WOMAN OF INTEREST: The Evolution of Chelsea Handler

photo by Emily Shur

While the concept of personal growth has become more and more ubiquitous – NPR reported last year that millennials spent twice as much as boomers on self-care essentials like workout plans, diet regimens, and therapy – the reasons for this welcome shift in focus to mental and physical health remain less obvious. One hypothesis is that the volatile political climate makes people feel as though they have little control over the course of their lives, and they’re searching for solace wherever they can find it; we cannot control the Trump administration rescinding regulations put in place to mitigate the existential threat of climate change, but we can control whether or not we make it to the 8am yoga class. As these larger cultural reckonings inspire shifts in our personal priorities, we’ve gravitated toward behaviors that promise greater emotional well-being and work with more efficacy than more traditional band-aids like boozing, drug abuse, and casual sex.

But what if these traditional band-aids are your creative calling card? Stand-up comic, actress, TV host, and writer Chelsea Handler has made a name for herself sharing these types of exploits like an open book, one-night stands and DUIs serving as punchlines. But as of late, through a vigorous self-care practice, Handler has seen a shift in her priorities and the way she approaches her work. She recently published a memoir, Life Will Be the Death of Me, which she has developed into a one-woman show that comes to New York and New Jersey this coming weekend. Though Handler is celebrated for an irreverent sense of humor that fearlessly confronts sex and partying, this new work dives deep into her inner world in a different way. It tells her story of overcoming childhood trauma – namely the death of her older brother in a hiking accident when she was only nine years old.

Handler has never been one to shy away from tough conversations, identifying her brash honesty as one of her most quintessential personality traits when we speak to her over the phone. “First of all, anyone who knows me knows that they can rely on me for the truth, not some glossy finish of it,” she says. And yet, one wonders if sharing the gory details of her sex life feels the same as sharing more intimate, painful secrets. She sees little meaningful difference here; regardless, she always tries to be as forthcoming as possible as a means to find shared experiences, finding solace for herself or offering that space to others. “It’s just liberating to talk about the truth – any time that I want to share [my experience], it’s just because I’m kind of ringing the bell, like ‘Is anyone else dealing with what I’m dealing with?’” she explains. “And it turns out we all are! From the response alone to the book, it’s made me realize we’re all dealing with the same stuff. No one gets through childhood or adulthood without any trauma, grief, or loss. It’s just impossible.”

Humor, as a means of coping with grief and loss, can be a form of self-care in and of itself. It’s why we oftentimes find ourselves laughing at a wake, sharing stories and fond memories of our dearly departed as a way of recognizing the fullness of human experience. Life is far too complex to be purely humorous or humorless, a realization Handler had as she went on the initial book tour for the memoir. “I never thought I wanted to do stand-up again until I started doing this book tour, and then I was on stage being interviewed, telling all these stories, and it was just like doing stand-up,” she says. “It highlights how ridiculous it all is and how silly it all is and how we can laugh at ourselves in the darkest of times. And how hilarious death can be if you just give it a minute.” This was the genesis of her one-woman show: combining the concept of the book tour and more traditional stand-up comedy into one performance in which she expands upon brief readings of her published words. She’s calling it her Sit-Down Comedy Tour.

Handler’s growth as a person, writer, and performer these last few years has extended beyond the realm of overcoming personal grief; she has carved out a space for herself as a political activist as well. Following the 2016 election she left behind her eponymous Netflix talk show to focus on activism full time, devoting herself to issues like reproductive rights and gun control. When asked how the 2020 election would fit into her newly conscious mindset and self-care regimen, she cited her burnout after the midterms and emphasized the importance of self-preservation. “It’s about finding a balance in my life and not chasing it around like a squirrel chasing around its own tail, or a cat, or whatever animal chases its own tail,” she says. To that end, she had to remind herself to “take some time for yourself, get your head on straight, and take a break from all this so that you’re not talking about the same candidates for two years… Everything I’m saying is such a cliche because it’s true.”

Even still, this resetting of priorities has allowed her to explore new topics in her work. She just finished shooting a documentary about white privilege (her own, she specifies) that will premiere on Netflix in September. It all comes full circle, she says, when you do the hard work of figuring out who you are and why you are the way you are. “It’s kind of the work I was doing when I was writing the book – it’s just about learning more about everything!” she says. “After the election [I realized] I was so misinformed. [I started] digging and trying to find out why I’m so misinformed about what it means to be a person of color in this country, and how different my experience has been from anyone with any real struggle.”

This serves to underscore the importance of being mindful, of reawakening one’s self-awareness: outside of your own head, the larger context comes into play, as well as an opportunity to share the wisdom you have gained with others. Handler says that’s the main difference between sharing the material she used earlier in her career and the personal details she shares now, but she notes that both come from a place of openness.

In the rush of the upward trajectory she found through her first ten gigs, then her first ten arenas, and so on, she pointed out how easy it can be to lose this sort of mindfulness. “If you’re not being mindful or conscious of what’s happening, you lose sight of it all, and you’re not in it, and you’re not present,” she warns. “You can miss all the biggest moments because you’re too far up your own ass.”

Her desire to help others – and the desire to improve her own awareness – made her rediscover why she wanted to be a performer in the first place. “It’s been a long time since I loved it, since I’ve been loving being on stage, and being on this tour was the first time it came back for me!” she says. “And it totally makes sense. Of course I’m going to come back to the thing I love so much, because I’m in a different place now. But it feels good to be a fuller, whole-er person, too. You just want to spread that joy around. You’re like, oh my god, here! Everybody gather in, let me tell you what happened, this works! Meditation works! I didn’t want to do it either, but it works!”

With this in mind, Handler has evolved into a better version of herself, with the hope and intention to continue to grow. She will take Life Will Be the Death of Me through the U.S. and then onto the U.K. and Australia, and will eventually develop it into a television show about her relationship with her therapist, reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Additionally, she’s developing her own line of cannabis products, which she says is coming out “just in time for the holidays, with your family,” as though she read my mind. Meditation and therapy can do wonders in terms of self-care, but mind-altering substances are still there when you need to take a more traditional route and treat yourself. Either way, as Handler says, “We all are going through it, and some of us are trying to be better, and some of us aren’t thinking about being better at all. Some of us are just trying to survive.”

Life Will Be the Death of Me: Chelsea Handler’s Sit-Down Comedy Tour arrives at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ on 6/28 and NYCB Theatre in Westbury, NY on 6/29. Enter to win tickets to the New York show here!

How EDM Helped Me Heal from Anxiety

It’s June 2016 and I’m testing how low I can get before breaking down. I’ve worked until midnight and gotten up at four to churn out more writing assignments. Seeking comfort from the stress, I reach for the chips in my cupboard, eat more than I intended, panic, and make myself throw up. Unable to focus on an empty stomach, I do it all over again. I move my laptop to Starbucks and order iced cold brew after iced cold brew, telling myself to focus until I’ve finished my 18th article of the day. My stomach feels like negative space.

I write a resignation email for my most stressful job and fantasize about sending it, knowing I’ll never have the courage. I don’t need the money, but the thought of turning down work makes me recoil. I must be successful and success means more bylines and more money.

This is a pattern I’ve become all too familiar with. But at least this time, I have something to look forward to. After another four hours of sleep and 15 articles, I’m headed to Vegas for Electronic Daisy Carnival, an electronic music festival I’d never heard of until the press trip invitation arrived in my inbox.

To accommodate my crazy work hours, I fly in the night before and pull an all-nighter. I sign in for my shift at 3 a.m. from a casino cafe and churn out 7 articles until it ends at 11. Just when I think I’m done, my editor keeps me late to post an update on the Orlando alligator attack.

Meanwhile, a college friend’s blowing up my Facebook chat, begging me to join her in Ibiza in two weeks. I can’t because of this goddamn job. Getting time off is impossible.

Skrillex and Diplo’s “Where Are U Now” wakes me up from a three-second, sitting-up nap. Emboldened by the catchy riff punctuating Justin Bieber’s refrain and fantasies of Ibiza opening parties, I write another resignation email. This time, I type my supervisor’s email address in the “recipients” box.

I still can’t hit “send,” but getting close makes me feel wild. I pack up, put on a tiny $3 romper, and walk along Las Vegas strip. As I pass Serendipity and hum along to Calvin Harris’s “This Is What You Came for,” I visualize myself lounging by the fountain, eating over-priced, calorie-packed ice cream. That would be self-indulgent. Unproductive. Bad. Glorious. Free. How freeing it would be to be bad. I don’t dare enter, but the thought alone loosens my mental shackles.

Something has to change this weekend. Either life as I know it will be destroyed, or I will. Either the part of me that forbids eating ice cream and dropping work will die, or the part of me that wants it will. I secretly root for the former.

As I enter the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that night with a parade of EDM heads in wings, animal faces, and bathing suits, that little voice in me that wants to fuck work and go be an ice cream eating fairy kitten princess says, “Hey, there. I missed you.” I pass giant glowing flowers, foreboding owl statues, and a tiny schoolhouse where people are coloring. This is the closest thing adults have to Disney World.

My pace picks up. I don’t know where I’m running, only what I’m running from: everything outside this land over the rainbow the Nevada dust had dropped me in.

In a pavilion where Russian DJ Julia Govor is playing, I make timid, barely detectable movements, flashing back to middle school dances. Then, I see a dude doing a little catwalk in a floor-length fur coat and bull horns.

Oh, OK, so nobody gives a fuck. This is not middle school. This is not a networking event. Toto, we’re not in New York City anymore. No matter what I do, someone next to me will be crazier.

But nobody’s judging the crazy person either. I want to be the crazy person. The one people compare themselves to so they can shed their misdirected shame. I run from stage to stage doing exaggerated moves I learned in zumba class or ballet or wherever the hell I picked them up. I smile at everyone, not caring if they smile back, but they do.

A cute guy intercepts me to ask where the bathrooms are. I tell him I don’t know, and his glance lingers on me. “Can I kiss you?” he asks.

“Sure,” I shrug, because why not, and we make out amid the blending cacophony of DJ sets. He gives me his number and tells me to let him know if I come to LA.

I can’t believe this is actually a way to live, I think. This is a world where I don’t have to prove anything to be accepted. Where I don’t need a pretentious OKCupid profile to get a kiss. Where don’t need a job to feel good about myself. Where my only job is to have fun.

The next morning, I hit “send.” Three minutes later, my boss asks if she can change my schedule to keep me. Maybe, I think, but not if that rules out Ibiza. “I’ll come,” I Facebook chat my friend.

On the bus to the next day’s festival, I spot a woman with rainbow hair. I see something in her I want to bring out in myself, so I sit beside her and recount my spontaneous makeout sesh.

After flirting with a new guy in line, I see her again at Anna Lunoe’s show. Then, as the neon lights glow against the blackening sky, she gives me molly on a rooftop overlooking the ferris wheel.

On my way back to the stage, the guy from the line asks why I didn’t answer his text. I hug him and walk on, throwing off my shirt. I can do better.

I meet the LA guy by the bathrooms, and we make out again. After chugging his water bottle, I say with honesty I didn’t know was in me that I’d like to go off by myself again. Stupid boys. I’ll have more fun alone because I’m fun. I’m a fairy kitten princess, dammit.

I merge with a crowd jumping and shouting through JAUZ’s mix of System of a Down’s “BYOB.” This is the best moment of my year, I think, and then I think about how contrary that is to everything I believed. The thing that made me happiest was not when my income hit six figures or when I published 20 articles in a day or when I lost five pounds or even when Whoopi Goldberg discussed my writing on The View. It was when I was was doing something so incredibly unimpressive (unless screaming “why do they always send the poor?!” louder than anyone else is impressive). Maybe you don’t have to suffer for the best things in life.

The next day, I realize that in an attempt to film the festival, I accidentally recorded my trip. “The themes in my life,” I listen to myself telling my rainbow-haired friend, “are discipline and deprivation. Whether it’s food or work, it’s all the same.”

When I hear that, I know hanging onto that job would be just as destructive as hanging onto my disordered eating. As Anna Lunoe and Chris Lake’s “Stomper” fills my hotel room, I tell my boss that if she wants me to stay, she has to pay me more. As I anticipated, she can’t.

I panic with the urge to go work on other jobs to make up for that one’s loss. Instead, I return to Serendipity, get an ice cream sundae, and don’t throw it up or keep eating after I’m full. I chuck the half-empty cup in the trash and call up a guy I’ve been crushing on as I walk along the strip. Then, I stop inside Sephora and buy makeup, something I’d always considered too indulgent. On the way, a guy sees my arm band, says “EDC fam!”, and hugs me like we’re long-lost relatives.

Over the next two weeks, I jog around my neighborhood listening to Elliphant’s “Not Ready”:

“I guess I’m not ready for reality / A young woman in a new world / I have a big responsibility / to live life wild and free like a bird / Now is the time to be dancing.”

My first night in Ibiza, as Chris Liebing fills the Amnesia opening party, I ask a German guy I would’ve deemed too hot for me before if I can bite him. We fall in love in just two days, and I leave in tears. But on the plane home, I realize New York and I are over anyway. I’m going to travel the world like I’ve always told myself I couldn’t, and Germany’s my first stop. I spend my flight to Dusseldorf transcribing an interview with Mexican DJ Jessica Audiffred, who told me,

“People want to experience a festival. People want to get crazy. They just want a place where they can let their emotions go. They just want to have fun. They just want to get wild and electronic music can give that and a lot of other things. Just to be in the festival scene, you realize why people go. You realize why people are interested. I think electronic music is a way for people just to be free and just to be themselves and have fun and let everything go.”

Slowly, my inner fairy kitten princess takes power back from the workaholic, money-driven person I never wanted to be. Now, nine months since EDC, I’m partying in a new country practically every month, I haven’t made myself throw up since last summer, and am still with the guy from Amnesia. And I’ve got rainbow hair.

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The right photo was taken the week before EDC; the left was taken the week I arrived in Germany.

My world used to extend from the Kips Bay studio apartment where I worked myself to the bone and stuffed my face to the 28th Street Starbucks where I filled my empty stomach and heart with cold brews. Now, it’s expanded through the beaches of Ibiza, the nightclubs of Berlin, the casinos of Vegas, and the Brooklyn clubs I used to pass by because I was “too busy.”

But there’s much more fairy kitten princess left in me, telling me to chuck it all and be a DJ, and she grows louder every time I hear “Stomper.”



I have considered writing this many times – but I never felt it was ready. It would be ready, I thought, when my mastery of the piano was complete. Or more realistically, when my proficiency at the piano was deemed certifiable. Certifiable by whom, I was never sure. I now realize how silly that would be. The story would never be told.

Two years ago, during a period of prolonged illness, I spent two months in my native Washington State. Words minced: it was a difficult time. A time in which there were few relaxing moments. I was preoccupied, even obsessed with the state of my health, as were the family members who surrounded me in a big, fuzzy love net. One such family member was my nephew-in-law, L, who to this day feels more like a smarter little brother. During some of the most trying moments of my condition, he would by force of habit or tremendous intuition, settle at his family’s piano and begin to play. Improvise, really.

L has been playing since he was tiny, as the framed photo atop his family’s piano depicts. In it he sits – no older than 4 or 5, examining the keys with his grandfather. Due to his musical education, as well as an abnormally elevated intellect, L is a bit of a virtuoso on the keys. He sits at the piano when no one is really paying attention – when everyone is absorbed in work, or a book, or a Twitter hole. When it is the most quiet.

Yet during intensified phases of my malaise, when everything was far from silent, his stunning melodies would split the chaos and fill the room with loveliness. The sound would completely pacify me. It entranced me. L’s compositions are entirely improvised, but somehow sound like oeuvres that have been labored over for months. At the same time they sound effortless. The astounding thing about these arrangements is that they materialize from thin air. The devastating thing is that they are gone as swiftly as they are played – never recorded on paper or garage band.

L’s playing so moved me during those months; I wished I could hire him as my in-house pianist. Though I would never get anything done if he accepted the job. Piano hypnotizes me. If L begins playing while the rest of us read or knit, my activity halts when the first key is struck. My eyes slowly close. My chin drifts upward as if waiting for some higher revelation. I am bewitched.

It wasn’t simply a newfound fixation with piano music that sprouted from my time at home. There also grew an intense desire to play the piano – to command the magical instrument itself.

The latter infatuation lay dormant for months after I returned to New York. I can’t remember if I consciously thought about learning piano. But when I heard the dizzying compositions of Nils Frahm for the first time, I knew that was it. I spent my lunch breaks scouring Craigslist for keyboards, and an affordable teacher. Despite my highfalutin cravings for something fancy, like a Fender Rhodes or a Juno, my budget afforded me a $200 Kurzweil Ensemble Grande Piano, which is a pretty rudimentary model. Within two days of hearing Frahm’s music, the Kurzweil was mine. She’s a sturdy one, and I named her Girtha on the account that she weighs, oh, about 500 pounds.

Locating a compatible instructor seemed even more important; you only pay for the keyboard once, whereas each lesson will strip you of money. I came across a guy named Andrew. He was one of the few teachers who included pictures in their listing, which gave me a sense of ease. I could size him up a bit first. He looked lanky, and a bit like Tom Verlaine from Television – minus the whole heroin-chic thing. At $50 per session the price was right, plus, a bonus: he conducted lessons out of the gorgeous San Damiano Mission in Greenpoint. I was eager to start. New hobbies are a love of mine yes, but I also knew that learning piano would make me a better music journalist…because then I’d be a failed musician too.

On a sweltering August Wednesday, we began.

Andrew was in his early thirties, and hip to the music canon, but he eschewed all of the arrogance often associated with such traits. To pay rent he played church services and taught, the rest of his time spent on various musical projects and writing plays. He was patient, genuine, and kind – albeit a touch awkward. I constantly tried to distract from my musical inadequacies with jokes. This never worked.

I remember on one particular occasion Andrew was demonstrating a technique, and began playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on the church piano to illustrate his point.

“You working that one up for church?” I asked.

“Whaa?” He looked genuinely concerned. When I assured him it was merely a joke, he laughed nervously and turned back to our lesson.

At first I learned piano quickly. The rush of a new pursuit – and a determination to achieve maestro status by the time I was an old lady – had me practicing for one to two hours daily. I was getting the basics down, and nailing my first song (Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” which ain’t that hard, by the way). I wasn’t quite a pianist yet, but I sure was learning piano.

But within months, practicing piano suffered the same fate of every discipline I’ve ever attempted, bar writing – it became a chore. I would halfheartedly cram the night before my lesson and resentfully play pages from the piano book; I much preferred improvisation, which always felt better than it sounded. At my lessons I would use tricks to skip playing from the book, as my sheet music literacy was declining. Asking a lot of questions typically worked.

I became nervous even before practicing at home – afraid my fingers would betray my ears. What was once cathartic and inspiring had become a little prison, built with the absurd standards I hold for myself.

This past August I got laid off from the desk job I hated. It was a bittersweet thing. I was tickled to say buh-bye to the 9-5, but that also meant cutting all recreational spending: i.e., piano lessons. I’d stopped regularly practicing sometime before, but swore to myself that the second I could afford it I would get back in the habit and recommence classes. Andrew understood, but warned me that he might be teaching elsewhere when we next met.

“The friars are renting the church out for concerts and events more and more, so I might have to find a new spot.”

“Wait a minute,” I pressed. “Andrew, it sounds like you’re getting gentrified out of the church!”

“HA!” echoed high to the ceilings. I’d finally gotten him to laugh.

I must admit that the most piano I have “played” since then has been air piano. It was what saved me during some rough turbulence on the last flight I took. Like many, I am terrified of flying, and usually try to knock myself out with merlot as a remedy. But, seeing as my flight was at 8am, even I felt too dignified to get tipsy.

Fortunately, the good people of Delta Airlines now have free, decent music aboard. I listened to Olafur Arnolds’ latest LP Island Songs on repeat, as well as a Bill Evans compilation several times. The piano, once again, took me over and soothed me – especially when I fervently “played” along. I kept my performance underneath my blanket however; just so other passengers wouldn’t think I was a complete nutter.

When I was recovering in Washington, before my lessons ever began, L would sometimes invite me to join him at the piano. “Just play the white keys,” he would say as I fumbled with the naturals. “What happens when I play the black keys?” I’d strike a sharp before he could answer, wincing at its sourness. Eventually I shied away, feeling far too vulnerable in front of someone who has been playing most of his life.

You’d think after a year of piano lessons I’d be less timid, but nothing has changed. My sister constantly offers the piano for me to practice when I visit. A songwriter and music teacher, sis claims that no one in the house minds, and that she uses it for “mediocre piano hour” all the time.

But I can’t do it. I become rigid, stewed in anxiety. I am not proficient. I am not a performer. And I’m certainly not a virtuoso.

But I can play one hell of an air piano.