Melissa Rivers’ business of guilty pleasures

Eighteen years ago, Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, had an idea: Red carpet entrances at awards ceremonies could be as exciting as the event itself. Melissa would play the “straight man” role, while Joan made snarky comments about the best and worst attire worn by actors, actresses and musicians. It wouldn’t matter whether the outfits were condemned or complimented. In the end, the coverage would generate press for fashion designers, controversy for Joan and attention for the celebrities.

The mother and daughter team worked the red carpet for E! until 2003, followed by a four-year stint at TV Guide. Although the pair hasn’t worked as official red carpet hosts since 2007, Melissa said in a recent interview that she’s proud of the trend that she and her mom started. “We did it, and we did it well. We set the standard,” she said.

Melissa is still involved in the world of celebrity fashion, serving now as an executive producer on E!’s “Fashion Police,” a weekly show hosted by her mom, Kelly Osbourne, George Kotsiopoulos and Giuliana Rancic. On it, the four look at what celebrities are wearing when they’re out and about, at different events or on the red carpet and comment on the attire. “We’re all the designers’ guilty pleasure,” Melissa said. “They’re just happy their clothes are being talked about.”

On the morning following major awards shows such as the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes, Joan and the “Fashion Police” hosts are on the set at 7 a.m., shooting their coverage. Melissa remains behind the scenes, while Joan is one of the co-hosts reviewing photos of the events. “It’s busy, but it’s fun,” she said. “The most fun is the Golden Globes. Everyone is back from vacation, so no one hates each other yet. The Oscars are so controlled and serious.”

This year, Melissa said, newcomer actress Lupita Nyong’o, who made her big debut in “12 Years a Slave,” has stood out on the red carpet. “She has blown everyone away.” 

Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce Knowles and Cate Blanchett also consistently impress Melissa with their red carpet apparel. 

However, she said, the red carpet often can be unpredictable. The worst-dressed might do a 180 and walk on looking great, while the normally best-attired might have an occasional fashion faux pas. “You never know who’s going to be the worst-dressed. Just when you think someone is consistently blowing it, they do something amazing. Some women are that calculating and smart. They’re not going to be able to out-dress Cate Blanchett or Angelina Jolie, so they might as well get talked about,” she said. 

Melissa says she has always loved fashion, just like her mom. Growing up, she would go to costume fittings with Joan and see, up close, how much work went into her mother’s Bob Mackie designs. “I so marvel at the craftsmanship,” she said. “When you get up close and see what goes into making [a dress], your jaw just drops.”

Joan and Melissa Rivers have made careers of policing fashion.

Along with her interest in fashion, Melissa also inherited her mom’s work ethic and passion for show business. She was born and raised in Bel Air by Joan and her dad, Edgar Rosenberg, a film and TV producer who committed suicide in 1987, when Melissa was 19. 

Two years after her father’s death, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in European history but decided to pursue a career in entertainment instead. “I loved college, but while I was there, I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ [Entertainment] is what I know how to do. It’s comfortable, and it’s part of who I am,” she said.

The red carpet gig with her mother was just one of Melissa’s many jobs in show business. She was also an emcee on MTV, has worked on two specials for E! about being a mother, and voiced a character on Disney’s “Dave the Barbarian” TV show. 

These days, when she’s not producing “Fashion Police,” she’s shooting a reality show for WE tv called “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” The show, which will have its fourth-season premiere on March 29, features mother and daughter living under the same roof and attempting to stay sane. “It’s wonderful; it’s terrible; it’s great; it’s horrible,” Melissa said. “It’s a complete, total contradiction hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and minute-to-minute. But that’s a daughter’s relationship with her mother anyway.”

The show also focuses on the life of Cooper, Melissa’s 13-year-old son. One of the biggest challenges of shooting the show, she said, is coping with the dynamic between Cooper and Joan. “There’s always the ongoing challenge of being undermined by my mom,” Melissa said. “She says that it’s her right as a grandparent.”

“Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” has struck a chord with audiences, Melissa said, because it is a relatable family show. Even if the core audience doesn’t live a lifestyle similar to that of the Rivers family, they nevertheless often face similar issues. “It’s popular because everything I go through with my mom and my family is the same thing everyone else goes through. I’m just doing it in these extraordinarily strange circumstances. When a man or woman has their mother or mother-in-law move into their home, they’re going to run into the same problems as I’ve had. It’s just that their mother-in-law isn’t Joan Rivers. It ups the ante a little bit.”

Last year, Melissa and Joan started yet another project together called “In Bed With Joan.” It’s an Internet talk show where Joan interviews celebrities in her apartment and talks to them about their personal and professional lives. Past guests have included Paul Scheer, Kris Jenner, Howie Mandel and Sarah Silverman. 

Melissa keeps busy with her shows, but she still finds time to take Cooper to lacrosse games, go on vacation twice a year with her family and hold an annual Passover seder at her home in Los Angeles. “It’s big,” she said. “My mom takes over [the seder]. I stay out of the way, so that I don’t lose a limb in the process of getting everything ready. Sometimes you just have to know how to make yourself scarce for your own personal safety. I hide until I know when to be there.”

She has no plans to return to the red carpet anytime soon, but Melissa said she has a “never say never” attitude about it. And despite her hectic schedule, she said she tries to keep some perspective. “If any of us [in entertainment] could cure cancer and change the world, that’s what we would do. But let’s not take it so seriously. We’re making a distraction for people.

“I’m the first one to flip out and get super stressed,” she said. “Then I step back and go, ‘Wait a minute. I’m making entertainment. I’m not splitting atoms.’ ”

Lupita Nyong’o arriving on the red carpet at the 71st Annual Golden Globes. Photo by Wenn/Newscom