In July I was scanning for something to watch on TV and spotted an episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap” featuring Joan and Melissa Rivers swapping lives with Bristol and Willow Palin. I had to watch. I was unaware at the time that Melissa is a Republican–a fiscal conservative social liberal. (In the show Joan said she was a Democrat, but she stated in interviews she was a Republican who voted for whoever promised to lower her taxes.)
The structure of “Celebrity Wife Swap” is that the participants don’t know whose family they’re swapping with until they get to the home. Bristol was sent to live at Melissa’s home in Los Angeles with Joan Rivers. Melissa went to Bristol’s home in Wasilla, Alaska, to live with Willow and Bristol’s four-year-old son, Tripp. When they arrive, they are allowed to wander around the house until they figure out who owns it. Then they read a guide book to the family prepared by the woman they’re swapping with.
For the first half of the week, the guest follows the rules of the host family. The second half of the week, the guest is in charge. It ends with a round table where all the participants share their feelings about their experience.
I was shocked by a couple of things I learned about the two families. First, Joan was and Melissa is among the most loving and compassionate people ever born. And both of them embraced every challenge that came their way with a positive attitude. I will love them forever for that.
Second, even accounting for their ages, Bristol, then 21 or 22, and Willow, then 18, did not have the kind of poise and social skills that were evident in Melissa’s son, Cooper, then 12. Heck, Cooper lapped them on academic achievement, talent (he plays cello and drums) and sports, too. The contrast was sharpest between disciplined, high achieving Cooper and Bristol’s then-four-year-old son, Tripp, who started the week as an out-of-control “rowdy boy” hurtling toward the point-of-no-return on the road to ruin.
Willow got to see what Melissa did to get Tripp to bed without a fuss, break him of his tyranny of only cooperating with an order when he was bribed with a Popsicle, and discipline himself to a structured system tracked by a sticker chart where his good behavior earned him both immediate and eventual rewards, to wit, stickers and a couple of hours playing in a bouncy house. The speed of Tripp’s turnaround from insufferable brat to goal-oriented achiever was miraculous. In addition, Melissa gently persuaded Willow to take some responsibility herself to act as a parent toward her brother and stop egging him into mischief. A six-week follow-up at the end of the show reported Bristol was still using the sticker chart and getting very good results with Tripp.
Joan has instilled ambition and the entrepreneur spirit into Melissa, so they thought the nicest thing they could do for Bristol and Willow would be to give them some professional experience that would look great on their resumes. When both young women declined these opportunities, Joan and Melissa were astonished but gracious. That’s when it seemed to hit them, off camera, that these young women have been neglected, and their hearts went out to them to make up the losses.
Joan also performed a miracle because she managed to get the chip off Bristol’s shoulder that was making her see attacks where none existed (during the dinner party), a problem that, if it returns, will be a serious block to her success, her capacity to win friends and her enjoyment of life. Here are some of Joan’s last remarks at the round table to Bristol:
I really learned a much deeper thing with you. I learned nobody should judge anybody from where they come, or who they’re related to, good or bad, you are your own person. Here I go [tears welled up]. I adore you. I just think you’re great. I just had the best time with you and I think you’re terrific.
Watch the whole episode on Hulu, or YouTube, if you can, because the transformation is so beautiful. You will see a side of Joan Rivers that will amaze you. And you will fall in love with Melissa Rivers, too, and come to respect her intelligence, compassion and talent.
And if gays and lesbians seem to be grieving the death of Joan Rivers more intensely than you would expect, please understand that for millions of us, she was the loving and accepting mother and grandmother we never had.