well-publicized problems with drugs and alcohol; he even attempted suicide once at age 15. "Extreme's" biggest transgression — and the one that strikes deepest at Osbourne's No. 1 Mum facade — is that her book says nothing about any of it. In another family, you might chalk it up to a mother protecting her children's privacy. But that excuse isn't really available to the mother who put her children's lives on national television.

To her credit, though, "Extreme's" astonishing success proves that when it comes to sales figures, soul baring has no bearing. Instead, what matters is starring in a Simon Cowell singing show that draws 9 million viewers per week. With publicity like that, you could turn a used Kleenex tissue into a best-seller. All of which makes Osbourne's decision not to divulge her secrets look incredibly shrewd. After all, who wants everyone in the world knowing your private business?

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