The Night Joan Rivers Terrorized Nicole Kidman

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THR senior style writer Merle Ginsberg reminisces about the 1997 Oscars, when Rivers made retching noises in front of the actress, who was wearing a John Galliano-designed gown, and that very night democratized the red carpet

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The first time I laid eyes on Joan Rivers on a red carpet, she was wearing a muumuu and teased hair like my grandmother in Miami. I was covering the 1997 Oscars for Women's Wear Daily and stationed next to the E! camera crew -- and Joan, well, she was puking, it seemed. On camera.

I had just spotted what became one of the all-time most revered Oscar looks: Nicole Kidman's chartreuse chinoiserie-embroidered Dior gown. "John [Galliano] made it for me, and I love it. I don't know if people will get it," Nicole told me. "But if they don't, well, maybe they should." WWD gave her dress the next day's cover, pronouncing Galliano's ascension to red-carpet king.

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Up until this point, awards shows were predictable affairs -- parades of stately Armanis and sexy Versaces. Kidman brought the crackling excitement of couture, but Rivers wasn't having it. Knowing the dress would be controversial (it was on almost every top 10 or bottom 10 list, sometimes both), she yelled in her most obnoxious whiny New York Jewish accent: "Nicole! Come tell me why you wore such an ugly color!" Whether the actress heard or not, she sailed by, leaving Joan screaming, "I hate that color! You are making me puke!" And then Joan mimed puking noises. Graphically.

Some of the other reporters were hysterical; some, cringing. This was exactly the response Rivers was going for. But in the fashion world, this kind of radical ambivalence was unheard of.

"If this is her idea of a fashion review," I recall thinking, "she's going nowhere in the fashion world." Oh, how wrong I was. Sure, elitist journalists found her crass and turned up their sculpted noses when Rivers and daughter Melissa started E! red-carpet coverage at the 1994 Golden Globes. They knew nothing about fashion. All they did was bicker and hurl (literally, sometimes) insults. It didn't even seem like they meant their sartorial snark. And you weren't going to find Joan or Melissa in Valentino, Dior or Armani.

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While I interviewed her for a notorious W magazine piece in 1999 -- as it was becoming clear that ratings, not runways, were determining who got the last wardrobe word -- Rivers admitted she knew next to nothing about fashion. "No, I don't go to fashion shows," she said proudly. "I couldn't tell you about Karl [Lagerfeld]'s last season. But I do know what I like, and that's what fashion is really about. I don't care what those snobby people think. I'm laughing all the way to the bank -- at least I'm laughing! They never crack a smile. They all have sticks up their tiny asses!"

Rather than try to take down Rivers in print myself, I called upon Amy Spindler, the now-late legendary fashion critic of The New York Times. Spindler dismissed the comic's commentary as the worst trash and became Rivers' favorite new target on her radio show: "Why should I be the only one to say we don't like the fashion section of the Times magazine? I want to see if she can wear a pink thing with a safety pin, which she featured last week. I have a feeling she's one of those all-in-black ladies." Spindler shot back: "[Rivers] told everyone she did windows at B. Altman, so I could ask her if she used Windex when she did the windows."

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But what the high fashion world of the late '90s failed to grasp was the beginning of its sinking relevance, as bloggers were ascending and fashion was going the way of armchair home critics. Suddenly, nearly all TV outlets including network morning shows added fashion commentators. Many were clowns like Rivers or Today's Steven Cojocaru (cut from the same cloth as Rivers, plastic surgery and all). They had a populist view of fashion and an expectation that stars on a red carpet be "pretty" rather than "fashion-forward," as envelope-pushing is what fashion journalists want to see. And just as we had found Rivers irrelevant, she started to make us irrelevant, as awards fashion became a global business, and TV and the web turned it into a numbers game, while WWD (recently dumped by Conde Nast) became as relevant today as what Kim Basinger's wearing.

Not only did Rivers bring fashion power to the people, she helped create the current Hollywood stylist system by making the red carpet so mass and important to an actress' career that she must have a seasoned fashion expert at her beck and call. These days, "Best Dressed" results in lucrative fashion deals for actresses and stylists. But can we really attribute the red-carpet revolution to Joan Rivers? Maybe not the whole nine yards of fabric, but her personal interest in beauty, makeup and clothes -- she was her own art project -- was a huge catalyst to the toppling of fashion. If you can laugh at something, it becomes so much less intimidating. And those who think fashion isn't funny have clearly never listened to a conversation at any revered fashion show. Listening to these people take themselves seriously is nothing short of hilarious. Ultra-parody-worthy. Why no one made fun of it before on TV is clearly because no one had the guts to take it on. Until Rivers.

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