LOS ANGELES — Don’t get her wrong. Laverne Cox loves Joan Rivers.
“Joan is for me the originator of everything,” Ms. Cox said. The comedian, who died in 2014, was the first host of “Live From the Red Carpet,” now called “Live From E!,” and perhaps the best-known red carpet commentator in history.
Ms. Rivers could bite with the strength of a diamond-collared toy poodle, drawing blood that only sometimes splashed back on her. She’d scream and curse and fire off jokes about celebrities’ bodies and outfits. There was scorched earth all over the trails she blazed.
“But I’m not Joan, there’s only one Joan, and the times are very different, too,” said Ms. Cox, 50, wrestling with whether she wanted to use the phrase “political correctness,” or if that was too dated. “It would be a tricky time for Joan.”
Ms. Cox, the current star of E!’s red carpet show, doesn’t bite like that. She considers herself a nerd, particularly when it comes to the craft of acting — casually citing Chekhov in conversation, and once reciting a Macbeth monologue on air, egged on by Denzel Washington, while producers urged her to wrap it up.
She skews more “fan girl” (her words) than “Fashion Police,” the former E! talk show with segments including “starlet or streetwalker.” Ms. Cox did make appearances as both a “Fashion Police” guest and subject. Giuliana Rancic, who preceded Ms. Cox as the network’s red carpet host, once praised her during a Screen Actors Guild Awards recap. “I love Laverne Cox,” she said, “and I don’t want to say anything bad.” Then she called her dress “hideous.”
Generally, the red carpet no longer nurtures this kind of discourse. There has been a shift, over the last decade, from seeing famous people as wealthy elites deserving of mockery to just-like-us humans deserving of compassion. E! hiring Ms. Cox, whose first show as host was in December 2021, seems to be part of this shift.
“We were looking for a fresh voice and fresh perspective, particularly somebody who could be both a Hollywood insider and a fan,” said Cassandra Tryon, the senior vice president for live events for NBCUniversal television and streaming (NBCUniversal owns E!). “It’s like moving from a journalistic interview to a host of a party, and everybody wants to talk to the host.”
The strategy, according to the network, has been working. While awards shows have struggled with viewership, the Grammy Awards’ live carpet telecast in February drew about 1.1 million viewers — the most for any E! program since 2020 (surpassing a season premiere episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”).
“It is a craft too, by the way, to be a host,” Ms. Tryon said, sitting in a room at the Hollywood Roosevelt, where the courtyard becomes an E! set during the Oscars. It was the eve of what she called the network’s Super Bowl.
Oh, the humanity.
“I feel nervous,” Ms. Cox said toward the end of rehearsals late Saturday afternoon. Outside of the Dolby Theatre, plastic still covered the champagne-colored carpet and mummified a jumbo Oscars statue facing the E! cameras.
She had spent five hours on Friday reviewing and reworking questions for the nominees and presenters. There was a thick stack of cue cards for every name — some confirmed to stop and speak to Ms. Cox on the carpet, others more wishful. (“We always prep Cate” — Blanchett, that is — “and she never stops,” Ms. Cox bemoaned to her producers.) A card could have four questions, but once cameras start rolling, only one or two may make it to air.
The Oscars carpet is a particularly overstuffed carpet; E! doesn’t get a platform here, unlike at some other ceremonies. Which means there is a steady torrent of people — attendees, staff, photographers, publicists, assistants — jostling behind Ms. Cox as she works.
Her interviews must be quick, to maximize the number of high-profile guests featured during E!’s three-hour broadcast, which jumps between Ms. Cox’s carpet interviews and a group of commentators at the Hollywood Roosevelt, or stationed on a nearby rooftop.
Ms. Cox has an earpiece and at least two people cuing her on-site: a stage manager and a supervising producer named Sam Bellikoff, the creator of the cue cards and master of pronunciations (“Ana de Armas,” “Banshees of Inisherin”), who sometimes sits at Ms. Cox’s feet, tapping her leg. (One piece of E! interviewing wisdom imparted by Ms. Tryon: Skip asking people how they’re feeling, since everyone asks that, and the answers are often generic.)
In explaining what she’s trying to accomplish as a host, Ms. Cox pointed to a Grammys interview with Machine Gun Kelly, in which he admitted to lacking “self-love,” in the context of losing awards. Ms. Cox told him: “Ultimately, there’s nothing outside of us that can make us love ourselves more. It has to come from inside.”
That moment epitomized her desire to “create space for people to come and be themselves,” she said. “It can be frivolous. It can be silly.” She has no problem screaming as if she’s about to faint, casually asking her co-hosts for “tea” or referring to her interview subjects as just “girl.”
“But it can also be deep,” she said. “What does it mean to be human?”
Speaking to Questlove on Sunday about his next documentary — about Sly and the Family Stone and mental health in the Black community — Ms. Cox cited the phrase “post-traumatic slave syndrome,” coined by Joy DeGruy. “Where was the mental health after emancipation?” Ms. Cox said. Later in the show, she asked the director Sarah Polley about Rooney Mara’s use of a fart machine on the set of “Women Talking.” She whips between nuance and nuttiness.
“In doing this job, I feel like the public has gotten to see a different side of me,” said Ms. Cox, who is best known for her role on “Orange Is the New Black,” which was on Netflix from 2013 to 2019, and earned her four Emmy nominations and two SAG ensemble acting awards. “It’s been a different way for me, hopefully, to highlight people’s humanity. As an artist, we’re arbiters of empathy and humanity. And I think it’s possible as a red-carpet host to also do that.”
Yet it’s harder to do that in 60-second increments, in the heat of a celebrity battle zone, dodging Molotov cocktails of opulence and Ozempic.
Speaking by phone on Monday, Ms. Cox said she felt “off” during the previous night’s broadcast, during which she completed 31 interviews (according to E!). She had some trouble breathing comfortably after choosing a particularly tight corset to wear with her Vera Wang gown (“ethereal Blade Runner,” she called the sea-foam-and-black look), and she noticed the Oscars guests seemed more weary, compared with their excitement at the start of the awards season.
“I think I was frustrated with wanting to have deeper interactions and having so little time,” she said. “I’m always looking for connection. I’m always looking for something that feels authentic and unexpected.
“There’s never enough time.”
‘What story are you telling us with this look tonight?’
If there’s one thing alone that will define Ms. Cox’s tenure as a red carpet host, it’s the way she has retooled the question “Who are you wearing tonight?”
Backlash to that question began to swell in 2015, when celebrities including Reese Witherspoon drew attention to a campaign called #AskHerMore. After the #MeToo movement took off in late 2017, there was a call for interviewers, including Ms. Rancic and Ryan Seacrest on E!, to ask more substantive questions too.
Yet Ms. Cox, a fashion enthusiast — she wore a vintage Mugler suit to her rehearsal Saturday — had no intention of eliminating the discussion of fashion. After she took over the hosting job, she asked attendees: “What story are you trying to tell with your look tonight?”
The quality of answers vary. Sometimes they’re funny or thoughtful, and sometimes, as Austin Butler said of his Saint Laurent suit on Sunday night: “I don’t know what story I’m telling you. I just thought it was a beautiful tuxedo.” That’s fine with Ms. Cox, too. “The question for me is just an invitation to think differently about what we put on our backs,” she said.
It is a question that has been applauded by the Representation Project, the organization behind the #AskHerMore campaign: “The way that she is approaching questions about fashion is a layer I’ve never seen on the red carpet,” said Caroline Heldman, the executive director. Ms. Heldman added that there is still work to be done. The Representation Project tracked four hours of red carpet coverage on Sunday night — two on ABC and two on E! — and found that women were still twice as likely as men to be asked about what they were wearing.
But the question is also rooted in Ms. Cox’s experience as a transgender woman. “My own relationship to fashion has always been an attempt to communicate to the world who I am,” she said. “Pre-transition, there was someone inside that was not reflected on the outside.”
Generally, though, Ms. Cox said she appreciates that her identity and activism aren’t at the forefront of her hosting role: “What I do love about my job at E! is that, particularly as a host, I’m openly trans, but it’s not about me being trans.”
Last month, at the Grammys, Ms. Cox was approached by Dylan Mulvaney, a TikTok creator who has been documenting her own transition, and who wanted to make a video with Ms. Cox. In the clip, Ms. Cox cautioned Ms. Mulvaney to “make sure you keep things to yourself — everything cannot be the public.”
It was classic advice from Ms. Cox, who considers herself a private person. She referred to “having a cry” recently over not spending much time with her boyfriend, though when she was pressed for more details, she said she was “trying to keep him off the radar.”
Ms. Tryon said E! considers Ms. Cox’s activism “as a plus” that gives her “a unique connection to celebrities.” That connection is the priority, Ms. Tryon said, along with “how to make it fun and light and safe for Laverne’s guests.”
Ms. Cox said the only hesitation she had before taking the hosting job was whether it would make people in the industry, and in the public more widely, “forget that I’m also an actor,” she said. She is less worried about that now. Next week, she’ll travel to Georgia to begin work on a sitcom produced by Norman Lear. Her contract with E! runs through the end of 2023.
But her appreciation for acting is not something that many in her E! audience — those watching the long hours of rapid interviews — are likely to forget. Often her questions and comments touch on the preparation and physicality and history of acting. She once got a note from her producers that said the audience didn’t like these craft questions, she said. It didn’t stop her.
“I’m an actress,” she said. “I’m obsessed with craft.”