Joan Rivers Taught Us to Be Bitchy to Celebrities but Nice to People

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
Sept. 4 2014 3:22 PM

Joan Rivers, National Treasure

The viper-tongued vixed taught us to be bitchy to celebrities but nice to people.

Joan Rivers on March 7, 2013, in Los Angeles
Joan Rivers on March 7, 2013, in Los Angeles

Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

In June of last year, as Joan Rivers was about to turn 80, Simon Doonan penned a loving appreciation of her and her important role in our culture. The article is reprinted below.

This Saturday, Joan Rivers, the woman who has rejuvenated her visage so successfully that nobody on Earth has had any notion of her real age for decades, will celebrate her 80th birthday. And I, for one, am outraged. The fact that this occasion has not been declared a national holiday is a shonda of epic proportions. (Expect more Yiddish in the coming paragraphs.) Joan is, quite simply, a national treasure.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

We all owe Joan a massive debt of gratitude. Without Joan, life in our celebrity-obsessed society would not be worth living. Joan is our guiding light. She has shown us all that, even though we are force-fed endless drivel about self-important A-listers from morning till night, there is no reason why we have to take that crap lying down. She gives us carte blanche to rip those freebie-crazed red-carpet deities to shreds at every opportunity. Without Joan and her complete lack of respect, we would all be stuck in a perpetual episode of Inside the Actors Studio.

I became aware of Joan’s passion for no-holds-barred celebrity debunkery back in the ’80s. Around this time June Allyson had somewhat recklessly elected to become a high-profile spokeslady for a well-known brand of adult diapers. It is no exaggeration to say that every time one turned on one’s telly, one was subjected to an endless stream of saccharine incontinence-themed testimonials from the gravelly voiced Ms. Allyson. Joan to the rescue. In her nightly monologue, La Rivers would invariably lob a grenade or two at old June: “Sheesh! It’s so humid in New York today, June Allyson is wearing two pairs of Depends. … Oh, please … grow up!!”

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June’s only consolation must surely have been that, regularly mocked though she was, at least she wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor. At that point in her career Miss Taylor, and her fluctuating weight, were getting the lion’s share of Joan’s loving attention: “Liz Taylor! Can we talk? Now she has to put Vaseline on her hips to squeeze through the Golden Arches. Grow up!”

Not all of Joan’s celeb mockery was so brash. Joan has always been capable of exquisitely subtle barbs. I vividly remember Grace Jones riding onto Joan’s stage, posing, growling, roaring, snarling, and sucking in her cheeks (both sets) while straddling a Harley and wearing a bizarre, hired-assassin leather new wave outfit. “Just a simple girl with a dream,” deadpanned Joan.

Joan and I got acquainted in the mid-1980s when I was working at Barneys in downtown Manhattan. At this point Ms. Rivers was a major TV star and a major customer. We were wardrobing her for her nightly chat show—she favored Chanel, Valentino, Geoffrey Beene, and Karl Lagerfeld—but, unlike the freebie-crazed celebs of today, she always ended up buying most of the high-priced designer schmattas. Cheap she is not.

Joan was at the store constantly for fittings. It was during this time that I got to study this bitchy broad up close … only to find out that she was anything but. Joan Rivers is shockingly thoughtful, polite, and kind. Quel paradoxe! The viper-tongued vixen is actually a total softie who was idolized by the Barneys staff. She remembered names, birthdays, traumas, hysterectomies, dead pets, live pets. If anybody got pregnant or kicked the bucket, Joan was the first to offer congrats or condolences. Look up the word hamische in the Yiddish dictionary: Next to it you will find a picture of Joan Alexandra Rivers, nee Molinsky.

In 1990 I decided it was time to pay tribute to our favorite customer by creating a Joan Rivers holiday window homage. I commissioned a life-size caricature from artist Martha King. Also in this diorama was a replica of Joan’s beloved Yorkie, Spike. The other major prop was a June Allyson wreath constructed entirely of Depends adult diapers (fresh and unworn). It was quickly edited from the window when I realized it was not producing any laughs, because it resembled a depressingly lumpy life preserver.

The discarded diaper wreath left us in need of a little humorous garnish. Joan to the rescue, again! Before you could say, “Borscht Belt,” Joan had faxed through some thigh-slapping holiday one-liners, which covered a banner we draped across the back of the window, much to the delight of passersby:

“My idea of a stocking stuffer is Shelley Winters.”

Ba-dum-bum.

“I really got into the Christmas spirit this year. I hung a wreath on the neighborhood flasher.”

Ba-dum-bum.

“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house/ There was still nothing happening under this blouse.”

Back then one of Joan’s comedic leitmotifs was her sex life, or absence thereof. When she wasn’t bemoaning the lack of activity under her blouse, she was voicing her loud and proud commitment to plastic surgery. Joan basically invented the contemporary enthusiasm for “getting work done.” (Decades later she remains its most vocal, and visual, proponent and has appeared on three—count ’em—episodes of Nip/Tuck.) Joan is, after all, the woman who famously holiday-gifted her staff with “the plastic surgery procedure of your choice” in lieu of a ham.

Joan is an unconventional, rule-breaking, self-invented, wildly creative superfreak who has used her scrappy outlier wits to claw her way to the top, and when I say top, I mean, Versailles. Can we talk … about Joan’s apartment? For many years Joan has lived a life of old-school Brooke Astor-ish glamour on the Upper East Side. We are talking soaring baroque splendor, chintz and gilt, and an unbelievable level of upholstered squish. When it comes to living like a star, Joan kicks it old school. In the late ’90s I ran into Joan on the street and eagerly showed her a picture of yours truly in the latest copy of People. (I wanted to make mamma proud.) It was a folksy close-up of my bloke and me stir-frying our dinner in a grody old frying pan in our as-yet-unrenovated kitchen.

“Where the fuck is this dump you are living?” admonished Joan, in a kind and caring manner, “Oh, please! You need to trade up, honey.”

Joan is the wind beneath our wings. She genuinely wants everyone on Earth to be as successfully squishy as she is. She is encouraging to all those around her. Ask Joan for a blurb or a quip and you get it the same day. When Joan had her radio show in the ’90s, she regularly allowed me to come on air and shill my brains out. Watching her enter the recording studio was always a treat. She would walk through the hallway, with her Dennis Basso sable slung nonchalantly over her shoulders, dumping candy and nibbles on everyone’s desks as she passed. Once a Jewish mother …

Joan, please don’t die anytime soon. We need you more than ever. We need you to help the Twitter generation understand that a well-timed comic jab is not “hating” but rather a much-needed antidote to all that celebrity mishigas.

Fortunately for all of us, Joan appears in no danger of going anywhere or slowing down: Fashion Police is raging (E! is airing a week of episodes from June 10 through 15 in honor of Joan’s birthday); Joan and Melissa just got picked up for a fourth season; and Joan’s Internet chat show, In Bed With Joan, is—and I got this directly from the lady herself, so therefore it must be fact—“an unexpected success.”

I reached out to Joan this week to find out how she was dealing with her impending octogenarianship. Sidestepping any mentions of adult diapers, she reassured me that everything was just great. She is getting used to the fact that, whenever she climbs into a limousine, “a line of black town cars falls in behind me with their lights on.” Regarding her actual birthday cake, she already has a strategy: “I don’t plan to blow out my own birthday candles, as I'm scared the plastic in my face will catch fire.” Overall, Joan sounded very much at peace, by which I mean at peace with the fact that Melissa has elected not to overspend on the big occasion: “Instead of a cake she is going to have Peter Dinklage jump out of a muffin.”

Ba-dum-bum.

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