Kathy Griffin Talks Paltrow, Kidman, and Keeping It Real

It’s lonely at the top—of the D-List, that is

Kathy Griffin is wearing nothing but a bra, riffling through the racks in designer Sue Wong’s warehouse. She slips on dress after dress, enlisting the designer’s publicity representative to help her squeeze in and zip up. “I’m sorry that you have to see my naked hooch,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s a lawsuit coming down the pike, but I want you to know I’m sorry. You’re not getting that with Kidman.”

When Nicole Kidman wants a dress for a photo shoot or an awards show, her people call Karl Lagerfeld or Jean Paul Gaultier and a team of European seamstresses is dispatched; when Griffin wants a dress for an event, she convinces a local designer to send her one, as she did with Wong, but if it doesn’t fit, she returns it herself to find one that does, all the while wondering if it’s just a loaner. Kidman is courted by directors such as Baz Luhrmann and Sydney Pollack; Griffin is asked to fill in at celebrity poker tournaments when the bigger draw—Mena Suvari, say—cancels. Kidman is swarmed by paparazzi and must wear sunglasses and hats in public; Griffin is approached by a fan on the patio at the Ivy who says, “We saw your show in Skokie!” Kidman gives even Vanity Fair little access; Griffin grants epic phone interviews to gay/lesbian/transgender magazines with names like Bottom Line.

There are few A-list stars like Kidman, Brad Pitt, or Russell Crowe, and most are film actors. Nearly all TV stars fall under the letter B; even Kelsey Grammer and Ray Romano, Griffin points out, don’t sit in the front row at the Golden Globes. Supporting actors in TV and film are automatic Cs, in Griffin’s estimation. The entertainment basement is reserved for the Ds: the has-beens, the reality-show instant stars, the Baywatch babes, the comics who will never carry their own sitcoms. It is Hollywood’s biggest population, and Griffin fancies herself its queen.

Griffin hosts music awards shows and covers the red carpet for E! Entertainment at events like the Grammys and the Oscars, where she makes such offhanded remarks as “Little Dakota Fanning entered rehab today, and we wish her the best” or asks stars, “What’s your favorite dish at the Olive Garden?” She provides next-day fashion analysis for E!, much as Joan Rivers did before defecting to the TV Guide Channel. She has hosted reality shows and starred in one, taking home the $233,000 first prize on Celebrity Mole two years ago. She makes frequent talk- and radio-show appearances and spent four years on the sitcom Suddenly Susan. Griffin is a nonregal five feet four but frequently wears platform sandals to boost her height. She is a trim size 6, which she feels in Hollywood is still “like a cow.” Griffin openly talks about her appearance and what she’s done to modify it. Her hair has been dyed an auburn red and chemically straightened. Her brow has been lifted, her nose fixed, her face peeled, her body liposuctioned, and her teeth veneered. She looks less like a cute girl from the Midwest than an attractive woman from somewhere indeterminate. “I’m in a business where, as a woman over 40, I’ve got to do what I can to look my best,” says Griffin, who is 44. “I would go, ‘Hmm, I can get a shot in my forehead that would take away lines? Okay.’”

For the past few years Griffin has perhaps become best known for performing a one-woman show at venues ranging from cruise ships to comedy clubs to civic auditoriums around the country. She walks onstage in a long-sleeved black shirt and fitted black pants. Her script is nothing more than a sheet of paper scribbled with prompts like “Idol finals,” “Gwyneth,” “Whitney,” and “Olsen twins.” They are the night’s topics, the subjects she will skewer over the next two hours. If Gwyneth Paltrow was condescending to Griffin on the red carpet, she might fill a half hour with the story; if American Idol host Ryan Seacrest humiliated her at the American Music Awards, she’ll take him down in minute detail. She doesn’t so much attack people for what they are but for how they behave, and she changes the topics depending on her audience. She will skip the papal riffs in Skokie, say, and go heavy on the diva dishing in West Hollywood.

Whenever she dabbles in rumors, she prefaces the stories with “allegedly.” She has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (with a strong emphasis on reality shows, celebrity trials, and serial killers) and cable-ready current events that feeds into her expletive-laced repertoire. She can go off on a tangent for 20 minutes (“Which reminds me: If I ever killed anybody—and I would love to—I would definitely hire Robert Blake’s lawyer”) yet always return to the exact point from which she veered. Few others have similar shticks. Most stand-up comics rely on the one-liner and the insult; comic monologuists in the vein of Julia Sweeney and Sandra Tsing Loh work from a carefully conceived script and tackle matters such as death and God that don’t segue into “Can you believe the Bachelorette didn’t pick any of them?”

Her tirades are not limited to the stage. Bring up the topic of Ocean’s Twelve over lunch and Griffin will lay in: “The cast all have to act like George Clooney’s practical jokes are funny, and you know they have to be annoying as hell. And Julia Roberts—I don’t care how many times George Clooney tells me how funny she is, no, she’s not. I’m telling you right now, she’s not fucking funny. Stop it.” It’s not that Griffin is “on” all the time, in that exhausting way that people who are trying to be funny can be. It’s as if she’s compelled to get these opinions, these assessments, out of her, and the faster, the better. She likens herself to a “celebrity whistle-blower,” and in her snarky though loving familiarity with stars you can see the obsessed fan in all of us.

Griffin lives in a 7,300-square-foot Hollywood Hills home she calls “the Resort.” Its floor plan resembles a bird in flight. When Ray Romano visited, he remarked, “Wow, insulting people must pay good.” She shares the house with her husband, a quiet six-foot-four IT consultant named Matt Moline, and two dogs. Plasma TV screens pulsate on the walls. Flames shoot through piles of colored cut glass at all hours from the many fireplaces. Floor-to-ceiling window-doors open onto a view of the Hollywood sign and the Cahuenga Pass. She works out with a personal trainer three times a week in a room that’s as big as the free-weight space at Bally’s. A full-time personal assistant sets her schedule and answers requests to appear at charity events and shops for bamboo for the garden. But Griffin, who likes to portray herself as one of us, avoids detailing these aspects of her life in her shows. “People aren’t going to relate if I say, ‘Don’t you hate it when you ask for the town car and they send you the stretch?’” she says. “I’m the outsider looking in. We all have D-list moments whether we are in show business or not.”

Griffin’s voice is nasal and sometimes sounds as if it’s straining to keep up with her rapid-fire rants. Her performances are conversational nonetheless, and she has the innate ability, as one of her friends puts it, to make a crowd of 3,000 people feel as if they’re guests at her dinner table. If she were to narrate the story of her life, it might sound something like this:

All right, we have a lot of ground to cover. Seriously. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, which is this wealthy suburb outside of Chicago full of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses (you might be surprised, but I’m down with architecture. Oh yeah, I’m a real building-ophile). I was the youngest of five kids in an Irish Catholic family, and every night we had political arguments at the dinner table. I had to bite and scratch to get heard, because my family; especially my dad—he is super-sarcastic—would slice you in half if you couldn’t keep up. My parents sent me to Catholic school, which only made me the vehement militant atheist that I am today (Don’t get me started about those priests.) The nuns called me “boy crazy”—don’t you love that?

So I moved to L.A. to be an actress. Great idea, right? It’s the one thing the town’s missing. I went to a show at the Groundlings—you know, that improv theater on Melrose where a ton of future famous comedians got their start. I went backstage and walked right up to Phil Hartman, the best actor there, and asked where I could sign up. I took classes and finally got voted into the main troupe, along with Jon Lovitz, in 1985. I performed in sketches, though I gotta tell you, it wasn’t really my forte, the writing thing. But I loved being onstage and felt at home backstage. Now at the time, I was pretty wholesome-looking, what with my curly red hair and plaid shirts, but it was all a front. I, uh, well … I got around at the Groundlings (so much so that when the theater had a big anniversary hoo-ha last fall, I got onstage and read a list of everyone I’d slept with and where, but I digress). I would initiate new members by having them take my clothes off and spank me. I was topless, bottomless, shaking my moneymakers. They’re one of the few real things I have left on me, but it now requires harnesses and pulleys and all kinds of modern science to keep those girls in line.

I started opening Friday-night shows with a little story. It was supposed to last 5 minutes, but it usually went on for 20. It could be about Christmas with my parents or something even more juicy—a bad audition, maybe. I would roll my eyes a lot and drive my points home with slow, knowing nods. There was another woman in the troupe, Lisa Kudrow (this was just before she landed Friends—nice gig, huh?), and she said to me, “You know what? Your characters are good, but you are so much funnier just being yourself. You should consider stand-up.” I was like, “No way—it’s a nightmare for women.” But my friend Judy Toll dragged me to the Comedy Store with her one night and made me do a set, and it just killed. Beginner’s luck, because for the next five sets I bombed.

Judy introduced me to her friend Janeane Garofalo, who was also talking about whatever was going on in her life, at this bookstore-coffeehouse called Big & Tall on Beverly, We did shows together there, where a huge audience was 50 people, and then in 1992, I organized something called Hot Cup of Talk. Four comics, mostly women (sometimes we’d throw in a guy), would each get 15 minutes to spew every Monday night at the Groundlings theater. It was always me, sometimes Janeane, and Margaret Cho and Julia Sweeney. It only cost a buck to get in, and the show ran for two years. When Demi Moore and Jodie Foster were in the audience—that was huge. You could also find me at the Un-Cabaret, where I talked a lot about dating and my sex life. I make it a point to never talk about anyone in the audience, but one night I spilled about Jack Black, who was an ex-boyfriend—too much pot and video games for me, that’s all I’m saying. Well, he was there, and he was totally pissed. Thank God I didn’t marry a comedian. They are bitter and high-maintenance—yeah, I hear you, kind of like me.

After that I did guest bits on TV and landed this sitcom where I played Rhoda to Brooke Shields’s Mary. Once I started working consistently, I began meeting a lot of celebrities, and I couldn’t believe how badly they behaved. When Suddenly Susan got canned in 2000, I jumped back into the fray, trying to get parts, but, come on, the roles out there for women are pathetic. It’s like, your husband is bald with a big ol’ beer gut, and you’re just running around going, “Oh, honey!” If a sitcom fell in my lap, or even a wacky role on an hour-long drama, of course I’d be all over it. The pay is good and the hours are normal. But I’m more comfortable playing myself, whether I’m in a tiny comedy club or on talk shows sitting across from Bill Maher or Joe Scarborough—and let me tell you, that Scarborough, he’s no barrel of monkeys.

If you work in Hollywood, it’s maybe not the best idea to talk openly about celebrities, especially if you’re a comic who wants to get on television, which Griffin does. It won’t make you any friends—at least not any celebrity friends. In public forums, Hollywood is all about dishonesty. If a star is asked, “What do you think of Matthew McConaughey?” a possible answer will be “What a fun guy. He’s so down-to-earth.” With Griffin you get “I don’t buy for a second that he’s this Texan guy who lives in his trailer. You don’t live in your trailer and then let Access Hollywood cover it. You’re not banging Penelope Cruz because you don’t like the limelight. Come on. And what happened to his hair? He was balding, and now he has a full head of hair? His hair is back and thicker than ever.”

It’s not as if she has no feelings for celebrities. “There’s got to be parts of being on the A-list that suck,” Griffin says. “When I make fun of Barbra Streisand, I make fun of the fact that she’s fucking crazy, but honestly, when I read in the paper that people go through her garbage, I have sympathy.” Just not enough sympathy to keep her out of the act. Griffin once ran into Brian Littrell, one of the Backstreet Boys, at a tattoo parlor, getting lyrics from his latest song drawn on his biceps. “I walked in and he goes, ‘Ohhh.’ I go, ‘What, Brian?’ He goes, ‘You are the worst person to see this.’” Naturally, she put him in her act. Some celebrity targets have been good sports. Griffin made a guest appearance on Seinfeld and worked the experience (Jerry Seinfeld didn’t give her the time of day) into her first HBO special. Seinfeld saw the bit and wrote her into a subsequent episode to spoof him. Others are more cryptic. Recently, an extravagant flower arrangement arrived with a note that had Griffin’s name spelled incorrectly and read ‘Warmest Wishes, Renee Zellweger.’ “I thought, ‘What does that mean?’” Griffin says. “’Oh Christ, what have I said about her?” And I’ve said a lot—she’s fucking scary skinny.” Doing fashion commentary in People, she questioned whether Zellweger had eaten since Chicago was released. Griffin says it was a compliment. She has no idea if Zellweger agreed.

“A lot of celebrities love it when I trash other celebrities. Gwen Stefani came up to me and whispered, ‘Oh my God, you’re so funny.’ They’ll even say to me, ‘You have to rip into so-and-so.’” Still, her candor does have repercussions. Griffin says she has become persona non grata with talk-show hosts such as Conan O’Brien (“I was on five times, then the offers stopped cold”), David Letterman (“I thought I had a nice appearance—I got a nice note”), Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa (“I did say on air that [Michael] Gelman, the producer, was Regis’s bitch”), and Ellen DeGeneres (“The booker told my publicist, ‘It’s not going to happen’”). “I’m not worrying about it,” says Griffin. “I’m sure that I haven’t gotten some jobs because of it, but I would never get invited to the Vanity Fair party, anyway.”

There was a time when Griffin would hang out with other celebrities, and other celebrities would hang out with her. “I remember thinking, ‘How many times did I go out with famous people and think, Wow, there’s two topics: fame and me.’ That’s all they’ve got.” So she has surrounded herself with a small entourage that includes her husband, Matt, who attends all her performances (usually checking sports scores on his cell phone from his perch in the sound booth); her sister-in-law, a film editor named Rebecca Moline; and her “gay peeps,” Dennis Hensley, a magazine journalist, and his roommate, Tony Tripoli, a former cruise ship singer. The group takes yearly vacations in Mexico and frequent trips to Las Vegas, especially if Cher is giving a farewell concert. Another half-dozen friends come over once a week to watch TV and shout catty remarks at the screen. “People are surprised when they meet Kathy that she doesn’t talk about herself for an hour,” says Tripoli. “When you hang out with her, she’s like, ‘How was your date?’ She knows everything that’s going on. It matters to her.”

Griffin has a huge gay following. She thinks this is because with gay audiences “nothing’s off the table. They’re up on their dish and along for the ride.” She loves keeping up with the “gay lies,” as she calls them, which with their element of fabulousness make them so much more salacious than straight lies. A favorite: “Tom Cruise and John Travolta have a gay island, and a couple times a year they invite people to their island, and it’s gay Sodom and Gomorrah,” she says. “I don’t believe it for a second. If they can get pictures of Frank Gifford, they can get pictures of Tom Cruise.” She’s burning out on emceeing gay charity events (“How many gay bingos can I host?”) and is sick of being asked to set guys up. “I say, ‘I’m not hooking you shallow fuckers up. All you care about is good bodies and crystal meth.’”

Griffin says she identifies with gays because she, too, feels like an oppressed minority, a female comic in a male-dominated field, where morning-zoo DJs still introduce her with “Normally, I don’t think that chicks are funny, but here’s one that is: Kathy Griffin!” One of Griffin’s mentors and friends, Joan Rivers, who played the comedian’s mother on a few episodes of Suddenly Susan, can empathize. “A woman stand-up has to be tough in this business, to be strong and keep an audience’s attention,” Rivers says. “If some people aren’t upset when they walk out, then you’re not on top of your game.”

At night, with Matt next to her and her dogs curled up on the floor, Griffin hits a remote button that triggers a big TV to rise hydraulically from a wood cabinet at the foot of their bed and then watches all the shows she has Tivo-ed, among them The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, America’s Next Top Model, and American Idol. It’s a habit that occupies her until 4 a.m. In July, along with her stand-up special Kathy Griffin Is Not Nicole Kidman, Bravo will premiere a reality show called Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. The cameras followed her and her husband and her peeps for five months (they were supposed to stay six weeks). “It’s to prove that all these stories I tell about myself are true,” Griffin says.

Not long ago Griffin wanted to attend the opening of Steve Wynn’s new casino in Las Vegas and asked her publicist to secure an invite. The casino passed. “And I’m like, ‘What? Of all things, a casino passed?’ They didn’t want me around. It was a quintessential D-list moment.” Though no one has mined the classification to greater advantage, Griffin does have higher letter-grade aspirations.

“I see a blinking C, I see a solid C,” she says. “I could probably get there if I played a mentally handicapped person on Lifetime. Whenever I’m on The Tonight Show, I feel like I’m having a C moment. All the D-listers except me think they’re an A. If I stay here the rest of my life, it’s fine, too. The D is a good place—you can slip into Krispy Kreme, it’s not a concern. Reese Witherspoon can’t do that.” After covering the Academy Awards this year, Griffin called her parents and told them to get over to the Roosevelt Hotel. She and Matt had a free suite and free room service. “I put on my bathrobe and watched Barbara Walters and we ordered cheeseburgers,” Griffin says. “All I could think was, ‘I can’t imagine that avoiding Gwyneth Paltrow at the Vanity Fair party would be better than this.’”