In an era of lengthening lifespans and disappearing job security, reinventing your career is a hot topic. Lots of people try it — but nobody ever did it better than Joan Rivers.
When she died in 2014, headlines around the world remembered the 81-year-old comic as an indomitable trailblazer who broke down barriers for women and sustained a remarkable career over sixty years in the entertainment industry.
But most observers didn’t realize that her accomplishments also included an unexpected success as a businesswoman. After decades of fame, Rivers suddenly found her life in ruins at the age of 54 — her career destroyed, her wealth vanished. For a middle-aged female performer, resurrecting a viable career seemed as hopeless as making another fortune.
And yet Rivers not only reinvented herself but created a dazzling second act as the CEO of a billion-dollar company. No one was more surprised than Rivers by her unlikely triumph.
All she ever wanted was to perform, and her career was at its peak when she realized a lifelong goal in 1986. After reigning for years as America’s Queen of Comedy and Johnny Carson’s favorite substitute host on The Tonight Show, Rivers left NBC for the fledgling Fox network, where she became the first female host of a late-night talk show in television history.
Before a year was out, she’d been fired from her dream job and publicly humiliated. Her husband — who served as her manager and the show’s producer — was so depressed by their failure that he killed himself. Rivers discovered that nobody wanted to hire her — and to make matters worse, she was broke. Her husband had squandered her money on bad investments, and she was $37 million in debt. She was even estranged from her beloved daughter, who adored her father and blamed her mother for his death.
As her 55th birthday approached, Rivers thought about killing herself. Facing such impossible odds, many people would despair — but that wasn’t in her character. Throughout her life, her credo remained as fierce as it was uncompromising: “Never stop believing,” she said. “Never give up. Never quit. Never!
And so Rivers started over and recreated her career as a comedian, becoming more famous, more influential, and richer than she had ever been in her younger days.
But that wasn’t all. After being approached by QVC, a relative newcomer in the burgeoning field of televised home shopping, Rivers turned herself into a CEO and designer who created her own line of clothing and jewelry. By the time she died 24 years later, her company had sold more than a billion dollars’ worth of products and helped to make QVC into a powerhouse.
As if that weren’t enough, Rivers took an on-camera job of critiquing celebrities’ outfits at televised awards ceremonies. With Joan as the irreverent comic and her daughter, Melissa, as the straight man, their snarky commentary transformed the coverage of galas and other star-studded events, spawning the modern red carpet industry as a major television genre.
By the time Rivers died, she was an international icon whose death was mourned by millions. Her fans ranged from her own contemporaries to the middle-aged women who bought her jewelry on QVC to the millennials who hung on her every wicked word as the irrepressible star of Fashion Police.
But Rivers always wanted more of everything, and her restless drive propelled her into a stunningly diverse array of other professional fields.
When she started out, comedy was a boys’ club, but her relentless ambition made her into a pioneer who paved the way for the female comics who dominate the headlines today. Virtually all cite her as a major influence; not only did Rivers perform stand-up until she died, but she stayed on the cutting edge of comedy, continually astonishing younger audiences with her fearlessness.
Rivers was also an Emmy-Award-winning television talk-show host; a radio host; a reality star online and on TV; the best-selling author of memoirs, fiction and self-help books; a playwright and a Tony-nominated actress on Broadway; a Hollywood movie director, screenwriter and film actress; and a Grammy Award-winning recording artist.
Many people dream about reinventing themselves, but Rivers’s story is one for the record books — one whose relevance extends far beyond show business.
“Anyone who wants to accomplish anything in life should look at Joan Rivers,” says Bill Boggs, the author of Got What It Takes? Successful People Reveal How They Made It To The Top.
A longtime television host, Boggs interviewed Rivers repeatedly, and he never forgot her determination and ingenuity. “She is a role model for everyone,” he said.
HOW JOAN DID IT: DOs and DON’Ts
1. Don't Let Pride Hold You Back
Rivers loved to perform, and she was willing to do almost anything for a paycheck. Seizing almost any offer of work, no matter how humble, she never let arrogance or a sense of entitlement get in her way Her appreciation for every opportunity led to many gigs that might not otherwise have enriched her life — or her bank account.
2. Don't Slow Down
Rivers was notorious for her work ethic, and she maintained an unrelenting pace until she died. Determined not to appear old, she walked fast and powered through any aches and pains. Colleagues marveled at her brutal schedule, which few could match even in their youth. Rivers never slacked off.
3. Do Be Proactive
If opportunities didn’t come her way, Rivers invented them herself. When she wanted to break into the movie business, she wrote screenplays and directed her own movie. She wanted to act on Broadway, so she wrote a play — and won a Tony Award nomination for best actress. Whenever her career slowed down, she figured out fresh ways to create meaningful work. She was always eager to try new things, and the diversity of her credits reflects the inventiveness that kept expanding her scope.
4. Do Keep on Dreaming
At an age when many people let their world shrink, Rivers continued to live out her lifelong fantasies. She longed for recognition as a serious actress, and during the final months of her life, she was planning a return to the stage with Sally Marr…and Her Escorts, the play she wrote and performed on Broadway in 1994. Twenty years later, the 81-year-old performer was still doing everything possible to make her most cherished dreams come true.
Leslie Bennetts is the author of LAST GIRL BEFORE FREEWAY: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers.
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