It is lunchtime at New York's Mandarin Oriental hotel, and Lisa Marie Presley is piqued. At the tabloids, or maybe at the people who read them — bottom-feeders, she says, who are basically crossing their fingers, hoping she will self-destruct.
"They want me to be him. It's like they can't wait," she groans over green tea and tofu dumplings. "The tabloids were going so far as to alter photos. I could never figure out why they went to all that trouble to make me look fat."
Then, after seeing yet another distorted picture of her, shot from the ground up with headlines heralding her imminent demise, an epiphany.
"It's this morbid obsession. We had to get a lawyer to stop them from putting his face on the cover of a tabloid with me. Sick."
When your father is Elvis, and you share his high cheekbones and lush, downturned mouth, you inherit a certain amount of baggage. The crazy, stalking, sideburned people. The inability to ever, even for a moment, be seen as your own person, and not just the offspring of a deity.
Even so, the sinister hope that you will perish young and out of control in some sort of real-life reenactment of your father's tragedy — well, that was something new.
"They want me to be miserable," Presley, 40, says flatly. "Especially when my life is good."
Recently married to her longtime beau, musician Michael Lockwood, Presley is pregnant with twins. It was news she hoped to keep private, but the gossips outed her — not for having a celebrity "baby bump," but for being a bloated failure.
"It took me a while to make the connection with the dad thing," she says, tossing her chopsticks on the table in favor of a fork. "There are at least six other famous women pregnant right now who aren't getting picked on. But they're all over me. It's like there is a campaign to demean me. You know what I think when I see those fat photos?" she says, with a crooked smile. "I think, Fuck. You. I'm not going to let them control me. I just let it all hang out. You want to look at me? Go ahead and look."
Presley yanks up her black strapless maxi dress, the fabric sliding taut over her very pregnant belly, and rakes her hand through her hair, exhaling noisily.
"I've never even been out of my BMI range," she says with exasperation. "I'm 5-foot-3. If I gain five pounds, it shows." And besides, "when did it become okay to give women a hard time for weight gain? It's harassment.
"I'm trying to grow another human being," she says plaintively. "Besides, I'm 40! I'm lucky to even be able to do this."
After lunch, Presley warily eyes the floral halter tops and ruffled tanks in the maternity wing of a department store and sighs.
"Hey baby, maybe they'll have those pouch pants," quips her husband, 47, a gangly, amiable presence in overalls and a yellow terrycloth Gilligan hat.
"Those just crack you up, don't they?" Presley volleys back, quickly sorting through a rack of white capris. Lockwood grins.
"Uh, I'm done," Presley says, as her husband holds up a pair of jeans with a large, saggy stretch panel.
In the car, the two sit hip to hip, Lockwood's hand caressing Presley's thigh. "I am in awe of her," he says sweetly. "Being pregnant is a lot of work."
"I'm a lot of work," Presley jokes.
"I don't think so," Lockwood answers. "I think it's probably hard to be married to me," Presley explains. "Because shit happens to me that doesn't happen to your average girl. You have to keep your eyes open."
Lockwood shakes his head, brushes Presley's hair off her shoulder.
"I had been through so many awful relationships before Lisa. I was very cynical. When I met her, I told her I didn't believe in love."
"I told him that was bullshit."
"Yeah. She called me out about it. She said I was a coward. She gave me faith." As he talks, Presley stares out the window.
"You want to know the best thing and the worst thing about me?" she says later. "I see things as they really are. People really bullshit themselves. I don't like any filter or rainbows or fluff. And sometimes it is a blessing. And sometimes it makes me the biggest fucking pain in the ass ever. Because people don't want to see that."
Presley comes by her straight talk honestly. Her life has been an endless stream of scrutiny and people taking advantage. Even as a child at Graceland, she was accosted daily by fans of her father, who gave her cameras and begged her to take photos of her house. Hands were forever reaching through the gates.
After her parents divorced when she was 5, Presley lived in Los Angeles with her mother, Priscilla, a woman whose sugary perfection contrasted sharply with her daughter's mutinous leanings. The arrangement proved stifling.
"I couldn't relate to her," Presley says. "She was overbearing and overpowering to me. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there."
Frequent visits to her father were more indulgent, but fraught; there were spontaneous trips in the private jet, but there were also Daddy's mood swings and depression. Then came his tragic death, and the mourning of a nation that somehow felt its loss was bigger than that of a 9-year-old child.
Rebellion followed. She abused drugs as a teenager, and went to a series of exclusive schools that ended with her dropping out in the 11th grade. At 17, she bolted, moving in with and ultimately marrying musician Danny Keough. Six years and two kids later, the couple divorced, leading Presley into a pair of less prudent, more conspicuous marriages.
"We're all going to screw up," Presley says. "The important thing is, do you learn from it and not do it again? Can you make it better in the future? Can you change? Because, Lord knows, I've fucked up many, many times."
What was the worst time?
"My biggest mistake? Let's see," she begins quietly. "How can I word this? Um. Well. Leaving my first marriage, for the person that I left it for — that was probably the biggest mistake of my life."
She is referring, of course, to Michael Jackson, a man whose name she, consciously or not, avoids saying aloud. This is understandable. The lunacy of the 1994 pairing exploded the celebrity Richter scale. There was the strained Diane Sawyer interview, the rumor that Jackson was only in the relationship for her dad's song catalog, the awkward "kiss" on the MTV Video Music Awards. Presley, poignantly, was not in on the joke.
"I was really naive at the time. I was in la-la land." She grimaces slightly, pushes some fallen hair from her forehead, then lets it all go.
"I had been really sheltered. I got married the first time very, very young. And the marriage I was in, there was so much resentment about who I was, because I had more than he did, and it became a power struggle. It is hard for a man to be with a woman who is stronger, wealthier. So in my mind I'm thinking, I know, I'll get with someone more compatible. I wasn't thinking what everyone else was thinking, which was that I must have been out of my fucking mind."
She pauses, smiles.
"I was just in a bubble. And able to be snowed. I hadn't been bitten by the snake of life yet. I grew up after that. I had to."
But not completely. After Jackson, Presley married the quirky, moody actor Nic Cage. It was a fiery pairing along the lines of Burton and Taylor, complete with frequent fights and pricey jewelry hurled into the open sea.
"Marrying him was a wild flurry, a crazy idea and being young, and 'Ahhhh!'" Presley says, chuckling, glancing at her brilliant metallic fingernails, searching for chips.
"I've gotten to the point in my life where I've chased all the crazies down," she says with conviction. "I was ready to stop the madness. At this age, I really appreciate having [a husband who is] a best friend. But you know, the other guys were fun. For a while."
Presley talks about wanting to move to New York. Her Hawaiian farm is overrun with wild pigs, trampling the vegetation, tearing up the landscape. She has a main home in Los Angeles, but she loathes it there and always has. She refuses to raise her new babies amid the "bullshit that is L.A."
"I'd love to move to London, or Connecticut," she says.
"What? It's beautiful there."Presley's at work on a new album, her third since 2003's To Whom It May Concern (which went gold) and 2005's Now What — dark, brash, storytelling rock and roll in the '70s tradition. "I'd love to finish writing before they come out," she says, glancing at her belly.
Last spring she even quit smoking, cold turkey. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do by a long shot. I was either suicidal or homicidal."
It's all part of the Presley self-improvement plan. No cigarettes. No psychos. No whining. "I grew up with my kids a little bit. But now, it's like, phase two. I'm 100 percent ready to focus on my children."
Presley and her daughter, Riley, 19, are Gilmore-girls close. The two talk on the phone "about 16 times a day." They live and travel together, lugging their three cats along.
Riley is "past the hormones and boys nuttiness," Presley says. Now she has bigger questions about life. "When she asks me what to do, I say, 'I can tell you, based on the mistakes I've made, but I know you have to experience it yourself. I don't want to stop you by saying, Don't go down that road. But really, don't go down it.'"
Presley admits she is still learning which roads to travel herself. "I'm working hard right now on not being angry. I was chronically angry for a year and a half. I'm much better now."
Part of her fury came from the discovery that her intimate staff, people she'd employed for 15 years who were "like family, really," had been bleeding her accounts of millions in cash.
"You'd think I would have known better because of my father, right?" she says drily. "It was my fucking fault. I didn't want to deal with the business. My father was like that. He trusted that people did what they said they were doing. He just wanted to be the artist. He wanted to go off and play."
But for this Presley, it'll be different. After firing everybody, she set about learning how to manage herself, down to balancing her own checkbook.
"I'm in a happy place now," she says. "But it took a lot to get here. I wasn't always who I am now. Of course, I still have trust issues. But I'll get through that too. Eventually."
Just then, her phone rings. It's Riley. Presley takes the call. "I love you too, baby," she says, her expression softening. As she listens, she leans into the car fan, lifting her face toward the cool, refreshing air.
Allison Glock is a senior writer for ESPN magazine. Her last book was the award-winning memoir Beauty Before Comfort (Knopf). She lives in Florida with her two daughters.
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