Here's Joan Rivers, together again Celebrity: She's been through a lot, but she always pulls herself back up and carries on.

March 21, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Stand-up comedy. Late-night talk. Personal tragedy. Inevitable comeback. Tell-some book. TV weeper of the week. QVC merchandising. Talk radio.

Oh, and bulimia too.

Been there, done that, and kept the eyeliner on straight and the manicure unchipped throughout.

"When I die, my last words will probably be, 'Can you buh-leeve this?' " croaks Joan Rivers, who typically plans to get a last laugh in when life deals its final insult.

The famous voice, which has been dishing and dissing from various stages for decades, sounded like it was nearing its last retort yesterday, when a city-a-day book promotion tour deposited its weary but game owner in Baltimore for a signing at Bibelot. After all the plane travel, the Oprah-cizing, the media interviews and her own nightly radio show, the can-we-talk gal could be forgiven for answering her own question with a weak little "no."

But Joan Rivers can no more be silent than Madonna celibate. Not with the Oscars coming up ("Lauren Bacall is going to win just for being able to survive Barbra Streisand"). Or her new talk radio show ("It's so much fun -- the dopes call in, we fight, we argue, we agree, so what?"). And the jewelry she sells on her "Can We Shop?" show ("The quality is great"). And, of course, a book, part of her continuing exercise in public healing, "Bouncing Back: I've Survived Everything . . . and I Mean Everything . . . and You Can Too!" ("We made the Wall Street Journal, we were mentioned in USA Today.")

The part self-help, part laugh-riot book (HarperCollins, $23), is Joan Rivers, circa 1997. Still bitingly funny, but surprisingly mellowed, the one-time Queen of Comedic Mean somehow has become the kind of person whom strangers approach with their tales of woe -- cancers, divorces, hurricanes, dead children. Instead of barking the trademark "Grow up!" or "Oh, please!" of her stand-up routines, she listens -- and empathizes.

For she too has been dealt body blows, the worst of which was the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, in 1986. That led to a rift, subsequently mended, with their only child, Melissa, to the now seemingly requisite bout of bulimia, and to a longing, at least temporarily, for a lightning bolt to just strike her dead already.

But here she is today, 63 years old and engaged to be married ("So embarrassing at this age!"). Happy, actually, which could kill her comedic gift if she weren't so preternaturally on the attack about something. "Oh, there's always plenty to be upset about!" she says merrily.

Teetering atop high black heels and in a bright pink suit, she looks surprisingly delicate. She's a fragile kind of short, her face admittedly lifted and otherwise brutalized into submission, her hair coiffed into a brittle Upper East Side flip. No breakfast, a pizza that made her nostalgic for her bulimia, a photographer that was getting too close to her carefully painted face, but, as her new slogan might have it, "So what?"

She's already survived the short-sighted agents and bookers who didn't think a lady could do stand-up comedy. The TV honchos who canceled her late-night talk show. The corporate types who nearly destroyed her now $70 million costume jewelry line. The financial realities that closed her Broadway show despite its Tony nomination.

Of course, the problems of the rich and famous seem not quite so painful as those of middle-class and common folk. Failure for Joan Rivers wasn't having her sub shop in Essex shut down for health violations and having to go on welfare. Rather, it was having to go on . . . "Hollywood Squares." And somehow you can't help thinking that they also are better equipped to ease that pain. How many people faced with the bankruptcy of a business can, as Rivers relates in her book, call up the "brilliant financier Robert Trump" for advice? How many out-of-work people can afford regular manicures?

Much of the book is filled with prosaic, if valid, advice -- try, try and try again, get therapy, make your own luck, don't get mad get even, laughter is the best medicine. But, so what?

"Isn't that a cliche?" she rhetorically asks in the book. "Of course. How do you think cliches become cliches? Because they're so damn true."

She is living proof of getting ahead on sheer will: rejection after rejection, and still, the limo out there is waiting for her. Most recently, and inevitably, she has found her way to the E! TV network, where she and Melissa dish the fashions at awards shows, and talk radio, where she's the host on a nightly show on WOR in New York. The barbs she used to fling at the likes of Princess Di are now hurled at more political subjects.

"The O.J. verdict. Aberdeen," she says, ticking off recent subjects. "Aberdeen -- it's a little bit of lying on everyone's part. Power corrupts. I don't think women should be in the military. You put men and women in close quarters and if you don't think something's going to happen, you're morons!

"I'm very conservative. I started out as a straight liberal, but now I think the whole country has fallen apart. Welfare moms with 75 kids! Tie their tubes after three. You go on welfare, you get your tubes tied. Not permanently -- you get off welfare, you get them untied. Don't get me started!"

Sorry, too late.

"I believe chain gangs should clean up the city. I don't think prisons should have color TVs or prisoners should be able to sue because the cookies are broken. I'm very conservative. I am the heartland, believe it or not."

And you thought she was tough on Liz Taylor's weight.

What makes her palatable is she's just as tough on her own body foibles. Although she doesn't have any inside dish on the coming fashion Oscars -- you'll find out when she does during her live show -- she'll reveal her attire.

"A beautiful Vera Wang one-shoulder dress. Black bottom, with a liver-colored, kind of blood brown top," she says. "If I'm thin enough.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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