Chelsea Handler (Sunday Times Magazine, May 15, 2016)
Everyone has a little bit of Chelsea Handler in them — the bit that can’t suffer fools and likes to make fun of people,the bit that thinks they’ve got something special and should never have to fly economy.Most people don’t know how to unleash their inner Handler.They worry what people will think. Handler has never cared about that. She’s made a career out of making fun of people.
The American comedian, actress, writer, producer and close pal of Jennifer Aniston remains only the second woman to have a US late-night talk show (the first was Joan Rivers). Chelsea Lately aired for nearly eight years on the American channel E! It was compulsive viewing, attracting guests such as Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians,even though Handler was never sycophantic, possibly even a touch cruel. She has written five bestselling books — including 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands and 2008’s Are You There,Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea — and has racked up almost 6m Twitter followers, but she remains relatively unknown in Britain.That’s changing thanks to the four documentaries she has made for Netflix.The series is called Chelsea Does and tackles marriage, Silicon Valley, racism and drugs. The 41-year-old says she learnt a lot. She also reveals a lot: behind her rapier wit, there’s a vulnerable side.
I arrive at her house in Bel Air. It’s modern, comfortably furnished,with arty photos, furry dining room chairs, outside deck and pool. Most surprising is that it seems really lived-in.We go up to her bedroom to talk and sit on opposite couches. She’s wearing ripped jeans and a fawn sweater, no shoes, no make-up, no brush has been through the hair. Her bed is unmade.A pair of Stella McCartney stilettos is discarded on the floor. It turns out McCartney is a good friend and they’d been for a night out recently. She doesn’t mention Aniston.
As well as the documentaries, she’s launched a Netflix talk show, which mixes live action, politics and documentary footage, and it airs three times a week. I ask if Donald Trump will be vain enough to appear. “I doubt it. I’ve been pretty public about calling him an asshole and last week I was in Mexico with a piñata of him. I tied it to a tree and everyone beat the shit out of it.The video went viral. I’d love to have Hillary Clinton on it, I love Hillary.” Chunk, her dog, trots in, fluffy-fresh from the groomer. He’s part chow and part German shepherd; he looks like a teddy bear. Handler calls everything she loves Chunk: her first boyfriend, her mother, who died 10 years ago.“We called each other Chunk.” Her first boyfriend, a Brit called Peter, makes an appearance in the documentary about marriage.They met for the first time in years to be filmed and he revealed that she used to reallywant children. She pooh-poohs his suggestion: “ I love kids most of the time if they are my friends’ or my family’s. He confused that with a desire to have them, which there was not.”
At 41 there still isn’t. On the table in front of her is a green drink.“This is what I have to drink every day, do you want to try it?” I decline.“Dieting is rough, it’s a pain in the ass for everyone.A lot of people in this town just don’t eat.” Does being on TV all of the time make her extra aware? “Yes, and I work out all of the time, and I actually enjoy that, but the dieting is really hard for me. I’m good for a few days and then I go off.” She thinks she might be an alcoholic.“If I don’t drink for more than three nights you can tell in my personality. I just need alcohol in my system . I love alcohol — it makes me happy.”
Handler was 39 when she quit E! because she no longer found her show challenging. For most women, the cusp of 40 isn’t the age when people start afresh; it’s not when confidence is at its highest. But Handler isn’t most women.“Like anything in my career, I like to excel at something and then I’m done and want to be out of my comfort zone. I was bored with the sound of my voice and I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful any more. I was bored with these celebrities on rotation. I just thought this has afforded me tons of luxury and access to many things, but it’s not like I’m saving lives. I thought I should be doing something more interesting.”
Cue the documentaries. How did she decide on the four subjects? “It was important for me to do something that everybody is familiar with. Marriage is something everyone can talk about. I never had the desire to be married and I’ve never been interested in that kind of construct. Drugs: I love doing drugs. Racism: I thought, let me see if I can do something serious but with a sense of humour.” In the tech documentary she creates an app.
The racism documentary is emotional, especially when she goes to Jerusalem to speak with the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.“He said,‘Walls are meant to be torn down.’ I loved it when he said that. My father once said,‘When you read a book, even if you don’t like it,there’s always one sentence that should resonate.’That was the line that was really powerful.” Handler’s father appears often in Chelsea Does. He is perhaps the reason she never became someone’s wife; he told her that she wasn’t the type of girl that anyone would marry, which she took as a compliment.
Her father was a used-car salesman and they grew up in a Jewish suburb of New Jersey. Her mother was a Mormon of German descent who converted to Judaism. Handler is the youngest of six, the eldest of whom, her brother Chet, died in a hiking accident when he was 21. Handler couldn’t wait to leave suburbia, so at 19 she was West Coast-bound with a backdrop of determination over tragedy. She thought she would try acting, but ended up waitressing before turning her failed romances into comedy gold. “It was when Peter [the British ex-boyfriend] and I broke up that I started to get good material for stand-up, so I stopped being a waitress.”The day after they split up, she let herself into his apartment to find him in bed with someone else.“I was angry, and when you’re angry, you come up with good stuff.”
In the marriage documentary she also reveals a preference for dating foreign men.Yet two of her most famous exes are American. In 2010 she was briefly with the rapper 50 Cent and in 2013 she dated the hotelier André Balazs, who is behind the London celebrity haunt Chiltern Firehouse. “He’s not anything you’d imagine, but that was just a flash in the pan,” she says of 50 Cent. Was she in love with him? “No!” What about British Pete? “He was my first love.” She says she is “independent and I always wanted to be.That was important to me because both my parents were hot messes.They loved each other, but they had no financial security and it was constantly,‘Don’t answer the phone, it might be a bill collector.’We weren’t poor, but you never knew what was going to happen.”
As the youngest of six, did she have to make her mark? “I think I was born that way, intent on being something bigger. For me, my life was going to begin once I left [New Jersey].When I came here I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I just wanted to be known. As a waitress I got fired from many different places. I went off on people if they were rude.” She asks if I mind if she uses the restroom and do I want to watch her? I don’t.While she is away I notice a plate on her coffee table that says: “Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want.”
Alcohol isn’t her only vice. For the documentary on drugs, she tried the mind-expanding drug ayahuasca. She says she enjoys doing drugs.“Last night I smoked a little pot, went to bed at 8.30pm and woke up at 7am. It was great. I’d rather do that than take a sleeping pill.”
I tell her my theory that women can’t be sexy and good at stand-up. Female comics who do well are often fat, misshapen or unlucky.“I don’t think that’s true,” she says.“I think I’m quite tomboyish — I don’t wear skirts in real life, so why wear one on stage? But it wasn’t hard for me at all.There’s a constant discussion about gender disparity, and of course it exists, but in my experience it’s been a huge advantage to be a woman.” And this is where you see her inner Handlerness, made of titanium.
In 2014 she posed topless on a horse — mirroring the shot of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. She didn’t realise it would cause a stir.Thirty minutes after posting the picture to Instagram, the site removed it, saying she had violated the app’s terms of service. “I was making a joke.The reaction was incredible. Why is a man allowed to ride topless when a woman isn’t? Because we have big breasts? What the f*** is that? I just wanted to highlight its idiocy.”
She says she could never have done anything other than comedy.“If this didn’t work out, I’d have to marry someone really wealthy. I’ve always wanted nice things, and I never want to fly economy again. Ever! And I need to be working to do that and doing something that’s compelling. I don’t have a lot of skill sets, so I have to try and be really good at the only thing I can do.”
She smiles, happy in the knowledge that the thing she can do is all she needs.