Priscilla Presley was getting dressed to go out recently when she looked at her shoes and had what she calls “an Elvis flashback.”
This was not the kind of Elvis-in-a7-Eleven sighting you read about in the tabloids. Instead, it was a bittersweet reflection about her exhusband, who died in 1977.
“I looked down at these clunky platform heels,” she says, “and I thought, ‘My God, if Elvis ever saw these things, I don’t think I’d ever live to hear the end of it.’ He would have gone on and on about how ugly they were and told me to change them.”
She smiles and shakes her head at the memory and adds that now she wears what she pleases - which is, of course, the point of the story.
It’s hard to imagine anyone ordering Presley around these days, now that she’s become independent and admired for her own talents, both as the comedic bombshell of the popular “Naked Gun” movies and as a businesswoman who runs the $100-million-plus Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Yet the story is a touching reminder of who she once was and the person she has become.
Presley is wearing a casual black silk pantsuit and brown silk shirt and is seated behind a huge mahogany desk in the headquarters of the Presley empire in Hollywood. The setting, complete with its Oriental rugs, underscores how far Presley has come since she first rocketed to celebrity as the shy 14-year-old who captured the heart of a rock ‘n’ roll icon in 1959.
Now, at 49, she is as confident as an athlete at the top of her game.
“It has taken awhile to find out what I like and what I don’t like,” she explains. “It feels so good not to have someone dictate to you.”
Over the last three decades Presley has been through an extraordinary sequence of ups and downs, which she now describes in typically understated fashion as “character building.”
For this plucky survivor, the lessons just kept on coming during this past, event-filled summer. Her grief over the shocking downfall of friend and “Naked Gun” co-star O.J. Simpson, accused of killing his exwife Nicole and waiter-model Ronald Goldman, was compounded by the tangled saga of her daughter by Elvis, Lisa Marie.
When reports of a marriage between 26-year-old Lisa Marie and Michael Jackson hit the headlines, Presley found herself in emotional limbo. She knew the two were friends, but Lisa Marie had not told her of their plans to elope.
Initially, Presley knew as little as the reporters staking out her Los Angeles home.
“When you’re greeted with information that’s shocking, you need to take some time and think about it,” she says philosophically.
“Then you deal with it. Whatever it is, you can work it out.”
After finally speaking to Lisa Marie, just two weeks before the public announcement of the nuptials, Presley says, “This was a surprise. I wish my daughter well. All I want is for her to be happy.”
Yet through it all, Presley takes joy in the everyday life that she has created for herself.
A relentlessly private woman, she chose to reveal herself in a series of face-to-face interviews and phone conversations. What emerges from these talks is a candid and upbeat Presley, a woman far more subtly etched than the media stereotype.
In the space of a single conversation she can go from tycoon to doting mother. She is determined to make a success of her second family with her live-in lover, Marco Garibaldi, and their 7-year-old son, Navarone.
Even when discussing difficult topics, she has the calm of a survivor whose world has crash-landed before and who knows that life will go on.
“You have to get out of bad experiences. You have to move on,” she says repeatedly, as if these phrases have become a mantra.
That said, she is having trouble coming to terms with the Simpson tragedy. On the day Simpson takes off on the most-watched car chase in history, Presley sounds stunned on the phone, saying, “I don’t want to believe it.”
A few weeks later, after Simpson’s gruesome preliminary hearing, she is resigned and deeply shaken.
“It looks, sounds and feels like he’s guilty. I sit here and watch TV and think, ‘I knew this person and we were friends,”’ she says.
The future of the “Naked Gun” spoofs, which catapulted Presley to stardom, are now “up in the air,” according to their director, David Zucker.
“The O.J. case definitely affects any sequels,” he says. “You either have to run away from it or address it, and either choice has its pitfalls.”
He expects the talented Presley to land other roles but adds that, unlike so many Hollywood actresses, she isn’t driven to appear onscreen.
Presley has always found spending time at home with Garibaldi and Navarone more compelling than pursuing the glamorous movie-star life. Nothing beats watching her son’s baseball games or going with Garibaldi to meetings of the environmental group trying to block construction of a nuclear-power plant near Los Angeles.
She remains close to her parents and siblings and has hired younger sister Michelle Hovey as her executive assistant. Brother-in-law Gary Hovey runs the musicpublishing division of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
This is a family that works and plays together.
“Hold on a minute,” she says on the phone one day, calling from her parents’ home. “I think my dog is trying to drown my nephew or my nephew is trying to drown the dog.”
“No, they’re both OK.”
Her romance with Garibaldi began in classic Hollywood fashion: Nearly a decade ago, when she was playing the sultry Jenna Wade on the long-running TV series “Dallas,” she was looking for a writer to help her develop her own projects. A friend recommended Garibaldi, a screenwriter at the time.
“Marco appealed to her intellect,” says her sister. “He’s very independent and self-sufficient. When he met her, I don’t think it really dawned on him who she was.”
Half serious and half joking, Presley chalks up his attraction to “my stability.” Her friends say this down-to-earth man, now a computer programmer, is a welcome relief after the madness of her life with Elvis.
When she tries to explain her aversion to marriage, it becomes evident that she still bears the scars of Elvis’ infidelity and possessiveness.
“I’m speaking just for me - I’m not advocating that people not get married. I’ve been married; Marco’s been married,” she says. “I don’t take him for granted, and he doesn’t take me for granted.”
She pauses for breath and starts talking so quickly that the words are spilling out.
“I know how to create a happy home. When he goes out, he never gives me any reason to think he’s going out on me, so I trust him.”
Framed photos of Garibaldi and Navarone and of Lisa Marie and her two children - Danielle, age 5, and Ben, age 2 - surround Presley in her office.
Speaking before the Michael Jackson-marriage rumors began, she seems truly saddened by her daughter’s recent divorce from musician Danny Keough.
“Lisa Marie is extremely strong. This is not something she and Danny decided on quickly,” she says. “They’re good friends and good parents.”
It’s not easy as a mother, Presley adds, to know when to get involved and when to back off.
“You always want to be a mom; you want to put in your two cents,” she says, laughing. “Lisa and I, we now know what to talk about together and what not to talk about.”
Neither likes to talk publicly, for instance, about their involvement with Scientology, the controversial religion founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard.
In Presley’s mind, Lisa Marie is, for better or worse, an independent adult. It is her young son Navarone who commands her attention. Her face glows as she describes his latest achievements.
“I love spying on my son,” she confesses. “It’s terrible, but I drop him off at school, and I’ll stand behind a building and watch him play.”
Navarone raced off at school recently to show his best friend a just-completed project.
“I was hiding behind a column and watching, and I was so nervous. My heart was going, ‘Please say you love it,”’ she continues. “His friend goes, ‘That’s really neat.’ With all the tragedies in life, I didn’t want anything to leave a mark on him.”
Her protectiveness is perhaps the reaction of a woman who knows all too well the dangers of growing up fast.
Priscilla Beaulieu was only 14 when she met Elvis Presley in Germany, where her father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. Two years later her parents gave in to her heartfelt pleas and allowed her to visit Elvis in Memphis.
One of his first acts was to give her sleeping pills to overcome jet lag, and the 16-year-old nearly overdosed.
Even though Presley’s marriage to Elvis ended more than two decades ago, her connection to him has never ceased. As the chairwoman of Elvis Presley Enterprises, she remains the keeper of the flame. And his longtime fans are finally treating her more charitably.
“I think they see now that I was not the enemy,” she says. “In the beginning I was the enemy because I married him, and then, because I left him. A lot of people felt that when I left he started his downward spiral and that if I had stayed I could have helped.”
She does not feel responsible for Elvis’ downfall.
“Everyone has to take responsibility for the condition they’re in,” she says. “We can blame people all we want, but it’s up to that person.”
From her tone of voice, it’s clear that this has been one of the central issues of her life: coming to terms with all the might-have-beens.
“Are you supposed to go down because he’s going down?” she continues. “We had a child - there were things I did not want my child to see. I wanted her father always to be in good standing in her eyes.”
Priscilla Presley could have simply become a curious rock ‘n’ roll footnote. But her friends say she had a strong drive to prove herself.
Joseph Moscheo, a backup singer for Elvis and now a Nashville talent manager, says, “She had no idea that she had such strength - especially after Elvis’ death. There were people coming out of the woodwork offering deals.
“I thought she would be so vulnerable, but she wasn’t at all.”
Presley initially took hold of the floundering Presley estate to protect Lisa Marie’s legacy but quickly discovered she relished being in control and developing the business.
She made the decision to open Elvis’ former home, Graceland, to the adoring and admission-paying public. She retains approval over all merchandising deals bearing Elvis’ name, right down to the underwear.
Her Midas touch has not always extended to her own ventures. Her line of children’s clothing went under quickly.
As for the business of acting, the success of the “Naked Gun” trilogy ensures a steady flow of scripts, but her manager of 12 years, Joel Stevens, says, “Priscilla has constantly had to go the extra yard.”
Even after all her acting visibility, she has yet to land a part she wants without going through the ordeal of auditioning.
And then there’s the age factor.
“You’re labeled; it’s insulting,” Presley says. “I don’t feel my age, especially with Navarone. When we go boulder climbing and rafting, I don’t feel any limitations.”
She maintains her lithe, size-4 figure with regular workouts. Regarding the other body-enhancing route so many actresses take - plastic surgery - Presley says, “If there was anything I wanted to do, that I felt would make me feel better, I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it.”
Presley doesn’t answer the question - has she or hasn’t she? - directly but confides that she hates it when people assume her looks come from a surgeon’s scalpel.
Lunching at a restaurant in New York City recently, she says, she was outraged when a woman seated nearby whispered to a companion that she was sure Presley’s nose was not a gift of nature.
“I felt so insulted and humiliated,” she fumes, and then she starts to laugh. “I wanted to go over and say, ‘But, really, I haven’t had it done.”’
The story is vintage Priscilla Presley: funny and honest. She cares whether strangers think her nose is real or she’s done a good job protecting Elvis’ image or she’s a good mother.
It’s impossible to excel at all things in life. What’s impressive is how hard Presley tries.
“I don’t want people to think I just have everything,” she says, ready to handle whatever life offers up next.
MEMO: Meryl Gordon is a New York-based freelance writer.