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Joan Rivers was a funny lady — with a sad story |

Sunday Lifestyle

Joan Rivers was a funny lady — with a sad story

LIFE & STYLE - Millet M. Mananquil - The Philippine Star

I met Joan Rivers — in her facelifted and botoxed flesh — for a few minutes  last July in Los Angeles. She was glamorous, she was kind, and I have to say she was all poise — a lady, in the Old World sense, even if you may question: How can someone who was always politically incorrect and said brutally unkind and candid stuff about people be called “a lady”? The answer? It was all an act. Her comedy act. In person, she seemed as proper and as considerate as your fave grandma.

It happened last July at The Americana in LA where my family and I entered Barnes & Noble bookstore and the first thing that caught my eye was a poster that said: “Get Pop Cultured. Meet Joan Rivers for book signing on July 10 at 6:30 p.m.” Joan was promoting her latest book, Diary of a Mad Diva. So we planned to be at B&N at 6 p.m. and have dinner at 7 p.m. with UP classmate and former Manila Bulletin journalist Mario Baluyot who is now an LA resident.

Mario arrived ahead of us (my family and I were driving from the Ronald Reagan Museum and got caught in traffic from Santa Barbara) and, seeing the throngs of people at B&N, he thoughtfully bought two books for us and joined the queue which already occupied three floors of the bookstore, winding its way between bookshelves. Mario lined up for almost two hours, and when we arrived, we joined the line for nearly another hour before reaching our turn to meet Joan Rivers at her signing table.

While standing in the queue, I thought of the questions I wanted to ask Joan: You openly joke and talk about your surgical procedures and your plastic surgeon, but do you have other beauty tricks? Where do you get the strength to survive the ordeals you’ve undergone? In 1987, your husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide after being fired by Fox as your producer even as you challenged them. In your book Bouncing Back, you described how you developed bulimia and contemplated suicide. How do you manage to make people laugh when you have to deal with things that make you cry? Have actors like Richard Gere, John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Bruce Jenner — who are frequent subjects of your “gay” jokes — ever tried to file a case against you? What about “skinny bitches” Diana Ross and Heidi Klum? And the worst-dressed movie stars you bash on Fashion Police — do they still talk to you? When you walked out in the middle of your CNN interview conducted by Fredricka Whitfield, was that a stunt to act like a mad diva and promote your book, Diary of a Mad Diva? You mention in your books that you have a Filipino maid named Pingpong — tell us more about her and everything Filipino you have learned from her?

I was dreaming. I knew that there was a multitude of fans lining up in swirling queues at B&N. As we got nearer Joan’s signing table, I noticed that each person who wanted a book signed could only get a few seconds to sit down, hand the book over for Joan to sign, pose for a photo and maybe manage a sentence or two of small talk. And there were handlers around her who told you when it was your turn to sit beside her, and when it was time to go. Everything was smooth and systematic; there was no way I could ambush her for a mini interview. The handlers would probably lift me away bodily, or the people in the queue who had been lining up for hours would clobber me to death with their books. 

Finally, when it was my turn, I said I was a tourist from the Philippines, to which Joan immediately mentioned how much she knew about Imelda Marcos and her shoes. “You should watch that musical about Imelda on Broadway — it’s a must! I heard it’s good.” Talk about small talk. 

A smile here and there, a few clicks by our instant photographer Mario, and before I knew it, another person had positioned his body on the chair I sat on. There was still a long line of people behind us. There was no way for an interview anytime soon — her sched was full, and so was ours, for a wedding in the family.

No regrets. It was wonderful seeing Joan Rivers — how she graciously smiled at each fan who wanted her autograph and a photo op. How she gamely put her arm around a buxom, giggly woman who was sweating with excitement and wanted Joan to snuggle closer to her for the photo op.

Up close, I looked at Joan’s face and there was not a wrinkle on it. Her hair was neatly sprayed in place and she wore fragrance, but not the strong, matronly type of perfume. She always sat up straight, looking so ladylike. That was the image that made me think: This woman’s no mad diva at all.

Back home, as I opened her book, I saw the first page with a quote from Kanye West: “Sometimes people write novels and they can just be so wordy and so self-absorbed... I am a proud non-reader of books.”

And on the next page, Joan Rivers wrote: “This page be dedicated to Kanye West, because he’ll never f***in’ read it.”

A warning is given to readers on another page: “The book is written to the best of Joan Rivers’ memory. Some events may not be 100 percent — or even 5 percent — factually correct. Miss Rivers, after all, is 235 years old... The book is written in a comedic tone, so anyone who takes anything in this book seriously is an idiot,”

This is the 12th memoir/humor book Joan has written (including another recent bestseller, I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me). Joan has never apologized for humor that bashed celebrities, whether in her books or her TV shows. “I’ve learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I’ve ever done — you can tune me out, you can click me off, it’s okay, I am not going to bow to political correctness. But you do have to learn, if you want to be a satirist.”

Her golden rule: “Do unto others before they do unto you — and for God’s sake, do it funny.”

Joan Rivers’ life has not all been made up of funny stuff. This iconic comedienne hurdled great trials in the process of reinventing herself. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants (yes, she was proudly Jewish and lashed at the Holocaust and Hitler in her books), Joan Alexandra Molinsky Rosenberg graduated with a BA in Literature and Anthropology from Barnard College. She became a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a writer/proofreader at an ad agency, and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Stores.

Her literature background explains why she made jokes about poets. “Poetry is BS. All those rhyme-crazy morons — Yeats, John Donne, e.e. cummings and Wadsworth — were just f***ing fairy boys who sold a gullible public on the fact that poetry is terrific. Poetry is just stories being told in short form by ‘poets’ who are people who get rhyming dictionaries for their birthdays and who can’t punctuate or write in complete sentences.”

It was her agent Tony Rivers who advised her name change and she made Joan Rivers her stage name. In the ‘50s, Joan played a lesbian with a crush on then-unknown Barbra Streisand in the play Driftwood. “I love Greenwich Village in New York because it’s where I started my own comedy career in little clubs like Upstairs & Downstairs and The Duplex,” she said. She also became a gag writer and participant on Candid Camera, and had a brief role in a film with Burt Lancaster.

She appeared on the TV shows of Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett and by the 1980s, she became a regular guest of Johnny Carson whom she considered her mentor. In 1986, though, she ruined her friendship with Carson when she had her own late-night talk show. She was banned from appearing on The Tonight Show even when Carson’s successors Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien took over. It was only this year when she appeared again on The Tonight Show, now hosted by Jimmy Fallon.

Joan’s gift of gab and comedy writing skills finally got her an Emmy in 1990 as outstanding talk show host for The Joan Rivers Show, a daytime TV talk show that ran for five years. It was in 1994 that Joan and her daughter Melissa started becoming red carpet hosts for the Golden Globe Awards and then the Oscars. Both Joan and Melissa were frequent guests on Howard Stern’s radio show, and eventually had their own Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best show in 2011.

Filipino televiewers will best remember Joan as the host of Fashion Police with Guiliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne and George Kotsiopoulos, and of course, as a Celebrity Apprentice winner. What fashionistas don’t know is that it was Joan who converted the Oscars into a red carpet fashion show. At the start of her stint as a red carpet host, Joan asked the movie stars: “What are you wearing?” Thus began the practice of fashion designers and jewelers dressing up the stars to promote their creations.

It seems that Joan could be quite creative in promoting her books. In 2012, Costco refused to sell her New York Times bestseller I Hate Everyone... Starting With Me, so what Joan did was handcuff herself to a shopping cart and shout through a megaphone. And this year, as CNN viewers know, Joan famously walked out on her interview by Fredricka Whitfield who asked her about her mean humor and why she wore a fur coat on her book cover. “Do you wear leather shoes? Then shut up,” Joan told the CNN reporter.

“We were talking about a comedy book, and not transcripts from the Nuremberg Trial,” Joan later said. “Every question was an accusatory one designed to put me on the defensive. The book is simply a very funny book. As Winston Churchill said, if you can make one person laugh, even for a minute, it’s like giving them a little vacation.”

It looks like we will be missing those little vacations from our stressful lives. Joan Rivers died last Sept. 4 in New York after being on life support following respiratory and cardiac arrest. The world will miss her fearless brand of humor and her bashing of worst-dressed celebrities. I will simply miss the sight of a poised and ladylike author graciously signing books for people who queued for hours just for her autograph.

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Follow the author on Instagram and Facebook @milletmartinezmananquil. Email her at

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