Handler was born in Livingston, New Jersey, the youngest of six children of Rita (née Stoecker), a homemaker, and Seymour Handler, a used car dealer. Her American father is Jewish; her German-born mother, who came to the United States in 1958, was a Mormon. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, and battled the disease for over a decade before dying of it in 2006. Handler was raised in Reform Judaism and had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony.
She has said that while growing up she felt like an outsider, recalling, "We lived in this nice Jewish neighborhood...Everyone had Mercedes and Jaguars, and I was going to school in a Pinto."
Handler has two sisters and three brothers; her eldest brother, Chet, died in a hiking accident in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming when she was 9 years old. At age 19, she moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, California, to pursue acting, and worked as a waitress to support herself. At 21, Handler decided to pursue stand-up comedy after telling her story about a DUI to a class of other offenders, who found it funny.
Handler was a member of the all-female cast of the Oxygen network's hidden camera/practical joke reality television series Girls Behaving Badly, which aired from 2002 – 2005. Other shows on which Handler has appeared include Weekends at the D.L., The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, and The Practice. She is a regular commentator on E! and Scarborough Country, as well as a correspondent on The Tonight Show. She hosted the first episode of the reality TV show On the Lot, but quit before the second episode aired, saying later that she left, "Because I smelled the disaster happening before it did." The show, produced by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, was a competition for aspiring filmmakers vying for a chance at stardom. It lasted one season. Handler was replaced by former Robin & Company entertainment anchor, Adrianna Costa.
In April 2006, Handler began hosting The Chelsea Handler Show on E!, which lasted two seasons. In 2007, Handler performed with Comedy Central's Hour Stand-Up Comedy Tour across the United States. Her stand-up comedy has also been televised on VH1's Love Lounge, Comedy Central's Premium Blend, and HBO's broadcast of the Aspen Comedy Festival. She was a guest on Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld and The View, and she co-hosted The View on August 2, 2007, and September 5, 2008. On August 18, 2010, it was announced that Handler would be the host of the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. The announcement was surprising to many, including MTV representatives, who claimed that the final decision was unexpected. This made Handler the second woman in the history of the VMAs to be the sole host of the ceremony, behind Roseanne Barr, who hosted in 1994. The event took place at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on September 12, 2010.
In July 2007, Handler began starring on her own half-hour, late-night comedy series on E! titled Chelsea Lately. The show proved to be a hit by averaging more than a half-million viewers since its premiere (much more than the average for a late night cable program) and having clips on YouTube with more than one million views. In a 2008 interview, Handler said, "The worse the guests are, the more pathetic they are, the funnier the show is." Chelsea Lately was broadcast weekdays on the E! Network in the U.S., Canada, U.K, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand. After more than 1,000 episodes, the final episode of Chelsea Lately aired on August 26, 2014.
The show had a spinoff, the mockumentary After Lately, in which the various cast members, writers, crew, guests and even "hangers-on" of Chelsea Lately are shown bickering over trivial matters and competing for airtime on the show. They also are shown seeking personal approval from Handler, who appeared in very few scenes of the program, and was always portrayed as having open and utter disdain for everyone beneath her. After Lately debuted on E! on March 6, 2011. Guest stars included: Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Jay Leno, Tori Spelling, Jenny McCarthy, Sharon Osbourne, Dave Grohl, Johnny Knoxville, and Jane Fonda.
In 2007, Handler appeared in the Internet-based program In the Motherhood with Leah Remini and Jenny McCarthy (since January 2008). On September 8, 2008, it was announced that ABC would be turning In The Motherhood into a series starring Jessica St. Clair, Megan Mullally, and Cheryl Hines.
Are You There, Chelsea? was an NBC sitcom based on Handler's 2008 best-selling book Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, which aired from January 11 to March 28, 2012. On May 11, 2012, the network canceled it after only one season. Laura Prepon played the main character Chelsea Newman, a cocktail waitress while Handler portrayed Chelsea's born-again Christian sister Sloane, a married, conservative, new mom who had little in common with her carefree sister. Dottie Zicklin (of Dharma & Greg) and Julie Larson (of The Drew Carey Show) were creators and executive producers. Handler served as executive producer, along with Tom Werner (of That '70s Show), Mike Clements (of The Life & Times of Tim), and Tom Brunelle (of Chelsea Lately).
In 2016, Handler filmed a documentary series for Netflix titled Chelsea Does, consisting of four episodes on marriage, Silicon Valley, racism, and drugs. In May 2016, she began presenting her new Netflix original comedy talk show Chelsea. The first season streamed Wednesday, Thursday and Friday each week; season 2 streams every Friday. In February 2015, Handler said she envisioned a show more serious than Chelsea Lately. "I would like a healthy mix of everything that goes on around the world, mixed with interesting stuff in our country. The well-roundedness of 60 Minutes but faster, quicker, cooler."
Handler has authored five books that have made the New York Times Best Seller List, four of which have reached number one. Her first book, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands (2005), describes the variety of sexual encounters she has experienced throughout her life. Her second book, Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea (2008), a collection of humorous essays, hit the top of the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List on May 11, 2008, with a print run of more than 350,000. She went on a nationwide tour to promote her third book, titled Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, which was released on March 9, 2010. Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang hit Number 1 on the New York Times Nonfiction Hardback Bestseller list for March 21, 2010.
On November 15, 2010, it was announced that Handler's publishers gave her her own publishing imprint, Borderline Amazing/A Chelsea Handler Book. She also signed a three-book deal with the imprint, the first of which is called Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, where her coworkers and family members discuss their experiences with Handler, which was released in May 2011 and also hit the top of the bestseller list.
Handler has her own columns in Cosmopolitan and NOW, a UK celebrity magazine. In May 2009, she was the host of the 20th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in San Francisco. In June 2009, she was named as Grand Marshal of the 2009 Los Angeles LGBT PRIDE Celebration "for her visible and vocal support of equality". In July 2010, during a tour stop in Salt Lake City, Handler took part in the "I AM EQUAL" Photo Documentary project in memory of her mother, Rita, who died from complications of cancer. Along with her photo being added to the documentary and accompanying photo mosaic, she also shared a "Photo Story" with a message that inspires people to take chances in life. In March 2012, she hosted the Human Rights Campaign Gala in Los Angeles.
In early 2014, Handler released the book Uganda Be Kidding Me, which was number one on the New York Times Best Seller list for two weeks and in the middle of the year did the standup show Uganda Be Kidding Me: Live, which was then released on Netflix in October 2014.
In 2010, Handler was ranked on the Forbes Celebrity 100 at No. 98. In 2012, Time named Handler one of the 100 most influential people in the world on their annual Time 100 list.
Handler appeared on one of the two covers for the December 2009 edition of Playboy. Inside the magazine, Handler posed for a non-nude pictorial. She was also featured on the cover of Shape in April 2010, The Hollywood Reporter in June 2011, on Redbook's March 2012 issue, and on the cover of the September 2012 issue of Marie Claire.In March 2009, Handler received the "Ally for Equality Award" from the Human Rights Campaign, recognizing "the outstanding efforts of those who dedicate time, energy, spirit and whole-hearted commitment to better the lives of LGBT people".
In April 2009, Handler won the Bravo A-List Award for "A-List Funny."
In July 2012, Handler received the Comedy Person of the Year Award at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival.
In 2006, Handler began dating Ted Harbert, who oversaw E! as the former CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group. On January 25, 2010, Handler confirmed, via her late-night talk show, that she had broken up with Harbert. In 2010, a leaked sex tape of Handler was being offered for sale. After news of it became public, Handler said on Chelsea Lately the tape "was made as a joke" more than 10 years earlier, adding, "I put it on an audition tape for a comedy club, because I'm a comedienne, and I've been showing it at birthday parties for fucking years." In a 2011 interview in The New York Times, Handler revealed that she had an abortion when she was 16, saying she had the procedure "because that's what I should have done. Otherwise I would now have a 20-year-old kid. Anyway, those are things that people shouldn't be dishonest about." In a 2016 interview with Playboy magazine, Handler revealed that she had a second abortion when she was 16 in addition to the one she talked about with The New York Times.
Handler was a vocal supporter of the 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and was critical of her opponent Donald Trump. In 2016, she told The Daily Beast that a Trump presidency would be the "end of our civilization."
Handler resides in Los Angeles, California.Handler, Chelsea (2005). My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands. New York: Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 978-1-58234-618-2.
Handler, Chelsea (2008). Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment. ISBN 978-1-4169-5412-5.
Handler, Chelsea (2010). Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. New York: Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 978-0-446-55244-8.
Handler, Chelsea (2011). Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me. New York: Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 978-0-446-58471-5.
Handler, Chelsea (2014). Uganda Be Kidding Me. New York: Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4555-9973-8.