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'It was important to me to not crumble': Kathy Griffin on surviving Trump backlash

Last Updated May 23, 2018 at 10:40 am EDT

Comedian Kathy Griffin poses for a picture in Toronto, Tuesday May 22, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

TORONTO – Kathy Griffin has frequently been considered one of the comedy’s most enthusiastic go-getters, but it’s hard to ignore her particularly gutsy determination these days.

Always the self-promoter, it’s hardly a minute after she shows up before she whips out a hand-held sign to promote her North American tour. It’s a marketing graphic printed on a sheet of computer paper and crudely stuck to a piece of cardboard.

Griffin recognizes that it looks ridiculous, but she insists on holding it up for any camera in her vicinity. Still photos, video cameras — whatever. Everybody must know Kathy Griffin is back on the scene.

Perhaps this is what happens after you survive a public cage match with the President of the United States over posing for a photograph with a severed head bearing his likeness.

Something like that would be enough to derail most careers — unless you’re Kathy Griffin. She used the fury as fuel to launch a comeback.

“I’m on this tour biting and scratching my way back,” the 57-year-old assures, displaying the pearly-white showbiz smile that’s made her a favourite of talk shows.

Donald Trump hasn’t silenced her. He’s only made her shout louder.

Griffin dominates the conversation when talking about her experiences with Trump. She clearly wants to get a lot of ideas out, and share her particular perspecitve now that people are listening.

But seeing Griffin back in the mainstream spotlight wasn’t always a sure thing. And it’s still a work in progress.

Nearly a year ago, her reputation was almost toast, after photographs surfaced of her posing with a fake severed head that was unmistakably meant to look like Trump. The image was a political statement, Griffin said, but many simply deemed it tasteless, including the U.S. president himself, who called it “sick.”

As social media backlash heated up, the results were swift: Griffin lost sponsorship deals, U.S. venues pulled out of shows, and CNN revoked her New Year’s hosting job. A tardily organized press conference with a tearful apology didn’t do anything to extinguish the flames.

She also landed on security watch lists as the FBI investigated her for conspiracy to assassinate the president, she said.

So Griffin took a page from the Hollywood stars she loves to mock on stage and pulled a disappearing act, as she plotted how to reignite her career.

“I was hunkered down, writing like crazy, constantly trying to figure things out… (and) turn crazy stuff into funny stuff,” she said.

“It was important to me to not crumble.”

Within a few months Griffin had stockpiled enough material to fill a couple hours on stage, with much of it focused on pithy insults about the president. She began testing it overseas in London, Stockholm and Australia, far away from Trump’s loyal fan base.

Those jokes, and plenty more new material, are part of her North American return, billed as the Laugh Your Head Off tour. It stops in Ottawa on Wednesday before heading to Toronto on Friday and Kitchener, Ont., on Saturday. She’ll also play Calgary on May 31 and Vancouver on June 2.

Griffin doesn’t regret taking the severed head photo, she said.

“The photo that got me in all that trouble is the photo that allowed me to truly tour the world for the first time,” she said.

But she’s also frequently reminded of the precarious space entertainers — particularly female ones — still occupy in the industry.

A few days ago, she watched footage of Italian actress Asia Argento speaking at the closing of the Cannes Film Festival about the allegations she, and other women, have levelled against film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Argento was laying into film industry heads in the audience for being complicit in the alleged abuse. The audience was mostly silent as the actress promised them “Weinstein will never be welcomed here ever again.”

The moment stuck with Griffin as she put herself in Argento’s position at the podium.

“I know that room very well,” she said.

“I’ve never been to Cannes, but I know that feeling of saying something where you don’t know if (the audience) is with you or against you — but you just keep going.”

Griffin hopes she can inspire other comedians, both men and women, to persevere in this testy political climate.

“I’ve actually had several — and I won’t name them — very famous and much more successful comedians than I say to me, ‘We’re all scared and we’re all watching you,'” she said.

“So when you hear that … I’m like, No. 1 — Why don’t you grow a pair? And No. 2 — I’ve got to get out there and be more fearless than ever.”

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