Joan Rivers, who was hospitalized at Mount Sinai after going into cardiac arrest during a medical procedure at Yorkville Endoscopy, died Thursday. She was well known as a comedian, but, for about two decades, she had a second career as a fashion critic on the red carpet.
Beginning in 1994, Rivers and her daughter, Melissa Rivers, transformed the way fashion coverage was handled on the carpet, with their trademark snarky asides. At the time of her death, Rivers was cohost of the E! TV show “Fashion Police” and starring in the reality series “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” She continued to do stand-up comedy, and had seven shows planned across the U.S. in November.
This story first appeared in the September 5, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Rivers, 81, who was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, was nothing if not good copy. And she famously lived her life in public, creating a reputation as one of the hardest-working people in show business, with a set of gigs that kept her busy around the clock and throughout the year. She used her own foibles as grist for the mill — including, notably, her obsession with plastic surgery. Five typical quips: “I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio”; “I blame my mother for my poor sex life. All she told me was ‘The man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For three years, my husband and I slept in bunk beds”; “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware”; “I wish I had a twin so I could know what I’d look like without plastic surgery,” and “A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she’s a tramp.”
She was the first woman to host a late-night talk show, when her mentor Johnny Carson made her the regular guest host of “The Tonight Show” in 1983. She famously fell out with Carson in 1986, when the Fox Broadcasting Network offered Rivers her own talk show, “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.” When Carson learned of this move, he never spoke to her again. The show failed, and her then-husband, TV producer Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide; Rivers used her next gig (as Linda Lavin’s replacement in “Broadway Bound”) to begin her climb out of the resulting psychological hole.
However, little about her comedic style had changed over the years. An interview WWD did with Rivers in 1972 called her “the fastest mouth in the West” and noted, “Her material might be described as, ‘Everything You’ve Always Really Thought But Were Afraid to Say Out Loud.’ ”
Her trademark question later became, “Can we tawk?”
When the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” made its debut in May 2010, her longtime friend Jonathan Van Meter quoted her in New York magazine as saying, “It’s amazing. People who have seen the film come up to me and say, ‘I never liked you until now.’ TV interviewers say, right in front of me, ‘Even if you have always hated Joan Rivers…you are going to love her and be mesmerized by this film.’ They spit right in my face and then spend the next 10 minutes wiping it dry.’ ”
Rivers was known for her no-holds-barred comedic style; her remarks lifted the civilized veneer off red-carpet fashion coverage. In 2010, on “Fashion Police,” she said of Julia Roberts: “She has become a real star on the red carpet over the years. She walks into a room, and there’s a light around her. And the clothes are always appropriate and right for the event. That vintage Valentino dress she wore when she won the Oscar for ‘Erin Brockovich’ — my God, that was just divine.”
She described Beyoncé as “a perfect example of someone who’s got it together over the years. Finally, she’s come into her own. Young stars should dress like young stars. But they used to dress her like an old lady when she was 17. She always looks fantastic now — there’s a girl who really knows what she’s doing.”
On Helen Mirren: “She used to look ridiculous. I remember she came one year in a boa and boots….It was like, ‘What the hell are you doing wearing that to a serious ceremony?’ Then, after I had a go at what she was wearing, she became this chic, elegant, fabulous creature. Helen’s a smart lady. Instead of getting angry, she said, ‘OK,’ went to Dolce & Gabbana and pulled it together.”
On Penélope Cruz: “I’m not a fan of hers anymore. She obviously spends hours looking beautiful and always looks elegant. But she’s started saying in interviews, ‘I don’t care, it’s not about clothes, it’s not about fashion.’ Don’t lie to us. She’s always amazingly dressed, and we know it takes time, so don’t stand there and say, ‘I don’t care,’ when you know f–king well it’s taken hours to get ready. I’m angry at the hypocrisy.”
On Nicole Kidman: “She’s so thin and tall and gorgeous, she should just put herself in the hands of Chanel or someone and shut up and let them do it. Don’t listen to what Keith Urban says. Now that she’s married to a rocker, the people she goes around with are different, so her look has changed. I didn’t like the dress she wore at the SAGs. She’s looking hotter and sexier, rather than more classy and glamorous, which is what you expect.”
On Mariah Carey: “I wish we were all as egotistical as Mariah. Wouldn’t that be wonderful to be a big, chubby woman with big, pendulous breasts and think you’re hot? I mean, how fabulous is that? It’s FABULOUS. I think, ‘Go for it, Mariah.’ Sure, everything always looks like it’s two sizes too small, but she thinks she looks hot, and that’s great. I admire that kind of girl.”
“The worst fashion crimes are always the best. Everyone remembers Björk’s dying swan and Demi Moore’s cycling-shorts ensemble. The real crime is not being outstanding. If I really wanted to be noticed, I’d wear the dying-swan thing.”
“We did a thing on ‘Fashion Police’ once where we showed dresses on the runway and then on the stars on the red carpet. It proved that, very often, they should stay on the runway.”
In the past two years, Rivers made jokes about everything from singer Adele’s weight to the Holocaust and was frequently criticized for the insensitivity of her cracks. But she believed, as “A Piece of Work” revealed, nothing was off-limits in comedy (something she had picked up, partly, from one of her key influences: Lenny Bruce). The documentary cast her as the ultimate showbiz survivor, and her fortunes seemed finally to have turned around. As Shanda Deziel pointed out in Maclean’s, Rivers was roasted on Comedy Central, won the second season of “Celebrity Apprentice” and became a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a one-woman show about her life.
In an interview for “The Leonard Lopate Show,” which took place in June of this year, Rivers talked about the liberating influence of aging, the Kardashians (“Smart as whips to make a career out of this — they’re like the Gabor sisters of this era”). On Kristen Stewart: “You silly girl, you make $20 million a movie, and you want to sue because, I infer, you’re a great juggler of balls.” Also: “On a scale of one to Osama bin Laden, how bad am I?” and “I never wear yellow any more because it’s too matchy-matchy with my catheter.”
“I have the only career where I got to the top by promising producers not to sleep with them.”
Her many other enterprises included a highly successful jewelry line, launched with QVC and The Shopping Channel, and 12 books of humorous memoirs and self-help, all of which were bestsellers.
In 2010, WWD asked Rivers, as someone who seemed to be a workaholic, what sacrifices she had made, and she responded, “You look back and you think probably some of my romances, a lot of the men in my life — certainly since my husband — have always been in a second position. ‘I love you very much, but I am going three days now to England to perform. Want to come?’ It was a lot of ‘want to comes.’ You look back and think, ‘Maybe my life would be different. Maybe there would be someone sitting here if I’d gone the other path.’ You don’t know. Life is all choices.”
Then, WWD asked whether Rivers ever felt “tired by the expectation to always be funny.”
Her response: “I feel that when I’m invited to a dinner party. Because you know the hostess is thinking, ‘Oh, Joan will take care of that end of the table.’ And I’m not so funny in real life unless I really know you — unless I’m with real friends, and then, of course, you’re laughing and carrying on. But when I don’t know you, I’m not going to walk in and make six wisecracks when I’m standing in [Blaine Trump’s] apartment or Lily Safra’s apartment or poor Nan Kempner’s. Nan Kempner stopped asking me to lunch because I was so boring. She used to give these great lunches; she had me twice and then she realized, ‘She’s a bore.’ ”