With Heather Locklear–like blond tresses and a killer rack God must’ve bestowed on her as a very early bat mitzvah gift (“sweater rockets,” she calls them), Chelsea Handler looks more like an Aaron Spelling muse than cable television’s female version of David Spade. But that’s where you’ll find Handler, on E! — the same network that gave us reality shows about tanning salons, Beverly Hills plastic surgeons and a wannabe starlet primarily known for having a big backside and a sex tape — hosting her own chat show, Chelsea Lately, where she digs her manicured claws into the latest star screw-ups five nights a week.
Handler was raised in a half-Mormon, half-Jewish family in Livingston, New Jersey, and had one of those embarrassing childhoods that inevitably leads to a comedic career (if not a life of constant fibbing). She even entered the Miss Teen New Jersey pageant. “I came in top 15,” she says. “So suck on that. I had no platform. I wanted people to pay attention to me because I was the youngest of six, which is exactly why I have this job today.”
Her first memoir, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, detailed her dating exploits and begins with the time she peeked in on her parents having sex after making a $5 bet with her sister. (It also features a crucial chapter on her drunken tryst with a midget.) Her latest book, the newly published, Judy Blume–inspired Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, goes back to the day her father dropped her off at school in a yellow 1967 Yugo. How does she get back in with the cool kids? By duping them into thinking she’s filming a movie with Goldie Hawn.
The rest of the book includes more encounters with little people (“I do not have a midget fetish — I like to think of it as more of a healthy obsession”); why redheads are an abomination (“Who are they supposed to model themselves after? Danny Bonaduce?”); and a jail stint for a DUI, but where she finds religion (Grey Goose is her god).
After making the rounds of the stand-up circuit, appearing in a variety of sitcoms and starring on the Oxygen network’s Girls Behaving Badly, Handler found a comfortable niche on E! as one of the smart-ass talking heads whenever the network would air its countdowns to the 101 most shocking celebrity moments or the 101 most shocking celebrity hookups or the 101 most shocking celebrity slim-downs, etc. Then last year, E! finally came waving around a check, and Handler landed her own talk show. Now she, with a panel of other smart-ass talking heads — mostly fellow comics — scours the rags for the day’s biggest headlines: “America‘s favorite outpatient” she once called Britney Spears.
And she interviews both celebs and pseudocelebs, having sat across from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Margaret Cho, Sandra Bernhard, Girls Gone Wild guru Joe Francis and Gene Simmons; Handler looked as if she’d thrown up in her mouth after Simmons came at her with that freakishly long tongue.
Every episode also features a skit, including one regular bit that has Handler setting up an advice box at Hollywood and Highland. “Good luck with your future,” she tells one unsuspecting passerby, who is complaining about his teenage daughter. “Looks like it’s gonna suck.” The rest feature her 4-feet-tall sidekick/co-host Chuy, whom she affectionately refers to as her “little nugget,” involved in all sorts of shenanigans: Handler and Chuy learning to fly the trapeze; Handler and Chuy planning their funerals; Handler treating Chuy to a make-over. Ricardo Montalban had Hervé Villechaize, Handler has Chuy. “He’s such a huge complement to my personality. And the carpool lane.”
Handler’s West L.A. office includes a life-size portrait of the two holding hands, dressed in matching plaid pajamas. I ask how they met. “He came in, I gave him a couple of multiplication tests and spelling quizzes. And it turns out he can’t do math or spell. So those are pretty much the only two qualities I’m looking for.”
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Now that she’s part of the pantheon of emerging female comics, it’s no surprise that Vanity Fair included her in last month’s women-in-comedy issue, featuring a spread by Annie Leibovitz, mocking Hollywood’s biggest attention whores: Handler dressed as Pamela Anderson; Wanda Sykes as Naomi Campbell; the Office’s Jenna Fischer as Lindsay Lohan; and Sarah Silverman as Amy Winehouse. When asked what it felt like to imitate another starlet known primarily for having a sex tape, Handler responds, “I felt like a slut. I felt for the very first time in my life what it meant to have Hepatitis C.”
Anyone who starts wearing Christian Louboutins and becomes a fixture on TV will eventually have the paparazzi snooping around, right? So how does big shot behave whenever TMZ photographs her leaving the restaurant Koi, or walking hand in hand with Chuy to a Beverly Hills salon? “I try not make a spectacle of myself. And I need to wear underwear. Yeah, I’d like to not wear underwear once in a while, but I can’t ever not wear underwear.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon