I heard that Oprah is upset with me, but whatever," Kathy Griffin says, at home in the Hollywood Hills. And if Oprah isn't actually upset, she's about to be. "I love that Oprah does shows about saving Africa--that's awesome--but then she's also done shows where she's flown her dog on a private plane to see a special vet. A private plane costs $50,000 to go from California to Chicago. One way! So it's funny to me that Oprah is, like, 'I'm your sister, girl. I'm down with you.' Mmm, not really. Not so much." (Article continued below...)
This kind of commentary on the super famous has made Griffin pretty famous herself. A few years ago she started dishing on celebrities--and herself--in her stand-up act, and last year spun that into the reality series "My Life on the D-List." In general, reality TV turns desperate wanna-bes and has-beens into jokes--think Bobby Brown, Danny Bonaduce, the entire cast of every season of "The Surreal Life"-- but it turned Griffin into a subculture sensation, showcasing how hilarious she is not just onstage but all the time. Gay men immediately adopted her as their new mini-icon, a fact that is not lost on her. "So," Griffin says, seconds into the interview, "is this really for NEWSWEEK, or are you just a gay guy who wanted to meet me?" Um, both. "NEWSWEEK's a little A list for me. Maybe you could pitch this story to the Star."
Despite the success of "My Life on the D-List," Griffin wasn't exactly eager to shoot the second season, which debuts this week. "It's horrible, horrible, doing a reality show," she says. "It's awful, invasive--and it's on Bravo, which is not even a real network. But it takes a lot to humiliate me. I'd measure my vagina onstage if it would get a laugh." Or anyone else's. Oprah, Barbra Streisand, Sharon Stone, Céline Dion, Clay Aiken and Ryan Seacrest, among others, have all been targets. "I only go after the biggest and brightest," she says.
In fact, that's what got her fired from her gig on the E! channel last year. As a red-carpet co host for the Golden Globes, Griffin conducted an ongoing gag all evening, telling stars that child actress Dakota Fanning, who was about to star opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," had gone into rehab. She was clearly joking, but the movie studio and Spielberg demanded an apology. E! gave them one. Griffin didn't. In retrospect, maybe that E! job wasn't such a good match. "Their job is to kiss celebrity a--, and my job is exactly the opposite," she says. And that is making Griffin the new best friend of the tabloid generation: the pal who goes to all the Hollywood events, comes home and tells all. "I want the audience to feel like they're sitting right here on the sofa with me," she says.
It's been a long journey to that sofa for Griffin. The Chicago native got her start in the famous comedy troupe the Groundlings, and in the mid-' 90s landed the role of Brooke Shields's smart-aleck co-worker on the series "Suddenly Susan." After that show went off the air, Griffin began looking for another sitcom. "I was auditioning for, like, the wife of the balding guy with the beer gut who never wants to have sex with her," she says. "And the best part was, I wasn't hot enough to get those roles. I wasn't hot enough to be Jim Belushi's wife."
Griffin, 44, has famously had a lot of plastic surgery, and in full hair and makeup can sometimes look like a petite drag queen. In person, she looks softer and more natural. Although she often jokes about the way she looks, Griffin can be hurt when other people do, too. Last season, after Jay Leno teased that a shot of her posing with model Carmen Electra looked like a before-and-after photo, Griffin broke down in tears on the way home. "I was being a dumb girl," she says now. "Some days that stuff will roll right off my back, and other days it will totally crush me. I have no explanation for it. I wish I could be a guy."
It's the insecurity underneath all the brass that has endeared her to gay men. "I just always related to gay people, that sense of being outside," she says. "In high school I made fun of the cheerleaders, but then I'd have that moment where I wished I was a cheerleader. Luckily, I found other people who felt the same way. So the cheerleaders went to the prom, and I hung out at the doughnut shop with the gays." Pause. "This was back when the gays ate carbs. Those days are over, my friend."
Her days of being the darling of only the gay subculture are over, too. She's packing 2,500-seat theaters nationwide. These days, the only group not in her audiences is white, middle-aged straight men. "It's the one demographic I cannot crack," she says. "I have nothing to say to them. They don't care that Gwyneth Paltrow named her kid Apple. They're not even sure that Gwyneth Paltrow is a different person than Nicole Kidman." The good news? "I'm bringing the lesbians around. Tougher customers, lesbians." This summer Griffin has agreed to perform on Rosie O'Donnell's cruise ship for alternative families. "I'm going to be on the boat for three nights with the lesbians and the kids," she says. "And you know how self-righteous the lesbians are about those goddam kids. And I hate children. But I'm not going to tell Rosie."
The downside of Griffin's rising fame is that it has the potential to turn her into one of the very people she mocks. So it's a little worrisome that the hook for Griffin's reality series this season is to get her off the D list. To accomplish this she plans to adopt a Namibian baby, join Scientology, give Seacrest a manicure/pedicure and release a sex tape with Dame Judi Dench. (Fans can vote online for which stunt she'll try first.) But Griffin insists the whole thing was the network's idea. "The truth is, I really like being on the D list," she says. "I feel it's the best of both worlds. I get to have a fancy house, but I don't have people going through my garbage." It's much more fun to go through theirs.