Rivers's Edge

Joan Rivers, all dolled up at her New York apartment. Tomorrow night, she and daughter Melissa will cast appraising eyes on celebrity arrivals at the Emmy Awards.
Joan Rivers, all dolled up at her New York apartment. Tomorrow night, she and daughter Melissa will cast appraising eyes on celebrity arrivals at the Emmy Awards. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

NEW YORK Joan Rivers teeters into the needlepoint-bedecked library of her Upper East Side apartment wearing a pair of Miu Miu platform shoes with stupendously high heels. The shoes are new and the soles offer no traction, which means there is the possibility that a wrong step could land Rivers at eye level with her three pampered pooches: Max, Lulu and Veronica.

Rivers is playing this entrance for laughs. But since her humor is not based on the physical comedy of the pratfall, but rather on the possibility of one, the comedian will almost certainly remain upright. She adeptly milks this moment with a pitched-forward posture, hands that awkwardly clutch at air and the breathless exasperation for which she is famous. She rasps a hello and starts in on the shoes, selected by her only child, Melissa, to incorporate all the notable trends of the season -- platform, high heel, round toe -- and in which she cannot walk.

If her onstage humor is sharp -- some might say mean, and others might argue not even funny -- in person Rivers is wry rather than cutting. Her edges have been blunted. In real life she's the doting grandmother of Melissa's 5-year-old son, Cooper, and she does needlepoint.

Rivers has a Manhattan apartment like one of those in the movies, with a manned elevator that opens directly into her foyer. The main public rooms have soaring ceilings, massive pillars and a significant amount of gilding. It is deliriously lush and aggressively cozy, exuding a Versailles-meets-Mario-Buatta self-conscious ostentation. A white-coated manservant bustles about with drinks. A handsome boy Friday keeps her on schedule. A dark-haired woman tends to the dogs. If possessions and personal staff are a measure of success, then Rivers has done quite well.

Rivers has been in show business for nearly 50 years. And in that time, she has been nominated for a Tony Award, has won an Emmy for her daytime talk show and has been handed her walking papers. She has played Broadway and Las Vegas, as well as out-of-the-way clubs, always employing her signature line -- "Can we talk?" -- and dishing out one-liners and tirades on the pomposity of celebrity, the privileges of beauty, the unfairness of life and her personal desperation born out of insecurity. She survived near financial ruin after a disastrous business relationship involving her jewelry company left her $37 million in debt. And most significantly, she rode out the emotional tsunami that followed husband Edgar Rosenberg's suicide in 1987.

But since 1996, when she first began interviewing celebrities on the red carpet for E! Entertainment, Rivers -- with Melissa as her sidekick -- has been known for dissecting, judging and ridiculing celebrity style. In 2004 she moved to the TV Guide Channel -- a step down on the cable box but live television nonetheless. When she and Melissa take their positions along the microphone-wielding gantlet at the 58th Primetime Emmy Awards tomorrow evening, they will conduct their 1,000th interview. (Their pre-show starts at 6 p.m.)

Joan Rivers still lassoes the big stars -- even though she sometimes can't remember their names -- and gets prime real estate on the crowded red carpet. Both such accomplishments do not come without a fight. Rivers doesn't shrink from administering a public scolding -- as when a camera crew from the BBC stole her Nicole Kidman interview. Or when another reporter hogged a celebrity's time. Or when a publicist is uncooperative. "There's one little blond press agent who just doesn't like me," she says. "She took two interviews away from me -- that ugly little dwarf."

Rivers created an entire sub-sub-category of celebrity reportage: the red-carpet fashion interview. She has helped to transform the relationship between fashion and Hollywood. Giorgio Armani may have introduced good taste on the red carpet, but Rivers made sure that the average person sitting at home up to her wrists in a bowl of popcorn knew whose name was on the labels.

Who are you wearing? Why are you here? Are you excited? Next!

At E!, Rivers would not only interview stars as they were arriving for the major award shows, she would also lead a kaffeeklatsch after the event, during which she, Melissa and various guest designers would conduct a painful -- but funny -- postmortem of the fashion. Her last live red-carpet Emmy show for E! in 2003 drew 1.6 million viewers.

She continues the mix of live reporting and Monday morning quarterbacking at TV Guide, where she and Melissa signed a three-year, $8 million contract. More money, but fewer viewers. Last year, 600,000 people watched their live Emmy show. The two also report from the Oscars, Golden Globes, Grammys and Country Music Awards.

Designer James Purcell appeared on the 2001 Golden Globes fashion review on E! He relished the opportunity to dish, he welcomed the attention from viewers, and he adored Rivers. "In the middle of the taping, she leans over and says to Melissa, 'Thank God he's not like Badgley Mischka. He talks!' "

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company