Ever-youthful 73-yr-old Joan Rivers has always felt insecure about her looks
Joan Rivers with Tanya Gold
Joan Rivers is running round TopShop, perched on giant stilettos and holding a tissue to her curious, surgically-enhanced face because she has a cold.
Joan has poured make-up all over herself, and her nose points violently and unnaturally upwards. She is 73, but there isn't a wrinkle on her, and she has the soft, glowing cheeks of a teenager. Noses like Joan's don't exist in nature only plastic surgeons make noses like that.
So why is an ageing Hollywood comedienne scurrying round a teenage fashion mecca? She's borrowing ideas for the jewellery line she has on a TV shopping channel.
"I always go and see the latest jewellery trends," she says, fighting through the crowds. "So what are they wearing this year?" she asks herself out loud, peering at the TopShop jewellery. Joan is in Britain to judge the Miss Great Britain contest tonight, and she is evidently enjoying leading her entourage round the capital.
She drags me out into Oxford Circus, and into a builders' cafe, where her gang cause a mini riot.
When we are settled into a booth, I set about peeling away the mask that successive surgeons have worked so hard to create.
Who is Joan Rivers really and has her character changed with her appearance? If so, what's she trying to hide?
Let's start at the beginning. She was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, to a respectable Russian Jewish family.
She studied English at university, and in her 20s married her first husband Jimmy Sanger, the son of a department store manager. Six months later she realised she wasnt born to be a housewife and junked him.
When she announced to her father, a doctor, that she wanted to become a comedienne he threatened to have her committed.
"I came from a very upwardly mobile, education orientated family," she says. "When I said I wanted to be an actress, my father was very upset." But she did it anyway and when the world applauded so, eventually, did her parents.
She hit the New York comedy circuit in the Sixties, along with Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce, and was penniless for years "starving and working in strip joints and clubs" before she made it.
"I never knew I had a gift," she says, speaking very fast in her gravelly New York rasp. "I knew I wanted to be in the business. Making money never entered into it, ever. Now I think of money every day."
Her QVC jewellery range on TV has made her millions and she lives the fantasy life with a fabulous apartment apparently a mini Versailles in New York, an idyllic weekend place in Connecticut, servants, designer clothes and lap dogs.
Her big break was on the Johnny Carson show in 1965 and by the early 1980s she was his co-host, America's rudest, wittiest woman.
"Iron your face," she said to Mick Jagger. Or: "Joan Collins isn't here. She's being carbon dated."
Then in 1987, nemesis struck her tiny frame. By then she had married London-born Edgar Rosenberg, a producer on her TV show.
One day, in a mire of depression, he killed himself at the age of 62, just three days after she left him because she was unhappy in the marriage. The night he died, she was having liposuction.
Her abandonment of him was, she says, "one of the reasons" for his death. The nose emerges from the tissues, and she adds:
"It was one of the major knocks of my life, and also the cause of one of my emotional growth spurts. I learned that I could be on my own and have a new way of life. But the guilt never goes."
Guilty or not, she was quick to incorporate the suicide into her comedy act; standing on the stage at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas just three months later, joking:
"Thank God my husband said in his will that I should cremate him and then scatter his ashes in Neiman Marcus (a department store). That way he knew he would see me five times a week."
Her peculiar way of dealing with grief led to a rift with her only child, Melissa now in her 30s and her daughter by Edgar a TV presenter and single mother to Joan's grandson Cooper. It was a long time before it healed.
So why did she turn her husband's suicide into a joke?
"I laugh at everything," Joan says. "It is all about laughing at the worst." I suggest that many comedians are depressives, making us giggle so we never learn the truth about their intense self-loathing. "They are not so much sad as angry about everything," she says. "Funny people are very angry people. And they turn their anger into funny."