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How Joan Rivers Quietly Built a Billion Dollar QVC Empire

Critics have remembered Joan Rivers as a groundbreaking comedian, but a critically acclaimed new biography, "Last Girl Before the Freeway," examines Rivers's even greater accomplishment: building a billion-dollar business as a senior citizen.
Photo By Janette Beckman, courtesy of Getty Imgaes

Since she died during a throat procedure in 2014, Joan Rivers has been remembered as a groundbreaking female comedian. She broke out as a star through her stand-up routines on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and then built a career on transgressive humor. She joked about her gay hairdresser and abortion in the 1960s, when the federal government still outlawed it, and refused to apologize for her offensive humor. In 1986, she became the first—and so far, only—female host of a network late night show.


Rivers created a career trajectory for Chelsea Handler, Amy Schumer, Kathy Griffin, and every other A-list comic, but the focus on her comedy has diminished attention from another of Rivers' most significant achievements: building a billion dollar business as a senior citizen. A new biography, Last Girl Before the Freeway by Leslie Bennetts, repositions Rivers as also a business trailblazer.

"You may think you know Joan Rivers, but I'll bet you'll be shocked by the revelations in Leslie Bennetts's irresistible biography," Gloria Steinem has said of Last Girl Before the Freeway. "Before there was a women's movement or much hope for a woman in stand-up comedy, Joan made it by ridiculing everything she craved, from beauty and respectability to fashion and power."

Bennetts was born to tell the story. Along with her 28 years writing celebrity profiles for Vanity Fair, she wrote The Feminine Mistake, a controversial book arguing that mothers should work and exploring the pitfalls of relying on men for financial support. Her biography of Rivers traces the comic's whole life—from her childhood in Brooklyn to her late life criticism of Lena Dunham—but uses Rivers's discovery of her business acumen as the book's dramatic climax. For the first half of her career, Rivers relied on men to make her business decisions. Her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, served as her manager and the producer of The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. In 1987, Fox cancelled Rivers's late show after one season, making Rivers a Hollywood pariah unable to find work. Rosenberg blamed himself for the cancellation. He committed suicide, and after he died, Rivers discovered she was $37 million in debt.


"In the mid-point in her life, her career was completely destroyed," Bennetts says. "Her career was ruined."

At age 54, Rivers decided to start relying on herself to run her business. She took any job she could find, starting with a reboot of Hollywood Squares, and revitalized her career. She went on to provide commentary on the red carpet, inventing the genre, and in 1990, she launched the Joan Rivers Collection. She sold the jewelry on infamous QVC appearances, and according to the biography, the business grew to be worth a billion dollars. In her biography, Bennetts addresses uses Rivers's senior citizen business triumphs both to expand Rivers's legacy and to explore how women can find value in work. In a phone interview, Bennetts discussed her new book, the stigma surrounding QVC, and Rivers's "rosebud." This interview has been condensed and edited.

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BROADLY: Why write this book now?
Leslie Bennetts: I've been covering the entertainment industry for a long time, but I've never come across a story that is as dramatic as hers. She had a 60-year career in about 17 different fields. The whole thing was like a roller coaster ride. It was the most spectacular ups and downs, triumphs and disasters. [After Fox cancelled her show and Rosenberg's death], she was a pariah in the entertainment industry, and she succeeded in making a spectacular comeback in her later years. It was just an amazing story, obviously a natural for anyone to want to tell. I could have spent the next 20 years reporting a 17-volume, 1000 page-each biography.


In the course of your reporting, what did you understand was the biggest misunderstanding about Rivers?
I think she is recognized as having been a pioneer in comedy and in television, but I don't think people understand how remarkable the story of the second half of her life was. We hear an awful lot these days about reinventing yourself, reinventing your career, [because] people have lengthening lifespans, but Joan Rivers is somebody who was brought up to think that you have to have a husband and you're supposed to defer to him. When she got married, she made her husband her business manager, because she thought she was no good at finances. The great irony of her life was that he wrecked it. It was only when she took responsibility for her own life and became a businesswoman in her own right that she had this extraordinary success as a senior citizen.

In her 60s and 70s, she built a billion-dollar company, and I don't think people quite realize that. They know she designed and sold jewelry and clothing on QVC, but building a billion-dollar company when you used to think you couldn't be trusted to read a contract is remarkable. One of her friends said to me, "If a man had done that, his face would have been on the cover of Forbes magazine as a major mogul." The other thing she did in her later years was she essentially invented the red carpet phenomenon as a television entertainment genre. That has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. She invented the formula: the commentary, the jokes, who are you wearing.


Do you think people overlook her business success because they look down on QVC and red carpet commentary in general?
I think so. People may think QVC is tacky, but I'm talking about her success as a businesswoman. I don't care what you think of it. Show me the person in their 60s and 70s who starts and creates and runs a billion-dollar company, whatever it does. Joan always felt because her stage persona was kind of vulgar, and often deliberately offensive, that people didn't give her her full credit. It's all of a piece with that, and also she was around for so long—it was a 60-year career—she was sort of just part of the wallpaper. You didn't read a lot of accolades about her until she died, and then there was an outpouring of international tributes.

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Where did her style, as she dressed on QVC, and her foul mouth come from?
The way she dressed changed over the years. There are hillarious pictures from the 80s with the big shoulders and big hair. She moved back to New York after her husband died, and she recreated herself as a socialite. She became friends with people like Blaine Trump, who was Donald Trump's sister-in-law. She became much more elegant. She was like her face: She had great [variety] of plastic surgery, and had many, many procedures lasting throughout her life, and she viewed herself as a work in progress. The same holds for her humor. There are many comics who, if you saw them in their later years on the stage, you would essentially see the same jokes they were doing 20, 30, even 40 years ago, but Joan Rivers was infamous for her work ethic and her drive. She kept on writing material till the day she died.

What was her biggest strength as a business woman in her later years?
Her insatiable ambition was her greatest strength in everything. The status quo was never enough for her. When I interviewed the head of the QVC, he said, "A lot of celebrities come in here and they just want to use their name and make money off of it, but Joan totally threw herself into it." She traveled all over the world, and ripped off designs from everyone from a museum in Turkey to Brooke Astor. [Joan] ran up to her on the street and said, "I love your pin. I'm going to steal it for QVC." The head of QVC said, "We kept selling this stuff, because it never became same-old, same-old." She was always changing things, she was always reinventing.

How was her sister, as you write in the book, her "rosebud" that motivated her throughout her career?
Everybody has some kind of primal drama rooted in their childhood that explains important parts of the psyche. For Joan, it was the fact that she had an older sister, three years older, and the family considered Barbara to be the pretty one, the smart one, the popular one. And to Joan, who cared about this, the blonde one. Joan was the also-ran who was kind of homely and not as stellar, and Joan felt very inadequate as a style. Her whole obsession with performing started when she was cast as a kitten in a pre-school play. She was ecstatic when she got on stage, and in her couple of minutes in the spotlight, made people laugh. For her, it was like a drug. She spent the rest of her life chasing that high. It was the way she compensated for not feeling good enough and not loved enough as a child. She didn't want to live unless she was able to perform.

You have written about the value of work in women's life in your previous book. Did Rivers value work?
Yes. A lot of her early humor was jokes on the pressure of young women to find a husband and just shut up. She particularly used to make fun of Jewish families. The title of my book, Last Girl Before the Freeway, is an iconic Joan Rivers joke about how her parents were so upset about their daughter turning into an old maid and not managing to get herself married, that they put up a sign that said, "Last girl before freeway," so any man would take her off their hands.

Joan looked around her—this was before Feminine Mystique was written—and she realized that all these wives in the nice suburbs, like Larchmont, New York, where her parents lived, were not happy. Joan thought she would never be satisfied if she was just a wife or mother, that she needed an outlet. Work was the core of her identity and life.