A&U was saddened to learn of Phyllis Diller’s passing. She was a trailblazer on all fronts—not only as a comic but an AIDS advocate—who will truly be missed. We caught up with her at the turn of the century—this century!—and we wanted to share this chat with her as a tribute to a legend.
Phyllis Diller Is Not Laughing
The Legendary Comedian shares her views on AIDS, Death, Religion, and the Magic of Believing
by Dann Dulin
“The place used to be haunted,” says Phyllis Diller about her home of thirty-six years, “but the ghosts haven’t been back since the night I tried on all my wigs.” The diva of camp, the nightmare of fashion, and renowned mother of comedy is sitting beside me on a plump sofa in the Gothic-style alcove of her Brentwood, California, home. Rays of sunshine stream in through French windows that overlook a well-manicured private yard.
“I was one of the first who jumped right away and started doing AIDS benefits. So early that it was thought to be something….” She pauses, and with a contorted face grudgingly says the word “Texas,” as though it were an epithet. “In Texas, I was invited to a very high-level luncheon and when they heard that I was coming to town to do an AIDS benefit, they withdrew my invitation. That was the Texas attitude – at least at that time. I was crushed,” she whispers with obvious hurt.
Diller will continue to do AIDS benefits until the day they are no longer needed. Like so many of her fellow entertainers, she has lost friends and colleagues in the AIDS war. She chooses not to share stories, as that is part of her suvival mechanisim. “I don’t labor stuff or keep track of it.” she remarks. Strengthened by a possitive attitude, she’s been able to cope with these devastating losses. “You just say goodbye and keep looking ahead. You don’t go with the death. Mourning doesn’t help anyone and it doesn’t bring them back. My whole thrust in life is to spread cheer. If you are cheerful, you are most likely to be a loving person.”
How does she visualize the hereafter? “There isn’t any, you dingbat!” she replies as she lets out that legendary, raucous laugh: “Ahhha…Ha…Ha…Ha…Haaaah. This is it, baby! Enjoy carefully! Religion is such a medieval idea. Don’t get me started. I have thought about every facet of religion and I can’t buy any of it.” She pauses and with a subtle smile continues: “So God made man in His own image? It’s just the other way around. Man made God in his own image.” Diller’s on a religion roll. “Ah…it’s all about money.” I almost laugh. After all, Diller has been America’s funny woman for years. Yet, despite her soft smile and expert delivery, there’s no doubt that she means every word.
This kind of outspokenness and self-confidence did not come naturally to Diller. “I had such low self-esteem that if anyone criticized anything I did, I would never do it again. Even though it might have been a marvelous thing. If someone said that they didn’t like one of my paintings, I would rip it up.” The turning point came about three years before she entered show business. Finding little inspiration from organized religion, she stumbled upon the book The Magic of Believing, by businessman Claude M. Bristol. “I soaked it up!” says Diller. Her pal Liberace (whom she says “was not a good pianist but a wonderful entertainer”) had also read the book. They would talk about it endlessly. However, they would never talk about AIDS. “If you wanted to keep Liberace as a friend, the last thing you’d discuss would be AIDS. To his dying day he never admitted he had AIDS,” she recalls. Phyllis hesitates a moment than continues: “But The Magic of Believing was responsible for both of our successes. We followed it letter by letter.”
The Magic of Believing helped Diller develop the psychological tools to protect herself from negative people, she encased herself in a self-described “white, swan feather cape where nothing could penetrate.” She learned that how we view the world directly relates to what and whom we attract in this world. “All we are surrounded by is our mental equivalent. If you think lack and want, then you’re going to lack and you’re going to want. I always thought luxury. Always thought beauty. Always thought lots. And I have it because I felt it. I knew it. The main thing is you must feel it. You can’t just mouth it. You must act as if you already had it, which I always did. I believe in Science, balance, balance, balance.”
And that science has certainly paid off for this comic pioneer. An Ohio native, Diller began her comedy career at the not-so-tender age of thirty-seven. With five children and chronically unemployed, agorapohic husband, she became the family breadwinner. No easy task. In the decade of the fifties, no one bothered to listen to women, much less to a standup female comic. Her success, however, paved the way for Joan Rivers, Rosie O’Donnell, Sandra Bernhard, and others. “I wasn’t concerned with educating the audience, making them think I was pretty, or being some showoff,” she explains. “I was just interested in hearing them laugh. Then I knew they were happy. So my act was all built to get the laughs closer together. I’m the tightest editor that ever lived. Few words, then laugh. Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh. And when I leave, boy, they’ve had a fun time. They feel better.
And she feels better about more condom distribution in the schools. “Well, I don’t think they should start in third grade….They’ve got guns, they’ve got sex, give them condoms too! Anything to stop AIDS.” Diller’s five children were raised before the AIDS epidemic, but she mentions that her grandchildren are fully informed about AIDS. “I brought my kids up to be honest, hardworking, civic-minded, law-abiding people, and they pass this on to their own children. They’re all grand and fun people,” she says with perfect timing.
In addition to her comedic talents, Diller is also an accomplished painter. She had auctioned off some of her art to benefit AIDS charities around the country. Many paintings decorate her home, along with framed photographs of family, friends, presidents, and other celebrities that overload the top of her ebony-colored baby grand.
Is there anyone she has met in her long career who really stands out? “Lets talk about Bob Hope!” she says quietly and reverently, and as though I should already know her answer. Bob Hope boosted her career, and together they co-starred in three feature films. In addition, Diller joined Hope on several USO tours to Vietnam. A large, lavish, framed portrait of Hope is prominently displayed in Diller’s living room. “Bob is a gentleman, schalor, genius, same spiritual beliefs as mine, absolute end when it comes to comedy. He’s my guru. Again, mental equivalent.” Her feline, Mister Cat, brushes against her leg. “I just spent a week with Bob in that 37,000-square-foot Palm Springs mountaintop home,” she says, drawing out the phrase as if she were tasting a delicacy. “It’s like a postcard, the mountains, the clouds, the valley, and the airport. You’re even above the airplanes! Shangri-La! When you come down out of there you think, ‘Oh, my face is going to fall!'”
And Diller should be an expert on faces. With all the cosmetic surgery she’s had, from a tummy tuck, breast reduction, and eyeliner tattoo to cheek implants and teeth bonding, she looks stunning! Her face glows. When she had her first facelift in 1971, no one dared mention its name. It was taboo. Phyllis brought cosmetic surgery out of the closet. She claims, however, that it was by complete accident. “It’s just that I am an honest person. It’s like, ‘What are doing Thursday?’ ‘I’m having my face lifted. What are you doing?'” Is there anything she dislikes about her appearance now? “How could I?” she bellows. “At eighty-three, I think I look damn good. I have no plans for any more surgery. I’m happy with the way I look and feel. Although I’d be much happier if we found a cure for this damn AIDS disease.”
For more about the photography of Tim Courtney, please visit www.timcourtneyphotography.com.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.