Having been surrounded by protofeminists when I was growing up -- professional women who were way ahead of their times -- I've always been drawn to women who are talented, who are out there blazing a trail and who are out there speaking out.
One of those women is Joan Rivers and, in anticipation of her appearance at The Venetian in Las Vegas later this month, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to speak to her. Once again, I broke the cardinal rule of interviewing and told her I am a fan. (Didn't mention that she's the only person I can think of who could have caused me to watch Celebrity Apprentice.) She responded very positively and put me at ease: "Good, I'm glad you are because I'm eating a bagel while we talk so we can both relax."
As is clear from the above, we spoke by phone. She was in Pennsylvania preparing to go on QVC to sell her jewelry line. Asked how that started, she recalled, "During one of the down periods of my career and someone came to me and asked if I'd be interested in selling jewelry on QVC. My first reaction was, 'ick,' because at that time it meant your career was over. But I decided to do it. In the beginning I designed everything myself. But, now we're a 20 year-old company and we have two designers."
That QVC experience is probably one of the reasons Celebrity Apprentice intrigued her. "That was wonderful because I am very entrepreneurial and I love being given a challenge and figuring it out. That's what the show it."
But, of course, Joan Rivers is above all a comic, a no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-I-see it performer. "Nothing is off-limits. I'm perfectly willing to talk about most everything. I was talking about 9/11 on 9/12."
And, asked who makes her laugh, she names others with a similar approach to comedy: "Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Jeffrey Ross. You know," she adds, "comics are smart. No one seems to figure that one out."
To those who would censor her -- or others -- for their material, she simply says, "If it's funny it ain't dirty. Just laugh and calm down."
Rivers believes, "Comedy is all DNA. My father was funny and my grandmother had a sense of humor. My sister is a lawyer and is funny," she says, adding with obvious pride, "She was the youngest woman to graduate from Columbia Law School."
But, even with all that wit in her DNA, Rivers recalls that when she unveiled her plan to go into show business, her family "didn't talk to me for a year. Looking back, I understand it. My father was a doctor. Every time a prostitute walked into his office she'd say, 'I'm an actress.'"
Her career, however, doesn't stop at comedy. She's an actress, screenwriter, author, director an d has won a multitude of awards. The one area in which she has run into a wall is late night talk TV. When she had the temerity to sign on as host of a late night show on Fox, she was fired as Carson's permanent substitute host and, she reported, he never again spoke to her.
"The networks are still very much an old boys club. They think women at night just want to watch men. I'd love to have my own late-night talk show and I think I could take them all. But, if it is, it is."
A frequent guest on talk shows, Rivers was last weekend the subject of a Comedy Central Roast and she enjoyed the experience immensely. When it was mentioned that one viewer especially enjoyed Mario Cantone's take on her Hebrew name ("NipTuch," pronounced with just the right gutteral Hebrew "h") she laughed. "Isn't he great? The whole thing was great."
Rivers has a new series on TV Land called How'd You Get So Rich? during which she visits self-made millionaires to ask how they did it. The first one was a man who invented what he calls "Billy Bob Teeth," described as ideal for those who ae "Tired of sexual harassement? Need a change in yer social life?" They are filled with decay, malformation and all those other items that will serve to slow a wearer's social life. They've also come out with a line of pacifiers.
The idea, Rivers says, "... is brilliant. They've sold $74 million. How smart was that?"
An inveterate shopper, Rivers was pleased to hear about the shops at The Palazzo, adjacent to The Venetian -- especially about Bauman Rare Books. "When you write this," she joked,"say I had to leave to visit Bauman. It sounds great."
Her engagement at The Venetian marks her return to Las Vegas for the first time in several years and she is eagerly anticipating the gig. Her audience, she's quick to point out, covers just about all demographics.
"It's been so long that I'm coming into Las Vegas as a novice. I get a young crowd -- people that never heard the name 'Carson.' And that's great. And I get people from Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Oregon -- from everywhere. You get a cross-sections. Because of this, I always knew who would win an election before election day. I love it.
"I also love it that I'm so politically incorrect."
Rivers is as open about her personal life as she is about her opinions. Asked about her daughter, she quickly responds, "My daughter's amazing and surprisingly a great mother."
How was she as a mother? "I think I was a terrific mother. I was there, I was a class mother, I did it all. I'd block out those dates and from 6:30 on no phone calls. I was there for Melissa and I don't regret a second of it."
Melissa's father, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide and Rivers speaks often and openly of her feelings about that. "I work so hard with suicide survivors. I turn everything into humor. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I'm still angry with him. Look what he missed."
Joan Rivers today is very content. "I'm 76 years old. I'm at a good moment and I know it's a good moment. That's the thing about age -- when it's good you know it."
We discussed aging for a few minutes and I quoted something (from an unlikely source) that I find helpful when I think of the negative aspects of growing older. That is, "If you stop the clock, you have no future." Rivers paused and contemplated that for a moment. "Very wise. Who said it?" Told it was the response to an interviewer who asked singer Tom Jones how he feels about aging, she just said, "Hmm. He's right."
Meanwhile, Joan Rivers may be 76, but she clearly has not intention of slowing down. She continues to live by a philosophy that has served her well: "Do what you want. It's so important. I'm sitting here are 76. I have a wonderful life."
In closing, Rivers recalls something her grandmother said and adopts it as her own: "I pray for my grandchildren they should always want. Go forward in life."
As she does.
Joan Rivers will be at The Venetian Thursday through Saturday, August 27-29. Tickets are $38.25 to $138.25. You can purchase them online at The Venetian.