Melissa Rivers Pens Touching Tribute to Mother Joan: Respect Eluded Her Until Death

THR Melissa Rivers WIE Main - H 2014
Austin Hargrave

THR Melissa Rivers WIE Main - H 2014

Three months after Joan's death, Melissa opens up to THR about what Joan taught her about career ("We all have an expiration date"), how her mom's legacy will be "part of my life — but not all of my life," and her prophetic words: "I'll never get the respect I deserve until I'm dead"

This story first appeared in the 2014 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

People always ask me: "What was it like growing up with your mother? Was she funny at home?" Yeah, it was hilarious when I was getting grounded and having those car keys taken away. Whoo! That was a knee-slapper!

There was never any particular moment when it dawned on me, "Gee, my mom is famous." A life on the red carpet and in the eye of the fashion world was the norm. But when we were at E! together in 1996, that's when I started to realize her place in history and pop culture. I hate saying pop culture because she transcends pop culture. She did so much as a performer, and she did so much for women and other comics.

There were times when we did look at each other and say, "These are the good times." And the times were really good recently. We had a hit show with Fashion Police and a new Maker Studios deal for a huge digital initiative. Mind you, my mother could not Google. She didn't tweet, she twittered. But she was still reinventing herself.

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You know what my mother said? She said, "I'll never get the respect that I deserve until I'm dead." It feels shitty because she was right. It's sad. It is important for me to carry on my mother's legacy, in my own unique way. I would be letting her down if carrying the torch did not become part of my life — but it will not be all of my life.

We've always been a family that laughed through the tears — even in the darkest moments, from my father's death to my divorce. I was in the ICU making jokes because that's my coping mechanism. And thank God that I have my father's backbone and my mother's tenacity because I have to figure this out. I not only lost my mother, but my best friend and my parenting partner. Who's going to criticize my parenting? Who's going to tell me that what I'm doing is wrong? And who is going to tell me in the next breath, "You're doing a great job"? But it's also a great creative loss — I was part of a comedy team. When you heard "Joan and Melissa," you knew what you were getting.

Our family lived by a couple of sayings, including a bastardized version of a famous Winston Churchill quote that goes something like, "When you find yourself in hell, keep walking." Another one is, "This too shall pass." It works for the good times and the bad. I'm trying to explain that to my son because he's really hurting right now.

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The most amazing thing to me personally is how many incredible women have come out of the woodwork to offer support. It's given me a little faith. As women, we're not always that nice to one another. I fall into that trap sometimes too because we all have to be so tough and so competitive all the time. And other times, we lose the passion for what we do because it is such a fight every day and there is so much expected of us.

However, if you even get yourself in the mind-set of, "I'm a woman in the business," you're in trouble. You're a person in the business. Do women have different challenges? Of course we do. We're expected to be smart and pretty and funny and resilient and Mother Earth and able to take care of everything and get the kids where they need to be and run a major company and always have a really good blow dry. Can you imagine if Bonnie Hammer showed up to work without perfect hair? "Quick, call the shareholders!" The best thing we can do is laugh about it.

Every day I go to bed and say, "I am the luckiest person in the world to be getting paid to work in the business of my choice." Seriously, with being raised in show business, I should have failed out of at least two schools, had a couple mug shots filed and logged a number of trips to rehab. That said, I don't care who you are, we all have an expiration date, and if you want to stay in the business, you have to find another outlet. Nobody wants to hire you anymore? Great! Create something for yourself or find a cause you are passionate about. That's what I've always been taught to do.

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Another great piece of advice I got from my mother: "Listen." You don't know where the next great idea is coming from. Know who the smartest person in the room is and watch them, listen to them. My mom was always listening, always observing. So much of her humor came from observing what is going on around us.

As for what's going on around me now, it's going to take a moment for me to find my voice again. Am I my parents' daughter? Yes. Will I figure it out? Yes. Will I find my voice? I hope so. For me, it's also about getting back to work without everyone looking at me funny. Or screw it — I'll take the funny looks, as my mother would remind me, "As long as they're laughing."