Resplendent in a silver jacket, luxe fur scarf, black pants, and rhinestone-studded heels, Joan Rivers is angry as ever. As she frenetically paces the stage at the Stardust in Las Vegas, the crowd eats up her barbed mots on this steamy night in June. She tosses out a few zingers about Donatella Versace's face -- punctuating the joke by scrunching up her own famously enhanced visage -- and Rosie O'Donnell's hygiene (not printable in a family magazine) before directing her rage at born-again Christians. ''I hate Jesus freaks,'' she declares. ''They're ugly,'' she seethes, her huge cocktail ring bouncing sparkles around the room with every pointy gesticulation. '''Jesus loves me,' they say. If he loved you so much he would have given you a f---ing chin.'' If anyone in this blue-hair Vegas audience is offended, their qualms are buried by a room exploding in laughter. And that's the essence of the contradiction known as Joan Rivers: How can a woman be so reviled and so beloved? How can someone lob such barbs and not be heckled into oblivion?
''One thing that's kept me going is I really have never lied. I hate when celebrities lie.''
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Rivers is so honest about her own foibles. In person, the 71-year-old is a lot less angry and more vulnerable than she is on stage. Two months after her Stardust gig, her petite frame is perched on a chaise in the library of her cavernous, gilded apartment overlooking New York City's Central Park. Her meticulously made-up face is remarkably mobile for someone who professes to have had as much plastic surgery as she has; it's also softer and prettier than it appears on television, where cameras highlight her features to sometimes bizarro proportions. The dark wood-paneled room is accented by a table crammed with framed photographs of 36-year-old daughter Melissa and Rivers' late husband, TV producer Edgar Rosenberg. Scattered on the furniture are needlepoint pillows embroidered with tropes that are ridiculously contrary to Rivers' public persona, such as ''I need a man to spoil me or I don't need a man at all'' and ''Life is uncertain. Eat dessert.''
The opulent surroundings are her reward for a four-decade career that plays like a warped Horatio Alger tale -- rags to riches to rags to riches to more riches. The latest twist: In June, Joan and Melissa left their longtime home, E!, and signed a three-year deal worth a total of $6 million to $8 million to provide the TV Guide Channel with awards-show fashion commentary. (The channel, best known for scrolling TV listings, is in the midst of adding new programming.) ''I think E! forgot to nurture us a little bit. For two years they didn't give us a contrac -- we didn't even know if we were going to the Oscars this year. Suddenly this other network says, 'We want to give you contracts, we want to give you specials.' I will be doing celebrity interviews and have an idea for a reality show -- it's going to be fabulous.'' (A rep for E! says that Rivers did have a deal for the last two years, but it was not a ''long-term contract.'')