At home in Los Angeles Kathy Griffin is preparing to take her daily, seven-mile power-walk. The walls are adorned with portraits painted by fans of Griffin, an actor and comedian with a line in raunchy humour. In one, her mane of red hair appears to billow imperiously over the canvas’s edge.
Griffin always exercises at a regular hour. “I’m fair skinned,” she says, “I like to do it as the sun’s going down.” Today she’s trying to squeeze in a promotion for a brand of blue lipstick – shades include Frostitute and Blue Balls – before setting off. She grabs Randy Bick, her tour manager and boyfriend, to record a YouTube video. “I did not know this was a thing, but apparently the kids now like blue lipstick,” she says, whipping the cap off a tube and swiping it across her mouth. “Frostitute, haven’t we all felt like one?” Having enthused with great efficiency, Griffin turns to me: “Okay, shall we power-walk?”
“You want to keep the blue on?” asks Bick. Griffin glances in the mirror and rears back in theatrical horror. “All the nannies are gonna be like, wow, she’s edgy.” She grabs a tissue, wipes off the smears of cobalt and straps on her bum bag. “Alright,” she says, “I’m going to come back thinner and saner.”
Griffin is wearing a T-shirt of her own creation: the First Amendment of America’s constitution, which protects freedom of speech, is printed on it. She began selling these in 2017 after an incident that threatened to derail her career: a photo of her holding a Donald Trump mask streaked with ketchup, which looked like the president’s decapitated head, went viral. Griffin contends that it was part of an otherwise innocuous shoot with Tyler Shields, a photographer, who sent it to TMZ, a celebrity site. “I’m so stupid, I thought he would send it to Der Spiegel.” The Secret Service and US Department of Justice spent months investigating her for conspiring to assassinate the president.
We set off from her home in the swanky Bel-Air neighbourhood under blue skies and brush-stroke clouds. At first she talks quietly, as though paranoid that someone may overhear us, but she soon warms up. “When you have the government say you’re never going to work again, you learn about money real fast,” she says. Griffin is renowned for her irreverence, but the Trump joke was the most extreme of her career. CNN and Bravo cut ties with her. She lost product endorsement deals.
Desperate for work, she decided to embark on a global stand-up tour entitled “Laugh Your Head Off”. “I asked my agent to look for places where we know they hate Trump,” she says. “Two weeks later, I had 23 cities in 15 countries.” She performed in Houston and Dallas in deep-red Texas as well as Reykjavik, Antwerp and Vienna. She was detained at 15 airports – she believes she was on a no-fly list – and deluged with death threats. As we march down her driveway she points at a narrow grey box. “This is the mailbox that the FBI said I should be ten feet away from when I open it,” she says. “I’ve been trying to stretch my arms” – trim, ropey, nary a batwing – “but I’m not making any progress.”
Griffin, 58 years old with a bob of tangerine curls and inexhaustible energy, lives in a ritzy gated community of rolling hills and Tuscan-style villas. It’s so large that Griffin can do the whole of her seven-mile circuit within its bounds. Her own nine-bedroom mansion is walled with tall hedges. Though her humour is sardonic and self-deprecating, she appraises her home, which includes an infinity pool guarded by a ceramic Buddha, with uncomplicated pride. “The whole house is a big middle finger,” she says. “It’s meant to engender the reaction of, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea you were so successful and good with money.’” The gated community offered sanctuary after the Trump photo scandal. “I really didn’t leave very often. Power-walking was a big part of trying to figure my way out of that mess.”
The vitriol that the Trump incident provoked ultimately boosted Griffin’s profile. She has become an evangelist for freedom of speech. “I’m going to make sure people read the First Amendment,” she says of her T-shirt. “The Trumpers think I’ve violated it. But they haven’t read it.” She sells mugs and hats emblazoned with “Fuck Trump”. A new film, “Kathy Griffin: Hell of a Story”, tells the saga.
Griffin is a compact figure and walks like a toy soldier, taking small, brisk steps with military precision. Thirty minutes in, my shirt is starting to cling to my back; she doesn’t have a drop of sweat on her. Mercifully, we reach a downhill stretch. The view across the golf course reminds Griffin of her parents, who moved from small-town Illinois to LA when she was 18. Her parents “really wanted to go to San Diego, but I convinced them there were better golf courses here”. Her father idolised movie stars and Griffin set her sights on Hollywood. As a child she remembers thinking, “let the pretty girl be the lead, I want to be the one that goes in, gets the laugh, and then leaves.”
She began power-walking after a break-up in her 20s. “I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I call it my sanity walk.” Walking still tempers her compulsiveness. “I like to think I’ve just the right amount of OCD,” she says.
After performing in an improvised comedy troupe, Griffin got her break in 1996 in a sitcom, “Suddenly Susan”, which ran until 2000. Afterwards, she had no work for a year, so took “the worst time slot” at an LA comedy club: Wednesdays at 10pm. Jeff Zucker, a media executive, heard of her raucous sets about life as a struggling actor and offered her one of the first-ever reality TV series. (She likes to say that dick jokes paved her road to success.) “My Life on the D-List” chronicled her attempts to join the ranks of Hollywood celebrity. In the pilot episode she accosted Warren Beatty for a photo while hosting a charity do where attendees mistook her for the door girl. “That’s how I met a lot of big, A-list people,” she says. “I’m on the D-list, but every charity event always needs a comedian to host for free.” The series ran for six seasons and won Griffin two Emmys.
She now lives surrounded by some of the biggest stars of all. We pass two gargantuan Tuscan villas fused together: “Maybe that’s the guy who reinvented the olive,” says Griffin. The Kardashians, the first family of reality TV, feature heavily in her new film because Kim Kardashian and Kanye West used to live next door (they moved out at the end of 2017). As we charge up a hill, Griffin suddenly points at a grassy knoll across the street. “One time, Randy and I were doing this walk, we’re halfway around, and I see a tow truck and Kanye West.” The Rolls-Royce golf cart that he and Kardashian used to ride around had stalled. “I just slow clapped. I’m sure I was the last person he wanted to see.” Griffin re-enacts the scene, mimicking West looking grumpy with his hands on his hips. The first rule of reality TV has become second nature to her: everything is always a performance.
Despite the fervour around the #MeToo movement over the past two years, Griffin reckons the power imbalance largely remains. She power-walks every day partly because she doesn’t “want to give these guys – the entertainment executives, the cheque-signers – an excuse. Keep yourself in shape. You go to a meeting and the guys can look schlubby, but I try to look like I’m ready to walk from the meeting onto the set.” Such devotion is just one aspect of the commitment that has kept her slogging onwards, even at the lowest points of her career.
Griffin’s stamina extends far beyond walking. “I was on stage for three hours a night on the last tour,” she says. “That was almost athletic. I’m a serious athlete, in my mind.” She slows her pace for my benefit. “You’re clearly a wimp, you can’t keep up with me,” she says. She promises not to perform what she calls her “crazy lady arm circles”, so as not to embarrass me, which makes me only more eager to see them. “Oh, should I give you the full Kathy?” She starts whirling her arms like propellers. An elderly man passes in the opposite direction and gives Griffin a small nod and tight smile. “They keep their distance,” she says. “They know I did something with the president.”
She powers up the last hill, arms scything, leaving me lagging behind. There’s a faint glimmer on the back of her neck but it barely counts as a sweat. As she opens her door, her two dogs jump on her, tails wagging enthusiastically She reaches down to nuzzle them. “I don’t walk with them because they’re super zig-zaggy,” she says. That’s the only time she refuses to indulge them. “I’m like, ‘Mommy’s walking!’”•
Kathy Griffin: Hell of a Story is on release in select cinemas around the world July 31st