Divorce on the D-list

She's loud, she's crass, she has no class. So why am I so broken up about Kathy Griffin's breakup?

Published November 22, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

You don't have to subscribe to Us Weekly -- although I do -- to know that 2005 has been a big year for celebrity divorces. It was, of course, the king and queen of Hollywood, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who kicked things off in January, and now it looks like the prince and princess, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, might be concluding it. In just the last few months, other splits have included Renie Zellweger and Kenny Chesney, Tori Spelling and actor-writer Charlie Shanian, Jamie-Lynn (aka Meadow Soprano) and A.J. DiScala, and "One Tree Hill's" Sophia Bush and Chad Michael Murray. A couple of these marriages lasted well under a year, which (let's be honest) is grimly satisfying, the subtext being that celebrities might be rich and good-looking but they sure don't have their shit together. Stars really are just like us!

While I've yet to shed a tear for the demise of, say, the five-month union of Bush and Murray, there's one celeb divorce that genuinely breaks my heart: Kathy Griffin's.

I know, I know -- Kathy Griffin, that annoying red-haired comedian who was Brooke Shields' sidekick on NBC's late '90s sitcom "Suddenly Susan" and who's as famous for her abundance of cosmetic surgery as for her jokes? Certainly this is how I thought of her until a few months ago, when I happened to catch an episode of her Bravo reality show "My Life on the D-List," which debuted in August. I was using a treadmill at the gym, and I decided to watch for a few minutes before lifting weights. Well, I became so enthralled I stayed on the treadmill for an hour. When I got off, my legs felt weird and bouncy and I'd become Griffin's biggest fan.

But here's what I've discovered in the weeks since Griffin filed for divorce: Cry for Brad and Jennifer and the world cries with you; cry for Kathy and Matt and you cry alone.

This is an irony Griffin, 43, might appreciate, if it weren't, I imagine, so painful. After all, "My Life on the D-List" is about the indignities of sort of, but not completely, being a celebrity -- the blowoffs by would-be peers, the mispronunciation of your name (everyone wants to call her Kathy Griffith), the never-ending hustle of hawking your product, which in her case is both her stand-up DVD, "Allegedly," and, more broadly, herself. On the show Griffin is seen getting Botox on-camera and hiring an interior decorator identified as a "live-in gay visionary" who moves into the house while working on it and complains that the $100,000 budget is too small. But these absurdities take a backseat to what is really at the core of the program, Griffin's relationship with her husband of four years, Matt Moline. (Not to be confused with Matthew Modine, the actor, although come to think of it, that guy might be floating around the D-List at this point, too.) Moline is an average-looking I.T. consultant who's laid-back and supportive but not cloying. He too has an excellent sense of humor. And he adores Griffin -- she can be insecure, egotistical and conniving, and through all of it, he clearly thinks she's the cat's pajamas.

"I was totally into her from the moment I saw her," he explains on the show. "She's the most fearless person I've ever met." That a good man would be head over heels for a strong-willed, funny, complicated woman is always cause for celebration. If I were a guy, I'd certainly rather be married to a woman who can stand onstage and tell a hilarious story about butt-crack sweat than to some simpering, anorexic starlet -- but my sense is that most actual guys would not.

Griffin is well aware of her good fortune. "I would say I was slightly unlucky in love," she says on the show. "I dated a midget, a bunch of bisexual guys ... the guy who lived in his van. I was always really into fixer-uppers ... I had kind of given up when I met [Moline]. I thought, I've fucked every guy in New York, Chicago and L.A. I probably slept with your dad. You just don't know it."

But Moline, Griffin says in her DVD (yes, I bought it), "is so sweet. If you ever met him, like, you wouldn't even believe he's with me." In the August 2005 issue of Glamour, Griffin wrote a column titled "Getting Over Bad Boys" about how she "had dated them all: players, liars and jerks [but] ... kicked the habit and married Mr. Nice." "The first night he came over, he fixed my computer -- how nice is that? -- and he was smart and funny as well," Griffin wrote. "More important, he was into me from day one. He didn't do that thing Bad Boys do, where they pull away for no apparent reason. And yes, I slept with him on the first night, so 'The Rules' and all that game-playing stuff had nothing to do with it."

On the "D-List," Griffin and Moline seem to truly enjoy each other's company -- a rare enough dynamic among famous and unfamous couples alike. "There's not that many people I could literally just hang out with for 24 hours a day," Moline says, while Griffin raves, "You can talk to him about anything. I love that I can turn to him and say, 'What is the capital of the Straits of Magellan?' and he'll know. Do straits even have a capital? I don't know, but he would."

The most convincing parts of the show are the small moments between Griffin and Moline. In the first episode, en route to an evening performance, Moline helps his wife prepare by reading aloud from her comedy notebook while she drives. "My fear is that I do the Mary-Kate [Olsen] chunk in my next special and then she dies," Griffin says. Moline chuckles and says under his breath, "That would be horrible." When she makes him come upstairs to look at a dress she's considering wearing to the Grammys, he walks into the room, chewing gum, and says, "I'm spellbound by your bosoms." "Get out of here," she replies. "You're not helping me one bit." After a night at a fundraiser when her act bombs, they stand in a back hallway talking about it and then go home, joking that they haven't had this much fun since they saw Def Leppard.

What can I say? I fell in love with their love. I totally believed it. Their normal, supportive relationship seemed like a glittering diamond of authenticity in a giant pile of steaming reality bullshit. Then Griffin filed for divorce and I wondered if something had gone horribly wrong -- or if I'd just been duped. I called Joshua Gamson, professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco and author of "Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America" and "Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity." We'll never know, he told me -- which is the most compelling part of reality TV. Because "it's both really controlled and somewhat spontaneous," the fun for viewers is in speculating about which parts are which. "You have room to do your own fantasy work and identification."

In my case, my identification with Kathy Griffin was weirdly powerful: The man in my life is also a nice, laid-back guy named Matt. In that initial "D-List" episode I saw at the gym, Griffin was traveling to promote her first stand-up DVD, and I had spent the last several months traveling to promote my first novel. My experiences, like hers, had been a blend of exciting, exhausting and occasionally humiliating. She flew cross-country to sign DVDs at events where only a handful of people turned out, just as I'd done for my book; she often turned to her Matt for figurative and literal hand-holding, just as I'd turned to my Matt; she went on "The Tonight Show" and had her appearance mocked by Jay Leno, just as I'd -- actually, never mind, but a few blogs no one has ever heard of did say I'm ugly.

If I got sucked into Griffin's life, that was the point, Gamson told me. "The idea is that you'll build an attachment to the story -- it's like brand loyalty," he said. This goal actually doesn't succeed most of the time, Gamson explained, and although we as a society avidly follow celebrity gossip, "the activity is lateral. We're looking at them sideways. It's not about the individual's relationship to the star but about the relationship between the people watching the star. When they gossip, people are making collective judgments, moral evaluations that have no consequences." TomKat, anyone?

At the same time, Gamson said, all of us have our own "small cluster of celebrities" about whom we genuinely care. "You find some point of identification," he said. "If you have a bunch, you invest in the star's story."

Griffin filed for divorce on Sept. 23, and I still want to know: Are she and Moline continuing to live in the same house? Have they considered couples therapy? Did something happen? Do they blame the show? For this article, I made a few halfhearted attempts to contact Griffin, but I was secretly relieved when they didn't work. I believe enough in the realness of their relationship that interviewing her about the split would feel as rude as asking an acquaintance about her recent breakup. But there's scant information on the Internet to satisfy my concerned curiosity, and Us Weekly -- who, for crying out loud, gave even Chad Michael Murray and Sophia Bush's breakup a mention on the cover, with an exclamation point -- had only one clinical sentence about Griffin and Moline on their "The Record" page. When Aniston and Pitt ended their marriage, I analyzed the news with my sisters and friends, but no one I know seems aware of, let alone interested in discussing, Griffin and Moline. Still, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. If Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards can make it work, can't anyone?

As for my own life, Gamson was reassuring. "Just because her relationship didn't work out doesn't mean none will," he told me. At lunch the other day, I asked my own Matt what the capital of the Straits of Magellan is. "The Straits of Magellan don't have a capital," he said. "They're water."

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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Celebrity Divorce