"I didn’t want to say words that somebody had written for me, you know? I wanted to use my own mind," stand-up comedian and talk show host Chelsea Handler declared to a room full of high-powered women at the inaugural Women A.R.E. Summit on Nov. 7, a gathering for L.A.'s civically minded jet set.
Handler was explaining why she didn't want to become an actress.
"I don’t think actresses are fun to be around," she said with disarming nonchalance. "They’re competitive. You don’t have to be jealous of other women! You have to embrace other women. We can all lift each other up."
Handler took the stage at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills for a brief inspiring talk during a day-long conference that focused on female voices in social entreprenuership, healthcare, philanthropy and art. In 7 minutes, she offered her punchy pop philosophy of life, beginning with her flawed childhood, her decade-long struggle for success, and concluding with what she considers the true thrill of her fame and fortune: “To be able to give,” she said.
Handler pioneered the field of women in late night television with her show, "Chelsea Lately" and is the bestselling author of candid self-portrait books including, "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands" (2005), and the equally revealing, "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea." When she refers to fame and fortune, she isn't exaggerating: Handler is a bonafide hit, evinced by a twitter account that has nearly 5.5 million followers.
But for such a routine entertainer, Handler was not cool as a cucumber when she addressed about 500 women who were also wealthy and powerful. Instead, she was surprisingly emotional. Though her speech was earnest, energetic and effusive, she visibly trembled throughout the delivery. So much so that I wondered if she was shaking because it was uncharacteristically personal, or because it was impossible to keep her balance in 4-inch stilettos.
Mostly, though, her message was moving and poignant. I fear that at times, we find it a little too easy to resort to cynicism and to condescend to celebrities who have discovered their own depths, as if to say that having fame, fortune and a heart is a revelation. What I found transcendent about Handler’s speech, besides her raw delivery and unflinching honesty, was her humility about her own gifts.
The Torah, was really offered by her sister, Simone, who taught Handler that she was b’tzelem elochim, created in God’s image, with totally unique talents that only she could offer. At the exact moment Handler feared “being a waitress when I’m 30,” the realization of her essential uniqueness gave her the courage to continue to push forward.
But what Handler ultimately understood was that the blessing her sister offered was a blessing for all humankind: that every soul contains a unique spark of the divine and exists for a special purpose. “I really believed she was only talking about me, and that I was the only person in the world that had something... And [my sister] said, ‘There’s room for everyone.’”
Now that Handler is fulfilling her purpose in the world, she said she finds the most joy in giving things away. It reminds me of the beautiful verse from Hillel Bavli:
Let my life grow a wealth of word and deed,
steeped in the fountain of my being,
without my measuring all things
for only what they have to offer me.
Straight from her quivering lips, here’s Chelsea Handler’s Torah uncut and uncensored:
I grew up in a family with six kids, and my father was a used-car salesman, and for some reason my mother found that attractive and married him. They were the biggest messes you could ever see and I grew up and I was like, ‘How are you guys raising us? This is bullshit! Like, do you have a job? Where’s the money?’ Nothing was working at all and it was complete mayhem and pandemonium and I just wanted to grow up and have a real life, a real job, and have money to support my family that I do not want to have.
So I came out to Hollywood when I was 19 years old, I’m like, I’m not going to college, I don’t want to go to college. And my father is like, ‘Fine. Just leave.’ So I came out to California, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know anything, and I started waiting tables and I lived with my aunt who had nine kids, and I just start auditioning. And I was auditioning and auditioning and trying to get roles, and I couldn't get any roles, I couldn't get any acting jobs, and I was getting pissed. And I didn’t want to say words that somebody had written for me, you know? I didn’t want to go in for an audition and read from a script somebody else had written for me, so what I wanted was to say my own things. I wanted to be my own person. I wanted to use my own mind. I wanted to have my own opinion, and I wanted to create my own job. I’m like, if I’m auditioning for jobs as an actor, someone’s gonna be telling me what to do and I don’t want anybody telling me what to do. Ever again.
So I decided to do stand up comedy -- which is humiliating. And, you know, you’re doing sets at The Coffee Bean or whatever, you know, at 1:30 in the morning, and you’re like in front of two people. I was doing all these terrible things and I was just so deflated, and I was so depleted, and it was six years of, you know, doing nothing, making no money, and having to borrow money from my brothers and sisters, and I called my sister up [one day] --and this is why women are amazing -- I called her up and I’m crying, and I was like, ‘What if i never make it? What if I never get a break? What if I’m a waitress when I’m 30? What am I gonna do?’
And she’s like, ‘You’re gonna make it, you’re not gonna be a waitress when you’re 30 because you have something that no one else has. You’re an individual, and you have something no one else has. And I thought she was just talking to me. And she was talking about everybody; everybody has something that no one else has -- and that was the most amazing thing that she had ever said to me because I really believed she was only talking about me, and I was the only person in the world that had something. And I was like, ‘I’m amazing! You’re right!’ And she said, ‘There’s room for everyone,’ that’s what she said, ‘make room for yourself because you can do something that nobody else has done.’ And when you’re a stand-up you can create the job; the job is around you. You’re the center of the universe, you’re not auditioning for a role. And [when the executives] said, ‘Do you want to do sitcoms?’ I said, ‘No, I want to be a woman in late night; there are no women doing that and I want to do that. Fuck those guys!’
And so I did it. I don’t know how I did that, but I did do that, and then I hired all these other women who work for me and we all do it together, and I have a staff of 500 people working on several different television shows and 300 of them are women. And, you know, it’s amazing. It’s an amazing, amazing feeling to be able to help other people, whether it’s a man or woman, but to have so many strong powerful women around you and to bring them up with you is something that is so important. And to realize that there is room for everybody. I didn’t want to be an actress because I don’t think actresses are fun to be around. They’re competitive. You don’t have to be jealous of other women, you have to embrace other women, you know? We can all lift each other up.
And everytime I meet somebody in this business, or I meet a woman, I always try to make sure that they know I’m not that type of girl. I’m not gonna steal your husband --- one time that happened -- but, you know, I’m not gonna do that! Not on purpose, anyway, you know? I mean, I’m gonna send you soup when you’re sick. I got to buy my sister -- that sister who gave me that advice -- I got to buy her a house. And I got to buy my aunt a house. I got to buy my makeup artist a horse the other day -- she refuses to date guys and I’m like, ‘I’m just gonna get you a horse, OK? Whatever you do behind those closed barn doors, that’s your business.’
But I mean those are the things in life that make you feel amazing. And I don’t sit around announcing these kinds of things to people all the time, but that’s amazing to be able to give, to be able to make a ridiculous amount of money and share it with people, and take people on trips, and to share, you know? Get involved with these organizations and these charities that all of these women are here talking about...
I like to make people laugh. I like to write my books because they’re stupid and it gives me joy, because I like to see people laughing. So anybody who thinks I’m funny? I’m happy about that; I’m happy that I can share that with them. When I see somebody on a plane reading a book and laughing, I’m like, ‘I wanna do that. I want to make that person laugh.’ And I was on a plane with my sister Simone, and somebody was sitting behind us and laughing out loud, long and hard, and really, it was annoying. And I said [to my sister], ‘Can you please say something? I’m trying to sleep. I mean, I can’t say anything, I’m famous. And [my sister] turned around and the woman was reading my book. So that was very funny. So I’ll just say that I think, you know, it’s great that all you girls are getting together. I love these conferences, I go to these things all the time, and hopefully this is the first of several and many, many years, and I will be happy to come back anytime anybody asks me to do anything.
And if anybody in this room needs donations or money or anything like that: I’m your girl.