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“It Won’t Hurt You. It’s Vapor.”

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“They’re gonna get rid of you anyway in television, just when you start looking bad,” he says. “Johnny Carson was pretty much one of the biggest stars ever, and he was 66 and they kicked him out to pasture. If they can do it to an icon like that … I just think the network thinks that they get tired of you and what you do and generations change. And they may be right.”

Ten years ago, Maher discovered holistic medicine and became a big believer in juicing and home colonics. (“Anything that’s bothering you from here up,” he says, gesturing above his neck, “I find, once you empty from here down, it just goes.”) But even as he embraced organic food, becoming a self-described amateur herbologist, he only became more notorious for his drunken roving through strip clubs and the Playboy Mansion.

“Back then, I wasn’t very good at leaving pussy on the table,” he says with that shameless straight face of his. “If something was very attractive and very available, it was very hard to say no.”

In his late forties, he started forming longer-term relationships, but it was a tough learning curve: In 2004, he was sued by a model and stewardess named Coco Johnsen, who claimed Maher promised to marry and support her but then broke it off, allegedly causing $9 million worth of financial damage to her career. It was thrown out of court, but you had to wonder: Didn’t Bill Maher, who is a very smart man, see that coming?

“I do not have good –dar of any kind,” he says. “Gaydar, anything.”

Next came Karrine Steffans, a hip-hop starlet known as the “Video Vixen” who wrote a tell-all book about her string of lovers, which, in addition to Usher and P. Diddy, included Maher. Her nickname in hip-hop circles was “Superhead.” When they broke up, Steffans told Vibe: “Bill wants someone he can put down in an argument, tell you how ghetto you are, how big your butt is, and that you’re an idiot. That’s why you never see him with a white girl or an intellectual.” (Maher says she was just “acting out,” and they now have “a very nice friendship” via e-mail.)

“I had a thing for hot chicks who are fun,” says Maher, “and for some reason, for a while, a lot of them I met were black.” His last girlfriend was a black stripper named Flo who had a successful business performing at company events using a mobile pole. But Maher came to realize that drinking too much while on an endless quest to get laid was taking its toll, and most important, was less funny as he entered his fifties. The joke about twin teenagers in a hot tub? “That’s a joke I would never do now,” he says. “Never. First of all, it doesn’t really describe my life now. And also, it’s icky.”

In the past, he says, he’d been afraid of commitment because he feared it would destroy his work. But that was then. Maher is in a serious relationship now with a woman named Jasmine, who is, maybe strangely, not a stripper, though she is more than twenty years younger than Maher and is said by friends to be highly attractive. When I ask if she’s blonde, after seeing some hairs in the guest bathroom, Maher looks temporarily stricken, afraid he’ll be accused of infidelity. “That’s probably the maid,” he says. “My girlfriend does not have blonde hair, and I do not cheat.”

Friends say Maher is in love. “If you look at any Sinatra movie from 1965, he always gets trapped at the end,” says Vallely.

Maher has never quite shaken the reputation he’s a misogynist. Even right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, a friend, told him on his show that the proof was in “every single thing you say about women.”

“I’ll take the rap for some of that reputation I have,” he says now. “Some of it was just me being insensitive or trying to get a laugh.”

But cleanish living, a steady girlfriend, and a Sinatra-esque refrain of “regrets, I’ve had a few” are probably as far as this revolution in maturity is going. Maher doesn’t want kids. In his mind, he already has them—every Friday night.

“The audience has always been my kids,” he says. “That’s where my energy went. That’s where my caring, as you put it, went. That was the relationship that I’ve maintained and really worked the hardest on. Harder than real relationships.”

Back in the CBS parking lot, Maher and his posse pile in a car together and head out to Swingers, a diner around the corner. They meet up with another mainstay of Maher’s gang, Kato Kaelin, the infamous houseguest of O. J. Simpson, who was also on the Hawaii adventure. After they eat, the five men go cruising around West Hollywood, from Fairfax Avenue to La Cienega and back again, over and over, for two hours, singing songs by the Eagles and Frank Sinatra from behind the tinted windows of Maher’s black Audi.

As the evening winds down, Maher gets the showstopper, belting out a rendition of “New York, New York.”

Top of the list,

King of the hill,

A-number ooooone …

“He’s no Sinatra,” says Vallely later. “But you know what? Sinatra was no Bill ­Maher.”


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