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Joan Rivers Leaves A Void

What will we do without Joan? Rivers changed fashion and pushed the boundaries of comedy

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Joan Rivers and Kelly Osbourne at the Badgley Mischka runway show in New York in 2012 Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Joan Rivers and Clifford Pugh at Fashion Week February 2014
Joan Rivers helped Clifford Pugh take a selfie during fashion week in February. Photo by Joan Rivers
Komen Houston team with Joan Susan G. Komen Houston luncheon with Joan Rivers June 2014
Joan Rivers with fans at the Susan G. Komen luncheon in Houston in June. Photo by Rena O.
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Joan Rivers at a Houston Area Women's Center gala in 201.. Joan Rivers Courtesy of Alexander's Fine Portrait Design
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Joan Rivers and Clifford Pugh at Fashion Week February 2014
Komen Houston team with Joan Susan G. Komen Houston luncheon with Joan Rivers June 2014
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News_HAWC Gala May 2011_Joan Rivers

NEW YORK — Somehow it seemed fitting that Joan Rivers died on the first day of fashion week.

The polarizing, acerbic comedienne practically invented red carpet critiques of celebrities that are so common today. She was the first with the question, "Who are you wearing?" back in the early '90s, and more recently, as the star of E!'s Fashion Police, she fearless skewered Hollywood celebrities for their fashion missteps.

"This was a woman who really defined red-carpet reporting," Joe Zee, editor-in-chief of Yahoo Style, said when I caught up with him at a party to celebrate his collaboration with Old Navy Thursday night. "She injected humor into fashion, she injected critique into fashion, all of this didn't exist before and she brought it into our everyday lives. And you have to give her credit for that. She was really in the forefront."

 "This was a woman who really lived by her own rules. And she made us laugh. She treated life with so much bravado. That is a great way to live." 

"This was a woman who really lived by her own rules. And she made us laugh. She treated life with so much bravado. That is a great way to live."

Rivers' humor was often tasteless and over the top, but somehow she got away with it. When she appeared as the featured speaker at the Susan G. Komen luncheon in Houston three months ago, she marveled, how, at 81, her show was No. 1 with young twentysomethings. But that wasn't surprising to me. You can say a lot about Rivers, but she was never a phony — something her young fans and large gay audience appreciated.

Somehow, her racier jokes didn't sting as much because she included herself in the mix, poking fun at her many facelifts, her sagging body and her own sometimes questionable fashion sensibility.

At the Houston luncheon, she joked that at her age, she could drop dead at any time, and if it happened right there, guests would have a lot to talk about. Little could we imagine that a few months later, she would be dead from a botched medical procedure. As she lay in a New York hospital in a coma over the past few days, I wanted her to survive, but, reading between the lines about her condition, I worried that she wouldn't have her spark if she did. Just about anyone who had been around Rivers knew if she couldn't do stand-up, she wouldn't want to be alive.

Despite her bravado, Rivers was a bundle of insecurities, as most comics are. As I noted in a review of the great documentary about her, A Piece of Work, when she performed at a fundraiser dinner honoring John and Becca Cason Thrash in Houston in 2008, my partner and I went backstage to stay hello afterwards. She seemed anxious that she had bombed. Her ribald jokes about second and third wives hadn't gone over particularly well with the well-heeled crowd — the jokes hit a little too close to home — but we thought she was hilarious. Backstage she was gracious, but her insecurities showed. She seemed so alone.

Like most good comics, Rivers was fueled by anger. She had a lot to be mad about. As the documentary notes, she was still mad at Johnny Carson for never speaking to her again after she left a stint as his permanent guest host to launch her own show on Fox in 1987; she was mad at her husband for committing suicide after her show was canceled; she was mad at getting old — which probably explains her Michael Jackson-like obsession with cosmetic surgery.

And she was mad when she had to go on the road to out-of-the-way towns at times when her career was in the tank and that's the only work she could get. But each time she fought back and soon was on top again.

"You must, never, never, never forget in your darkest moment that things turn around," she told the Komen crowd. "Push forward. Don't dwell. I always say give yourself a "weekend wallow." Get in bed and pull the covers over you head. And then move forward. Think of yourself as a racehorse with blinders on and worry about your own race. Never mind what's going on around you."

In the past year, I was fortunate to be around Rivers at three occasions. At a taping of Fashion Police in Los Angeles last November, she was the consummate professional on the set, taking time during a break to talk to the small audience and answer any and all questions.

At fashion week last February, we took a selfie together at the Elie Tahari presentation, where she instructed me to always hold the camera up and shoot down to prevent a double chin. And at the Komen luncheon in Houston, KHOU anchor Lily Jang and I briefly had our photo taken with her, as a roomful of fans waited their turn.

At all three times, she was polite but not overly warm or outgoing. But that was OK. I figured Rivers needed a larger audience to work her magic. She was the ultimate comic. She lived to make people laugh.

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