Priscilla Presley - Never Better Than Now
McCall's, July 1989
By James Grant
Priscilla Presley opens the door to her sprawling Beverly Hills mansion looking like a latter-day Scarlett O'Hara. Dressed in a black jumpsuit with a white turtleneck sweater and a black flower on her left shoulder, she has piercing blue eyes and flowing blond tresses that look as stunning up close as they do on the screen. "I'm so glad you're here," she offers graciously, as if to an old friend. "So much has happened since I last saw you."
Indeed. In this past year, since I last interviewed her, dramatic changes have taken place in Priscilla's life, both personally and professionally. She was long determined to move out of the shadow of being Elvis Presley's ex-wife and to demonstrate to an often skeptical public that she is talented on her own. And indeed Priscilla has already proved herself as a gifted and popular actress, a savvy businesswoman and a sensitive mother to Elvis's only child, 21-year-old Lisa Marie Presley.
At 44, however, Priscilla has reached a crossroads in her life. She faces the prospect of bona fide movie stardom after the success of her debut in The Naked Gun, at the same time becoming a proud and youthful grandmother. Lisa's child (who will probably arrive before you read this) promises that the Presley legacy will continue.
The Naked Gun, a screwball comedy from the producers of Airplane!, was released last December and has already brought Paramount an impressive $78 million domestically, giving Priscilla the chance to convince audiences that she is a talented comedienne. The role is a bold departure from that of the melodramatic Jenna Wade, Bobby Ewing's love for five seasons of Dallas. Priscilla says she gave up the security of that long-running series to branch out into films and spend more time with her son, Navarone, who is two years old.
She has been delighted by the response to her first comedy role. "I was absolutely surprised," she admits over tea in her unpretentious living room. "Overwhelmed! I wanted to do something offbeat-something people wouldn't expect me to do. I knew the film was funny, but I didn't realize it would be such a huge hit."
In addition to expanding her movie career, she spends long hours working as the "hands-on co-executrix of Elvis's estate, supervising and protecting not only Graceland, his residence, but all merchandising and licensing of Elvis's name. And now, at the busiest time of her life, the actress must face the necessity of choosing her second film. "I want the chance to play both comedy and drama," she says. Priscilla is also in the final stages of developing her own line of perfume, which will debut nationwide in February, 1990. "We've been developing it for two years now," she explains. "We already have the packaging done. It's great and very unique. And yes, I had a lot to do with it." But Graceland, films and perfume don't tell the whole story. She is also co-executive producer of Elvis: GoodRockin', four half-hour shows (and a potential series) that will air on ABC this fall. The shows fictionalize Elvis's early years and his life on the road before he attained stardom.
Yet for Priscilla, her family remains her first priority. "For me, my family comes before my career," she says. "My career is important to me only if it does not interfere with the priorities that are key in my life."
For the past four years Priscilla has lived with 33-year-old writer/director Marco Garibaldi, Navarone's father. She makes no attempt to hide either her love of romance or her intense devotion to her partner in life. "I know that I'm loved and there is no other motive there, that Marco really cares for me. I've been really fortunate in my life that it's happened a second time for me [after Elvis], because usually a woman is lucky to have one great love in her lifetime."
But as her popularity as a film star expands, Priscilla is aware that she will be forced to reconcile what so many women ceaselessly "juggle," career and family. In fact, Priscilla-who raised Lisa Marie as a single parent after Elvis's death in 1977, when Lisa was only nine-is a classic working mother, experiencing all the classic conflicts. "I don't to be on some movie location for six months, away from my man," she says. "I don't have the kind of guy who's going to be running off visiting me every day on the set either. Marco is very much his own man."
Priscilla is equally concerned about providing the proper environment in which to raise her son. "I don't want to be away from my child for any length of time," she says. "In fact, that would never happen. I would bring him with me wherever I go." She kept Navarone close to her throughout the filming of The Naked Gun. "Lisa and Navarone mean more to me than anything," she adds. "I have major concerns for their future and how they will continue to grow. For instance, I am extremely concerned right now about my son's education. I can't even think of a school I want to put him into. . . ."
Raising Lisa Marie (who prefers to be called Lisa) under the harsh glare of the public spotlight was a tough task for the young mother. But Priscilla has weathered the relentless tabloid headlines and evolved as something of a role model for mothers. She receives mail from parents across America asking advice and wanting help with their children.
As a mother, Priscilla cares deeply about the demands on children today. "I don't feel that kids should be brought up with all this pressure of being superkids," she says. "I think that's totally unfair to children. They should be just kids-nurtured and loved and given a full sense of home and security."
Priscilla takes having a child in the infamous "terrible twos" in stride. "Navarone is just becoming independent and has started to realize that he has some say. He's fighting for his independence. I don't find that a big problem. He can voice and express his needs, likes and dislikes. Children should be treated the way we [adults] want to be treated - with respect and dignity. They're not toys or playthings. They're people. Little people."
The Priscilla Presley of today is a mature, self-assured woman. The early path with Elvis Presley is now the stuff of legend-her fairy-tale meeting and romance with Elvis in Germany while he was enlisted in the Army; a chaperoned life at Graceland at age 15; marriage to Elvis six years later; a friendly but headline-making divorce in 1973. The couple grew apart from the pressures of Elvis's superstardom and from Priscilla's desire for more independence. Priscilla admits in her book Elvis and Me that although their love remained, the romance evaporated-perhaps with the birth of Lisa Marie.
After the divorce, Priscilla embarked on a new life-style in Los Angeles. But the beautiful ex-wife of "the king" was in for a shock when she tried to adapt to life in Hollywood.
"I was still trying to find out who I was," she says pensively. "Being with Elvis at a young age and for so long, I did not realize how vulnerable I was to other people. You know, I trusted a lot when I was with him and had not really experienced other people's manipulations. I had no idea that there was anything out there that was different.
"It's very difficult for me to explain psychologically what I went through, but suffice it to say that I came from a very safe and trusting environment. I knew that Elvis loved me and that the people around me were going to protect me. I was with Elvis from age fourteen until I was twenty-seven, and during that period I really had no idea what life was about. I lived in a cocoon."
But the actress seems not the least bit bitter about the past. "Everything I have experienced has made me the person I am today," she asserts. Priscilla believes she found some enlightenment by practicing Scientology but acknowledges, "I still feel somewhat vulnerable because I take people as they are."
Unfortunately, Hollywood was not initially interested in taking Priscilla as she was. Despite her fame, wealth and breathtaking beauty, at first Priscilla found it virtually impossible to land an acting job. She was a novice as an actress, with the burden of a heavy personal legacy, and she knew it. Sensing sexism, she turned down the chance to replace Kate Jackson on the TV show Charlie's Angels.
Slowly, Priscilla built a career on her own terms. First came a glossy commercial hawking shampoo. Then she cohosted the short-lived series Those Amazing Animals. She pushed herself to maintain a heavy schedule that included raising her daughter, opening a Beverly Hills boutique, taking weekly acting lessons and, later, after Elvis died, supervising his estate.
During the years between Priscilla's divorce from Elvis and his death in 1977, despite tabloid headlines to the contrary, the couple remained close friends. They were unified in their love for their only child and their determination to be good parents. "The one saving grace for Lisa was that her father was always there," Priscilla says. "We have the relationship that we have because she never felt the worst effects of divorce. He had a house right down the street from us, and Lisa always had the freedom to come and go. I'm thankful for that."
As Priscilla's confidence grew, so did her acting prowess. In 1983 she landed a costarring role on Dallas. The next year she met Marco Garibaldi, who, she says, brought love and trust back into her existence and helped her adjust to the enigmatic ways of Hollywood. "When Marco came into my life, he laid the groundwork for a stable and secure relationship, which I had missed," she says.
Priscilla met Marco after her six-year relationship with model Michael Edwards ended-badly. This past year Edwards published a highly sensationalized expose of their years together. The book includes revelations of Priscilla's romances with Julio Iglesias and Richard Gere. But for her, Edwards's most awful revelation was that he had fallen in love with Lisa, then only 16. Priscilla was forced to live every celebrity's nightmare. "I think it always hurts when you've had an intimate relationship with someone and all of a sudden he goes out and tells personal stories and makes up lies and exaggerates things that happened between you. I thought,'My God! Is this the same man I went with?'"
EIvis fans, of course, remain among the most loyal in the world. Thus, carrying on the Presley legacy is a very public task, and not a simple one. Fans and business executives alike have been taken by surprise at Priscilla's impressive handling of her late husband's diverse financial interests. "Everybody thought I was going to be just a figurehead" as co-executrix of his estate, she says, "but I'm on top of everything. Why shouldn't I be? I knew Elvis better than anyone did."
Her ability to make sound business decisions, as well as her finesse in surrounding herself with a highly skilled team of lawyers and staffers, has enabled the Presley estate to increase its worth tenfold since Elvis's death. It now approaches an estimated $50 million, which Lisa will inherit at age 30.
"After Elvis died, we were faced with many problems, including lawsuits and back taxes," she admits. "It was not easy trying to make ends meet and keep Graceland as a house. Elvis spent a lot of money. He didn't leave the millions and millions that people expected." Priscilla was forced to open Graceland for tours in an effort to preserve the Presley legacy for her daughter. "Having to open Graceland was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make. It wasn't just Elvis's home; I had spent half of my life there. It was hard for me to agree to allow people to invade our home and see how we all lived-the rooms we had dinners in, gave parties in, played in. But I had to look at the figures, and I had to look after Lisa's welfare."
With her typically meticulous attention to detail, Priscilla studied various topflight museums, including the Hearst Castle, where no concession stands or tourlike encumbrances were allowed on the grounds. She was impressed, and Graceland followed suit. "There's no McDonald's built in the backyard," she jokes. "If Lisa and I decided to close Graceland tomorrow, it could go right back to being a private home without any problems."
For the present, Priscilla has found a home in Hollywood. Furthermore, she is now competing with other top actresses for coveted film roles. "I have had to fight for the roles, but today the movie business has a much broader range of parts for women," she says. "It's great for women my age. Women in their thirties and forties have experienced so much more than girls, and there are more things to write about for them."
Among the actresses Priscilla admires today are Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathleen Turner. "I especially love Kathleen," she says. "I like the choices she makes, the films she has done, the chances she takes. I really admire her as an actress, and I can see myself doing a lot of the things she does, because she spans both comedy and drama."
Priscilla has learned the hard way to be assertive and independent but does not consider herself a feminist. Learning not to berate herself for every problem in her life was a major lesson on the route she has taken from pampered little girl to mature woman. "I used to blame myself for a lot of things," she confides. "My life turned around when I realized the mistakes of others, not just your mistakes, can cause problems. I also learned not to avoid confrontation, and I learned the importance of just talking things out."
Priscilla has passed these observations down to Lisa, happily married to musician Danny Keough. At the time of our visit, Lisa was just about to have her baby, arguably making Priscilla the world's most glamorous grandmother. When Priscilla was pregnant with Navarone, Lisa helped her mother through her pregnancy. They even took Lamaze classes together. Now the roles have reversed. "Lisa calls me and asks questions like, 'How painful is this going to be?'" says the proud mom.
Priscilla is the oldest of six children. The close-knit family takes pride in getting together for weekly dinners, baseball games and picnics. Most of the Beaulieus live within a few miles of each other. Coincidentally, they frequently are pregnant together. "My sister is pregnant. My sister-in-law is pregnant, and my daughter is pregnant. They're all within three months [of their due dates], so I'm going to a lot of showers these days," Priscilla says.
She remains close to her mother, talking to her every day and seeing her several times a week. And now, as Priscilla helps prepare her older child for motherhood while raising a small child herself, she is sensitive to the lessons her mother taught her and what she hopes to pass on to Lisa. "It's a different time," she reflects. "What worked when my mother raised me doesn't necessarily work now. But I have always been impressed by the fact that my mother was home. I could depend on her to be there for me. I still can.
"I've tried to provide that same stability for Lisa, when she was younger. Growing up, I was always there for her. I didn't start my career until later in life. I was fortunate to have that option."
Lisa's pregnancy came as a surprise to Priscilla. "I can't say I was really happy in the beginning, because it was not the opportune time. You know, I thought she was just a kid herself-that she wasn't ready," says Priscilla. "There was no planning whatsoever. She just came to me and said,'Mom, you know, I'm pregnant.' Every emotion hit me at the same time. I felt anxiety and even anger."
Priscilla could not help thinking back to her own pregnancy with Lisa-under much better circumstances, she feels. "All the questions had already been answered for me," she explains. I had already done some traveling. I had gained a little maturity, and financially Elvis and I were set. There were just not a lot of factors that were still undone, as with Lisa. But I came to realize that Lisa and her husband felt they were ready and that they were willing to take on the responsibility."
With life as a grandmother just around the corner, Priscilla is excited about the prospect of getting to know her grandchild. "I am looking forward to the baby," she says. She is more ambivalent about the flood of headlines that will undoubtedly accompany the birth. "We all have an image of what a grandmother should look like. But we do have younger grandmothers today. I know a couple of young grandmothers, and they look great. They're wearing miniskirts. I'm telling you-it's a different time!"
After years of searching to achieve a balance between her love of family and her desire for a challenging career, Priscilla reflects on her life today with newfound security and pride. "For the first time in my life I'm really looking at all that I have. I'm in a wonderful relationship. I'm extremely happy for my daughter. It's nice to see her also in a meaningful relationship, and I am really looking forward to her baby. I think, 'God, this is really what it's all about.' I'm happy with the mental state I'm in right now. My parents like to talk about the good old days. And I remember Lisa once asking me, 'Mom, when are we going to have the good old days?'"
For Priscilla Presley, those days are here. Right now.