But alas, fairytales don’t always have happy endings and on October 9, 1973, 14 years after they met, the couple’s divorce made headline news.
Priscilla and Elvis remained friends, and suddenly at 28 years old, she was in charge of her own life for the first time. It was on this transformational journey that Priscilla developed her own identity, discovered her talents and distinguished herself as an actress, an author, producer, businesswoman, philanthropist, and environmental and animal rights advocate.
Sadly, Elvis died on August 15, 1977, followed by his father’s death in 1979, which left Priscilla to oversee the financial interests of Lisa Marie who was only 11. As executor, Priscilla opened the Graceland Mansion to the public in 1982 and established the Presley estate as a phenomenally successful organization that included worldwide licensing and merchandising agreements, music publishing, and television and film projects.
The highlights of her acting career include five years as Jenna Wade on the CBS hit series “Dallas,” and three “Naked Gun” films. She’s also had guest roles on TV shows such as “Melrose Place” and “Spin City.”
Priscilla was the executive producer on several movies including “Finding Graceland,” which stars Harvey Keitel. And she is developing a stage play based on her life from the perspective of a teenage girl to a woman thrust onto the world stage.
Her business endeavors include four fragrances, Moments, Experiences, Indian Summer, and Roses and More, a collection of luxurious bed linens, and a new jewelry line that will be available on QVC in March.
Priscilla Presley doesn’t limit herself. She has stretched far beyond the dreams she had as a young girl. She is soft-spoken, yet she takes on bold new challenges, and is a voice for the needy and downtrodden. Enjoy getting Up Close and Personal with her. I think you will come away inspired to live life fully, to be true to yourself, and giving toward others.
Marsala Rypka: What three words best describe you?
Priscilla Presley: I’m not used to talking about myself so this is difficult. When I ask myself ‘Who am I?’ I come up with compassionate, independent and vulnerable. I’m compassionate about children, the elderly, and people on the street. My son is also very sensitive. One day he said, ‘Mom, when I see something in peoples’ eyes it makes me cry.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, you’re cursed like me (laugh).’ I feel for people. I make time for people. I have a love for people and he feels the same thing.
MR: What are you passionate about?
PP: Human rights, animal rights, education. I have compassion for animals and intolerance for people who abuse them. I started rescuing horses and found a home for a few of them at Graceland where we’ve continued Elvis’ legacy of having horses on the grounds.
As for human rights, I don’t think much has changed from where we were years ago to where we are today. I’m appalled when I read the news and travel to third world countries. There’s so much that needs to be done to help people on the planet. We also have poverty in this country. You go to some places in the South and you won’t believe you’re in America. It’s overwhelming. During these rough times when people are focused on their own survival you have to narrow it down to a few causes that you can help.
MR: What three people have influenced your life?
PP: Elvis Presley, who opened up my world in every aspect. He was not only my husband and the father of my child, but my mentor and teacher. He taught me how to give and take in love and life; what was important, what was immaterial; and that it was worth giving time and energy to the human spirit in order to grow. Elvis was so genuine. My life was improved beyond measure by this one man who changed our culture.
I was only 14 when Elvis and I met in Germany while he was in the Army and I found myself in this amazing world I never knew existed. My father was in the Air Force, so growing up I was uprooted many times and went to so many schools that I was always trying to figure out who I was, where I belonged, and how I fit in. I’d finally make a friend and we’d move again. It was hard. Looking back I can see that it made me a survivor. I learned to adapt to new surroundings and new people, which served me well later on when I was thrown into a rock ‘n’ roll life of adult decision-making. I jumped in head first and I haven’t stopped since.
Second is my acting coach, Milton Katselas who passed away a couple of years ago. He brought me out of my shell, out of my shyness. He came into my life after Elvis passed away and introduced me to the world of acting. I remember sitting in the back of a theater for six months trying to get up my nerve. He came over and said, ‘Priscilla, I’m going to die an old man before you get on that stage.’ I’m not a singer, but he had me get up and sing a nursery rhyme, dance, and do different acting scenes. He helped me blossom and feel more comfortable in front of a crowd.
I needed that. Norman Brokaw, chairman of the William Morris Agency and one of the best agents in town, wanted to sign me as a client and I was terrified. It was a whole new world. I’d been exposed to acting through Elvis, but I never dreamed of being an actress. I’d always been satisfied being a wife and mother. I lived through Elvis. We did what he did. When I was on my own, someone suggested I join an acting class and recommended Milton. He taught me that it was okay to be myself on stage. He called me a diamond in the rough. I turned to him when I felt insecure about a part I thought was too much for me.
Third are my parents. My mother is the quiet strength in our family. She asks for nothing, yet gives so much of herself. She raised six children and is devoted to each of us. No one is more special than another, which is very comforting. My parents have always been extremely supportive. They’re not from Hollywood, but they try their best to understand it and its unpredictability. My dad, who was a Colonel in the Air Force, is a tower of strength for the family.
MR: Name something about yourself that would surprise people.
PP: I’m extremely private so I don’t think people really know who I am. Sometimes when I see photos of myself in the media or that fans send, I look so reserved, almost unapproachable and aloof. I think it’s a protective mechanism one acquires. I think they’d find it surprising that I can be a lot of fun and I have a really good sense of humor. I have a close-knit group of gal pals who grew up with me over the last 30 years that I like having over for dinner. We laugh; we watch movies; we come up with fun games to play. When you have people who know what you’ve been through, who have been through it with you, it’s harder to make new friends. If my friends read something malicious about me in the press, they’ll stand up for me and say, ‘This isn’t you at all. You’d never say something like that.’ It’s comforting that someone knows you, knows your character.
MR: What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?
PP: I suppose my greatest strength is that I have a lot of patience. I believe people can change. My daughter compliments me all the time. ‘Mom, I wish I could be like you. You have so much patience, how do you do it?’
We live in such an ‘I want it now’ world, but it doesn’t work that way. We can’t have everything instantaneously. It takes patience. Change doesn’t happen all at once. It’s like raising children. You want them to understand what you’ve been trying to teach them, but you have to let it go and believe it will happen one day. They just need more life experience like we did.
I’m the perfect Gemini, a dichotomy. I live in two worlds – one is a whirlwind, the other is calm – and I seem to handle them both. I don’t let too much upset me. I always think it could be worse. I live in the moment. There are no guarantees that things will be the same tomorrow as they are today so I don’t take anything for granted.
My weakness is that I’m hard on myself. I strive for perfection. I’m one of those people who thinks I can do everything so when I take on too much and can’t give 100 percent I become disappointed with myself.
MR: Who would you trade places with for 24 hours?
PP: Someone who hears the voices of the people and does something about it. I have not found that person. We get so much lip service from politicians on both sides telling us what we want to hear. And like many others, I’m tired of it. How did things get so complicated and confusing? Political candidates go from state to state and supposedly listen to people tell them what they need and what they’re angry about. As a whole, people want the same basic things. To keep their homes and have their children get a good education. Is that hard, or is there something I’m missing? Where did we go wrong? Greed seems to be the problem, but is everybody greedy? I don’t understand how you can walk amongst people and not feel compassion and want to help them. I’m concerned where we’re headed. So to answer your question (laugh), I’d trade places with Oprah Winfrey who seems to be in tune with people and their concerns. She appears to want to do the right thing in so many areas.
MR: What makes you angry?
PP: I hate when dog owners don’t pick up their mess. It’s irresponsible. The beautiful parks are for everyone to use and then there are those few who abuse them. When people see litter, most times they’re like, ‘I didn’t do it so I’m not going to pick it up.’ Well guess what, it’s your responsibility because the other people are gone and we want it to look nice. We need to teach our children that it’s a cooperative effort. It’s about all of us working together.
Everything has an accumulative effect. We get sloppy or lazy and throw something on the ground, the next person does the same thing and that’s what destroys the beauty of nature.
Genetically-engineered food makes me angry. When I read about it, I wonder where we can move to. Our choices are being made for us by big corporations. It’s frightening. Places like Germany and England that are so community driven and into self-sufficiency are fighting against genetically engineered food.
It’s all about protecting the environment. I have my own garden where we don’t use insecticides or pesticides and the fruit tastes so much better. We use grey water. When we remodeled the house we used lumber that was certified green. I don’t have solar yet, but I will.
Do you realize the butterflies and bees are in serious decline? People don’t understand the ramifications because they are disconnected from their environment. I don’t see the world as most people do. I question why the animals are coming down from the hills and drinking at peoples’ swimming pools. It’s because there’s no water for them. Trees are dying from drought and I wonder what will happen if it spreads.
I don’t want to come across as condescending, but I want to wake people up to what’s happening. Someone has to deliver the message. I gave a lecture once and poured my heart out about how we need to find what we’re passionate about, whether it’s the elderly or education, and get involved. Afterwards I had a book signing and a group of ladies came up and said it was a great talk. I said, ‘Thank you. Don’t forget you have to have a voice. Find what you’re passionate about and do something.’ And one woman said, ‘Oh no, we have you.’ My mouth fell open. I thought I was pretty clear that we all have to take part. It’s amazing how people don’t see themselves having to take responsibility. They want somebody else to do it for them.
MR: What is your most treasured material possession?
PP:When Elvis died I asked Vernon Presley for an old, black cane with a bejeweled, faux ivory head of a bulldog that Elvis carried around. When he wanted to make a point, he’d wave it in the air or walk proudly with it. I cherish those memories of him with that cane. One day it was missing and I know who took it. I was remodeling my home and it was stolen by someone who worked for me. I filed a police report, but they moved to France. One day I hope to get it back. I take some responsibility in that I never should have left it out. That’s a piece of history that is priceless. Other than that, probably the jewelry Elvis gave me that he had inscribed. They are put away because they are very special. They’re from a time in history of great extravagance. Also my photo albums. Everything else is replaceable.
MR: What life lesson have you learned?
PP: I like the saying, ‘Less is more.’ Yes I live in a beautiful home and drive a nice car, but I don’t need multiple homes and possessions scattered all over. Some houses are like castles. I call them ‘monuments to excess.’ How much do you need? More things don’t bring you happiness. If anything, they bring you less because you’ve got more to worry about.
We’re such a consumer society. I look at things and ask myself if I really need that. I don’t know if it’s something that happens as you get older, but I’m really content with less. When you simplify your life there is such peace of mind and you appreciate the simple things in life that bring you pleasure.
On Oprah’s last “Favorite Things” show she gave away a lot of gifts including a car. She said, ‘Look under your seats, yes, that’s yours,’ and ‘Here’s a jewelry box that’s yours,’ and on and on. Then she said, ‘Remember though, it won’t make you happy.’ That touched me, because no matter how much you have, you still have the same problems. Possessions are temporary. I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, that’s easy for her to say.’ Yes, money can make you comfortable and you don’t have to stress out the way the average person might to make ends meet, but money doesn’t make you immune to things like divorce, ill health, family problems.
I apply the ‘less is more’ motto to a lot of things besides material possessions, like talking or complaining too much. It’s about being comfortable with who you are. When you are content with yourself, you don’t have to prove anything or compete with anyone. It’s not about getting, it’s about giving.
MR: What five people would you invite to a dinner party?
PP: I racked my brain because this is not a frivolous question. I wouldn’t want a table full of intellectuals. My table would be very diverse. I love talking with people from all walks of life.
For years whenever I have dinner for my kids and their friends I’ve put little cards under their plates with questions like: ‘If you were born in yesteryear and could foresee the future, what’s the first thing you would do?’ Most kids just eat and want to leave the table, but my dinners last two hours because we have these great discussions.
So I’d like to group together as one, my grandparents, my parents, my children, and their children. Recently I had 13 relatives over including my granddaughter, who is 21, and my grandson, who is 18, and their cousins and my nephew, and we sat outside at a long table and talked about self-esteem, pride, honor, patriotism and morals. We talked about how things have changed over the years. The kids said they wish they’d been more prepared for life when they got out of school. Older generations had Home Economics where kids learned to cook, sew, iron, do woodworking, manage money. That’s all been taken out of schools. I’d like to bring together multiple generations of my family so the kids could ask questions and learn.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who had her own identity and worked to improve the status of working women, yet was still the strong woman behind her husband.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I love music and I’m really into the words of a song. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are so heartfelt and I love and admire Elton for putting them to music and delivering them so brilliantly. I want to get into their heads and find out how the collaborative process works. How did they turn out such amazing songs as “Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel,” “Candle in the Wind,” and on and on? I lived in Memphis and I also love country artists who write about love, loss, tragedy and pain. Country music is about storytelling and I get lost in the words.
Nora Ephron. I love her movies and books. She puts such a funny spin on all the things women fear like sagging necks and elbows, and the problems we think are uniquely ours. We need some comedy in this group and she’d make us laugh.
And Bette Davis, a grand dame of film. I can watch her movies over and over. I love her forthrightness and that she didn’t give a damn. She’d say what she felt about anyone and smoke that damn cigarette. She did things her way.
MR: What are you most proud of?
PP: My daughter, Lisa, and my son, Navarone. They were thrown into a world that forced them to grow up quicker than most kids because they had to deal with criticism in the press. I’ll never forget taking Lisa to the Bahamas when she was 12. She was a little overweight, which is normal for adolescents that age, and she was photographed coming out of the ocean and it ended up on the cover of People. She was just a child and it was devastating for her. A lot of media outlets don’t care if they humiliate you. I’m so proud of Lisa. She has come out of it so centered and such a strong human being. She’s a wonderful mother who raises her children out of the public eye, much the way I raised her, so they have their own lives as much as they possibly can considering the family they were born into.
Both of my kids are free spirits. My son is sensitive and compassionate, almost to a fault. He’s 23 and coming into his own. When I was growing up we’d make a mistake because of immaturity and bad judgment, we’d learn from it and get a second chance. My kids didn’t have a chance to have a normal life. They were criticized for every little thing. They’ve done well coping with so much that wasn’t their choosing.
MR: What was it like being on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2008?
PP: The hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never performed live on stage, let alone in front of 23 million people! It was a horrifying feeling (laugh). Now I understand what stage fright means. You don’t want to go first or second because it’s too soon, but you want to get it over with. When the announcer says, ‘Here are Priscilla Presley and her partner, Louis Van Amstel,’ it’s like a force pushes you out there. You’re on autopilot and your greatest nightmare is that your brain will go blank and your feet won’t know what to do. I’d wake up at 2 a.m. trying to remember a certain step and have a brain freeze. It’s one of my biggest professional accomplishments, along with “Naked Gun,” which was also out of my comfort zone. I guess that’s the adventurous side of Gemini.
MR: Every year the Nevada Ballet Theater honors a woman with a strong connection to Las Vegas who has contributed to the performing arts and is involved with philanthropy. On January 29, 2011 you will be honored as Nevada Ballet’s “Woman of the Year” at their Black &White Ball at CityCenter’s Aria Resort & Casino. How does it feel?
PP: I’m honored to be in the company of such luminary past recipients as Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Celine Dion, Paula Abdul, Bette Midler, and Marie Osmond. Las Vegas has been part of my life since I was a young girl. I’ll never forget Elvis’ excitement when I came to visit him in 1962, and he took me to Las Vegas. I was barely 17 and had never heard of it. He had a customized bus and we drove there. It was a small town then, but it still had the bright lights and was an exciting sight to behold. I have lots of wonderful memories of the many days and nights we spent there. We got married at the Aladdin. Elvis performed at the Las Vegas Hilton and now Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” at Aria is carrying on his legacy. It’s been a beautiful journey.
MR: Do you come to Las Vegas often?
PP: I come in to see the Cirque show and recently, Steve Wynn, who is a friend of mine, invited me to be part of a vegan food-tasting roundtable, which was great. He had top chefs and doctors there who discussed how eating less meat lowers cholesterol and reduces obesity. Since becoming a vegan Steve has lost 15 pounds and looks and feels great. He has added delicious vegan items to the menus in all his restaurants.
MR: Tell us about the Priscilla Presley Jewelry Collection.
PP: Elvis introduced me to jewelry. When he wanted to come up with an insignia to give to the guys in his inner circle, I designed a necklace with a lightning bolt and the initials TCB (taking care of business). He loved it so much that he wore it and everyone wanted one. It started as something for only a handful of people and he started giving them away (laugh). There was also a necklace for the women with the initials TLC (tender loving care).
I’d always look for pieces for Elvis to wear on stage. When I was in New York I found a wide belt buckle with chains on it in SoHo that would be great with his black shirt and pants. That belt buckle became a prototype for all his belts which was part of his onstage persona.
For years I wanted to do my own line, but I didn’t have the time. Finally the opportunity with QVC came about. I’ve designed some beautiful, unique costume jewelry made with metals and crystals.
MR: How do you pay it forward?
PP: For 10 years I’ve been an ambassador for the Dream Foundation which takes over from the Make-A-Wish Foundation when someone turns 18. This is the only organization in the country that grants wishes for terminally ill adults who have exhausted all of their medical care. It started in 1994 with one dream and in 2010 we granted a dream to the 10,000th recipient. Their dreams aren’t extravagant, usually things we take for granted. One that really touched me was a woman in the Midwest who’d never seen the ocean. She’d been ill for a few years and she wanted to create a happy memory for her children. We brought them to Santa Monica for three days where they laughed, hugged, and made sand castles. Every time I see the photos, it makes me cry. The littlest things become the most important, like taking their kids fishing, reuniting with a friend, going to Disneyland as a family. We forget to live each day as if it is our last. It’s not about the kids playing video games while the parents are in another room watching TV. Go outside into nature where it’s calming and have a picnic in the park with your kids. Don’t come to the end of your life and have regrets. Every Sunday we have dinner at my parents’ house. It’s a tradition because they are in their 80s and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have them.
I support Valley Wildlife Care in L.A. that provides medical care for injured, abused, maimed or orphaned wildlife and releases them back into nature when they’re healed.
We haven’t talked about marine life. I’m appalled when I’m on a boat and I see floating plastic bottles in the ocean that mammals and birds get caught up in. It’s heartbreaking. This beautiful planet is a gift to us. I don’t understand why we have to destroy it instead of learning to co-exist. If a bear is trapped up in a neighborhood tree, do you think he wants to be there? He’s afraid, but he’s looking for food and water. In developing the land, humans have driven the animals away from their environment and they’re starving. Two years ago, my two Boston Terriers were attacked by a coyote. Fortunately I was able to rescue them. But it was my fault, my irresponsibility for letting them out. I didn’t blame the coyote. I blame the developers.
MR: Do you make new year’s resolutions?
PP: I do, but I rarely keep them. It’s usually to spend more time with myself, exercise more, get a facial twice a month, but life gets in the way. If you do what you can to lift yourself up, to become better, to keep evolving and educating yourself, you get to places you never thought you’d reach.