Chelsea Handler is feeling good about life—and she has Donald Trump to thank.
“If I didn’t get so depressed over his election, my life wouldn’t have changed in such a positive manner,” says the Livingston-born comedian, actress, author and activist.
The very thought of Trump as president sent Handler into therapy. And that led to a bunch of good things, including her sixth book, Life Will Be the Death of Me (Spiegel & Grau), which hit stores in April.
“I had to see a psychiatrist after the election,” says Handler. “That inspired my book, which is about harnessing all of my outrage. I had all of these negative connotations with therapy. I associated words like universal, gratitude and kale with therapy, and it made me nauseous. But I discovered why people love therapy. It’s so valuable. I had to stop being such a baby and embrace it.”
Therapy helped Handler finally deal with the 1984 death of her brother, Chet, in a hiking accident in the Grand Tetons. He was 22; she was just 9. His death became a focal point of her new book. “I discovered that it’s an issue that I can talk about since people can relate to it,” says Handler. “Everybody has lost somebody.”
Following the release of the book, Handler, 44, embarked on a national comedy tour—her first in five years—which includes a June 28 date at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair. During a performance in April in Philadelphia, Handler talked about politics, life, and, her new favorite subject, death.
Handler is also completing a documentary series for Netflix on racism and white privilege. An incident from her teen years in Livingston serves as inspiration. At the time, she and her boyfriend, who was African-American, had a habit of getting busted for weed. “Each time, the police let me go and each time he was arrested,” says Handler. “I went back to my life in Livingston, and he went to prison for 14 years. He was supposed to go to school at UNLV, but his life was ruined….What happened to him because of the color of his skin was horrible.”
Handler had her own traumas as a teen. “I got pregnant twice and had two abortions,” she recalls. “It was terrible. I put my poor parents through hell. I can’t believe what I did to them and myself. As an adult, I’m like, What was I thinking? I made a lot of bad decisions, but it turned out all right. I can’t believe I’m not dead.”
Handler survived all that and has thrived as an adult. She left New Jersey at 19, shortly after graduating high school, and headed to Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress.
Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Handler scored TV acting gigs on The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids and The Practice while working the comedy clubs and supporting herself as a waitress. After establishing herself in stand-up, she began hosting The Chelsea Handler Show on E! in 2006. She was 31.
The following year, Handler landed her own half-hour, late-night comedy series, Chelsea Lately. The show, produced by Handler’s Borderline Amazing Productions, ran for seven years. It featured Handler delivering stand-up and holding court with three guests, typically comics.
As a late-night host, Handler pulled few punches. Interviewing rapper T.I., who was about to go to jail for possession of automatic weapons, she asked, “And why did you need machine guns? Just wondering.”
Like her good friend and fellow New Jersey native Bill Maher, Handler likes to push the envelope. She once posted a risque photo of her manager, Irving Azoff, clutching her breasts. She has written and talked openly about her one-night stands and her heavy alcohol consumption. On Chelsea Lately, little was hidden.
“I loved being on Chelsea’s show,” comic-actress Margaret Cho says. “Chelsea is funny and so smart. The show was a lot of fun. I wish it was still around.”
Handler’s next big move was to Netflix, where for two seasons she hosted another talk show, Chelsea. She left the show after the election of Donald Trump.
“It had a profound effect on me,” says Handler of the 2016 election. “I had to do something that impacted more than me.”
Handler, whom Time magazine named to its 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, has found an outlet for her activism with Emily’s List, an advocacy group that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women. She says she has no interest in entering politics—“I couldn’t survive on that salary”—but would like to see women break the political glass ceiling and gain equal rights and pay. “It’s about being vocal and strong enough to let people know the truth,” says Handler. “Women should have no shame…. We need to talk about what we’re not supposed to talk about and stand up.”
Handler’s activism extends in several directions. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group that lists Chelsea Clinton and Bruce Springsteen among its supporters, honored Handler with an Ally for Equality Award. “She has so much compassion for the world,” Cho says of Handler. “She has a big heart. We live in a world in which most people are all about their careers, but it’s much bigger than that for Chelsea. She’s really special.”
Comedian/actor Jon Lovitz, who met Handler 15 years ago on the Los Angeles comedy-club scene, seconds that emotion. “Chelsea works so hard at comedy, but she’s a good person who has a great heart,” says Lovitz. “You can’t say that about every comedian. Chelsea’s unique.”
Although Handler’s schedule is jammed, she still finds time to visit family in Verona. “My brother [Glen] lives there, and I see his family fairly often,” she says. “I have fond memories of New Jersey. You have everything there. We were close to Manhattan, the mountains and the beach.”
Despite her fame, Handler comes across as unaffected. Many A-listers have a publicist make the call for an interview. Handler has no problem divulging her number and answering the phone. “I have no issue picking up when a journalist calls,” she says. “I don’t need to have someone taking care of this for me.”
She continues to grind it out as an entertainer and activist, but also has found new ways to relax. For this, too, she thanks a certain President of the United States.
“I rediscovered cannabis when I couldn’t drink when I was so angry,” says Handler, recalling the period after the 2016 election. “Cannabis opened my mind up and actually led me to meditation. The crazy thing that led me to cannabis, meditation, my book, and my new and improved outlook on life was Donald Trump.”