Photograph by Williams + Hirakawa/Icon International
You might think that someone whose stand-up routine and nightly talk show are peppered with jokes about happy hours and margarita mixes would be in heaven at Nic’s martini bar in Beverly Hills. You might think that a comedian who called her second book Are You There,Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea would be thrilled by the Vodbox—the bar’s sleek, glass-walled tasting room, which is cooled to a nippy 28 degrees and crammed with enough distilled liquor to keep the Kremlin afloat. But if you imagined, as we did, that Chelsea Handler’s face would light up at the chance to try countless artisanal, quadruple diamond-filtered, and exotic fruit-infused vodkas, you’d be mistaken.
“Do you guys have Belvedere?” Handler asks. She sounds impatient and, in the frigid air, huskier than usual. Though Handler has the sunny, toned looks of a Texas cheerleader, her affect—perpetual ennui—can make her seem as chilly as the Vodbox. Belvedere, which is sponsoring the book tour for Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, her third work of nonfiction, due out March 9, is (coincidentally) her drink of choice these days. She has gamely wrapped her five-foot-six-inch frame in a faux-leopard coat provided by the establishment. Handler, who recently posed for Playboy, typically opts for much less coverage than this getup, which obscures her formfitting sleeveless polka-dot top and boot-cut denims. In fact, all you can see are her blond mane, blue eyes, and flip-flop-clad feet, toenails painted the shade of Barbie’s Corvette. “I usually just stick with Belvedere,” she says, repeating her order. An attendant gives her a pour, and when the clear liquid disappears into her mouth, she bobs her head. “That’s the best one,” she says, her smile suddenly appearing too big for her face. “See?”
To hear her tell it, Chelsea Handler has always known precisely what she’s wanted. At 35, it would seem that she’s gotten it. On TV, in her books, and in her live routines, Handler combines acid-laced observations about life’s annoyances (redheads, Heidi Montag) with unabashed vulgarity (she calls vaginas “pikachus” and devotes an entire chapter in her latest book to her childhood obsession with masturbation). Part smart aleck, part sexpot, Handler exploits the events of her life for comic effect, from lying her way through elementary school to sleeping her way through Los Angeles. Her first two books were best-sellers. Her talk show, Chelsea Lately, which airs weeknights at 11 on E!, has garnered some of the network’s highest ratings. She has toured the world performing to sold-out crowds.
“I really thought I was funny for a long time, and nobody else did,” says Handler, tucking a stray golden lock behind her ear. “There’s no guarantee people will actually respond to you. So to have that makes me really grateful.” But she’s aware that success comes at a price. As someone who has positioned herself as a scrappy everywoman—acerbic but approachable, a kind of hotter, funnier version of ourselves—she knows being on top threatens to detract from her appeal.
Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang reads like a dissertation on the travails of being nouveau riche. She riffs about her personal assistants and a helicopter ride to a weekend getaway in Laguna Beach with E! Network CEO and boyfriend Ted Harbert (the pair has since broken up). Handler says she considered adding a disclaimer to the book to reassure fans that, despite her cushier lifestyle, she’s still the same. “It’s like, ‘Who the fuck gets a helicopter?’” she says, voicing the likely reaction of some readers. “But,” she says, pausing for a beat, “I do."
At the Vodbox a barman has prevailed upon Handler to try some vodkas other than Belvedere, and she’s obliging—sort of. “Ew, no!” says Handler, furrowing her brow after taking a sip of Roberto Cavalli. “That reminds me of, what’s that shot you do when you’re, like, in college?”
Several more vodkas fare just as poorly. With Jean-Marc XO, her angular features harden. “I keep getting a black licorice taste.” The Jewel of Russia makes her squint. “I don’t like Russians,” she deadpans.
Dissatisfaction has long been Handler’s go-to position. As the youngest of six growing up in Livingston, New Jersey, she regularly demanded that her middle-class parents provide the things that other kids enjoyed in the well-to-do suburb where she lived—a Cabbage Patch doll or, say, a Mercedes-Benz. The first time she boarded an airplane, Handler asked her mother, “Who are these people in the front, and why are we passing them?” When her mother explained, “We don’t fly first-class, Chelsea,” the young Handler didn’t hesitate. “I was like, ‘Uh, speak for yourself.’”
Handler describes her Mormon mom and Jewish dad as loving but eternally absentminded—certainly not as together as she was. “I was always quizzing my parents: ‘Do you know where the school is? Do we have emergency numbers? You guys need to, like, own up.’” She knew from a young age that she wanted out. “I wasn’t gonna stay in New Jersey with those lunatics,” she says, feigning alarm. “I had to go and get the life that I needed.” At 19, she moved to L.A. and waited tables but was fired from every restaurant job. She was incapable of being deferential to customers. “When people didn’t have manners, I would just call them on it.” Auditions were equally frustrating. “You’re sitting in a room with 15 girls that look like you. How are you supposed to separate yourself if you can’t have a conversation and show who you are?” Then it hit her: What if she used her ability to sound off to differentiate herself from the pack? She gave up on acting and decided to try stand-up. “I had things I wanted to say.”
Handler has ditched the faux-fur jacket and settled into a more temperate banquette in the restaurant, a glass of Belvedere and soda on ice in her hand. Recounting that period of her life, she tells of how she made a tape of herself performing stand-up in her living room—in her waitress outfit. She sent it to the Hollywood Improv, where Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, and Adam Sandler got their start, and the club’s manager gave her a chance—with a warning: “You’re really green, and you don’t know what you’re doing.” Fueled by an ego that she now acknowledges far exceeded her talents at the time, she thought success was imminent. “I was like, ‘I’m probably gonna get a [TV] show later this week.’” It took a little longer.
In 2002, she was cast in the Oxygen Network series Girls Behaving Badly (a crass all-female version of Candid Camera), and that same year scored her first book deal for My Horizontal Life. Not long after, Jay Leno made Handler a correspondent on The Tonight Show. A Comedy Central special followed, which generated interest from the E! Network. Today her show combines archly comic roundtable takedowns of celebrities in the news with sketches and traditional interviews. It also features Handler’s mustachioed sidekick, Chuy Bravo, whom she calls her “nugget” (yes, he’s a little person).
A waiter delivers oysters and a salmon crostini plate, and Handler digs in as she contemplates her career trajectory. “It was a long, long haul,” she says, then corrects herself. “I mean it is a long haul.” She shifts in her seat, her eyes dart across the room, and she lets out a laugh. “Hopefully this isn’t, like, my apex!”