She’s famous for speaking her mind, but a new TV series shows Chelsea Handler’s thoughtful side
Words: Colin Crummy
Photography: Jeff Lipsky
If your knowledge of American late-night chat shows doesn’t stretch beyond The Late Late Show With James Corden then you may not be instantly familiar with Chelsea Handler. But in US celebrity circles, the host of the now-defunct chat show Chelsea Lately is a formidable, feared and frequently naked force. Think Graham Norton without the kid gloves and you are closer to Chelsea’s forthright, comedic style. She has ‘joked’ she would murder her father if she could get away with it, called Angelina Jolie a homewrecker and asked Drake what was up with him and Nicki Minaj in a “penetration context”. Hers is not your typical Hollywood behaviour. Even her A-list friends – who include Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock – can expect the unexpected. She recently stripped off completely, Kim Kardashian-style, in a social media birthday message to her friend Reece Witherspoon.
Such nudity is not new with Chelsea. “I always have my boobs out. I’ve been doing that since I got boobs,” she tells Stylist. But she also always has a point to make, like the time she went horse riding topless in a clever send up of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s macho posturing. Now at 41, after making her name chatting with celebrities for eight years – Chelsea left her chat show in 2014 fed-up with showbiz (“I can’t even pretend to care”) – and has moved on to tackle some of life’s bigger questions. To get (a little more) serious. She began exploring this new direction earlier this year in a series of documentaries on racism, marriage, drugs and technology for Netflix called Chelsea Does. In the drugs documentary, she smoked pot with country singer Willie Nelson for two hours (“He’s so stoned, he probably didn’t know I was there,” she said afterwards) and tackled racism in her signature cross-the-line way, asking if it’s fine to suggest black people are good at sport (it’s not, a scholar helpfully informed her).
It’s this no-holds-barred, ask-the-stupid-question style that informs her biggest, boldest project yet, a new 30 minute, three nights a week topical chatshow on Netflix which starts this week. Simply called Chelsea, the show will be streamed to over 190 countries and will tackle subjects the host wants to know more about – whether God exists, if polyamorists are on to something or whether Donald Trump really is an A-hole. “We need more people to talk publicly about what an idiot he is,” says the woman whose method of doing so involves taking a Trump piñata to Mexico.
This lack of filter has been Chelsea’s calling card since she was a 21-year-old trying to make it as an actress in LA. On a court mandated course for drink driving, the New Jersey-born girl shared the DUI incident with the class who found her funny. So she turned to comedy, getting gigs on reality shows and publishing five New York Times bestselling books based on her life.
When Stylist calls Chelsea in LA she answers the phone herself, with no publicist on the line as is the norm for celebrity interviews. Just as her Instagram account is littered with naked selfies, she is unedited. Brace yourselves then Britain, for Chelsea Handler…
Can you give us a sense of what to expect from your new show?
It’s basically like my college education that I never got, funded by Netflix. Like all the things you think you’re supposed to know by the time you’re 40 that you really have no clue about. I know nothing about what the electoral college is or what evolution really means or whether God exists or not, not that he’s going to come down from the sky and give us the answer. I feel like if I have a question, there’s usually five million other people who have the same question.
How are you going to ask those big questions?
We’re going to have specialists in the studio who know the answers, who can explain it on a fundamental level. We’re going to Tokyo, we’ve just got back from Mexico City, we went to Russia which was a complete waste of time.
What about Russia didn’t you like?
Ugh. The people. The greyness. Everyone was just sad and smoked. It was grey. It was cold. It was just really rough.
Who would be your dream guest?
I’d love to interview Obama. I think he’s the best. First of all, I’m attracted to him. I’m not having any reality stars on my show. I don’t care about that [genre] at all.
The show seems a million miles away from your previous success with Chelsea Lately on E!, which is home to reality TV like Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Why did you leave that world?
I felt like I was sick of myself. I didn’t want to hear myself talk about [celebrity culture] any more. I took a break. I got very reenergised and wanted to do something more thoughtful, more thought provoking. I’m enjoying being scared and not being sure of it and not coasting on success. That’s the worst thing you can do. We’re only here for a short time and none of us really matter anyway in the big scheme of things.
What spurred you on when you started out?
The whole impetus behind this [getting into showbusiness] was because I wanted to buy my mom this amazing house because growing up, my father was a disaster with his finances. He was a great dad but he still was a loser. I grew up and I was able to do all those things and much much more. I want to be that person who shows up and buys somebody a car.
You have always been extremely open whether in your comedy or your writing. Has being so frank ever cost you anything?
I’m sure it has but I don’t feel like I should hold back. You want to have real conversations with real people and you want to embarrass yourself. I don’t care if I embarrass myself so why not do it because who else is going to? [Laughs] I’ve always said what I thought. I’m not trying to be outlandish. I do get a kick when people are like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she did that”.
Do you feel you have become more serious though?
It’s definitely more mindful. It’s all still through the eyes of my stupidity because I am very uninformed and I am willing to make an idiot out of myself. We just shot an episode about not being a parent, about getting to 40 and remaining single and alone. [The message is] if you want to you can achieve that, you just have to be very focused [laughs]. I’m a proponent of not having children. I never wanted to. I always wanted to have this huge life experience, to experience everything I could possibly experience.
What’s your motivation with Chelsea?
To be authentic and real and stick up loudly for the people I care about. For people I don’t – someone like Donald Trump – I think it’s important to go off on him publicly because he’s an embarrassment and he’s shameful.
Would you have him on the show?
I would, probably so I could fight with him. He would just end up looking like an a**hole anyway. I would go after him. That would be great for us to just sit there screaming at each other. There’s so much comedy happening with this election. If Trump doesn’t win, it’s even funnier and we’ll all look back and see this as a really fun time in history. So I’m hoping that is what will happen.
Do you have to be culturally sensitive when you do a show that is aired globally?
No. When you’re pandering, viewers can smell that a million miles away. You can see people adjust in any election. You see Hillary Clinton adjust, or try to adjust, to the Bernie Sanders fans. It’s so inauthentic. It doesn’t win her anybody. You want people to be authentic to themselves and not to pander and not to change their opinions based on who they’re talking to.
Did your opinion change on anything while filming the show?
I interviewed a polyamorist family and totally walked away from that thinking, ‘You know what they’re happy. They all know what they’re doing. No-one’s making them do this. They are all getting something out of it.’ I get why they want to do that. And they should be allowed to do that. The government shouldn’t be controlling who you get married to or how many people you get married to. If people want to f**king marry two people, then that’s what they will do. So that was interesting because I went into that thinking ‘Oh my God, these people are going to be disgusting.’ But I love that. I love getting my opinion changed.
Chelsea premieres on 11 May exclusively on Netflix. New episodes will be available every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday