This writer’s Handler experience begins with her last--minute rescheduling of our interview. Because of an emergency involving one of her two dogs, we end up meeting the day after my surprise 50th-birthday fête, which happened to feature drinking and conga lining and almost everything but the midget with chips. As if in a journalist’s nightmare, I arrive at the Chateau Marmont not only slightly late but also so beyond hung over that I can’t unsnarl my recording device’s headphones. Completely unfazed, the rock-star-rumpled comic merely gives a snort of laughter, bends over to help and with a wave of her hand orders us two hair-of-the-dog margaritas, bottled water and a protein-balancing charcuterie platter, causing me to think, Thank God I’m in the hands of a professional. However I imagined my meeting with Chelsea Handler, it certainly wasn’t like this.
The twists and turns continue as Handler begins rapid-fire talking. She’s here partly to promote the Reese Witherspoon comedy in which she costars, and this is how she does it: “I had to do a press junket the other day for This Means War. And I told my agent that this will be the last movie press junket I ever do. Because, for me?” She gives a sigh of vexation. “Movies just aren’t what it’s about!” Handler’s annoyance stems less from the fact that her sex jokes were cut from the film to allow a PG-13 rating than from the restrictions of acting itself. “With acting,” she says, “you’re placed within a pre-existing role or conceit, and you’re just there to move something along. I much prefer to be the driving force.”
SHE COULD have gone a long way toward that if she had agreed to star as herself in Are You There, Chelsea? But Handler opted instead for the smaller, recurring role of her sister. “It’s a time issue,” she explains. “It wouldn’t physically be possible. My priorities are Chelsea Lately and After Lately.” She calls the latter show her “favorite thing in the world,” adding, “If this were 10 years ago, I would have done anything to be in my own sitcom. But I’m in such a different position now, I can be more selective.”
Which raises the question: With a reported $25 million deal with E! to keep Chelsea Lately on air through 2014 (which she celebrated by dividing $138,000 among her staffers) and all the fame and work she could want, what drives her? “It would probably appear to many people that I have huge ambition,” she muses. “But I would never consider myself to be super ambitious. I think ambition cuts like a knife. The more ambitious you are, the more dangerous it can become. My ambition is rooted in happiness, in being secure in my life, with my house, and my family around me, and my friends, and the stability of that. I’m dedicated to the environment I’ve created, to see how fruitful that can be for others, and for all the people I consider to be my family, my workers, my friends and my writers.”
The word family comes up a lot as Handler describes her life, which has a significantly different texture than the Romy-and-Michele-style antics that fueled her first best-selling book, 2005’s autobiographical My Horizontal Life. The support of Handler’s family and friends has been crucial because, though her media explosion has been fairly recent (her E! show began in 2007), she is hardly an overnight success. The youngest of six, Handler grew up in suburban Livingston, New Jersey, with a Jewish father and a German-born Mormon mother. She has humorously described her dad, Seymour, as “always home and never working.” On a street filled with carefully garaged Mercedes and Jaguars, used-car collector Seymour decorated their driveway with a fleet of beaters—to the mortification of his children.