Melissa Rivers On Her Mother's Feminist Legacy

Melissa Rivers On Her Mother's Feminist Legacy

Melissa Rivers chats with V on her mother’s legacy, gratitude in Hollywood and her take on the Golden Globes.

Melissa Rivers chats with V on her mother’s legacy, gratitude in Hollywood and her take on the Golden Globes.

Text: Nadja Sayej

When Joan Rivers started out as a comedian in 1960, she was lambasted for talking about birth control on national TV—even saying the word ‘pregnant’ was forbidden. Up until that point, female comedians were accustomed to being cute, not challenging. Joan Rivers changed the game with her loudmouth style of witticisms, which will never be forgotten, especially with “Joan Rivers Confidential,” a new picture book, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the trailblazing New York comedian through her 50 years of show business from the 1950s onward. Compiled by her daughter Melissa Rivers and a family friend Scott Currie, Rivers was a comedian who kept everything. There are newspaper clippings, old photos, diary snippets, typewritten jokes on index cards, posters and endless pages of rare ephemera. In a phone interview from her home in California, Melissa Rivers chats with V on her mother’s legacy, gratitude in Hollywood and her take on the Golden Globes.

How did the book release go?

I’m thrilled but it was so personal. It’s a photo essay, which is challenging. I can tell a story through words but telling a history through photos, but when I saw the actual first copy of the book, I cried. My mom would have been thrilled, but she would have been annoyed I was doing the project. When I was throwing my mom’s 80th surprise birthday—she hated surprises—it was going to be a big party and all her friends were coming but my aunt died three days before and we had to cancel it. When I told her what we were planning, she was furious. When I read her the RSVP list, she got so excited: ‘all those people were going to come for me?’ she was crying at the amazement of what we pulled off.

She broke so much ground for female comedians, is she unrecognized?

My mom was so work-oriented, she had blinders on. She just wanted to do what she wanted to do and wouldn’t let anyone stop her. In those moments, I don’t think of themselves as a trailblazer. My mother was never obsessed her legacy or her past. Yet, she did so much. She acknowledged it when she was older. Her frustration was she felt shunned by the whole community by many years. She spoke openly about that.

You’ve said before you can’t stop working, why is that?

My mother was a work horse beyond all recognition. That’s how I was raised, we are all so fortunate making a living in the profession we want to be in. That’s such a gift. She was driven by insecurity, fear, ambition, she was the daughter of immigrants and was raised by that immigrant work mentality.

What drives you?

Ambition, fear, all the same things, I have much more of a “chip on my shoulder” and I mean that quotes, to prove myself. Nothing in my family has ever been taken for granted. My mom and I were once in New York doing a press event and the TV network got a car for us. She turned to me and said “I’m 80 years old and someone still got a car to come and get me. Isn’t that fantastic?” That’s an amazing attitude.

That’s funny because some biting bitterness to her work; so beyond her mask she was grateful?

Always, beyond. I was raised with gratitude that goes into guilt. every day I pull up to the gates in my house, every day I say to myself, ‘be grateful for this now because when it’s all gone, you can say you lived in a house with petty gates.’

So you don’t think it’s going to last forever?

It’s more about never losing sight of having gratitude for how damn lucky we all are. I think a lot of people take that for granted. It’s hard to get there, stay there, and be grateful for every job. We all know there is someone thinner fatter younger prettier, ricer poorer coming up right behind you, you can never lose sight of that. That gratitude can get lost in this business.

How much of a feminist was your mom?

She never said she was a feminist; she wanted to do everything she wanted to do and wanted a man to open a car door for her. She thought men should treat women great. She still wanted to be treated like a lady.

Why didn’t you ever do standup?

I’m not a masochist. Have you ever spent any time with standups? In general, comedians and comedic writers are not the happiest people in the world. If there is something that compels someone to stand onstage with a microphone and says ‘laugh at me … so I feel better.’ What? People tell me all the time I should do standup, I chose not to go down that path.

What will you be working on next?

I’m working on a book proposal and after 22 years of working on Fashion Police, which we wrapped up in November, I’ll be working on a few shows in the future. My family are like cockroaches, you can’t get rid of us.

What did you think of the all-black statement at the Golden Globes?

I thought all the women looked beautiful, the gowns were pretty. Was it your typical awards season? Absolutely not, we’re at the beginning of a movement. There was so much talk about wearing black but people can show their support in any way they want, as long as they’re supporting it. Everyone is speaking with a collective voice and that’s what is making the change. This is the first time everyone is working together to say enough. It was like the first time everyone walked down the red carpet wearing an Aids ribbon, which had a startling effect and started a conversation. It made a statement; we are all together in this.

What informs your own style?

It’s hard to think what to say without my stylist yelling at me. I’m practical. I keep things pretty simple, I’m a mom. Between work, being a parent and attempting to have a social life, I have no time for fussy. I want to change shoes and go from an interview to my son’s game in the same day. It’s very easy to embarrass a teenager as a mom and I’ve taken it on as a sport. I have Olympic potential in this.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I’m a feminist; there was nothing I thought I couldn’t do, except move big boxes. I was never raised to think there isn’t anything I couldn’t do. The equal pay thing irks me.

What advice do you have for young women entering the entertainment business?

Never give up, just because something isn’t exactly the way you want it, don’t discard it. You never know where something may lead. Never say flat out ‘no’ to things, think about it because something might move your career forward in a different way. Ask yourself: Will this give me more credibility? Experience? Is it something I can fall back on?

Your mom said she never thought any work was below her, do you feel the same way?

Absolutely, the best people I know have done every job on set. I have done internships, made coffee and if you gotta do it, do it. It makes you a better writer, producer, character. Know when to shut up and realize when you’re learning.

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