Linda Axelrod is staring into the hotel mirror, and Joan Rivers is staring back. Almost.

“More eyebrow,” Linda says, sitting on a bathroom counter where she dumped her bag of makeup. “I need more eyebrow.”

Transforming into Joan Rivers has never been a challenge for Linda. Sometime late in Rivers’s illustrious comedy career, her affinity for plastic surgery gave her higher cheekbones. Cheekbones very similar to those of Linda Axelrod, an actress who has made a living as a Joan Rivers impersonator for seven years. Their uncanny resemblance used to thrill Linda’s clients, who hire her for Hollywood-themed fundraisers, corporate events and birthday parties. Today, it’s the only thing about her job that hasn’t seemed to change.

The real Joan Rivers is gone. And in mid-November, two months after her unexpected death and days after a 22-page report of its details was released, Linda has to go be Joan again.

“We need you to be downstairs in about 10 minutes,” an assistant tells her from the bathroom door. “Okay? Do you need anything?”

She needs to make her blond wig flip out a little more. She needs the gaudy statement necklace so she can make QVC jokes, needs the strappy gold heels so she can walk with that little Joan wiggle, needs the skin glitter and the fake microphone to give off more of a red-carpet feel.

She needs people not to think she’s distasteful.

She needs the real Joan back.

* * *

Linda, 48, loves being Joan Rivers more than any of the personalities she has been impersonating for far longer, like Marilyn Monroe or Charo. As the stories after Rivers died pointed out, the woman could get away with making more inappropriate comments in an hour than most celebrities would utter in a lifetime.

“People book me to be Joan,” Linda s ays, “And then they wait with bated breath. Sometimes, they’re all, ‘don’t say this,’ and ‘don’t say that.’ And I say, ‘Did you want Mary Poppins or did you want Joan Rivers?’ ”

It surprises her when people don’t know that there are other Joans to compete with. The comedy queen has been a popular subject of impersonations for all of her career — she even hosted a look-alike contest of herself as host of “The Late Show” in 1987.

Today, the Joans are devastated.

“It was like when my own mother died, that’s how close I felt to her,” said Holly Faris, who has been a nationally touring Joan Rivers impersonator since the late ’80s.

“Instead of being sad about what happened, I just have to remember to celebrate what we had,” said Frank Marino, a Las Vegas headliner who has impersonated Joan Rivers for 30 years. In 1986, she filed a $5 million lawsuit against him for his impersonation. They settled out of court and became friends. She invited Marino in drag onto her shows.

“People say that Joan paved the way? She invented the cement that paved the road that paved the way,” said Seattle drag queen Lily Armani, who saw drag for the first time at 4 years old, on a National Enquirer cover in the supermarket. The queen on the cover was Marino — it was 1986 and the tabloid was covering his legal entanglement with Joan.

“I was supposed to do a bat mitzvah the weekend after she died, and they canceled me, because they worried it would be too soon,” said Sharon Daniels, whose one-woman show in Florida opens with her as Joan.

The Joans pulled out their stories and photos from the times they met the real Joan and wondered: How soon is too soon?

They looked at the gigs already on their calendars. They picked up the phone calls requesting Joan (people seemed to be calling just as often as normal, if not more). And they comforted themselves with a statement from Melissa Rivers after her mother’s death: “I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”

Linda thought about quitting. Her phone rang and her e-mail pinged and her home mailbox collected condolence cards. Four days passed, and finally she decided to drive from her home in New Jersey to New York to be outside Joan’s funeral.

She wore a black-and-white top, something she thought Joan would like. She didn’t wear her wig or makeup. There were thick crowds and barricades, but she wanted to see when the doors of Temple Emanu-El opened.

“Do you know if they’re going to move that barricade so we can cross the street?” she asked a man in the crowd. He turned to her.

“You know,” he said, “you sound a lot like Joan Rivers.”

* * *

As she steps into the elevator at the North Bethesda Marriott, Linda is Linda in a costume. As soon as the elevator doors open in the lobby, Linda is Joan.


The elevator door slides open to a family waiting to get on. One daughter has her hair slicked back into a braid.

“OH JENNIFER! Jennifer Lawrence!” Joan yells at the braided girl. “I just loved you in ‘The Hunger Games.’ ”

Joan turns around before the Linda inside of her can see the girl’s bewilderment. Her gold heels click on the glossy hotel floor as she walks quickly toward her event on the other side of the hotel. People turn from checking in to gawk at the woman in a leopard-print ruffle jacket who is trailing glitter through the lobby.

The realization that her job had changed forever settled in during her first gig after Joan’s death. A September wedding on Long Island was so terribly awkward she has trouble remembering it. Then there was a 60th birthday party and a private stand-up event. Slowly she figured out a line to “remove the pink elephant in the room.”

“What!” she barks. “You think a little thing like death is going to keep me away?” She taps her face. “This, it’s all biodegradable! I saved the parts, I went to the taxidermist, and I’m baaaaaacckkkk!”

When she’s doing stand-up, she can say it to everyone at once, clearing discomfort from the air. But on this night, Linda has to be Joan at a 370-person fundraiser for CSAAC, an autism nonprofit. She’s supposed to just mill around, take pictures and make the event feel more glamorous.

She makes it to the fundraiser entrance and sees a hotel worker with short curly hair in a red jacket. “Look, it’s Dr. Ruth!” she calls.

Another red jacket sticks his head out from the coat room. “Ooooh, Joan Rivers!” he says. She doesn’t smile, but solidifies the Joan-like look on her face. Lips pursed, arms out, head tilted toward him as if she’s about to insult him.

He beats her to it: “Joan, I missssssss you.”

* * *

The event is all cheese cubes and celery sticks and tea lights, the kind of party where people stand a little, move to a different spot and stand some more. The Hollywood theme comes with the feathered decorations, red carpet and other mingling impersonators. Or as Linda sees them, people in costumes. Marilyn Monroe is a girl in a curly blond wig with a high-pitched voice. John Wayne is a tall guy with a shotgun. Mae West has a big hat.

The guests maybe saw those classic actors in a movie or two, but the impersonation doesn’t have to be spot on. They’re here for pictures.

Joan was on these people’s TV screens just months before.

“Oh look at you,” she says to a woman who wants to take a picture with her. “So skinny, so skinny!” She grabs the woman’s waist. “They sucked more fat out of one of my thighs!”

The guests look at her wide-eyed, sometimes taking a few moments to realize what’s happening to them as Linda references celebrities they might not think about so often, like Judi Dench or the more obscure, like Kelsey Grammer’s ex-wife Camille.

“Did Kelsey really wear those women’s clothes?”

“Yes, yes,” says the blond would-be Camille, playing along. “Actually, I made him! I thought he looked better that way.”

Joan won’t be outwitted.

“He would look better with a bag over his head,” she says.

By the end of the night, Linda will be on a train back to New Jersey. She’ll sleep a few hours, then transform into Joan for a kids’ fashion show the next morning.

With each transformation, she becomes a little more comfortable being the only Joan most people will ever get to talk to.

They will meet Linda Axelrod, and that’s how they’ll meet Joan Rivers. Almost.

“Wow, Joan, you look better than the last time I saw you,” one of the party guests says sarcastically.

“Formaldehyde!” Joan barks. “It’s better than Botox!”