Editor's note: This interview originally appeared in our sister paper The Stranger. Kathy Griffin will perform in Portland Sunday, June 17 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
On May 30, 2017, Kathy Griffin's life as she knew it came to an end.
That day, gossip site TMZ published a now-infamous photo taken by celebrity photographer Tyler Shields, who reportedly leaked the image to TMZ himself. The photo showed Griffin, stone-faced, grasping Donald Trump's severed head by its raggedy blond hair as blood poured down the president's face. If you squinted (and wished) hard enough, you could almost—almost—imagine it was the real thing.
Alas, it was not: The head was just a mask, the blood was just ketchup, and Kathy Griffin was not a clandestine assassin who somehow made it through the Secret Service to separate the president's head from his body. It was just a gag, and she was just a comic, doing what comics do. But, as Griffin would soon find out, in Trump's America, this kind of joke was no laughing matter.
In the days that followed the leak, Griffin—whose career up to that point had consisted largely of red-carpet commentary and stand-up about celebrities with drinking problems—was denounced from both the left and the right. Sponsors dropped her, venues canceled her appearances, and she was fired from CNN, where she'd cohosted the New Year's Eve special for a decade. Griffin apologized, but Trump, never one to ignore a slight, tweeted about the image himself, and his army of fans quickly came gunning for Griffin.
She received so many death threats that the FBI started consulting her on which were credible and which were just bluster. At the same time, she herself was under investigation.
"I got a call from my lawyer, and he said the Department of Justice was putting me under federal investigation and possibly charging me with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States," Griffin told me by phone recently. "I thought he was kidding. He was like, 'It's not a joke. Lawyer up.'"
She did lawyer up, hiring celebrity civil-
rights attorney Lisa Bloom, who soon led Griffin through what she calls a "disastrous" press conference. Bloom began the conference by talking about Griffin's activism for women and sexual minorities, and she
explained that the photo was a nod to Trump's own statements on the campaign trail the year before, when he'd said of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly: "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
"Kathy never imagined [the photo] could be misinterpreted as a threat of violence," Bloom said.
When it was Griffin's turn, she spoke off the cuff. She was clearly nervous and was compulsively making jokes, before getting serious. "I'm not afraid of Donald Trump," she said as cameras flashed. "He's a bully. I've dealt with old white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career." She also apologized, but not to the president himself. She was sorry if the photo was traumatic for anyone with a loved one who had been beheaded. "Trust me, if I could redo the whole thing, I'd have a blow-up doll and no ketchup," she said. But as for Trump? He could still go fuck himself.
"The Donald, it's me, The Kathy," she said to the camera, directly addressing the president. "The death threats that I'm getting are constant and they are detailed and they are serious and they are specific... But this president, of all people, is going to come after me? He picked the wrong redhead."
The press conference didn't help much. The Secret Service led a two-month-long investigation into whether or not the photograph constituted an actual threat to the president's life. Meanwhile, Griffin was put on the no-fly list.
"I had to convince my alcoholic mother that I wasn't a member of ISIS," Griffin said. "Because she watches Fox News, and she thinks it's real. She's 98, what am I going to do? I can't beat her."
Instead of beating her mother (or changing the channel to PBS and hiding the remote), Griffin got her mom a small dog in an attempt to distract her from Fox News. But it wasn't just Tucker Carlson's fan club that was calling for Griffin's head: The left came for her, too. Perhaps most famously, Anderson Cooper, who had been Griffin's New Year's Eve cohost for 10 years running, denounced the photo and Griffin herself. And he was hardly the only one of Griffin's friends to evaporate. When asked about Griffin, Andy Cohen, whom Griffin had also known for more than a decade, told TMZ he didn't know who she was.
"That was the part that was horrible," Griffin said, adding that she has been compared to the Dixie Chicks, whose largely conservative audience turned on them after the band voiced their opposition to the Iraq war in the early 2000s. "I resent it when people are like, 'You got Dixie Chicked.' No, I got Dixie Dicked. The Dixie Chicks had the entire entertainment community wrap their arms around them. They were put on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine as sheroes. Not me. The left completely turned on me. The center turned on me. Everyone joined the dog pile. And, to be honest, it hasn't let up very much. I'm still in a dog pile."
It's a lonely place to be, and, she notes, while certain (male) celebrities like Johnny Depp and Snoop Dogg and Morrissey have also publicly talked about (or, perhaps, dreamed of) killing the Trump, she's the only one whose career immediately tanked. The photographer who took the infamous shot, for instance, had no such bad luck. He reportedly received offers of up to $150,000 for the photo itself. This year, he had a show at Sotheby's.
Like the experience of many pariahs, during the storm, some friends and allies did reach out to Griffin, but for the most part, they kept their support quiet. "One of the hardest things has been people saying, 'I support you, but don't tell anyone I reached out to you,'" she said. "It's like, 'Okay, thank you and go fuck yourself.' Starting May 30 last year, I realized, 'You are on your fucking own, bitch.'"
And so, on her own, Kathy Griffin did what Kathy Griffin does: She got back to work. Cut off from the same venues she'd been performing in for decades, she asked her tour manager to book her overseas, where audiences might be more receptive, or at least less overtly hostile, to her act. That was the beginning of Griffin's Laugh Your Head Off World Tour, which, after shows in 15 countries and 23 cities across the globe, is now continuing in the United States. She says this tour is more potent, but this time around, it's not just about her encounters with Cher or Celine Dion or Kim Kardashian—it's about Trump.
Her feelings for the Trump family, as you may guess, are not exactly warm. "Ivanka is a fucking dipshit," Griffin told me. "I know her. It's like talking to someone who is on a lot of Xanax and all they want to talk about is doing their nails. She's not an intellectual. She's not a woman's woman. She doesn't have our back. I've never met the husband, but I know Ivanka."
And she knows Ivanka's dad, too—"unfortunately," Griffin added. "I've known Trump off and on for 20 years. Some of my comedian friends will ask how I know Trump, and I go, 'How do you not know Trump?' I don't even live in New York, but the guy would show up to the opening of a fucking envelope."
"You can't imagine how stupid he is," she continued. "I like to use the term 'aggressively stupid.' He's not just stupid, he's one of those people who is kind of proud about it, like Britney Spears. I love Britney, but I am not going to say she's, let's say, intellectually curious. We basically have President Britney Spears, but without the catchy tunes."
Griffin isn't just saying this because of Trump's performance in office or because of his tweets. She knows the guy. Some years ago, well before he slunk his way into the White House, Griffin spent an evening seated next to him at a celebrity event. "Listening to Donald for four hours was akin to being waterboarded," she said. "His hot topic of conversation was like, 'So you're a female comic.' That's it. There's no rest of the sentence. I said, 'Yes, next thing you know, we're going to want the right to vote.'"
Gilbert Gottfried was sitting on her other side at the event. "I've never been so in love with Gilbert Gottfried in my life. I think my neck was sore the next day because I kept turning to Gilbert and asking: 'What did you do yesterday? And what did you do the day before? Take your time, Gilbert. Really.'"
Her new act has more stories like this—about Donald and Ivanka and the rest of the whole corrupt clan. These stories and jokes are sandwiched between Griffin's usual celebrity takedowns, as well as her new story, about what happened after that one photo nearly brought everything crashing down.
Much of America might have wanted her to disappear, but a year later, she's back, both on the stage and in public life. Today, Kathy Griffin is as loud and unapologetic as she's ever been—and even more blisteringly funny, because this time she's really got something to say.