IT’S MIDWAY THROUGH THE morning ideas meeting at the Los Angeles offices of Chelsea Lately, and so far Chelsea Handler has heard nothing she likes. While her staff comics pitch bad one-liners, she sits there kind of stone-faced, hair stringy and still wet from her morning shower, looking a little worn from last night’s dinner out (“It was 17 courses! It was never-ending! I wanted to kill myself!”), not saying anything while she waits for someone to come up with something she can spin into the kind of humor that’s made her late-night talk show on E! so popular. In fact, since Chelsea Lately first aired three years ago, it’s kind of crazy how far she’s come. She’s written three autobiographies (My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands; Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea; and Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, each title entirely descriptive of its contents) that have all been New York Times bestsellers. Words she has coined — “sha-doobie,” for feces; “coslopus,” for vagina — have entered the vernacular. She’s been the subject of a sex-tape scandal. She’s hosting the VMAs this month. And to top it off, she’s made so much money — $19 million in the past 12 months from her assorted ventures (the show, the books, a stand-up comedy tour, a $500,000 sponsorship from Belvedere vodka, her booze of choice) — that she recently found herself on Forbes’ annual top-100 list of big-moneymaking famous people.
Right now, Handler has her nose stuck in the pages of the National Enquirer, when suddenly she starts laughing that gravelly barfly not-unsexy laugh of hers. It grows in force until it silences the room full of babbling comics.
“Oh, this is so funny!” Handler says, holding up the magazine so everyone can see. It’s a story about her and her supposed BFF Jennifer Aniston and how “Chelsea, 35, persuaded her 41-year-old pal to join Crunch fitness in West Hollywood by raving about all the ‘hot, scantily-clad men’ that work out there.” Handler reads the story out loud, and whenever anyone tries to interrupt, she shouts them down. “Wait, wait, listen to this!” she says. “Chelsea has started hosting weekly vodka mixer par ties For the get-togethers, Jen and Chelsea demand that each female guest bring eligible bachelors to mingle with their other single female friends.”
Handler howls with laughter.
“Hey, why don’t we do this as a topic on the show?” someone says.
And so Chelsea Handler becomes a topic on her own show. It’s happened before — lots of times, actually — and it will happen again. In many ways she’s as big as most of the celebs she talks about, and revelations about her personal life have become a big part of why audiences tune in, because she does not hold back. Recently, for instance, she brought Animal Planet zoologist Dave Salmoni out onstage, python wrapped around his neck, to confirm that, as rumored, she is going out with him and that he is indeed “penetrating” her. The audience roared. And the gossip rags all took note. And then Handler wrapped up her day, secure in the knowledge that she was everything she had always wanted to be and not just another good-time-girl actress wanna-be from just another town in New Jersey.
IN THE MORNING, NO MATTER HOW sunny it is outside, it’s always pitch-black in Handler’s bedroom. She likes it that way. At night, she draws the curtains and sleeps with an eyeshade on. But it’s 6:30 a.m. now, and she is awake, dressed only in a bra and underwear. The very first thing she does is check her e-mail on her BlackBerry — “a couple of private matters, e-mails from my OB-GYN.”Then she gets up, pees, brushes her teeth, makes oatmeal, eats oatmeal, returns to her bedroom to brush her teeth again, gets a private Pilates session from a woman known only as Pilates Tina, hops into her Jaguar XK and drives herself to work with her dog, Chunk, in tow. She says that she normally doesn’t remember her dreams, but there’s this one. In it, Aniston is getting back together with Brad Pitt, and Handler is shouting, “You can’t do it! Don’t do it!” Although Aniston is a recent friend, Handler has had that dream repeatedly — an indication, no doubt, of how deeply into her psyche the crud of celebrity culture has seeped.
Still, that’s the way she likes it. She says she reads books by Steinbeck and Dostoevsky to try to maintain the semblance of an intellect (or, in her words, “I read heavy shit to balance my brain out”). She also says she’s looking forward to that day in 2012 when her contract runs out and she can do something different, maybe a talk show with politicians. But for the moment, she’s good right where she is, which at present time means standing in front of her dressing-room mirror at work and inspecting her outfit for this evening’s show.
“This is frustrating!” says a frowning stylist who is working on Handler.
“Want me to eat you out?” Handler replies, with a straight face even though she’s kidding, which is typical for her ripostes.
Next she looks at herself in the mirror and mashes her large breasts together, pressing them up so they balloon out of her low-cut top, and saying, “So, do you think this looks too booby? Maybe if you were doing Katie Couric’s job, but it’s not bad. Who do we have today)? Ron Artest? He’s a Laker, so obviously he’s going to love this. Every once in a while they have to come out. I think it’s cute!”
She likes to talk run-on like that, and she can sometimes verge on hysteria, like when Chunk lays some soggy shadoobies on the floor and she starts yelling, “Oh, oh, I’m going to vomit! Oh, we’re trapped in here!” But mainly her vibe is droll and deadpan and friendly and jokey-fun nasty. (“You’re fucking lucky you know me, you piece of shit,” she says one afternoon to her book agent, lovingly.) She’s nice-looking but not extremely good-looking, maybe a little worn, like all that drinking and screwing around that’s chronicled in her books have taken their toll. As it happens, though, she no longer drinks like she used to, preferring to keep the Belvedere shelved a few days a week, and she is no longer the queen of the one-nipslip stand.
“When I was having sex, and I’ve definitely had a lot of sex, it’s because I was interested in having sex and seeing what different things are out there. Like one of the girls on the show, I’ve known her since I was 20, and we’d go out and be just like two fucking sluts. We slept our way through this town. Neither of us would ever want a boyfriend, and guys would just creep us out. We were like, ‘Eww, get away from me!’ I don’t regret any of the sex I’ve had, because it’s given me a wealth of material. I like to air my dirty laundry. That time was fruitful, but that phase is over. I don’t think I can really do that anymore.”
As a result, what she mostly writes about now are her nutty family, her nutty love of stray chubby creatures (Chunk, her dwarf sidekick Chuy Bravo), her nutty misadventures and, in Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, her boyfriend at the time, Comcast CEO Ted Harbert, who originally conceived her show and who is still her boss. They went out for three years before Handler dumped him earlier this year, mainly, she says, because he was trying to micromanage her busy life. “He’d say to my friends, ‘It’s too much, she’s under too much pressure, she can’t handle it.’ I can handle it, you can’t handle it. This is what I’ve worked for. This is what I want! So one morning I just got up and said, Tin out.’ I’m sure he didn’t think that was nice, but I was pretty happy about it.”
A period of celibacy followed, if only because no one asked her out. “Why didn’t anyone ask me out? Probably because I seem like a handful, which isn’t attractive to a man. I would give myself a B as a girlfriend. I can be a real pain in the ass.” Then, one day, animal handler Salmoni arrived on the Chelsea Lately set with a camel. He told her to blow into the camel’s nose. She said, “That’s the only kind of blowing I do.” He said, “If you’re single, you’re going to have to do a lot more than that.” She thought, “Oh, who are you?” and looked at him differently. They’ve been going out now for four months, but you really have to wonder if he knows what he might be getting when he gets a girl like her.
HER MOTHER WAS A MORMON housewife, her father a Jewish used-car salesman of the rip-off, lemon-selling variety, and together they raised six children, with Chelsea being the youngest, out of a too-small ranch house in Livingston, New Jersey. Her parents took a nonchalant approach that basically allowed the kids to do their own thing. In Chelsea’s case, this meant living fast with a sharp tongue almost from the start. When she was seven, her 17-year-old brother, Glen, would take her to parties as a sort of surprise guest. “Hey, look who I brought!” he’d announce. His pals would gather round, and Chelsea would insult them — “You’re a loser! No one’s going to date you!” — to hilarious effect. In middle school, she got made fun of a lot; older kids would walk behind her, barking and calling her a dog. But by the time she got to high school, she was a social animal. “I had a big personality and could make friends, and I got exposed to every kind of situation you could be exposed to. I hung out with the good girls, I hung out with the bad girls, I dated black guys, I dated the captain of the football team. I did everything!”
At age 19, she dropped out of community college to move to L.A. and become an actress. She worked as a waitress but was fired from every job she had; that flapping mouth of hers could not stay shut. With nothing happening on the acting front, she eventually decided to give stand-up comedy a shot and one day dropped by the Improv to see how to go about it. The guy told her to make a comedy audition tape and said, “I’d love to see you having sex, too.” She did both, with the sex comically simulated (this would later become her so-called sex tape), and soon found herself onstage, on a Thursday night, at 10 p.m., complaining about her life as a waitress. Two in-demand years later, she got a gig on the Oxygen network candid-camera-type show Girls Behaving Badly, which led to a stint as a correspondent on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and finally, in 2007, to Chelsea Lately, now in its third season.
The majority of her fans — of the show, her books and her stand-up act — are women who apparently see in her what they’d like to see in themselves: a lot of guts, a razor wit, someone who can laugh at her own many flaws, kind of a chick, kind of a broad, great rack, nice legs, good face, lets all her weird predilections hang out, more than that, embraces them, as when she throws her arms around Chuy and draws him near. She’s a kind of cool floozy role model. It doesn’t matter that her show is about really dumb stuff or that her books are sort of dumb. It’s the attitude that’s selling, along with a wink and a nod, and it’s made her a hot ticket.
Which is all very well and good, but it really doesn’t get to the heart of why she is the way she is. For that you have to go back to when she was nine and her brother Chet, then 21, slipped off a cliff while hiking the Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming and fell 80 feet to his death. In the aftermath, as the family tried to recover, Chelsea got pushed to the side, like she wasn’t important, and she didn’t like that at all.
Handler hasn’t written much about this or spoken too openly about it, but pool-side one evening at her California pad, she picks at a plate of figs and says, “I had a lot of fucked-up shit from what happened to my brother. After that, I was always trying to get attention, because all of a sudden the attention was completely on the death of my brother, and nobody really paid attention to me, so it totally turned into me trying to get attention. And I’d do it in fucked-up ways, like at school lying and saying I was going to be in a movie with Goldie Hawn, weird stuff like that.” This in turn explains why she wasn’t much good as an actress. She wanted to be herself, she didn’t want to play anybody else: “I wanted to say my own words! I wanted to speak my own mind!” And it also explains why she came to Hollywood. “I just wanted to be known. I wanted to be famous. It’s really juvenile, yeah, but I wanted people to know who I was and that I was special.”
IT’S PRETTY ENTERTAINING WATCHING Handler do her thing at work. Much of it seems to involve hanging out in her dressing room as various sorts traipse in and out and interrupt her train of thought. She’ll be saying something like, “You know who I don’t like? Angelina Jolie. She’s a home-wrecker who has no female friends. I can tell from a mile away she’s bad. You can adopt as many babies as you want — I can tell she’s not a good girl,” when someone will swing in saying, “Hey, Tits McGee, we got you a couple more sports bras,” or someone else will walk in saying, “So basically what we’re trying to say is that he sucks cock, but we can’t say that he sucks cock.” And then somebody will meander by and slide her a Vicodin. And then she will say, “Like once somebody called Ted and was like, ‘Can you tell her to take it easy on Jeremy Piven? He’s never even met her. What’s her problem? Why does she hate him?’ And I’m like, ‘Because he’s a fucking asshole and everybody knows it!'” And then she takes a meeting with a big-shot movie producer, and he says to her, “I love the books, I love the show, and what I’d love to do is some sort of female version of The Hangover, which was all about unbelievable situations these guys were in, and that’s the way your books are, too,” and she says, nodding vigorously, “It’d be more of a salty, gritty thing than the Sex and the City nonsense. I’m kind of the anti-woman person. I’m probably a guy, but I like the crusade of a girl. And then we could include my father, who is ridiculous and was screwing his 20-year-old black Jamaican cleaning lady a month after my mom passed away.”
At 2:15 p.m., Handler tramps down a hallway to a darkened control room full of monitors, where she swoops in on a bowl of Swedish Fish candies and runs through the topics for today’s show, along with the punch lines that go with them. Then she does the show and afterward has an hour-long session with Pilates Tina. It’s kind of nonstop go-go crazy but, like she says, it’s what she’s worked for and what she wants. And then, finally, she leaves her beloved Swedish Fish behind and goes home.
Right now home is a wide-open $35,000-a-month rental, where she lives with her brother Roy, 41, who works as her personal chef and is in the kitchen, making dinner. Handler breezes through to ward her bedroom. Roy is portly and has a great big peanut-shaped head that his sis ter mocks constantly. “She calls me a retard all the time, too,” he says. “She thinks I’m not up to snuff. It used to irritate me, but she’s always been like that. Growing up, she’d do her shit in front of us, and we’d say, ‘Chelsea, tone it down, no one’s fuck ing listening to you, OK?’ But making fun of people is what she does for a living, and what are you going to say, ‘No, Chelsea, you can’t do that’? Try saying ‘no’ to her. She doesn’t like that.” Handler’s back now, sipping a margarita. “I just killed a wasp that was the size of a lampshade – want to see it?” she says. “Oh, that’s a dragonfly? I thought it was a bee.”
After that, she makes her way past lots of candles, lots of lemons and sugary things in bowls, and goes out to the patio by the pool, to sit and eat under the California sky. She’s different one-on-one, witty but not so keyed-up. It’s kind of nice and kind of awkward, too, like it’s not the most comfortable situation for her. And then, over lobster, lamb and her margarita, she begins to reveal a little more of what a guy like Salnioni might get when he gets a girl like her.
Actually, despite what she says, it does seem as if there could be quite a lot of upside to the deal. In addition to the occasional illicit Vicodin, for example, she also likes the occasional doobie and the occasional vacation-time tab of Ecstasy. “I’m not against that at all!” she says. Fun!
“Sexually, I’d say that I’m loud,” she goes on. “A couple of my friends have mentioned it when I’ve spent the night. A lot of my emotion conies out. Really dirty fucked-up shit I’m not into. I’m into fun sex. Do I have orgasms during intercourse? Shut up! But who doesn’t? Yes, I have them. And no, the vaginal orgasm is not a myth. Pilates Tina can explain it to you. Anyway, I think I’m pretty good in bed. Recently, I have been very good. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments.” Also, contrary to public assumption, she’s not into vibrators; in fact, she hasn’t used one “probably in 10 years,” which, as it develops, is also the last time she masturbated, she says, and she’s not kidding. “I have plenty of girlfriends who masturbate all the time,” she says. “But I don’t. I’m telling the truth, I don’t.”
Another great thing about Handler is she’s lucky — at one point earlier this year, all three of her books were on the Times bestseller list in the one, two and three positions. And she knows she’s lucky, too, as in, “A lot of people probably think, ‘Oh, she’s so fucking lucky.’ And I am. I work hard. But I’m fucking lucky. Obviously.”
On the downside, what she’s looking for in a boyfriend is someone who is “honest and doesn’t lie, and protects me emotionally. I want somebody that’s got my back.” But that seems somewhat hypocritical of her to want honesty when she doesn’t exactly embrace the virtue herself: Her next book is going to be called Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, and it’s other people telling stories, she says, about “how I’ve lied to them and fucked them over.” Moreover, she’s always saying better-left-unsaid stuff like, “Is penis size important to me? I would say yes, but I know that…I don’t know…as long as it’s workable, as long as it’s not…” and, “Does Dave have any spe cial talents as a zoologist? That he brings in the bedroom? Not that I can tell. He’s not that great, ha ha.” Sometimes she just wants to lie in bed all day, watch TV and stuff her face with “fucking Hot Pockets.” Finally, she’s got that unexplainable fascination with “short, fat, corpulent things.” the most prominent example being Chuy.
But taking it all together, adding and subtracting and looking at the sum total of what you might get if you got Handler as your girl, and even knowing in advance that one day she’s going to write about you and make you look foolish, she seems like she’d be OK, even aces. But maybe a little loud.