The most feared woman in Hollywood

Her speciality is being rude – very rude – about Hollywood celebrities. David Usborne looks at the career of Chelsea Handler, the comedienne and chat-show host who has taken America by storm

It happens in the best homes. You have worn the buttons on your television clicker to the bone and still nothing on the five squillion channels appeals to you. So what the heck, numb your brain until bedtime with the ocean of vapid celebrity trivia that you know awaits you on the E! Entertainment channel. If you are lucky maybe that new reality show about Lindsay Lohan's mother and sister is still on.

Stay up late enough and a half-hour chatshow will begin called Chelsea Lately. It will open with its host whose name, surprise, is Chelsea, talking into the camera for a few minutes about celebrities. Thereafter she will introduce her panel of three "cultural experts" who have names and faces that are entirely unfamiliar to you and the conversation will turn to Hollywood. The closing 10 minutes will be taken up with Chelsea interviewing a celebrity.

Yet, if this is your first time, at some point early in the proceedings, the soft tissue in between your vertebrae will begin to tingle and your brain synapses will abruptly crackle back into life. What did that woman just say? I swear she was talking about those infernal dance competition shows that forced you to resort to E! Entertainment in the first place but how did we get to "penetration in the disabled stall in the bathrooms"? (I was quick enough to write that choice quote down, verbatim I think.) I have hardly got myself to vertical on the couch before she is calling Maddox, the six-year-old son of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, a "big dick", the actor David Caruso a "tool" and Sharon Stone a "jackass".

Some of us have done our research. The woman on the screen with the adolescent blond hair (she is actually 33), dimpled smile and flashing eyes, was recently featured on the front of the LA Direct magazine. The sudden blossoming of her career may only just have started. Soon she may be the most feared bitch – hey, we can say that word here, because she says much much worse on the air – in all of America.

Chelsea Handler has not quite come out of nowhere, but almost. By her own admission, she was a nobody on the radar of American cultural phenomena, a stand-up comedian from New Jersey, now resettled in Los Angeles, doing the rounds of clapped-out provincial theatres and clubs, when back in 2005 she wrote a book entitled My Horizontal Life.

This memoir of mostly disastrous one-stand stands, including a chapter entitled "Skid Marks", and a tale about waking up to find a sexually satisfied midget beside her, unexpectedly soared into The New York Times Top 10.

The book touched a nerve with young and less young women in particular (who remain her biggest fan base today) because here was an awfully pretty person willing to skewer herself without mercy. Chelsea was that best friend in the coffee shop willing to share the most embarrassing details of the date that went wrong the night before and, with all that experience, offer advice on avoiding the mistakes she has made. Better to get your man into the sack early in a relationship, she admonishes for example, so you can be sure right from the get-go that he is not into "anal beads and duct tape". Good thinking.

It won her the attention first of the publishing world, including Jen Bergstrom, the vice president and publisher at Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. "After devouring it [Horizontal] in one sitting, reading it out loud to friends, quoting up and down and laughing," Ms Bergstrom told The Columbus Dispatch, "I called her agent, and the rest is history. She's a natural, a truly talented storyteller and writer."

That history includes the release last month of a new book, under Ms Bergstrom's guidance, called Are you there Vodka? It's me, Chelsea. Vodka is now part of the packaging of Ms Handler, whose own fondness of the clear and odourless liquid – she prefers Grey Goose if you feel the need to send her a bottle as thousands of her fans apparently do nowadays – is one of the many foibles she has consciously decided not to keep secret. (A continuing attraction to midgets is another.) Literary scholars among you and not a few teenage girls will also know that the title is a reference to the classic young-adult novel, Are You There God? It's me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. It has been a blow-out success, hitting the number one spot of The New York Times bestsellers List. (Yesterday it had slid to a still respectable third place.)

But Handler remained a performer. So it was not long before the television industry began to sit up and take notice. Best of all, it became apparent to the folks at E! that Handler possessed the ability not just to make fun of herself but of others also. So last July they gave her a vehicle.

For five nights a week just before midnight, Handler is given space to poke fun at the very people whose lives and catastrophes the E! channel depends on for ratings. They were wise enough, moreover, to set no limits on what she and guests felt they needed to say. If the formula worked – and by all appearances it has in spades – it was because Handler set about unpicking the vanities of Hollywood while somehow managing still to seem nice and lovable doing it. She is vicious in her judgements, but in a tone that avoids snide or snarky. It's character assassination with a winning smile. What they found in Handler also was an antidote to the Oprah Winfrey school of television chatter-boxery.

Where the likes of Oprah and, Lord save us, Barbara Walters (whose daytime talkshow, The View, Handler briefly guest-hosted last autumn) exude pious condescension, Handler is completely without do-gooding pretence. If Oprah felt compelled to open a school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa, Handler would be more likely to launch a Beverly Hills health spa with a liquor licence.

It helps, of course, that America's celebrities for the most part set themselves up as such easy targets. "Like Sandra Bernhard 20 years ago," a Boston Globe critic noted last week, "Chelsea Handler is the diuretic to Hollywood's chronic case of bloat".

Handler clearly realised early that pandering is just not her thing. Most comedians might want to restrain the crueller of their instincts for fear of burning those Hollywood bridges that may need crossing later in their careers. Handler seems unconcerned who she upsets. It helps that her show is on cable, where the federal decency regulations that keep performers on the broadcast networks mostly on the straight and narrow mercifully do not apply. More or less anything goes.

Then there is the small detail of her own personal life: Handler's boyfriend is Ted Harbert (not a midget) who happens to be chief executive of Comcast Entertainment Group, whose multiple holdings includes E! Entertainment.

That Handler likes what she is doing is evident. "I found it was the only job you can do while drinking," she said last week. But she also admitted that working a little less would not be a bad thing. For sure, her schedule is nuts. From Monday to Friday, she has no choice but to remain in Los Angeles where she does her 30-minute live stint in the studio nightly.

After doing edition number 100 recently, she announced on air that E! had just contracted her to do 150 more. In the sunlight hours she has been squeezing in some West Coast book signings. (Every book-shop appearance brings in another haul of Grey Goose bottles from adoring fans.) At weekends, she gets on a plane to revisit her life as a stand-up comic all around the country. Tonight she will be appearing in Columbus, Ohio.

If you can't make Ohio, there is always the television show. In case, you are wondering, yes, it does feature a midget, a tiny, round-bellied fellow named Chuy, whom she also calls her Tootsie Roll. Chuy is the mostly silent foil in the tradition of Madge Alsop who sat stage left of Edna Everage. Occasionally it features a skit taped ahead of time in deepest Hollywood. But always there is the parade of bold-faced names, who have done something to earn Handler's mockery.

Top of the list on Thursday was Sharon Stone, who had just struck foolish gold with her observation that it was China's bad karma for its treatment of Tibet that caused its quakes. But it was her claim in a subsequent apology that she is best friends with the Dalai Lama that got Handler going. "I don't think so!" she began with characteristic glee. "Don't be such a jackass. Name-dropping is really something I cannot stand".

Only once do I detect a slight flicker of self-reproach when Handler for a split second drops her eyes to her desk if she may have just gone a tiny bit too far. She and her guests have been discussing news that Clay Aiken, a pop star made famous by American Idol and now lead in Spamalot on Broadway who has long battled rumours that he is gay, will shortly be a father. The mother-to-be, Jaymes Foster, is 50 and became pregnant by artificial insemination. "I have a hard time imagining him as someone's Dad," Handler offers. "Actually, I can't imagine him as somebody's top." (You need a bare grasp of the gay-sex lexicon to get this, by the way.)

Later in the show her guest is taken aback by Handler dropping a cruel joke about the weight of the actress Caroline Rhea. "It's not nice," she says. "But that's not what I'm known for." Indeed not.

Under fire: Chelsea Handler takes aim at celebrities

'Naomi Campbell tried to give blood in Brazil, but they wouldn't let her. Apparently they were concerned that she might infect other people with bitch'

'Scarlett Johansson has released a song, and it's horrible. Look, if you're a celebrity with hidden talents, keep them close to your vest'

'Donatella Versace wants to give fashion advice to Hillary Clinton. Before we do that, who's going to give Donatella Versace advice on her face?'

Nicole Kidman: '[She] finally looks pregnant after two years of being pregnant'

'Lindsay Lohan said she wants to win an Oscar by the time she's 25. She needs to be a little more realistic and should just try to pork a guy named Oscar by the time she's 25'

'Dolly Parton has cancelled her tour because of back pain related to her boobs. Is Beyoncé going to cancel her tour because she's tired of lugging around her ass?'

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