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October 10, 2015

MTV Video Music Awards' It-Girl: How Does Chelsea Handler Stack Up?

by Anna Dimond, posted Sep 5th 2010 4:30PM
Between performances by chart-topping pop artists and obligatory reaction shots of famous people in the audience, MTV's Video Music Awards might not seem like it's taking any risks when it airs live on Sept. 12 (9PM ET).

The music won't be making a radical shift: Billboard staples like Kanye West, Eminem and Justin Bieber are all slated to rap, sweat and make teenage girls swoon. The location won't be exceptional, either: The show traditionally opts for venues in either New York or Los Angeles, with this year landing again back in the City of Angels. And the presenters, per the usual, will include a range of well-known stars, such as Ne-Yo and Ashley Greene, alongside some promo-savvy up-and-comers, like Ke$ia and Nicki Minaj.

Instead, the chance for something fresh in this year's awards rests on the shoulders of a blond woman named Chelsea Handler, whom MTV announced last week will host the proceedings.

By all accounts, including MTV's, Handler was an unusual choice to take the reins of the network's 27th annual ode to all things young and corporate-sanctioned music.

With a caustic wit and fearlessness rarely witnessed among late-night hosts, she's made a name for herself as a comedienne whose humor transcends gender, and whose brash jokes take no prisoners. But unlike nearly every host in the VMAs' history, Handler isn't an obvious icon of youth zeitgeist, a fact that MTV acknowledges.

Stephen Friedman, the general manager of MTV, told the New York Times that Handler was "an unexpected choice." Yet, he said, "You look at her following from our audience, and it makes sense. They're passionate fans.

"There is a sweet spot that loves her," he added. "Her college fanbase, for us, really made the point that she will appeal more broadly."

But will she? As MTV's new It-woman prepares to take the reins of the VMAs -- her first nationally televised gig as an emcee -- we took a look at how she stacks up against past hosts to see if we could get a hint of how she might fare.

The Female Factor
MTV's choice of Handler is all the more notable because she's the first woman to host the VMAs in more than 15 years -- and the second ever to host solo in the history of the awards (Bette Midler hosted with Dan Aykroyd for the inaugural telecast in 1984). Roseanne Barr was the last woman to occupy the role, in 1994, and took the opportunity to make fun not only of the music business, but also of herself. She had recently undergone a high-profile divorce from Tom Arnold, and there was no shortage of references to the split, nor to her recent makeover.

Much of Handler's humor stems from her unusually raw sensibility: On her talk show, 'Chelsea Lately,' there's no shortage of references to female anatomy, sex drive or relationships. While many of Handler's male predecessors have taken the VMAs as an opportunity to promote their new movies (as Christian Slater did in 1993, for 'True Romance') or take a stab at the broader culture of music (as Marlon and Shawn Wayans did in 2000, with bits that included a sketch that skewered file-sharing on Napster, and a routine that made fun of rappers), Handler has an opportunity to cover new ground.

The VMAs don't have to be a platform to take on half-naked women in hip-hop videos, or even the poor decisions of Britney Spears, but this year's event could be a moment for more recognition of the women in the music world (even if that "recognition" involves a few good-natured punch-lines).

Street Cred
A veteran of the stand-up circuit, Handler's achieved increasing notoriety -- and an ever-growing fanbase -- as host of her own late-night talk show on E! and as an author of such best-selling literary gems as 'Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea' and 'Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang,' which debuted at No. 1 on the 'New York Times' best-seller list in March.

Handler's credentials, however, don't include the type of broad, pop culture productions that have made past hosts so familiar to MTV's target audience -- and forget about ties to the music world. This lack of music street cred isn't lost on the comedienne. "This has been a huge year for hip-hop and rap, and it is well-known that I have the closest ties with these communities musically and sexually," Handler joked to the L.A. Times, "I am to rap and hippity-hop what Warren Buffet is to finance, minus the sex."

Handler lacks the music world street cred that Sean Combs, for example, had in spades. The mogul served as the VMA host in 2005 (as "Diddy"), and opened the show with a grandiose show of dancers and special effects, and without an ounce of irony. Handler's relative fame (or notoriety) is not, however, unlike that of her immediate predecessor, Russell Brand. For the past two years, the raucous British comedian has served as the VMAs' host, a role which has both reflected and fueled his recent jump to fame on this side of the Atlantic. Like Handler, Brand's style of humor is edgy, and, with heavy references to sex and politics, pushes the boundaries of taste and broad acceptance.

Unlike Handler, Brand arrived on the VMA stage in 2009 with two major American movies under his belt ('Forgetting Sarah Marshall' and 'Bedtime Stories'). By the time he returned in 2010, he had two more movies on the way, including a vehicle based on his character from 'Sarah Marshall,' and had coupled up with Katy "I Kissed a Girl" Perry. For an audience where authenticity counts, Handler may have to play the wild card and work her relatively niche status to win over the MTV set. The good news? Her penchant for raw humor will likely play well.

Any VMA host worth their pop-music salt has stirred controversy with jokes gone too far and morals offended. Even better if the host is willing to poke fun at MTV during the telecast. Eddie Murphy, who hosted the second annual VMAs in 1985, had his bases covered. The iconic actor made his name on 'Saturday Night Live' in the early 1980s and while he quickly became one of the show's biggest-stand-outs, he was also criticized at times for his jokes about gays and HIV, for which he later apologized.

At the VMAs, Murphy was less searing, but took tacit aim at the then-nascent award show. He opened the show with a monologue that hinged on how MTV had persuaded him to host, and the reasons that had gotten him to the VMA stage. It wasn't so much the prestige that won him over, he said, but the chance of getting acquainted with some smokin'-hot ladies at the after-party -- an activity, he surmised, that the VMA's rock'n'roll crowd knew something about.

In 1993, Christian Slater helmed the annual show, opening with a low-key monologue that had nothing but love for the network and the MTV generation. Behind the scenes, though, Slater's life was less sunny. By the early 1990s, he had already had a run-in with the law in which he was charged with a DUI and assault with a deadly weapon (he kicked a cop with his cowboy boot), among other offenses. In the years following his VMA appearance, he continued to struggle with drug abuse and other issues.

Six years later, Brand brought controversy back to the VMAs, both on stage and off. Long before the VMAs came calling, Brand had become the object of ire at his MTV U.K., when he showed up to work following the 9/11 bombings dressed as al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The stunt cost him his job as a VJ, and capped a decade that was punctuated by drug abuse and multiple arrests. During his opening monologue in 2009, Brand also stoked the flames of controversy by exhorting viewers to vote Barack Obama into office, in a bold, direct statement that's unusual for his American counterparts. He referenced the incident a year later, when he returned to host the show.

Handler, by comparison, seems both tame and healthy. While she often jokes about her own past sexcapades (her first book, "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands,' details her early days in L.A.) and love of booze (I'm "a mean sober," she quipped to the NYT), her jokes focus mostly on other people (a brand of humor she calls "ruthless teasing") and boldly tackle taboo subjects -- most notably, female sexuality. She doesn't shy away from other potentially dicey subjects (in one recent stand-up routine, she took aim at African-American names), but has so far kept her jokes within legal boundaries, and her personal life balanced.

So where does this leave her as a host of the VMAs? Without a tabloid-worthy backstory, insider-status in the music biz or wide-scale name-recognition among the MTV set, Handler can use the award show as launch pad to build her fan base among a younger demographic, starting with a clean slate that will allow her to define her image, from the ground up.

Are you looking forward to Chelsea Handler hosting the VMAs?

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