Famous for being US TV’s most probing host, Chelsea Handler is equally open herself – whether it’s analysing her dysfunctional childhood, revealing how the election of ‘the worst kind of American’ has motivated her and explaining why she’ll never marry (plus why sex is like pizza).
As a celebrity, if you were going to pick a friend to publicly go into battle for you, you couldn’t do much better than Chelsea Handler. It’s something that Jennifer Aniston has discovered over the years, and never more so than during her ex-husband Brad Pitt’s recent acrimonious split from wife Angelina Jolie.With Jennifer being dragged into the gossip fray, despite having divorced Brad 12 years ago, her pal Chelsea has been quick to leap to her defence. ‘I don’t think Jen cares about what’s going on and it’s crazy that people think she does,’ says Chelsea. ‘As if she’s sitting around caring about [Angelina Jolie]. I know I don’t.’
Conversely, the American comedienne, chat-show host, producer and bestselling author isn’t someone you want to get on the wrong side of. Last year, on her eponymous Netflix talk show, Chelsea rather indelicately branded Angelina ‘a f***ing lunatic’ and wondered aloud why Brad, accused of substance abuse by Angelina, might actually ‘need to self-medicate’.
As Chelsea explains now, with a smile on her face: ‘I just say what most people are thinking.’
It’s a quality that has served the 42-year-old pretty well. Though she may not be a household name in Britain yet, in Hollywood she is known as its most outspoken female talk-show host. She is only the second woman to have had a US late-night chat show (the first being Joan Rivers), with Chelsea Lately airing on the E! network for over seven years.While most talk-show hosts are unequivocally sycophantic towards their guests, Chelsea veered rather magnificently in the opposite direction. She once enquired of the generously proportioned singer Nicki Minaj: ‘What’s up with your a**?’ and asked a stunned Kim Kardashian: ‘So, who are you sleeping with right now?’
She has penned five New York Times bestselling books including the autobiographical Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea (she is highly vocal about her love of alcohol) and, in 2012, Time magazine rated her as one of the world’s 100 most influential people for daring to undercut celebrities while working on E!, where celebrity culture is the channel’s lifeblood (‘I know Time has to find 100 people every year, but it was still a great honour,’ she says).
In 2014, she made a highly publicised move from E! to Netflix where, last year, she aired a critically praised series of documentaries entitled Chelsea Does, tackling subjects such as marriage, race and drugs, then launched her new talk show, Chelsea, which is about to enter its second season on the streaming service.
While there’s certainly a Marmite quality to Chelsea, love her or hate her, ‘I try to be myself and it’s worked for me,’ she insists. ‘The times I’ve moved away from who I am are when I’ve tended to get into trouble.’
With a net worth approaching $35 million, Chelsea seems very far from in trouble. We meet at her show’s new studios in Hollywood where she breezes in, sporting leggings and a padded jacket that conceals a figure The New York Times has described as having ‘the pre-silicone lushness of a 1960s Playmate’ (Chelsea, incidentally, has also appeared on the cover of Playboy).
Friendly and chatty, she displays none of the scariness for which she is renowned. ‘People have been saying I am scary since I was seven years old,’ she admits. ‘Being opinionated scares people, but I don’t bring someone on my show to attack them. I ask the questions that are of interest to me and they tend to interest other people, too. Anyone worth their salt is never too scared to appear on the show.’
Indeed, her Netflix series Chelsea, which mixes discussion with documentary footage from around the world (she has filmed travelogues in Russia and Japan and is currently planning a trip to India), has attracted guests such as Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Lawrence, as well as friends Stella McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow.
‘I’m interested in people who have opinions and aren’t afraid to express them,’ she says. ‘So if someone says: “I don’t want to talk about my husband or my kids” then forget it, because that’s your life. On my [E!] show, I interviewed a lot of reality stars and I’d always drift off, thinking about what I was going to eat later because they were so uninteresting. But I like Brits – I interviewed Tom Hiddleston and he was very sweet and very square. We’re going to England soon, so hopefully we’ll do something on the set of The Crown – it would be very exciting to interview Claire Foy.’
Russell Brand, sadly, was ‘a huge pain in the a**’, she admits but, ‘I’d love to interview Hugh Laurie. He’d be great. The British have a very dry sense of humour, which I love. I always feel like I’m British anyway.’
Her show, significantly for Chelsea, also includes a healthy dose of politics: ‘I feel that having this platform, it’s important to get people involved in politics and make them aware of what’s going on in the world. So if I can go to India and show that as well as our differences there’s a sameness there – that we’re all human beings in this together – then I think that’s a good thing.’
Chelsea has been one of the most vocal celebrities to speak out against the election of Donald Trump and led a march against him at the Sundance Film Festival the day after his inauguration.
‘I’m going to be leading a lot of marches about this,’ she says. ‘As a first world country [the US] has an obligation to the rest of the world to be broader in our thinking. I want people from different countries to come over here. I don’t want a refugee camp in Lebanon or Beirut or anywhere in the world – that’s what creates terrorism.
‘Trump is pretty much the worst kind of American there is – the worst capitalist, the worst everything. It scares me but it also makes me motivated because if Hillary Clinton had won the election, maybe we’d have become complacent and said: “OK, we’ve had our glass ceiling moment now – it’s all fine.”
‘But with Trump’s election, people are more outraged than they’ve been in years. We have to make fun of him because he’s so easy to make fun of, but if you can be funny about something, it can resonate more with people than straight information.’
Has Chelsea ever met The Donald? ‘Once, briefly. He introduced himself at a restaurant in LA about ten years ago.’ Was it a memorable experience? ‘Not at all, other than to say he is much more orange in person than he is on TV.’
When Chelsea later admits with a smile that she likes conflict – ‘I like to march towards it!’ – you believe her and, while she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, there’s more to her uncompromising opinions than a need to shock. ‘Ever since I was young I’ve wanted to be heard, and I would scream and yell until people did hear me,’ she says. ‘It got me what I wanted, though as I’ve got older, I’d like to think I have become a bit more nuanced. But people need to stick up for those who don’t have a voice – I’m very passionate about that. And I also feel that so many people are too quiet and that’s how we get ourselves into trouble.’
If Chelsea is evangelical about the virtues of being informed and self-sufficient, then it’s with good reason. Growing up in a Jewish suburb of New Jersey, the youngest of six children, she says that, while her childhood was ‘a lot of fun’, her father Melvin, a used-car salesman, and mother Rita, a housewife, weren’t as responsible as they could have been.
‘My parents weren’t bad people, but they were dysfunctional,’ says Chelsea. She tells a story of how she once asked her mother for a packed lunch for school, only to discover that her mum had given her two raw eggs. She says, ‘They always had financial problems and would say: “Don’t answer the phone – it could be a bill collector.” My parents didn’t have a lot of money in a town that was upper middle class, so while everyone else was driving around in nice cars, our driveway was filled with tyres and spares.’
Chelsea was often bullied at school, ‘and our family had the reputation of, “Well, you can’t go to Chelsea’s house because it’s mayhem.” I was, like: “This is not how I want to live. I want a house with cars in the driveway and people taking care of everything”, so, when I was young, I looked at my parents and said to myself: “I need to get out of this situation.”’
Chelsea was ten when she started a T-shirt company and 12 when she came up with the idea for a babysitting service, ‘looking after kids who were older than me,’ she says. ‘My brothers and sisters helped raise me, but by the time I was ten, they were all in college, so I realised early on that I had to start making plans and take care of myself.’
When Chelsea was ten, her eldest brother Chet died in a hiking accident aged just 22, sending an already chaotic household into despair. ‘We had all been very close but it was devastating to watch our parents lose their son because they never recovered. My mum turned to her religion [she was a Mormon who had converted to Judaism], while my father tried to sue everyone who was with my brother on the hike. That was hard to watch – he just couldn’t let it go. He wanted someone to be culpable.
‘When you are young you don’t really understand it, and then all of a sudden, everyone was in their own world and no one was paying attention to me because they just weren’t capable of it. My father was so bereft that he wasn’t there emotionally and we fought constantly. I acted up all the time.’
Part of Chelsea’s ‘acting up’ resulted in her having two abortions at the age of 16. ‘It was teenage rebellion, my brother dying, disappointment, anger – all those things led to disaster. I didn’t really deal with my brother’s death after it happened, I just went: “Don’t ask me about it – I’m fine, I’m fine.” It was only when I was in my 20s and started to unravel it with a professional [therapist] that I really started dealing with it properly.’
By 19, Chelsea had moved to LA, initially to become an actress, ‘but the auditions were too humiliating. I once had to make up a five-minute dance for a Nike commercial to no music and, when I left and got in my car, I thought, “I can’t ever go through this again.”’
Two years later, she was arrested for drunk-driving, but while relating the story of her arrest to a class of other offenders, who were soon in stitches, she realised she had a gift for comedy, not to mention a new career path.
‘I was grateful it happened in a way because not drinking and driving is a good lesson to learn and I will never do that again,’ she says. ‘But it was also an example of a low point that turned into something great.’
She started doing stand-up, eventually performing at LA’s Improv comedy club before landing a role on the US hidden-camera TV show Girls Behaving Badly, which ran for three years, ending in 2005.
The following year, she began hosting The Chelsea Handler Show on E! – its sketches showcasing her now well-grooved pattern of mocking herself as much as the celebrities who appear on her radar. There then followed her late-night comedy talk show Chelsea Lately, and since then, she has barely paused for breath. One wonders, given her somewhat abrasive humour, whether she thinks men are scared of funny women?
‘Probably,’ she nods. ‘I mean, men out here are not exactly approaching me all the time. That’s why I go to England – I love British men! My first serious boyfriend [Peter] was British and we were together for two years. British men are better dressed, have a better sense of humour and can drink at lunch and go back to work, which I respect.’
Are they better in bed, too? ‘I don’t know about that,’ she admits. ‘You have to work pretty hard to be bad in bed. Sex is like pizza – it’s just always good.’
She is currently single, ‘and I kind of take pride in that a little bit’, she admits, ‘because it’s unusual not to be paired up these days’.
However, she has enjoyed a couple of paparazzi-worthy romances – first with the rapper 50 Cent, whom she dated in 2010 after the pair flirted shamelessly on her show (‘He was lovely, a really sweet guy’) and then with André Balazs, the hotelier behind London’s fashionable Chiltern Firehouse (‘That’s one I’m embarrassed about.’ Why? ‘Because he’s embarrassing. Let’s just leave it at that.’)
She also dated Ted Harbert, her boss at E!, who was in the slightly uncomfortable position of overseeing a celeb-friendly channel while dating a woman who tended to knock them.
‘But he never told me to take it down a notch,’ says Chelsea. ‘He just got me and understood the show and we stayed friends because he was kind of a seminal figure in my life.’
Although both insisted that they didn’t start dating until after Chelsea got the show, it didn’t stop Joan Rivers rather uncharitably suggesting that Chelsea ‘made it on her back’.
‘Well, a lot of people say that about me,’ says Chelsea, ‘and it only matters if you believe it’s true. Take a look at my pillow.’ Nestling on her sofa, it reads: ‘Sleep Your Way To The Top.’
‘My response to that is if I was going to sleep with somebody to get a job, it would have been on a different network than E!.’
Is she a woman’s woman? ‘Yes. And I want women to succeed [she has frequently promoted female comics on her shows, including American writer Whitney Cummings, whose series 2 Broke Girls airs on E4]. But I’ve known women who don’t want me to succeed and who were mean and dismissive. It was always men who responded to me and said: “She’s talented – let’s put her on this show.” All my fights have been with women and it’s f***ed up. Women need to support women more.’
One woman who was very much in Chelsea’s corner was her mother Rita, who died of breast cancer in 2006, having been diagnosed 16 years previously. ‘In many ways, watching my mother pass away was easier than losing my brother,’ she says. ‘My brother was snatched out of our life whereas with my mother, we had six months of preparing for her death. We all slept in the hospital for the last week of her life.’
Nowadays, Chelsea gets tested for cancer ‘all the time. But really, I’m not so scared for myself – I can handle that stuff. It’s seeing anybody you love being sick that’s scary.’
Was her mother shocked by her comedy? ‘She was always shocked by me,’ laughs Chelsea. ‘She’d say: “I don’t know how you’re my daughter”, because she was so sweet and elegant – the opposite of me.
‘She wouldn’t even send back a salad if it had a hair in it. It was too scary for her to watch my stand-up – she could only watch it [on tape] after it had happened.’
Chelsea admits that she still feels her mother’s presence occasionally, ‘and a lot of times it’s when I’m with my dog Chunk. Mum was German and she loved brie and liverwurst and, one time when I was with Ted, we had some in our house. We left to go to dinner and when we came back, it was all over the floor because Chunk had got into it and I thought, “That dog is my mother.” He looks at me a certain way that is very mum-like sometimes. My friends think it’s disrespectful to my mum to think that she’s reincarnated as a dog, but I don’t think so.’
Chelsea herself has no plans to have children. ‘I want to be around adults,’ she says. ‘I love my friends’ kids; I just don’t want to have my own and I don’t want anyone or anything – other than work – dictating what time I have to get out of bed. Work is my child and my closest relationship. I definitely don’t buy into the idea that you’re less of a woman if you don’t have kids.
‘I actually think it’s brave not to have them and I think people should consider it more before having a child.’
Marriage is also something that has never featured on her to-do list, ever since she was a young girl and her father told her brother: ‘Chelsea isn’t the type of girl you marry – she just wants to have fun.’
‘I heard that,’ says Chelsea, ‘and I thought: “He’s right. I do just want to have fun!” so I took it as a compliment. I like to be in love, but the whole wedding dress thing, the ring and the registering for gifts – it’s like a silly industry to me.’
Frankly, there’s an awful lot to admire about Chelsea Handler, in particular the way she took control of her life at an age when most children probably shouldn’t have to. She tells an interesting story about how, when she was 15, she was looking through her parents’ financial records and discovered that her mother wasn’t listed on the deeds to the house.
My mum didn’t even know what it meant, so I told her that if anything ever happened to Dad, she wouldn’t have any right to his property, but she just said: “Well, he’s my husband – I trust him.” And then when I asked my father about it, he said: “Oh, you ask too many questions. You’re not elegant at all.”’
And in a way, that’s what Chelsea has carried on doing all her life, asking inelegant questions – only now it has become her career.
‘None of this was planned,’ she says. ‘I was just fiercely adamant about being my own person, and never having to rely on anyone financially. But it’s worked out pretty well for me and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.’
After being ‘a 25-year-old when I was 15’, finally, it seems, Chelsea Handler is getting to be a kid.
The new season of Chelsea will be on Netflix from 14 April