Joan Rivers: Making fun of fashion

Sharp-tongued comedian and TV personality Joan Rivers died Thursday at age 81 in New York.

Joan Rivers, star of E!'s “Fashion Police,” made a living making fun of just about everyone for just about any reason.

Rivers died Thursday after complications from throat surgery last week.

“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon,” her daughter Melissa said in a statement.

But how did this brash comedian become one of the best known fashion critics of our time?


In Rivers’ case, it took years of hard work and a willingness to do almost anything to break into -- and then stay working in -- show business.

In the 1960s, she did stand-up in comedy clubs and as a guest on shows like “The Tonight Show.” She wrote gags for “Candid Camera” and even devised sketches for Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse who appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“I was smart enough to go through any door that opened,” she told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in June 2012. “I wrote [the] Topo Gigio [sketches] for Ed Sullivan. A friend of mine said: ‘They want me to write this stupid thing for Ed Sullivan. It’s beneath me.’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ And my first real writing thing was Topo Gigio – that little stupid [puppet] mouse on Ed Sullivan.”

And writing the mouse sketches led to her first gig as a guest on Sullivan’s show, where she ended up appearing 21 times, becoming one of the show’s more enduring acts. She went on to become the first female host of a late night talk show, and later turned her interest in fashion into “Live from the Red Carpet,” which ran from 1996 to 2004 on the E Network.


Her initial reaction to doing “Fashion Police” was another example of Rivers taking on risky assignments.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Fashion Police’ because I thought, ‘This is stupid, this is beneath me, who wants to talk about fashion?’” she recalled in the “Fresh Air” interview, while noting the success of the gambit. “It has taken off. We are the No. 1 show in England on E! Who knew? I try everything.”

Much of her comedy centered around deprecating her own looks, although she famously did everything she could to look youthful and glamorous.

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery that when I die they’ll donate my body to Tupperware,” she cracked.

She was just as hard on the celebrities whose looks she critiqued, writing that she’d “charge HBO with crimes against humanity” if she saw Lena Dunham of “Girls” naked again and calling First Lady Michelle Obama a “tranny.”

“Her observations are so merciless and her timing so precise that even if you like that person, you laugh. She is a sadist of comedy, unafraid to be cruel — even too cruel,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in a 2010 review of “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a documentary about a year in the comedian’s life.

Sometimes the comedy didn’t go down so well.

“When she became a regular on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ through the early 1980s, Rivers’ candor had a unique kind of shock value. And later on the red carpet with her daughter, Melissa, celebrities came to expect sharp jabs about their dresses. But in 2014, her sense of humor is sometimes at odds with the Young Hollywood set,” my colleague Amy Kaufman wrote in July. “Jennifer Lawrence has publicly lamented how ‘Fashion Police’ teaches the young ‘that it’s OK to point at people and call them ugly and call them fat.’”


“Rivers exists to bedevil celebrities,” Daniel D’Addario wrote in a critique for Salon last year. “To her dubious credit, she more or less invented modern, fashion-obsessed red carpet coverage at awards shows. Her shtick is praising the stars on occasion for good red-carpet ensembles but tearing them down when they set a foot wrong, a critique that has nothing to do with anything but Rivers’ aesthetic judgment. Hey, sometimes stars really do look silly in their frocks. But they’re also people promoting their work. Rivers’ critique is perpetually skin-deep.”

For Rivers, who was also called TV’s most honest fashion critic, her  comments were all about being candid -- and getting a laugh.

She stormed out of an interview with CNN’s Fredericka Whitfield in July after Whitfield described Rivers’ “Fashion Police” commentary as “very mean in some ways.”

“It’s not mean, it’s not mean, it’s not mean. I tell the truth,” Rivers said before she walked out. “I’m sure I say the same things that all the viewers say to their friends sitting next to them on the couch.”

“I love it because I don’t have to stand on the red carpet and pretend I like something — it goes against everything I believe in — and smile and say, ‘Don’t you look nice?’ and the next day, say she looked terrible. So I’d rather not have to do the first part,” she told writer Archana Ram in Enertainment Weekly shortly before “Fashion Police” debuted as a weekly series in September 2010.

“I love fashion. I have my own jewelry/fashion line on QVC. All my summer jobs were in fashion,"  she said in the Entertianment Weekly interview. “I just love fashion, so for me it’s a joy and a pleasure to be there to critique it.”

And while some found her comments mean, many wanted to hear what Rivers had to say. “Fashion Police” reached 10 million viewers worldwide with its weekly shows and awards season specials, according to the network.

And, in the modern medium for judging success, Rivers had 2.16 million Twitter followers.