"It's wonderful," says Joan Rivers in her apartment, a genuine faux vision of 18th-century France on the Upper East Side - two-story columns tooled with gold leaf, blue ceiling streaked with white clouds, her bedroom on the balcony overlooking massive tabletop urns bursting with orchids.
"It's absolutely fabulous."
She wears a cranberry jacket she picked up on Madison Avenue, over a fitted black knee-length dress. Draped around her neck is an onyx necklace with black shark-tooth-like beads that could have been a prop from a National Geographic special. On her ears are gold hoops through which you could dunk a basketball.
"Anyone who says, 'I gave up my privacy' or 'I can't go out in public anymore,' should get out of the business."
They tried to kick Rivers out of the business in 1987 when she quit the fledgling Fox network, a year after she burned her bridges with mentor Johnny Carson. She was banned from late-night TV, and weeks later her husband killed himself. It's a story everyone knows because, well, we just know things like this about celebrities like Joan Rivers.
She left L.A., bought this spread, rose from the depths of despair selling skin-care products and later her own jewelry line on QVC, and got to thinking about doing a show about awards shows.
"Who did you remember?" Rivers asks. "The winners? Or Salma Hayek or that woman in the American Express [card] dress or Courtney Love?"
Celebrity-on-celebrity dish! What a concept!
Rivers took it to E!, the cable channel, which put her and her daughter, Melissa, outside the Oscars and Emmys with a camera and a microphone to ask the arrivals, live, about their outfits. For another show, they gushingly, snarkily recap the best and worst of the lot.
Which means it does not matter one whit that Joan Rivers is not some white-hot flavor-of-the-moment. After all, she's out there with the A list. There she is on TV . . . giggling with Debra Messing! Talking sex with Kim Cattrall! Giving Susan Hawk from Survivor yet another 15 minutes! Her public loves it. So do the stars. Well, most of the stars.
"The only ones who get upset are those so busy being artistes," Rivers says. "It's all part of the game. It's all publicity. You're thrilled to get it."
Perfect time to whip out the week's issue of Star, the supermarket tabloid. The teaser on the cover reads "JOAN RIVERS PLASTIC SURGERY TRAGEDY."
Right there on Page 9 is a circa-1985 "before" photo of her, smiling, beside a recent "after" picture in which her cheeks are sunken and her mouth is twisted, as if she had caught Geena Davis wearing white after Labor Day.
"Here we go. Heh-heh-heh," she giggles. She doesn't have her reading glasses. What does it say?
"Even though Joan Rivers' repeated plastic surgeries have turned her face into a distorted mask, the cutting-edge comedienne says she's never going to stop having face lifts. 'It's tragic what Joan's done to her face,' says a pal."
"I got a full page!"
The article continues: "Famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon Dr. Jerome Craft agrees. `She's had too many unnecessary surgeries and actually made herself less attractive,' he tells Star. `Now she needs corrective surgery to help bring her facial features back into balance.' . . . Her cheek implants are too big for her face, as are her lips, which are uneven and protrude in an unpleasant manner.' "
"I've never had cheek implants," Rivers says.
"Craft, who isn't treating Rivers . . . says patients obsessed with their fading looks can go too far with plastic surgery..."
She picks up the phone and beeps for Jocelyn, her assistant.
"Get me Michael Jones." He produces her nightly call-in radio show on WOR-AM. "Page him. It's important."
A moment later, Jocelyn tells her to pick up.
"Michael? Did you see the Star? This week's. Uh-huh."
She fills him in. Who's this Craft guy in Florida? "We're going to get that [famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon] on the air." (Only she doesn't say "famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon.")
Rivers' plastic surgeries and her mantra of "If you don't like it, cut it" are no secret. They're a punchline. But a "tragedy"? Truth to tell, she looks a lot better here in her library than she does on TV, though her eyes appear to be permanently propped open, as if unseen thumbs were pulling up on her eyebrows.
The Star story fascinates Rivers. It's an 800-pound gorilla sitting on the leopard rug.
Read on, she insists.
"Friends suspect that the funny lady may be obsessed with surgery because her love life is in such sad shape. Her hot romance with longtime millionaire boyfriend Orin Lehman cooled last January."
"C'mere." She bolts for the library steps, turns the corner, and stands at the entryway to the dining room, arm extended dramatically.
Ta da! There sits Lehman in the peach dining room, eating a stack of French toast off of Bernardaud china and reading the paper. He smiles up at her.
It's time to go to Vera Wang for a fitting for the gown she will wear to the Emmys.
As she packs a tote bag, she shows the article to Jocelyn, exclaiming: "Isn't it wonderful? It's all about fame. It's fabulous! " She makes lovey-dovey talk to the dogs, Veronica, Spike and Lulu, rummages in her bag for cinnamon Altoids, and absently pulls out a lottery ticket. "My country house," she says.
Rivers knows that life is a gamble. The $200 million jewelry company, the skin-care line, the daily radio show, the regular TV gigs - they can vanish.
And the lines and wrinkles will mount. "It's a youth-oriented business. . . . Age sucks. When I make an appearance, I say, `Somebody tell me one good thing about age. ' I tell them, `The only good thing is you lose your memory so you forget how awful you look.' "
Designer Vera Wang's studios occupy a suite high above the fashion district on 39th Street near Seventh Avenue. Rivers greets the guard and rides up. Everybody knows her. Even if they don't know her, they know her.
The elevator door opens to reveal a tableau - four of Wang's associates, frozen in anticipation. They leap into action - proffering air kisses, compliments, a glass of Diet Coke (no ice) - as Rivers toddles along the plush chocolate-brown carpet to the dressing room. She emerges in a breathtaking crumb-catcher dress - so dubbed because iridescent taffeta horizontal pleats crisscross the bodice.
She stands before a tall mirror, pivoting from side to side, sucking in her tummy, sticking out her chest, pinching the teensiest bit of - oy! - loose skin on her upper arms.
She's 5-foot-2, 105 pounds, a size 2, and come on already, she's 67 years old.
Wang's minions sigh. They stick pins here and there in the black jersey skirt, nipping, tucking ("Oh, this is FABULOUS on you!"), telling a story about a sitcom star who's been a major bitch, and Joan's devouring every word.
Then she whips out the Star. Silence. They glance at one another. How to react? Horrified? Repulsed?
But when the hint of a smile spreads across Rivers' lips, everyone laughs uproariously.
In the middle of rush hour, Rivers walks the few blocks to Times Square and WOR's building. She bursts into the lobby shop and hits the candy rack for M&M's, Goldenberg's Peanut Chews and Twizzlers, her evening ritual. She pushes the elevator button.
At 5:45 she hits the newsroom, where she pours M&M's into the hands of the news anchors, engineers and producers she greets by name. She heads into her studio, a sad, black room decorated with Dr. Joy Browne posters, and sets out candy bars for her two writers. She settles into her chair, unwraps the Twizzlers, takes one, pulls out a mirror and her makeup, and carefully proceeds to redo her lips and cheeks.
This is radio! you want to shout.
As if to reply, she pulls on her reading glasses to leaf through news-clipping conversation-starters, but we know what will be up first. Jones, the producer, heads into the booth to screen calls.
The minute hand on the big clock pushes past 6, band music plays, the recorded studio audience comes to life, and with a raspy Brooklyn Hellloooooo, Rivers wrenches all 50,000 watts out of WOR's transmitter.
She picks up the Star and stabs it with a flame-red fingernail. Have you seen this? she asks the audience. She reads the headline: "How Joan Rivers ruined her looks."
"Here!" She reads quickly through the article's intro and gets to the good part. The doctor. "He defamed me," she screeches happily.
" `Famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon . . . ' Too many surgeries! How the hell does he know?
"We'll call this famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon, Dr. Jerome Craft. Do you know this man? Call me. 1-800-321-0710. Joan Rivers."
She goes to commercial. It's after 6 on a Friday in late summer. You'd hardly expect a plastic surgeon, much less a famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon, to be in the office.
Jones tells Rivers on the intercom: "I got the service."
Well, wouldn't you know it. A PR coup on syndicated radio and he's out.
Back from commercial. Jones redials and patches the call in to Rivers.
"Hello, doctor's office," a woman's voice chirrups.
"Is this the office of famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon Dr. Jerome Craft?"
"May I help you?"
"This is Joan Rivers in New York. You're on the air. Who's this?"
"Bianca, is the doctor in?"
"No, this is the service."
"Is he a famed plastic surgeon or just a surgeon?"
"I don't know."
"Does he get a lot of calls?'
"Are people happy?"
"I don't know. I guess so."
"Well, you tell him Joan Rivers called and tell him I'll see him in court."
Bianca thanks her.
Rivers makes a call to a random number in West Palm Beach. "Hello, this is Joan Rivers in New York. You're on the air."
"The Joan Rivers?"
"Yes. Who is this?"
"Hello, Al. Do you know a famed Palm Beach plastic surgeon named Dr. Jerome Craft?"
"I don't know a Dr. Jerome Craft. I've heard of Kraft cheese."
Rivers thanks him.
She veers from topic to topic: Is the TV series The Corner offensive to African Americans because it glorifies the gangsta life? Zzzz. Only a line or two lights up. HBO's Sex and the City and the character Big - can a man be too well-endowed? The phones flash.
A woman calls in from her car, upset that her husband won't let her get HBO, so she goes out to clubs. The other night, she saw a male dancer in a cage, wearing only a long sock.
Jones gets the club manager on the phone. Rivers wants to talk to the dancer, but the manager says he has the night off.
"Just how big is he? " Rivers asks. "I'm a Barnard girl. This is science."
The manager suggests she visit the club.
Rivers is out of time. She takes the elevator down to Broadway, where Hamed the chauffeur is waiting.
Epilogue: On Emmy night last month, Rivers wore the Vera Wang gown on the red carpet while she dished before an E! audience of one million households. Moments later on the Emmy show, host Garry Shandling observed: "No one ever comments about what Joan Rivers is wearing. She looks like a hooker with a microphone!"
Twenty-one point eight million viewers!