Joan Rivers: The Hero That Got Away

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Maybe I’m an old soul at heart or it’s my comedy geek side showing, but Joan Rivers is my hero, dream career mentor, someone I swing a drink back with. Joan Rivers is a name that will not come to your mind in a second, but it should, like a rapper or singer who everyone else knows, but not me. A rapper or singer I don’t care to learn who, yet pretend to know.

I want to know the pioneer, who stood for their beliefs even when the opinion was against them. The people who put their careers on the line for years working any gig and refining their act just to make it to next week. That is a hero to me. That was Joan Rivers.

You like talking smack about your boyfriend or husband with your friends, Joan did it first and made a living off it. Professors telling you, you need to have multiple skills of several career fields to be successful, Joan did it several times (with several different faces as per her plastic surgeon). You adding more filters every day, Joan removed any filter you could try to force on her. To Joan no one was safe, she worked several different careers as a comedian, and was raw, honest and unafraid.

She always remained that way, even when beaten down. She could be nearly broken, but still get back up. In May 1987, she was at her lowest. She nearly killed herself after losing her dream job of hosting a network late night talk show (still the first and only woman to do so), which lead to her manager and husband, Edgar, unable to deal with the failure killing himself.

But as writer, Leslie Bennetts, wrote it in her Joan Rivers’ biography Last Girl Before Freeway, Joan got off her bed and put the gun away, “she refused to give up and slink into oblivion. Written off as a lost cause, she started over, invented new opportunities for herself.” It was that spirit and drive that first made her a hero to me in the year I needed it most.

I first told my dad on a cold drive home from Accepted Students Day that I was going to change my major to Radio and Television Production. You think a unicorn had jumped in front of the car judging by his reaction.

For the next few months I would face a barrage of “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” every time I bring it up, but I did change my major. I didn’t care about the eye rolls from the science students I “abandoned” to chart a path on the liberal arts side and not as a vet tech.

“What can you do with a media degree?” students ask. A lot, Joan was web series host, reality star, producer, businesswoman, and writer, and some of that was just in the past 10 years. I would figure it out.

“Jenna is going to be a star and take the industry by storm” my teachers would say at the podium of school events. Like Joan, I’m not looking for the center stage, I’m looking for the gig, the opportunity, and paycheck doing what I enjoy.

“You’re gay and Latino, not the ideal image.” You think being a woman and Jewish is a cakewalk in any life? Joan’s career started in the late ’50s when the only known female comedians were Carole Burnett and Phyllis Diller. Joan once made a joke about abortion on the in the early ’70s on the Tonight Show when you couldn’t even say the word abortion. She put her career on the line for her comedic style, but also for others she believed were marginalized by society.

She tirelessly devoted herself to LGBT rights activism and raising funds for HIV/AIDS organizations, especially in past decades when it wasn’t considered “popular” to. She was a fervent supporter of God’s Love We Deliver, which delivers meals to those with HIV/AIDS, after a friend and hair stylist died of AIDS.

Joan Rivers exemplified professionalism, bravery, and tenacity that can’t be faked for a year, but proven again and again over several decades. I wanted to attain, if only, a small level of what she exuded. I wanted to exude it, but even more, tell her it like anyone else wants to tell their hero.

I dreaded my first week at college. Wouldn’t you if you were to live in a town, in a state, you knew not a soul, where a grocery store was, and was told it was the start of your college career, yet did not even live on campus, but in a hotel? I could push all the anxiety down, though, because I remembered Joan Rivers stared failure, barriers, and death many times in the eye saying she was not finished. I

could stare disapproval, laughs, and uncertainty to say I haven’t even started yet.

I had not started yet, but I wanted to start with making it down to New York City for the first time to see her perform. She was coming to New York City for New York Fashion Week and was known to frequent lesser-known comedy clubs to test out new material. To see her perform, experiment, and be raw doing what she loved is what I wanted to see to give me a boost. I decided that is what will happen, till the next day.

She faced being blackballed by the entertainment industry, the loss of her mentor, bankruptcy, and possibly losing a crowd while performing, but none of it killed her, except for a minor throat procedure.

She was rushed a hospital and placed on life support. Seven days later, on September 4, she was gone. It was my second day of college and I lost the hero that motivated and pushed me for over a year. It’s like the death of a grandparent who you never met, but heard about so much you wanted to know them.

If I were tell Joan Rivers all this to her face, she probably slap me and say, “Kid, I’m not going to live forever. You could have just said I’m your favorite comedian and bought something from my jewelry collection. It’s selling on QVC.”

That’s all she wanted to be, a comedian. Not a female comedian or pioneer for women in comedy. That’s all she cared about doing her job of making people laugh, with no excuses or complaints. Maybe, that’s why I didn’t ever get to tell her. She didn’t need to hear it, but I needed to know what she represented to me.

A cliché wisdom is to never meet your heroes less you risk them disappointing you. Maybe, what we don’t think about after that is, what if our heroes are only meant to inspire us from who we believe they are. I’ve met several others I consider heroes, Sometimes, meeting them in hilariously humiliating fashion, but Joan Rivers is the one that got away.

She will have always gotten away, but she will always remain for me a hero who modeled traits I strive to achieve today. Thank you Joan.

“Part of my act is meant to shake you up. It looks like I’m being funny, but I’m reminding you of other things. Life is tough, darling… we better laugh at everything; otherwise, we’re going down the tube.”

– Joan Rivers