No way around it. Chelsea Handler is a wild ride. Sure, her four New York Times best-selling humor books, whose covers feature the 37-year-old blonde in various saucy poses, deal with the kind of scatological subjects (masturbation, the runs) usually celebrated by male writers in arrested development. She has also created such insane, if memorable, comic characters as a midget waiter sporting a sombrero of chips, tattooed gangbangers on a cruise ship and large black women shrieking as their hair weaves float off into the ocean. (Handler has said that when she began doing stand-up, her first fans were African American. The height challenged and violent criminals have not made their reactions to her humor clear.) If you need any more evidence that this cultural phenomenon is a cruelly misogynistic, antifeminist she-devil: Playboy and Maxim love her, no doubt because she tackles sexuality with the same brand of unabashed vulgarity that they do. But if all that leaves you ready to dismiss her—don’t.
Handler’s late-night talk show, Chelsea Lately, has garnered more than a million viewers for E!, an audience large enough to inspire a weekly spinoff, After Lately, a faux reality show revolving around Handler and her staff. Even a traditional (and traditionally wary) network has embraced the controversial comic. Are You There, Chelsea? (based on her booze-infused memoir, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea) debuted on NBC in January. Handler portrays her Mormon sister on the sitcom, which weaves plotlines around unsavory scenes such as the one that has the Chelsea character going to bed with said sister’s high school boyfriend, then insisting he compare their sexual performances. While critics have judged the show harshly, her triumph is clear. One would be hard-pressed to name another female star who has been responsible for a trifecta of shows on air in the same season, on two different networks.
And there’s evidence that Handler has developed a unique brand of girl power. Fans of the star’s boundary-pushing persona are overwhelmingly female, and she has also nurtured a Bridesmaids-like gang of women who write with her and costar in her sold-out stand-up tours. (Typical of their loving but acerbic interactions is Handler’s introduction to staffer Sarah Colonna’s book Life As I Blow It: “I met Sarah at an improvisation class in the Valley when we were both twenty-one years old. We were magnetically drawn to each other because we both looked like we were in our midforties.”) Furthermore, Handler’s party-girl irreverence appears to be catching on beyond E!’s target 18-to-34 demographic. On After Lately, no less an icon than Jane Fonda can be seen tossing an F-bomb (“Chelsea has redefined what female late-night talk show liberation looks like, and it is addictive,” says Fonda, a fan). On Today, Kathie Lee Gifford reveals that thanks to a visit from Handler back in 2008, the show now often offers cocktails to guests.