Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. As part of the series, we’re interviewing successful women about how they feel about their bank balances.
Kathy Griffin, self-described “mayor of zero fucksville,” got rich poking fun at celebrities from the vantage point of a perpetual D-lister — or so her schtick goes. Her hardware is definitively more A-list: Griffin has two Emmys and a Grammy (both located right in the foyer of her “fuck you” mansion, as she puts it, for maximum visibility), plus a pair of best-selling books and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest number of TV specials (23). But in 2017, she landed on a very different list when she posted a now-infamous photo of herself holding the severed head of Donald Trump. Overnight she lost, jobs, allies, and her annual New Year’s Eve co-hosting gig with Anderson Cooper (which, alone, brought in $150,000). Instead of wallowing, Griffin sought out more sympathetic audiences abroad. The Kathy Griffin Laugh Your Head Off tour played sold-out shows in 16 countries and grossed $4.4 million, making her a high-profile advocate of the First Amendment in the process. This week, her self-financed documentary about the Trump debacle, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story, premieres at SXSW. Here, she talks about taking a major financial hit, splurging on private jets, and building a net worth of $35 million.
How much of a financial hit did you take when the photo came out?
I’ll give you a range. Since Suddenly Susan came out in 1996, I’ve consistently made between $3-and-10 million a year. When the photo came out, I was in the middle of a 50-city tour. I’d completed 25, and the remaining 25 cities were canceled within 12 hours. My stand-up rate starts at $50,000 a performance, up to $250,000. I know that sounds like, Who does she think she is? Let me tell you something: David Spade’s rate is double that, and they throw in a private jet.
Conservatively, I lost about $2 million. But then the [Laugh Your Head Off] tour grossed $4.4 million. That’s kind of an amazing year. And I’d maybe made $2 million before the tour started. I have some residual income, not a ton. I did have amazing book deals: My first was $2.4 million, my second was $1.2, and I’m not going under that. Mostly, though, I make money from showing up on a set, being funny. If I’m not good enough, I get fired. I show up at a concert and the ticket sales aren’t good enough, I don’t get as much money. I mean, it’s simple math.
What led you to make the documentary?
I decided I needed to document this show because the nature of the material is truly historic. I’ve talked to many First Amendment attorneys about this. Like me or not, never in the history of the United States has a sitting president used the full power of the Oval Office, the First Family, the right-wing media, and two agencies within the Department of Justice — the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s office — to put an American private citizen under two open federal investigations for conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States, based on a photo that was 100 percent protected by the First Amendment. That image has changed my life irrevocably. It’s even in a new NRA ad. It just keeps giving. I can never go back to just being the girl that would talk about the Housewives.
In light of that, how did you change your business model?
I’m a completely different type of artist than I was before. I’ve had to educate myself on how to come out of this situation financially, which I’m very proud of. Now I run my tour business very differently. I do something called “four walling”: I handle the insurance, hire the ushers, rent the venue, and sign the contracts [and that way I collect all the revenue]. I now know how to sell out every motherfucking seat, and how to work directly with the fans.
Yet you say you’re still blacklisted. How do you know that?
I had a friend call a partner at one of the big talent agencies. He said, “Hey, Kathy Griffin is on this really hot tour. She sold out Carnegie Hall in 24 hours. She deserves to be back in business.” This male partner — one of the guys that’s been saying no to me for 20 years because I’m too old or ugly or my nose is too big or whatever — he goes, “Kathy Griffin? That’s a life’s-too-short situation.” A month later, my friend called this partner back and rephrased it: “What would you say if I could bring you a client who’s made $75 million dollars over the length of his career. What would you call him?” That same agent goes, “Well, I’d call that a priority client.” My friend goes, “Well, his name is Kathy Griffin.” And the agent still said, “Oh, no, no. Not interested.” To me, that’s called sexism and ageism, because I’m still making $4.4 million bucks on a tour where it’s me, a bottle of water, and a notebook. My net worth is $35 million, and I am telling you that openly and proudly to say to these dinosaurs: “I don’t need you.”
A friend of yours once said you are deeply in touch with your money, like “Oprah-level.” What does that mean?
There was an Oprah episode where she talked about how a lot of celebrities and athletes who get to a certain level have a “business manager,” which is a Hollywood way to say a certified public accountant. A lot of these crooks take 5 percent of what you make. Well, over my dead body. My CPA has a monthly flat rate, the same with my lawyer. I’m not giving my CPA 5 percent of the night someone threw a bottle at my head in Auckland, New Zealand — he didn’t catch the fucking bottle!
Yes, I sign every single check. I even make my CPA come to meetings with my attorneys, just to have another set of eyes. I go, “All right, we’re schlepping to the office and we’re going to go line item by line item.” I’ve done it with Suze Orman personally. I’ve been burned by people, but I have never bounced a check in my life. My credit score is ridiculous. When I say Oprah level, I mean I have zero debt. I bought my house for $10.5 million cash outright, because as Suze Orman taught me, if you can’t afford to buy a house in cash, you can’t afford it.
Why pay cash?
I didn’t want to be an actress with no job security going, “Oh my God, I have this baller house but I’m scared of the mortgage.” No. I bought the one where I went, “Boom. I can afford it.” I can fucking die in this house. Sometimes I just walk around this big house going, “Fuck you, Hollywood, I fucking love this house!”
Do you invest?
I’m 58. I don’t make investments that are risky. I make conservative, steadfast investments. My only stocks pay dividends, and diversity is everything: I diversify my money between stocks, bonds, cash, and real estate. In my opinion, don’t invest in fucking new shit if you don’t know what it is. I have more Berkshire Hathaway than any stock. I feel like Warren Buffett is my personal broker. He famously met with Bill Gates for years because he would not invest in Microsoft. He was like, “I get insurance companies. I get Dairy Queen. I get Geico. I don’t know what Microsoft is,” and I thought, “Okay, if that’s good enough for Warren Buffett …” I should go to his annual meeting in Omaha, but I’m afraid I’d fuck him. That’s my kind of guy.
You also got ownership of your library from NBC Universal, right?
I now own “My Life on the D List,” my specials, and two years of my talk show. Frankly, they don’t have any value right now because I’m still considered toxic. But bet your bottom dollar, at some point somebody is going to go, “Wait a minute. We can just make an acquisition deal with Kathy Griffin — buy her whole library and just run it?” It’s not happening today, it’s not happening tomorrow, but that library is in a temperature-controlled vault and it is mine and mine alone. It has taken me years to regain my own work, years of legal fees and begging and pleading, just saying, “Look, if you guys don’t think this has any value, then just fucking sell it back to me.” I wore them down.
Tell me about your splurges.
I fly private quite a bit. It’s definitely a splurge, and the day I have to stop flying private, I will. But for now, I have so many threats on my life and I’m going through my mother having dementia and my sister dying. I’m in a very painful civil suit with a neighbor, I’ve had a breakup after seven years, and I don’t know what my future is, so now, I’m the crazy lady who travels with her puppies everywhere. At the end of the day, I’m still a human and I cry and I feel lonely and I want to hug those little puppies in the hotel bed, because I’m single now.
Private jets are a long way from where you started.
I lived in a studio apartment in Santa Monica, rent controlled, for $214 a month for seven years. Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Stiller — they all used to come to my parties when they were moving on up in the world and I was still their dumb friend that lived in a one-room apartment on Centinela. I was working in the Groundlings by night and a Kelly Girl temp by day.
Back then, did you have the idea that you wanted to be rich?
At first I actually thought, “If I can just get $50,000 in my bank account and maintain that, I’m going to give the rest of my money away.” I truly couldn’t imagine a world where anyone would need more than $50,000 to live. Now, as a woman in stand-up, I make 10 cents on the dollar of a man. I’m not kidding. It’s one of the most male-dominated industries there is. My joke is, all these bitches are complaining that they’re making 80 cents on the dollar? Where do I fucking sign? I started watching male friends become successful and I remember thinking, Six months ago you didn’t have a gig and now you went out and bought a bedazzled Rolex? That’s when I realized, “Yeah, $50,000 isn’t really realistic.”
Over the years, I’ve learned. When I walk into a meeting, I’m not like the dudes who can go in in jeans, hungover from the night before. I go into a meeting and I have full hair and makeup that I paid for, I’m in a designer dress and designer shoes, and I arrive in my Maserati Quattroporte — which I own, that is fully paid off. Because I know how men who sign checks in this industry think. I’m looking for a future where women in my position do not have to do that stupid superficial shit. But I am telling you: Wake up, sister. We are still in a place where, when I roll up to a dinner meeting and those guys see that car and they see me, they go, “Oh. Okay.”