Chelsea Handler changed the game for woman comedians. She hosted a top-rated talk show for seven years. She altered the Netflix comedy landscape. She wrote five best-selling books by the age of 40. She posed topless on a horse to mock Vladimir Putin and admitted to being “sexually attracted to Robert Mueller.” All jokes aside, however, Handler is serious when it comes to leveraging her celebrity for causes greater than herself. Irreverent and unfiltered, we’ve all grown to identify the comedian as an open book one devours alongside a bottle of pinot to numb the madness of our nation’s current state of affairs.
When I arrived backstage at the eighth annual Sun Valley Film Festival to interview Handler ahead of her Coffee Talk event promoting her upcoming book, Life Will Be The Death of Me, I was surprised to see she wasn’t partaking in the complimentary Bloody Mary bar. But this made sense, given that her new book recounts Handler’s journey of self-discovery, healing, and finding balance following a breakdown after the 2016 presidential election. It became apparent within minutes of meeting Handler that the crass personality I thought I knew from TV was only the outer layer to a deeper, vulnerable, and multifaceted public figure that has endured a great deal more in her personal life than the media gives her credit for. Chelsea was the same open book in person, offering candid commentary about childhood trauma, cannabis, and taking a step back from politics.
Refinery29: Life Will Be The Death of Me is all about self-discovery and healing. What sparked this inner work journey?
Chelsea Handler: “After the election in 2016 I had what could be the closest thing i’ve ever felt to depression — really a full mental breakdown. I was screaming at the news all day. After months of working with a psychiatrist, we uncovered the outrage I had toward Donald Trump represented the outrage for when my brother died suddenly after falling off a cliff when I was 9 years old. That event left my family unhinged. Nobody knew what to do. I remember looking at my dad, and I knew nothing would ever be the same...It took me so long to realize that my childhood experience represented a feeling of rejection, and a big part of my brain stayed 9 years old for a long time.”
What inspired you to share this intimate, painful, and emotional experience publicly?
“At first I didn’t think I had a right to be in pain because I’m successful and privileged. But my therapist kept telling me to stop pretending I didn’t have an injury. Until I healed myself I couldn’t heal other people, and I couldn’t be of use to anyone until I was of use to myself. So after I did this work I really didn’t want to write another silly book. I wanted to think of a way forward using my platform in a way that’s more profound, meaningful, and authentic for everyone else dealing with these issues.”
Are there specific tools and practices that you’ve adopted in your daily life to help you cope with the outrage and help your healing?
“Meditation helps you sleep and chill out. I use Headspace, that’s my buddy! Cannabis is also legal in California, and for me it’s been a huge discovery because it’s cut my drinking in half. It’s so much better to microdose and be present and non-reactive and calm. So all these things and all of my personality flaws I’ve just really dealt with in a major way that has allowed me to be more open-minded instead of rolling my eyes at people who meditate. I’m not going on a silent retreat anytime soon, but I’m definitely open to the idea of self care and self-preservation in a way that isn’t just about being defensive, strong, and independent. I’ve learned strength is vulnerability as well, which is something that I’ve had a real hard time ever expressing until now.”
How do you balance keeping informed about what’s in the news and speaking out about issues you care about while also still staying sane?
“I keep myself informed and aware of everything that’s going on politically, and I am socially conscientious. After the midterm elections, I saw we got 127 women elected into Congress — some re-elected some first-time elected — and to me that is a course correction. After that win I really needed to take time to get back to life and my own stuff that makes me fulfilled. I don’t want my whole life to be about politics and screaming at the TV all day!”
What are you going to be focusing on this year?
“My book! My whole therapy journey and what’s happened — not journey; I hate that word — but unwrapping my pain. People have had this impression of me for so long. I was and am tough as nails, but there’s so much more to being strong than being tough. The book tour is going to be talking about all the things that we just don’t want to deal with in life.”
Is it true you have a cannabis product line launching?
“Yes, I can’t disclose the name yet, but I have a cannabis product launch this summer... I have much more knowledge about cannabis now and am confident we are going to legalize cannabis as a country. I believe we’ll all live to see the end of prohibition on marijuana very soon. Because first of all, it’s medicine; it’s from the ground. Microdosing has an educative component that allows you to be more present. I’ve invested in a company called Civilized, which is a cannabis advocacy program. They give you information about what’s happening in the cannabis space and the different laws, so they helped me learn. My product is going to isolate a specific strain that doesn’t give you the munchies. My main goal for women is to be able to use cannabis without feeling out of control with food.”
Is there anything else to know about the upcoming year for Chelsea Handler?
“I shot a documentary for Netflix, my book comes April 9, and you can also come see me on this book tour in 20 cities with different friends interviewing me, like Melissa McCarthy in Los Angeles. It’ll be a good time!”
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.