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Upon the news of Rivers passing on Thursday, THR asked Paglia to elaborate about a comedienne she calls one of her “primary role models” and address criticism that had been leveled the groundbreaking celebrity.
THR: What does Joan Rivers mean to you?
Joan had a huge influence on me for over four decades. She was one of my primary role models as a public figure. Not since Dorothy Parker had an American woman been so shockingly fearless in her aggressive speech and gleeful violation of taboos. Joan slew the last ghost of sentimentality and propriety that had hung over middle-class white women since the Victorian period. From the first moment I heard about her medical crisis, I like many other fans obsessively monitored the news. The last time I was so profoundly shaken was at the death of Diana in 1997. And before that it would go back to the deaths of Natalie Wood, John Lennon, and John F. Kennedy. But those were all sudden events. What was unique about this was that our ordeal of hope and uncertainty about Joan stretched to a full week. It felt strange and hallucinatory — as if time had stopped.
Did you ever cross paths with Joan, and what was it like?
I was a guest on her TV show in the early 1990s and on her radio show in the late 1990s. And once I ran into her on the street in New York — she was all dolled up and looking fabulous in a long, luxurious mink coat. My main impression of her was always her rigorous professionalism. She held herself to the highest standard. There was never anything slack or careless about her. On the contrary, she focused the laser beam of her energy and attention on every detail — to give the audience maximum value. On her TV show, I noticed her mic was strapped to her chair leg! She said it was for sound quality, because her voice had such a strident edge. I loved that, and it emboldened me to confront sound technicians at my own public events, where I always request special care and distancing for my “Joan Rivers voice.” On her radio show, she was startlingly wearing no makeup whatever. It was such a raw exposure –about which she seemed to have zero vanity. I thought that was amazing and admirable. And I watched with fascination (and some trepidation) as she sparred with her producer. Man, was she tough! But everything was for quality and not for ego.
What can you say about the sociological impact of Joan Rivers lifting the taboo on plastic surgery?
The scorching candor with which Joan joked about her own multiple bouts of plastic surgery was typical of her lust for the truth. She definitely yanked cosmetic surgery out of the hush-hush closet. While I feel that women writers and intellectuals should try to hold the line against culturally compulsory surgery (my style of choice is Keith Richards haggard), I totally respect Joan’s ever-in-process self-sculpting of her stage persona. I think it was symptomatic of her restless imagination, which was still in ferment in her 80s. She was quite daring and even florid in her clothing choices too. Sometimes she looked like a serene imperial Russian duchess and sometimes like a dodgy drag queen on a tear. It was partly that elusive drag element in her that endeared her to gay men.
What would you say about the claim that Joan reserved her meanest comments for other women?
I reject this charge completely. Joan went after the overpraised, the pompous, and the fake. Most male celebrities these days are stereotypical drones –what’s to attack in them? When they misbehave, they’re generic oafs. Big deal! It’s the women stars who construct the elaborate masks and shroud their stiletto souls in poufy pink clouds of artificial sweetener. However, I did cringe when Joan went for the jugular with my childhood idol, Elizabeth Taylor, who was in a rut and at her heaviest. But I must say that Joan’s delirious fantasies about Elizabeth at McDonald’s (getting stuck in the golden arches or making the billions sign change) remain extremely funny. Anyone who sees a nasty streak of misogyny in Joan obviously never watched her interact with women callers on the QVC shopping channel, as I religiously did. Joan is beloved by an enormous populist audience of homemakers and working women. She was absolutely wonderful in that intimate mode of improvisational dialogue — yet another entertainment medium that she mastered. It was almost hypnotic –Joan’s quiet chat and genial banter as the QVC camera zoomed in on her perfectly manicured hands showing off the fine details of her artistic jewelry line. Yes, Joan leveled the high and mighty, but she knew mainstream women and catered to their dreams and needs. For every hundred people whom Joan Rivers offended and repelled, there are a thousand others who will always adore and respect her.
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