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Joan Rivers, formerly of the Bergdorf Goodman Perfume Counter

From the Archives

The Comedian who made "Comedienne" extinct talks about the Store, the Muppets and Fashion Police

6 1 2011

The Muppets Take Manhattan was one of the surprise hit films of 1984. It out-grossed Nightmare on Elm Street, The Flamingo Kid, Sixteen Candles, Against All Odds and Rhinestone and almost beat out Coppola’s The Cotton Club. America was in love with Jim Henson’s troupe of fuzzy puppets who had broken out of kids’ TV and captured the imagination of Americans of all ages. Kermit and Missy Piggy were household names.

Aside from Kermit, Miss Piggy, Bert, Cookie Monster, Gonzo and the rest of the Muppet ensemble, The Muppets Take Manhattan also featured a distinguished cast of humans that included Gregory Hines, James Coco, Dabney Coleman, Elliot Gould, Liza Minnelli, Brooke Shields, Mayor Ed Koch, Linda Lavin and Miss Joan Rivers, who played a cosmetics and perfume counter salesperson at Bergdorf Goodman. The premise was that shopping at Bergdorf’s was one sign that you had made it in Manhattan.

Like Barbra Streisand in her TV special My Name Is Barbara, Miss Piggy’s idea of going glamorous in Manhattan was a spree at the Fifth Avenue style landmark. Streisand’s fantasy spree was probably based on an interview she gave as a Broadway starlet at age 19, when she said, “I’ll be a success when I’m famous enough to get waited on at Bergdorf Goodman.”

America’s most famous pig wasn’t at Bergdorf Goodman to shop, she was there to work at the parfumerie. She reported late to work, where she was shown the ropes by coworker Rivers. Of course it was only a movie, as one can gather from the over-the-top enthusiasm of the sales clerk, played by Joan Rivers, who is hawking: “Get your new French perfume here! Quelle Difference!” Miss Piggy adds, “It will help you grab one of those stinking, rotten men!” Trouble is in the air, as well as “Quelle Difference.”
Joan senses that Miss Piggy is troubled and delivers her signature line: “Can we talk?”

“Did something happen at lunch?”
“My frog turned on me.”
“I had some bad tuna myself.”
As they talk, Joan discovers that Miss Piggy is depressed, and she tries to cheer
her up.
Miss Piggy: “Do you think I’m pretty
Joan: “Of course. You’re more than pretty!”
Miss Piggy: “Gorgeous?”
Joan: “Don’t push it.”
But then the kindhearted Joan winds up giving Miss Piggy a makeover, starting with “a little rouge.”
Joan: “You need eyebrows.”
Miss Piggy: “Pigs don’t have eyebrows.”
Joan: “Well this pig is going to!”

Things start to go wrong when Joan decides that Miss Piggy needs lipstick. This may be the first use of the phrase “lipstick on a pig.” According to Ben Zimmer, writing in Slate, this expression derives from the 16th-century saying “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” Zimmer cites the first lipstick-on-a-pig reference as coming from a San Francisco radio host speaking about plans to renovate Candlestick Park: “That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.” But in 1984, Joan Rivers actually put lipstick on a pig at Bergdorf Goodman, and it wound up getting both her and the pig fired, news they greeted with riotous laughter.
I called up Joan Rivers recently to hear her recollections of working with Miss Piggy at Bergdorf’s parfumerie. She was somewhere on the endless tour that is her life.

Glenn: So how did you get into the Muppet movie?

Joan: They called me up! Very simple. At the point, the Muppets were the hottest thing in America. Everybody loved Ms. Piggy. I think she even hosted one of the awards shows.

Glenn: Ms. Piggy was kind of a sex symbol for a certain crowd.

Joan: Yeah, she was hilarious. And I thought what fun it would be to be in The Muppets Take Manhattan. It was brilliant working with them. You really absolutely forgot they were puppets.

Glenn: It seems like you were having a great time. Were you improvising or was it all scripted?

Joan: It was a little bit of both. As usual, they give you a script, and then you go off from the script. And they were so clever and so good. At the end of the takes, I would turn to Ms. Piggy, the puppet, and say, “That went well.” You would absolutely forget that it was a puppet.

Glenn: Was the person operating the puppet in your sight line?

Joan: Oh yes, absolutely! Right below you—you know with sticks and hands and all that stuff working her—but she was so alive and so well-done you absolutely…you just truly thought she was real.

Glenn: The last time I saw you was during your triumphant victory on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, and the thing that struck me when I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan recently was how your hair in that film resembles Mr. Trump’s current hairstyle.

Joan: Good! I haven’t seen the movie in so long. Probably it was done by the Bergdorf Goodman hairdresser, so…

Glenn: Which is convenient to the Trump Tower.

Joan: I wish I had his money. I love Donald. I am one of the big Donald supporters.

Glenn: Well, of course. You won!

Joan: It’s not just that. The man is so damn smart. Such a businessman, such a good producer, totally on top of everything. He’s very fair and very honest. And that’s great in a boss.

Glenn: I read you were a fashion consultant.

Joan: Yeah, years ago when I was in college and right afterwards.

Glenn: Were you always interested in fashion?

Joan: I always loved fashion, always loved jewelry, and I love show business. I did Lord & Taylor window displays in the beginning. And that really combined everything, because you picked the fashions, you know they’d help you pick the fashions, then you’d set it up and do the whole display thing. So that’s very show business.

Glenn: So were you a Bergdorf customer before your Muppet movie?

Joan: My mother was­­—my mother always went to Bergdorf’s. She was a big Bergdorf’s customer. All her shoes, I mean all, came from Delman, which was then the Bergdorf Goodman brand, I believe. I was used to going, but Bergdorf was always the high end, as it still is. I mean Bergdorf’s has not changed what it’s about—the purple bag means something very special is coming in it.

Glenn: Had you ever been to the makeup counter of a department store?

Joan: No, I don’t do that. Especially as we have had our own Joan Rivers brand for about ten years.

Glenn: Oh, is that what you’re selling on TV?

Joan: Among other things. We have a fashion line going now too.

Glenn: Oh, can we get that into Bergdorf’s?

Joan: No, we’re exclusive, which is why it’s good. But my main link with Bergdorf’s is Betty Halbreich, your stylist and customer service lady, who is absolutely amazing.

Glenn: And she was your personal shopper?

Joan: She still is. I mean, she’s just amazing. She just knows what looks good on each one of her customers.

Glenn: Do you always have someone doing your makeup all the time or do you do it yourself?

Joan: It depends. When I’m home by myself, I do it myself. If I’m going out, I do it professionally. And that’s been going on for years. I’m not good with hair, and I’m not good with makeup.

Glenn: When you do your fashion critiques of people, that has to be improvised right on the spot, because you don’t know what to expect, right? Or do you have fashion intelligence agents spying for you?

Joan: Well, Fashion Police is actually on the day after the Oscars. We watch the Oscars, and we make our notes and figure out who we like and who we don’t like. But half of the show is spontaneous.

Glenn: So do you, like, go for the throat or are you being semi-diplomatic?

Joan: No, the whole point of Fashion Police, which is on every Friday night on E!, is to tell the truth. The minute you are criticizing, you’re a critic, if you don’t tell the truth, you’re not a critic, you’re nothing.

Glenn: Exactly. So how you do handle criticism yourself. Does it bother you?

Joan: I don’t read negative criticism. You know when you’re good and you know when you’re bad, you know when you look like an idiot, you know when you don’t, you know and that’s it!

Glenn: Does anyone get really mad about what you say about them?

Joan: Never the important ones. Julia Roberts doesn’t get mad. Sarah Jessica Parker doesn’t get mad. The big ones know it’s all publicity and…and what does it matter? Fashion should be fun. Let’s not take it so seriously. Fashion should be enjoyed.

Glenn: So how about the documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work? You really let it all hang out. Has that changed your life in any way?

Joan: It certainly changed lives of the girls who made it. Ricky Stern is the director. I think it pushed them into a very different category of documentarians. But it was just wonderful to have that many people see it. I just found it extraordinary, because we didn’t think anybody would watch it. They couldn’t sell it. Showtime turned it down, HBO turned it down, everybody turned it down, until we showed it at Sundance and then it got just such raves, they took it out theatrically.

But where I’m really letting my hair down is the new show Joan and Melissa, which is on WE, and that’s on every Tuesday night, and that’s a real reality show. It’s about my moving out to California with Melissa, and it’s about a parent coming back into the child’s house, when the child is now the ruler, and how do you make the adjustments and how do you live together. It’s mother/daughter, and it’s parent/child, and it’s doing very, very well.

Glenn: You mean Melissa’s the boss?

Joan: Well, it’s her house.

Glenn: You’re helping pay the rent, I guess.

Joan: No. I’m in the guest room (laughs). She doesn’t ask me.

Glenn: So do you get along well? Is it like reality reality?

Joan: It’s reality reality, which is why it’s doing so well. I don’t know if you’re married or single, or you have a sister or mother or what, but you know two women in the same house, it’s difficult.

Glenn: One woman in the house is difficult.

Joan: Yes, one woman in the house is difficult.

Glenn: I’m married. Again.

Joan: Then you know. Exactly right.

Glenn: So to sum up.

Joan: Joan and Melissa is the best new reality show. Fashion Police is going on forever. We just got picked up till October, so that’s great. And just life is good, no complaints! As long as Bergdorf Goodman is on the corner of 58th and 5th, I’m a happy girl. Let me just say one more thing about Bergdorf’s. Your windows—I’m an old window display whore. I went through college doing windows. Your windows should be put in the Hall of Fame. They’re incredibly beautiful. Every week I look forward to them because they’re always beautifully, amazingly done. And Christmas…there’s nothing to discuss, they’re so perfect.

Glenn: Well, I think if you ever wanted to sit in the window, they would let you.

Joan: I would do it!

To me, Joan Rivers is a secular saint, Joan of Arch, I guess, who fought like a man for equal comedy rights and won. She is a hero. And she’s bad. She’s seventy-seven, and she’ll kick anybody’s butt in a rumble. If you like Joan on TV, or on The Celebrity Apprentice or whatever, you owe it to yourself to see Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. I think I teared up once or twice. In one scene she’s talking while a makeup artist puts on her face, and she says “No man has ever, ever told me I’m beautiful.”


 Joan Rivers & Miss Piggy



Let me be the first, Joan Rivers: You’re beautiful!  BG


Watch the scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan