The first things I notice on entering Joan Rivers' Manhattan apartment are a teddy bear wearing a ''Women for Rudy'' badge in honour of New York's Republican mayor; a copy of the Ronald Reagan biography, Dutch; and a cushion embroidered with the words: ''I Need A Man to Spoil Me Or I Don't Need A Man At All''. Joan Rivers herself is nowhere in sight. The man who opened the door to me has gone to fetch a glass of cranberry juice, while I sit on the stiff, unaccommodating sofa in her book-lined study. A small dog of the kind you might accidentally fall over lolls around at my feet. Her name is Veronica.

Veronica and I wait in shared silence for a few minutes until a distinctive voice, a little faded perhaps, signals Rivers' advance. She is impeccably made-up, with pronounced eyelashes and black fishnet stockings. Her eyes have that squinty, pulled-back effect that is as well-known as Barbra Streisand's hooter, only less organic. It's the feature that caricaturists love best.

Rivers flashes me a broad beam and takes a Regency-style chair. It sounds as if she may have a cold, but it may be a side effect of the plastic surgery that has matched her pussycat eyes with a pussycat nose.

This kind of feral furry feline look is still largely an American predilection but Rivers incites more derision than others because she chooses to be honest about it too. Plenty of celebrities are dishonest, and that's her point: that regular women - real women - should take comfort from the fact that Hollywood's finest are also the phoniest. They weren't born that way. ''I spoke about it because people like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren always say they've had nothing done,'' says Rivers. ''So your mother sitting at home goes, Well, I look this way because I'm this way.''

It's true, too, that Rivers does not look her age, however surreal the result. At 67 (she describes herself as a lady of an uncertain age), she knows she is getting old but refuses to feel it. This morning she has finished writing a play with a friend ''about older love and aging'' that may get a Broadway release. She also claims not to recognise the problems that other older people suffer. ''My sister, who is two years older than me has aches and pains, and I'm like: what is wrong with you, who are you?''

Doubtless Rivers will have much to say on

the subject in her one-woman show at the

Edinburgh Fringe, a modified version of a

production that recently ended in Greenwich Village. ''It was serendipity,'' she says. ''I always wanted to go to the Festival, and it just

happened a call came and it worked perfectly into the schedule. I wanted the smallest venue they had but I'm afraid that when I get there it's going to be a big fancy thing.''

New York has always excelled at producing funny women, but Rivers - who was born in Brooklyn - is a lot less outrageous in person than she is in persona. The cussing Queen Bitch whose trenchant coverage of the Oscars has scandalised Americans for years turns out to be as well behaved as one of her poodles.

There are some flashes of the old Rivers' tongue lashing, as when she mock vomits at the mention of Bob Hope and Bill Clinton, who she despises. But for most of the afternoon we talk rather politely, of Scotland for instance, of which Rivers is inordinately fond, and of royalty whom she believes Americans love more than the British. She has met Charles and found him ''so smart, so charming, and so funny''.

This is pleasant enough, but as time winds on I begin to wonder what happened to the woman who once said of Kathy Bates that she ''won't stop unless I'm holding a muffin,'' and who so very bluntly informed Mariah Carey on Oscar night two years ago that everyone was talking about her weight gain.

Nothing happened, of course. Like all celebrities, Rivers is a victim of her own creation, but the creation is an exaggerated artifice. A role. It's an irony she is not oblivious to. ''Most comedians aren't very funny off-stage,'' she concedes. ''I was once at a table with Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and my husband said we looked as if we'd come from a funeral.'' It's one of her misfortunes in life to be invited to parties on account of her reputation as a bon vivant. She is, she says, no such thing. ''If I don't know people I don't open my mouth,'' she says. ''And I just watch the hostess's face fall when they notice how quiet it's become at my end of the table.''

It's true of course that comedians are a screwed-up bunch at the best of times. We all know of the deep depressions that plagued such legendary funnymen as Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams, and Rivers freely admits she contemplated suicide herself. It was in the late eighties shortly after her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, had taken his own life and the Fox Network had cancelled her talk show.

''Cliches are wonderful because they're so true,'' Rivers says. ''And suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. When I look back now I think 'how stupid' but it was a very low moment, a lot of 'poor me' drama.''

Rivers was saved by her Yorkshire terrier, Spike, who wandered into her dressing room at the crucial moment and sat down on the gun she was planning to use. ''And that was that,'' she says. ''Life wasn't over. This dog needed me. I got up to get him water and food and the moment passed.''

It is difficult for Rivers to speak of Spike without a slight tear in her eye. He is 18 now, and too ill to survive much longer. She is staying in nights to look after him. ''He's just a little dotty old guy now,'' she says, promising that the two of us shall meet before I leave. I'm not particularly fond of small dogs, but it seems unwise to share this bit of information. You get the feeling that Rivers' dogs are a substitute for the large family she always wanted but never had.

Although she has a daughter, Melissa, with whom she presents a scabrous fashion gossip show on the E! Entertainment Channel, she would have liked a lot more. ''I'd have liked a boy, a girl and a gay son,'' she says. ''He would have stayed with me, gone shopping with me, and he would have said, 'Mum, tell me about Judy Garland'.''

She worries that Melissa doesn't have more siblings to keep her company through life. ''I get very scared that when I die she has no one, because I come from a very small family and my husband's family was totally wiped out by the Nazis. There's no one left, all gone, and I keep saying that she must have a bigger family than we had. When I die she'll have no one to say, 'Do you remember Sparky the dog?' There will be no-one to share a common memory.''

Rivers does not miss her husband, who emerges from her recollections as some kind of control freak. ''I wouldn't be doing the Edinburgh Festival in the smallest room there is. He would have said you don't do that, you don't do that, you don't do that. I've had such good times by not obeying anything.''

It's not obeying protocol that has made her one of the most cherished but also reviled chat show hosts in America. Like Roseanne Barr she has a maverick sensibility that goes against the grain of network television's anodyne formula but works well in Britain where deflating the egos of the rich and famous is something of a national pastime. ''I'm always surprised they know me over there,'' she says. ''But I try to do three chat shows a year. I've done them all. Who's the one I adore? He's gay, he's hilarious. Oh, he's so brilliant.'' Graham Norton, I suggest. ''Yes, yes,'' she says. ''We had the best time.''

This is hardly surprising. Joan Rivers has the sensibility of a drag queen and the candour of Quentin Crisp. Gay men naturally gravitate to her. Talking about her visits to the White House during the Reagan era, for example, she says quite matter-of-factly, ''I used to go a lot because I knew him when he was governor, and we shared the same decorator. I'm a very shallow woman.'' In spite of the self-deprecating humour, Rivers - the daughter of Russian

Jewish immigrants - is proud of her White House years. ''It was wonderful,'' she says at one point; and ''it was great'' at another. ''My father came over to this country, my mother came over, and they worked so hard. Now their daughter is invited to the White House.''

Rivers lives in style. Her apartment was built by the legendary financier, JP Morgan, and the first room you enter from the lift is a former ballroom that would not be out of place in a nineteenth century mansion. The furniture and fittings are all rather tasteful if you like that sort of thing, and there is a hushed atmosphere about the place that is rather pleasant on a sweltering Manhattan afternoon.

Money is very important to Rivers, and punctuates her conversation. When I ask when she first realised she had money she answers briskly, ''Oh, I never had money, that's why I work so hard,'' and then, almost in the same breath, talks about shopping sprees to boutique department stores such as Barney's that most of us couldn't hope to afford. Her biggest fear, she says, is being poor, which may explain her occasional reputation for parsimony. I once asked some removal men if they'd ever worked for a celebrity, and they said yes, Joan Rivers, and that she'd given them $10 tips for three days of packing and moving all her furniture.

Last year she was seen by viewers of E

Network's Oscar show screaming at her daughter to turn off her microphone. ''That's it, we're out of here, they are not paying us for this,'' she said. ''No pay, no play.'' To which Melissa dutifully echoed, ''No money, no honey.'' It was hard to work out whether it was a spontaneous outburst or part of the act, but most of those watching thought it was for real.

There was a time when Rivers couldn't make such demands. In the mid-sixties, when she was playing in Greenwich Village her show was bombing. Lenny Bruce (''So sexy, so so sensual, so masculine, so right on it, so cutting through everything, and saying the truth and making it funny'') came to see her at the Bitter End, and left a note afterwards. It said, simply: ''You're right, they're wrong.'' It's been her guiding

principle ever since.

Rivers talks a lot about E. She's says, ''This whole thing with E is amazing,'' and for a minute there's some confusion. I think she's talking about the drug, when she's actually referring to the Entertainment channel by its common abbreviation. ''Wrong E,'' she laughs. ''My E's better.'' But has she ever taken drugs? ''Oh, I've taken everything, including cocaine. It was just so stupid. Someone said to me your nose is

running, and I said, that's enough. I work too hard to sit here and have my nose running.''

The hard work extends beyond her talk show gig. In addition to a fragrance and skin care

line, Rivers makes much of her money out of

the compulsively kitsch QVC shopping channel, on which she sells her own jewellery. When I point out its camp reputation in Britain she rushes to its defence. ''But you get wonderful stuff,'' she says. ''I've bought rugs through it - I bet you my coverlet on my bed is QVC. It's huge in this country. HUGE. It's a billion dollar industry.''

She doesn't mean having money automatically means having style. ''I don't think money makes style, but I love it when somebody who has money also has style. A friend of mine just married a man from England who has beyond money and great style and they're living beautifully, and I think how wonderful that she gets it.''

This is something Rivers says a lot of people she admires: that they ''get it''. Madonna gets it. Julia Roberts gets it. Even Sharon Stone gets it. But not Russell Crowe. And not Bill Clinton. ''The first time I met Clinton I was so disappointed,'' she says. ''He started up with a friend of my daughter's and a friend of my niece. I thought, God, stop it. He's a real slime. And it just gets worse and worse. The Clintons literally did whatever the polls told them to do. The polls say the public like brass tables, they like brass tables. The polls say the public doesn't like brass tables, they don't like brass tables.''

Someone else who doesn't get it is Cher. ''We were very good friends, and one day, about 11 years ago, we met at a party and she started telling me that I was getting very vulgar in my act, and I said to her, 'A girl who has a tattoo on her ass is talking to me about vulgarity'. I just thought, I can't deal with this any more. I don't know what got into her because we were good friends. I would go and see her, she would come and see me, we shopped together. I don't know what got into her, but for once I had an answer.''

Those who listen to her radio show, or watch her Oscar broadcasts know Rivers always has an answer, or at the very least the question - even if it's sometimes the wrong question. Interviewing Chow Yun-Fat's wife at this year's Oscars, for example, as if she were Chow Yun-Fat and asking her what it was like to star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And once asking Robert Duvall if he'd ever been nominated for an Oscar (five times, as it happens, with one win).

But you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself if you want to make a fool of others. Rivers' only rule is to avoid mocking her friends. Otherwise anything goes. ''I get so mad with people who say you can't laugh at others,'' she says. ''Anyone who makes an ass of themselves gets right on that bandwagon. Be as rude as you want, but only to people who can turn around and tell you to go to hell.''

Rivers' favourite interviewee is Robert Mitchum. ''I got him when he was a wreck, but he was a poet. Sharon Stone. Loved interviewing Sharon Stone. She's very smart and she gets it. Who else have I loved? Any comic. Give me a Steve Martin, give me a Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, anyone that's funny. I have the best times with them.''

There is a kind of satisfied, pleased look on Rivers' face. It's the look of someone who recognises that life has not been all bad. She has a survivor's instincts. That's what it's all about for her. It's why she was cracking jokes in Vegas a few weeks after her husband's death. Being funny is a way of making money. Or no money, no honey, as she taught her daughter.

For Rivers the bad times are remembered for a reason: this happened, therefore it can happen again. ''It's wonderful being Jewish,'' she says, ''Because you always feel a bit of an outsider, and you always feel, we're survivors, we can get through this. If you got through 5,000 years, being fired is not going to knock this lady down.''

Just before we finish, before dotty old Spike is brought out for show, she recalls the moment in the seventies when she got together with some old chums. ''We did some kind of benefit, and it was Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and a few

others, and we went out to dinner, and we could all pick up the bill. We'd known each other in the village when we were broke and it was so nice when the bill came and nobody panicked. We were all okay. We could all have desert. It was one of the best nights of my life.'' n

Joan Rivers appears at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on August 24, 25 and 27.