Death of an offender or role model?

Joan Rivers, the elderly, ruthless hostess of E! Network’s popular Friday night show Fashion Police passed away on Sept. 4, 2014.  Known for her bold, witty remarks and inappropriate jokes, Rivers has been called a comedic pioneer and an icon by some and a racist and harpy by others.  Although Rivers appeared as a nasty old woman with no shame on television, her private life was a different matter.

Born in 1933, Joan Alexandra Rosenberg was raised in a traditional ’30s-’40s home, bred by her mother to marry early and become a housewife.  Rivers had other plans however, and decided to pursue her acting dreams.  She earned a few small roles, mostly in plays, using the stage name Joan Rivers.  Comedy was not in the mix for Rivers until a secretary at an office told Rivers she was hilarious and should try her luck with comedy.  After this encounter, Rivers ran the comedy club circuit in New York, leading to her pioneer moment on The Tonight Show.

Rivers was invited as a guest on The Tonight Show multiple times and impressed the show so much that she was eventually offered the spot as Johnny Carson’s stand-in host in 1983.  Having female TV show host at this time was big, but having a female comedic TV show host was huge.  A few years later, Rivers earned her own show on Fox titled The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, making her the first woman to have her own late-night talk show on a major network.  A pioneer in many different appearances on television and otherwise, Rivers was also the first female comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall.

2010 brought the show Fashion Police, which entailed Rivers roasting and taking shots at hundreds of celebrities not only for what they were wearing on the red carpet or around town, but also for their personalities, relationships, and private lives.  It is easy to understand how many see Rivers as a hateful, insensitive woman.  Her comments, ruthless and direct, gave her a feisty image to viewers.  No one was off limits for Rivers, including herself.

“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself,” said Rivers.  “After all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”

Rivers’ comments on Fashion Police were controversial and sometimes offensive.  Her thoughts and language were unfiltered, and the show never had an episode without a “beep” covering up an inappropriate word for television.  Even her co-hosts were often shocked at some of her rapid-fire responses, but she never failed to make people laugh.  Some may disagree with Rivers’ choice of comedy, but those who know her background see there was a difference between her stage presence and her real personality.

Rivers was a religious Jewish woman, and in quite a few of her interviews she discussed God and credited Him for how blessed she was to have accomplished so much in her career.  She was very close with her daughter Melissa, who worked with her over the years on E!, and often spent time with her grandson Cooper.

Additionally, in the 1980s, Rivers joined a non-profit organization, God’s Love We Deliver, in which volunteers make meals and deliver them to people with AIDS.  Rivers felt passionate about those afflicted with AIDS and spend much of her time delivering meals and sitting down for a talk with each person she met while delivering.  According to the records, Rivers worked with the organization for over 25 years and helped deliver the 15 millionth meal just last year.

Not only helping those with AIDS, Rivers also encouraged those she met through the acting industry.  Without Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show, her career never would have gotten off the ground, so she strived to be a mentor to others like Carson had been to her. Rivers was known to help every aspiring comedian or actor she came in contact with during her time on television because she remembered the tough times she went through while pursuing her dreams.

The public is not educated on Rivers’ kind, generous way of life because she did not publicize her good works or personal life, unlike many other celebrities.  Like an actress, Rivers presented her tough side while in front of the cameras, leaving her true self for her personal life.  Once Rivers walked off stage, her genuine nature showed, as her comedic style was reserved only for the cameras and the audience. She did not care how others perceived her.

As Rivers said, “who cares how they remember you as long as they remember you?”

Many believed Rivers was homophobic, but due to her involvement in God’s Love We Deliver and her close friendship with one of her co-hosts, George Kotsiopoulos, who is openly gay, that assumption seems false.  Others believed Rivers was hateful and rude, but she never maliciously spread falsehoods, whether on or off TV.  Rivers also donated a great sum of her money to organizations, particularly God’s Love We Deliver.

“In this industry, you are a fool not to give back and if you don’t, I don’t know who the hell you are,” said Rivers.

Celebrities and Fashion Police fans alike mourned Rivers’ death with flowers left on her Hollywood Star, special tributes on television, and comments on social media.  “Joan Rivers will always be a pioneer,” tweeted Ellen DeGeneres on September 4 about this amazing, often misunderstood and maligned woman.  “She paved the way for a lot of comedians. I’m very sad she’s gone.”