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How Joan Rivers went from comedian to fashion maven

Joan Rivers was a comedian through and through, starting her journey in comedy clubs and working her way up through various talk shows. So why is it that certain generations will more quickly associate her with fashion? Well, because she conquered that world, too.

The transition from stand-up comedian to the host of E!’s Fashion Police isn’t a typical career trajectory in the land of Hollywood. But for Rivers, the move from comedian to fashion maven was perfectly natural, and that probably had something to do with the fact that it wasn’t much of a “move.” Rivers never stopped being a comedian. Rather, she simply redirected her jokes toward a new topic.

After finding great success as a comedian in the 1980’s—launching The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers and becoming the highest paid performer in Las Vegas—Rivers’ world shifted when her mentor, Johnny Carson, declared that Rivers was dead to him after her show competed against his. Rivers and her husband, producer Edgar Rosenberg, were then fired from the late-night gig. Rosenberg committed suicide soon after.

Following a deep depression, Rivers found her way back into the entertainment world through the red carpet. Rivers had worked fashion into a handful of her monologues throughout the years, but it was her daughter, Melissa, who gave her the final push into the fashion world. “Melissa knew someone at E!,” Joan told Vanity Fair. “And they were saying, ‘Who should we put out on the red carpet?’ It is a horrible job and no one was doing it then. And Melissa said, ‘My mother.’ It was a very low time for me [in my career].”

Joan Rivers then hosted the 1994 Golden Globes red carpet alone before Melissa joined her for the following year’s Oscars. Bringing their comedy and staunch criticism to the carpet, Melissa and Joan quickly revolutionized red carpet coverage. In fact, the duo is often credited with coining the phrase, “Who are you wearing?”

Joan explained the thinking behind the often-criticized question by saying, “Other reporters always said, ‘I’m not going to ask that. I’m going to ask how [the actors] feel politically!’ But actors don’t want to hear that! They’re nervous. They haven’t eaten for three days. They’re trying to remember who the damn designer [who made their dress] is. Their hair is held together with extensions. You can’t ask them anything difficult!”

After a couple of shows, Joan and Melissa became their own brand, with their critical approach being recognized by all involved. Actors began asking Joan and Melissa what they thought of their attire. Suddenly, everyone needed to know the opinion of the Rivers duo.

It was only after the red carpet became so packed with publicists and reporters that Joan recalled having to reach out and grab celebrities that the duo decided to leave. “I remember almost pulling Cate Blanchett’s arm out of her socket to talk to her, because BBC had her other arm. The girl almost had two dislocated shoulders,” Joan told Vanity Fair. “And I just thought, I am standing here, an Emmy winner and a Tony nominee, nearly dislocating someone’s shoulder to ask her, ‘Who are you wearing?'”

But having fully immersed herself in the world of fashion at that point, Joan simply redirected her career. In 2010, E! launched Fashion Police. Hosted by Joan, the show ran the day after red-carpet events and discussed the looks from the night before. From there, it became a weekly program.

There’s no word yet on whether Fashion Police will continue in the wake of Joan’s death, though Joan’s feelings toward the show were obvious. She once described it to Access Hollywood the way she described many a dress on the red carpet: “It’s just fabulous.”

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