When Chelsea Handler was eight, she and her family flew from their native New Jersey to California to visit her grandfather. As they passed through the airy first class cabin to their cramped coach seats, Handler realized, perhaps for the first time, that there were haves and have-nots in this world, and realized that she wanted to have it all.
Handler saved up money from various odd jobs and her bat mitzvah, and the next time she flew, at 13, she’d amassed enough to buy herself a business class ticket with the clandestine help of a travel agent neighbour. “We got on the plane and my mom’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Handler recalls. “Eventually I, of course, gave the seat to my mother, but I had to make a point, like, ‘This is not the life I’m going to lead.’ ”
Nearly 30 years later, Handler is still moving up. In May, her new talk show, Chelsea, debuted on Netflix in 190 countries. The program, which is released three times a week and runs roughly 30 minutes long, is part of a larger deal with the streaming service that includes a documentary series, Chelsea Does, and stand-up comedy specials. Chelsea breaks many of the usual talk show conventions: there’s no sidekick, opening monologue, or house band. Instead, the show focuses on provocative pretaped field pieces, such as Handler working out while stoned or travelling to Japan to explore the Harajuku girl culture.
Handler’s guests are people who interest her, ranging from the U.S. secretary of education, to a woman who climbed Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, to California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom, whom she paired with rapper Wiz Khalifa to talk about legalizing marijuana. She is particularly fascinated by the upcoming presidential election, though her deliciously on-point on-air rants about Donald Trump have likely ensured he will never be a guest. If he were to appear, she says her first question would have to be, “ ‘What do you have to say about your hair?’ I would have to start with his hair and then work my way in.” Best of all for Handler, because the show does not live or die by ratings, she never has to interview a Real Housewife of [insert city here] or reality TV star again. “It’s mostly my call,” Handler says. “We’re combining the celebrity with the real stuff.”
On Chelsea, Handler is the celebrity, and she talks as much as the people she interviews—and the world is listening.
Even when she features someone famous, such as Drew Barrymore, Gwen Stefani, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Megan Fox, Handler steers the conversation away from their latest project, with sometimes wacky results. Fox, who declares she’s not a psychic, but nevertheless works up Handler’s astrological chart, divines that a deceased family member communicates through Handler’s dog, Chunk. The notoriously acerbic Handler takes it all in, seemingly carefully and quietly considering Fox’s observations, but a few days later when one of her stylists reads her horoscope aloud, Handler quietly but emphatically says, “Please don’t ever do that again.”
By the time Chelsea Lately, her previous E! Entertainment Television talk show, ended in 2014, Handler had scorched the earth beneath her feet, telling Howard Stern that E! had become “a sad, sad place to live” and even bashing E!’s biggest star, Kim Kardashian. Her disdain for interviewing ratings grabbers like Justin Bieber, whom she later called her worst celebrity guest, was barely concealed.
Kindling her ire was the exhaustion from her never-ending work swirl. So during her 15-month hiatus she did something she’d never done before: she travelled solo with no agenda. “I never really had been away alone by myself as an adult,” she says. She took herself to a spa in Austria, where she “ate green stuff all day and went paddleboarding on the lake every morning and watched the entire series of Mad Men.” She went to Spain and did scuba diving in French Polynesia. “I thought, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to get a break like this again, so I better get it out of my system.’ ”
And she grew up. “There were stages where I was throwing tantrums to get what I wanted”—she jokes that they lasted well into her thirties. “Now, as a 41-year-old woman, I realize how to get what I want in the right way, in a mature way, without screaming and yelling, and it feels much better to do it this way. It was a child-like atmosphere at my old job and it was fun and it was a big adventure, but then it was over. When you’re around other adults, you start to behave more like an adult.”
Indeed, sitting in a makeup chair in her fourth floor, exposed-brick office on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Los Angeles County’s Culver City, Handler shows none of the tart tongue she so often displays on camera. She maintains a preternatural calm, never acknowledging the four hands fluttering around her face, fixing her hair and makeup.
She takes an almost maternal, experienced older sister approach to her staff, discussing one employee’s skin care regimen and confessing that she’s doled out so much Doxycycline to her friends and co-workers that her doctor questioned how she was cycling through so many pills so quickly.
On one wall hangs a framed saying that reads, “Don’t ever complain about where you are because you’re the person that got yourself here. Love, Mom.” Handler’s mother, who died of cancer in 2006, said those words to her daughter a few years after Handler moved to Los Angeles. Handler was appearing on the reality prank show Girls Behaving Badly, but was complaining that she was too poor to quit her waitressing job. “She was like, ‘You got yourself there, so now I’m not going to listen to this,’ ” Handler recalls. “ ‘You should be celebrating the fact that you took a risk, that you moved to L.A. when you were 19.’ ”
When she was eight, Handler realized, perhaps for the first time, that there were haves and have-nots in this world, and realized that she wanted to have it all.
Handler slowly built a name for herself in the first decade of this century by guest starring on a few TV shows, honing her stand-up routine, and writing about her own life, including 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands and 2008’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, the first two of her five non-fiction books to hit The New York Times’ bestseller list. Following her 2006 sketch comedy series, The Chelsea Handler Show, she broke into the male-dominated world of late night when she began hosting Chelsea Lately in 2007.
As Handler has taken on more responsibility—she also runs her own production company and book imprint—in her mom’s absence, she has taken to giving herself similarly no-nonsense pep talks. “Sometimes when there are like 80 people milling about you and you have four assistants or some obnoxious number of things, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I put myself into this situation because obviously I think I can handle it, so fucking handle it,’ ” she says. Or she just delivers the shorter version: “All right, bitch, get your shit together.”
Handler is a product of talent, relentless promotion, and a work ethic that propels her forward. During her keynote address at the 2015 Forbes Women’s Summit, she declared, “I want to be the person that’s known to work the hardest,” attributing her success to putting in the legwork. “It’s not that I’m smarter. It’s not that I’m brighter or funnier. I just worked harder than anyone I knew was working.”
When asked where her drive comes from, she answers, “from seeing my parents be so lazy,” in her flat vocal delivery that makes it difficult to tell if she’s kidding. Then it becomes clear she’s not. “They had the worst work ethic. My dad just had ‘his own business,’ in quotes, and my mom would have a job for a couple months and then be like, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ Although somehow we were able to survive. I just thought, ‘I don’t ever want to worry about that. I don’t ever want to worry about a bill being paid.’ ”
When she was nine, her older brother died in a hiking accident and Handler, the centre of attention as the youngest of six kids, was pushed by her parents’ grief to the periphery. “I was the epicentre of the family and then I wasn’t,” says Handler, who has talked about how at that point she realized she couldn’t depend on others to care for her. “It was devastating, but no one was able to help each other. As a kid you don’t understand that two adults just lost their child; you’re just thinking about how it’s affected your life.”
“I want to be the person that’s known to work the hardest.”
If her parents’ lack of ambition coupled with her brother’s death left Handler determined to ensure her own financial independence, her decision to skip college left her with a lingering, self-professed fear that others would consider her dumb. An autodidact, she drops words like solipsistic, munificent, and coalescence into conversation.
“I don’t ever want anyone to think I’m stupid. It’s so important to constantly ask questions and to be learning,” she says. “When I read an article in The New York Times in the morning, I want to know what the fuck I’m reading. I don’t want to be like, ‘What? What is this?’ ” She contemplates going to college, but only as a potential Chelsea sketch. “I don’t really have time to go back.”
Currently single, Handler is open to the possibility of marriage, but is resolutely anti-kids. What little downtime she has is spent with friends, including Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock. She prides herself on being a fiercely loyal pal because she knows what it feels like when friends don’t have your back. “I’ve been ignored before and I’ve had girlfriends that have disappointed me, and I just never want to be that girl,” she says. “I’ve had friends that I’ve gone to hell and back for, and then when something happened with me, they were nowhere to be found, and I’m like, ‘I will never be that person.’ I want somebody to call me when they need something.”
That extends to shilling for her friends’ projects. During a down moment during the photo shoot, she records a quick Instagram video to promote her friend Jenny Mollen’s new book, Live Fast Die Hot. A few days earlier, she pushed buddy Mandy Ingber’s yoga book, though she explains, “I would never do yoga. I don’t love yoga. I love Mandy.”
But for now her focus remains tightly on the show, which keeps her so busy that she jokes, “I don’t have time to bathe.” And she wouldn’t have it any other way because she has adult-sized things to accomplish with Chelsea. “I want to get this show to where it’s having global impact and where we’re making a difference—in an election, in human rights—and help beautiful causes and people that deserve to be acknowledged,” she says. “Use my fame and my platform and this opportunity for good and make the world a better place.”