Chelsea Handler’s fans think they know what she wants: booze.
The TV talk show host and comic is interrupted three times during her raunchy 75- minute stand-up set at a cavernous theater in Houston on a Saturday night by audience members who want to give her a glass of the hard stuff. The first fellow comes up front and merely hands her a drink and strolls off. The second gent, who sports a shaved pate, lingers at the lip of the stage, and Handler gives him a leering once-over. “I’ve never had sex with a bald man,” she says, pausing, “in Houston.” The audience roars. Last up is a woman so tipsy she can’t even remember, when quizzed by the star, what she’s drinking. “Well, enjoy your urine,” responds Handler.
This is what happens when you write a best-selling memoir called Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea and frequently clink cocktail glasses with guests on air during E!’s Chelsea Lately, your late-night talk show. But don’t confuse image with reality. In Houston, Handler takes only one dainty sip from the first glass before stowing it atop a stool onstage, where it is soon joined by the two other libations, which go entirely untouched.
“I kind of love that people think that,” Handler says of the widely held perception that she tipples 24/7. “Yes, I like to drink”—preferably vodka and tequila—“but I don’t walk around shit faced.”
She would never have accomplished so much if she did. The star of Chelsea Lately is TV’s only female late-night host. (“I keep waiting for someone to take over so that I can bow out,” she says of being the sole woman.) She also appeared on E!’s After Lately, a faux reality show featuring her staff; has written four best-selling memoirs, including her latest, Uganda Be Kidding Me, about her recent travels in Africa and elsewhere; runs a production company, Borderline Amazing; fronts a publishing imprint bearing the same name; and is in the middle of a 31-date stand-up comedy tour.
“I work really hard. I’m focused. I have a lot of integrity,” she says. “I don’t say I’m going to do things that I don’t do.”
Over margaritas at a hotel bar, she talks about her show, her dyed blonde hair (“I can’t imagine being a brunette; that’s not my personality”), writing her books (“The first draft is the hardest part”) and her plans for the future. “I’m not afraid of interviews,” she says. “I just show up and answer honestly.”
She is witheringly critical of the E! channel, with its regular menu of tacky reality shows—hello, Kardashians!—and says she’s out of there when her contract is up at the end of the year. As for what comes next, she says she’s looking at “a bevy of different ideas” (at press time, one was reportedly a show on Netflix) but wouldn’t mind taking time off to decompress. She’d like to live overseas and study another language for a few months.
Handler grew up the youngest of six children in a nondrinking household in the New Jersey suburbs. “I’ve wanted people to know my name since I could talk,” she says. At 16, upon learning that she was pregnant, Handler ran away to Niagara Falls with a girlfriend in the same fix. There, she tried to dye her hair red (“as if I was a famous person and the police were going to be looking for me”), but it turned bright orange. “It took us about 48 hours to realize we’re not going to make it here. Let’s just go back and tell our parents we’re pregnant,” says Handler, who ended up having an abortion. “That my hair turned orange was more of an impetus for me to go home than the lack of jobs in Niagara Falls.”
After high school and a halfhearted layover at a community college, she moved to Los Angeles at age 19, determined to become famous. Handler struggled as an actress but, after a couple of years waiting tables (“Now I’m a very generous tipper”), turned to comedy at 21 and found the track to success. She published her first book, a humorous sex memoir called My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, in 2005; landed Chelsea Lately in 2007; and made Time’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2012. Today she reportedly hauls in at least $10 million annually, lives in a house in L.A.’s posh Bel Air neighborhood, drives a Tesla (“Whatever the nicest one is, is the one I got”), is pals with Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow and has a personal assistant who packs her underwear for trips in clear Baggies labeled fresh panties.
“The life I live now is better than any life I could have imagined,” she says. “If someone had told me 20 years ago that I was going to be able to live like this, support my family, take friends on amazing vacations and be able to run a company—I never thought of myself as somebody who could be in charge in the way that I am. All of that is possible just by really, really working hard.”
Also possible, it seems, is marriage, which Handler, who in the past dated TV executive Ted Harbert, rapper 50 Cent and hotelier André Balazs, had long ruled out. “I’m not getting married right now, but in 10 years or even five, if I met somebody I was really in love with, I wouldn’t mind being married once,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I don’t see it going very long.”
Closing in on 40 can give you that kind of perspective. Handler turned 39 in February but says, “Now I just assume I’m 40 because 39 is so close to 40.” And 40 is fine by her. “I feel like I look younger than I have in a while and act it. But I also feel more adultlike because in the last few years I know how to bifurcate my social and professional life more than I did. They used to meld and blend together, but now they are definitely separate.”
She anticipates throwing a blowout bash for her 40th birthday. So how did she celebrate her 39th? Theron gave her a ladies’ brunch in L.A. “I wanted this to be mellow,” says Handler, who was gearing up for her book promotion and stand-up tour. Instead, it turned into a girls-gone-freaky fête—and all because of a gluten-free birthday cake, brought by a friend. Handler tries to follow a gluten-free diet but owns up to frequently cheating—and Theron called her on it. “Charlize said to me, ‘Why don’t you man up and be a real woman and eat whatever the hell you want and stop eating this -gluten-free bullshit?’ I’m paraphrasing,” says Handler. “And then my friend Mary [actress Mary McCormack] said, ‘You need to pull your pants down and sit in that cake.’ So I did. And I have the evidence to prove it.”
She shares several iPhone photos. There she is sitting in the cake. Another shows her polka-dot-bikini--underwear-clad derriere smeared with chocolate frosting. In a third, a guest licks frosting off her behind.
“I try,” sums up Handler, in her best mock-haughty tone, “to lead my life in a dignified manner.”
LEAH ROZEN profiled Julianna Margulies in the April issue of More.
Chelsea Handler was previously profiled in the May 2012 issue of More.