She's with the Brand
Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek
Byline: Jennie Yabroff
Chelsea Handler isn't just a trash-talking comic. She's a bestselling author, talk-show host, and money machine.
Chelsea Handler is onstage at a New Jersey concert arena, complaining about one of her politically incorrect pet peeves: names African-Americans give their babies. (Other things the blonde, blue-eyed equal-opportunity offender tells the audience bug her: Russians, Asians, the Kardashians, and Angelina Jolie.) She mimics a fan at one of her book signings, who complained when Handler misspelled her daughter's name. "You spelled it wrong! It's B-a-i-l-e-i-g-h." To which Handler snapped: "Look, bitch, you spelled it wrong. If you're going to name your daughter after a liqueur, at least have the courtesy to f--king spell it right." Don't even get her started on people who use numerals in their names, like the woman she met named L'4sha. "Can you imagine having sex with someone with a number in his name?" Handler says as she sticks out her butt and moans, "Give it to me, 50, give it to me!" It's a clever wink at the rumors that she's dating the rapper 50 Cent. The crowd goes insane.
For Handler, the personal is not only public; it's profit. In just under a decade, she's gone from a stand-up comic touring the nightclub circuit to a full-fledged brand--call it Chelsea Inc.--with books, TV shows, concerts, movies, and sponsorship deals that raked in a reported $20 million last year alone. Her act--think Joan Rivers's irreverence, Howard Stern's prurience, and Chris Rock's rage--hasn't changed much, but her fan base, which is largely women and gay men, doesn't mind. Their insatiable appetite for her stories of sexual mishaps and other personal humiliations keeps her first two books on the bestseller list. (Together they've sold 1.7 million copies and counting.)
Handler is currently touring in support of her third release, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. She recently signed a deal with Grand Central Publishing to head up her own imprint, Borderline Amazing; the first title, Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, is a collection of essays by family and friends and comes out in May. NBC is developing a sitcom based on Handler's second book, Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, and the comic is working on After Lately, a behind-the-scenes program to follow her Chelsea Lately talk show on E! Between all this, she found time to host the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, film This Means War with Reese Witherspoon, and voice an animated role in the film Hop. Katie Couric, who is friendly with Handler, calls her "the hardest-working girl in showbiz."
Yet unlike Tina Fey or Jon Stewart, Handler is not a darling of the media elite. She rarely appears on magazine covers. She's never hosted Saturday Night Live (though a Facebook group is lobbying for this to happen). Her books aren't reviewed by The New York Times. And when they do notice her, critics are unkind. After Handler hosted the Video Music Awards, the Times called her performance "among the worst in the show's history." The New Yorker described Chelsea Lately as "too sloppy by half." "It's like she's a certain radio station," says her friend Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy model turned actress. "If you tune into that frequency, she's huge, but people who don't tune in don't connect."
Handler claims to enjoy having a lower profile than some of her counterparts. "I like being a bit under the radar," she says over dim sum the morning before her New Jersey show. "In terms of income, I probably have a lot more than most everyone in my business, so it is interesting.?.?." she trails off.
Part of the reason Handler isn't embraced by critics may be her refusal to wrap air quotes around her sexuality. On Saturday Night Live, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig have lampooned overtly sexual female characters: think Rudolph's drunk, orange-skinned, libidinous Donatella Versace. By contrast, there's nothing ironic about Handler's sexiness--lots of cleavage, lots of heels, and the frequent assertion that her pubic hair is waxed in the shape of the E! …