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People Top 5
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- May 20, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 19
Getting It All Together
Stormy Times Past, Michelle and Chynna Phillips Are Enjoying Huge Success—and Each Other
Facing Michelle, she adds, "Mom, I love you to death, you know I love you. I'd never change what happened in my past. I am who I am today because of it." A pause. "But I'll probably raise my children with very different values."
Forget Postcards. This showbiz mother-daughter duo's richly storied, emotionally charged history is more like Textbooks from the Edge. Their dialogue often flows like a comedy of eras. Michelle, 47, erstwhile siren of the '60s' harmonic hipsters the Mamas and the Papas, radiates the buoyancy of an outrageously ageless Aquarian as she recalls how the group "never went into the studio without a case of Crown Royal and a bag of pot—but never, ever worked on acid." She was, she admits without embarrassment, an "extremely permissive" parent who smoked marijuana in front of Chynna and her young friends at home. The second of her three marriages, to onetime wild man Dennis Hopper, lasted eight days: she managed far longer love affairs as a single '70s mom linked with two lifetime-achievement champs in bachelorhood, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Even now she says, "Drags should be legalized, with very strong warnings on the package." And she once told a talk show audience that she had placed a basket of condoms in her teenage daughter's bedroom.
In reaction, Chynna, 23, one third of the pop supergroup Wilson Phillips, is a tirelessly insightful and grounded graduate of the self-helping '80s. She has been chastened by Papa John Phillips's crazed retreat into a nightmare of narcotics addiction, by her parents" hitter split-and by her own frightening bout with alcohol as a high schooler. She also had to live with the racy revelations in her folks' separate tell-all memoirs, Papa John and California Dreamin', both published in 1986. As a result, she has had to dig deep to discover Chynna. The payoff is that she now slides into those perfectly fitted No Excuses genes: When she hit the road last year with Wilson Phillips, she says, she spent her free time taking long walks and reading such books as Healing the Shame That Binds You.
Yet mother and daughter do have plenty in common beyond matching Mercedes 560SELs: They've both found sweet success atop the twin peaks of prime time and pop. Michelle is securely moored in CBS's soap Knots Landing as the deliciously bitchy Anne Matheson; and in the last 14 months, Chynna and partners Wendy and Carnie Wilson (lifelong friends and the daughters of Beach Boy Brian Wilson) have sold 7 million copies worldwide of their debut LP, Wilson Phillips, and hit No. 1 with four singles, including the current "You're in Love."
But the past year marks a sweeter, more private achievement. They have "mended bridges," as Chynna puts it. "A psychic once read my palm and told me I was my mother's mother in a past life," she says. "Isn't that weird? I've had a lot of patience for her, which makes me feel sometimes I am the mother. Mom really doesn't have any boundaries. She's embarrassed me at times. I've learned to accept that she's completely different from me."
She's unquestionably a different kind of mom these days. "I'm trying to set a better example for the boys than I did with Chynna," says Michelle of her son, Austin, 9, and Aron, also 9, a friend's son whom Michelle plans to adopt. Austin is her child by actor Grainger Hines, whom she never married. "I certainly would not smoke pot around them. They look askance when I make a vodka tonic."
There are other changes. "I was amazed to find out boys do not want to go to lunch and then go shopping. Chynna and I used to have the greatest days where we'd primp, get all beautiful, lunch at La Scala and hit Saks. Now I force myself to go to their soccer and basketball games."
However toned down her act, Michelle is still unlikely to make PTA president. She recently agreed to pose in an ad for a condom manufacturer. "The taboo of talking about condoms has reached the point of lunacy. So I've been blazing the trail."
She has also shown by example how to make romance work—a previously problematic area for both mother and daughter. Michelle is engaged to composer-producer Geoffrey Tozer, 39, and Chynna, after a brief pattern of "choosing men who were emotionally unavailable," has been working on her relationship with guitarist Michael Landau, 32, for almost two years. Michelle met Tozer, an ex-Wall Street trader, on a blind date four years ago. "Communicating with a man is a very new experience for me," she says. Neither her father, Gil, a retired merchant marine who married six times, nor ex-husband John was, she explains, "real communicative on a feeling level. I grew up very much the same way. Chynna is more capable of confronting problems with her mate. I'm a runner. But Geoff and I talk and try to work out problems."
It also helps that CBS's Knots lot is just six minutes from her 1928 four-bedroom home in unpretentious Cheviot Hills—and that she loves her gig. "There's something great about driving through studio gates and leaving all your responsibilities behind. They dress you to the teeth in Ungaro and Mugler, and the money is great, more than I've made at any time." Insiders estimate her per-episode fee is $35,000.
Chynna had to change to make a go of it with Landau, who played with Wilson Phillips and toured with James Talor last summer. Though at times it has been "a struggle," she knows she's working toward "an honest, healthy relationship based on reality, not fantasy."
Not surprisingly, her own vision of a future family resembles what she never had: "A man who believes in marriage, a strong bond between us and with our children and, I hope, the ability to put my career on hold for a few years and raise our children." Unlike her mother, she has never been a runner. "I get very attached. It's the men who get up and go. My father, the various men my mother was attached to, in my past boyfriends. The last thing I wanted to do was push people away. So I'd stay with somebody just because he loved me, even if I didn't love him. That's very painful."
But understandable. Her father drifted out of her life when she was 2, married actress-singer Genevieve Waite and battled hard drugs through the '70s. Worse, during a rare visit at age 8 with Dad in New York City, Chynna says she was "traumatized" after witnessing a scene of drug use. Back in L.A., Michelle, outraged, promptly lined up a therapist. Now, 15 years later, Chynna won't discuss the experience.
Michelle's lifestyle also left its mark on Chynna. As a working mom making the switch to film (Dillinger, Valentino), she "kept Chynna as close to me as possible," hauling her to locations and vacations from Haiti to Hong Kong. The downside: Chynna shifted schools and homes close to a dozen times. Says Chynna: "I'm so grateful to her for taking me around the world. But I got so used to switching I couldn't settle down."
Nor could Michelle, romantically anyway—though after Hopper she enjoyed two years with Nicholson and almost three with Beatty. "Jack bought the house next to him for us to live in, which I thought was a very noble gesture," says Michelle. Later, she and Chynna moved into Beatty's Mulholland Drive house, then shared his Malibu summer place. Recalls Michelle: "Warren was wonderful to Chynna."
Chynna, who was 3 or 4 when Mom was with Jack, recalls Nicholson "didn't want to get very close. I think he had a lot of issues about children. I'm guessing." She does recall "fond memories" around a more nurturing Beatty—especially the winding wooded trails in his "never-ending backyard" and the sunken trampoline he secretly had built for her. "It was the best Christmas present ever." But, she adds, "I knew in my heart that Warren wasn't right for my mom. I don't think he's really one for commitment."
Michelle's 1979 divorce from Bob Burch, a radio executive, also took its toll. "I felt sadness," says Chynna, then 11. "I was at a real vulnerable age. It was traumatic to leave these men. They become father figures. It's inevitable."
And so, it seemed, was Chynna's reckless phase. In her senior year at L.A.'s Hamilton High, her taste for drugs, beer and vodka got out of hand, and she was "barely" making it to school each day. "A boyfriend of mine and I were just going crazy, drinking a lot. I didn't know who I was anymore. I woke up one morning with a real had hangover and said, 'This is just the s—-. I deserve better.' I had to change my lifestyle—and I did, big time. I got myself straight and put myself together."
Though she declines to elaborate, she does admit, "It wasn't kicking the dings that was so difficult but dealing with why I drank and used in the first place. I covered up my feelings because I couldn't handle them anymore. I was sedating myself. So many feelings were trapped."
"Funny," says Michelle, "with all that openness, I wasn't somebody she could talk to. I was unaware."
Michelle, in fact, adopted a tolerant, just-say-oh! policy at home, in what she believed was a "prudent" attempt to supervise her daughter and friends who were under various influences—ranging, says Chynna, from cocaine to pot, mushrooms and acid. Today, Michelle tells Chynna, "When you got older, you looked back and said, 'Mom, how could you let me party with 20 kids and buy us all beer and let me smoke pot?' "
But at the time, Chynna admits, she thought "it was normal, the cool thing to do. These were the kids I connected to. They lived a little more on the edge. Then we come back to why I started this in the first place—because I saw my role model doing it. My mother. Part of me just wanted to have more rules. A child can interpret a lack of Riles as not caring, though I know she cared."
Summoning anger as a way to begin a healing process with her parents proved risky but rewarding. About a year ago she tracked her father down in the Midwest as he toured with the revamped Mamas and Papas. Chynna was apprehensive. "The last thing I wanted was to express my anger and have him never want to see me again," she says. "Now he's able to talk from his heart and say he loves me."
"Chynna knows I'm there for her whenever she needs me," says John, who detoxed in 1980 after his bust for trafficking narcotics and powerful prescription drugs. He now lives on Long Island with son Tarn, 20, and daughter Bijou, 11, both by Waite, from whom he split in 1985.
As for mending bridges with Mom about the same time, Michelle recalls, "She was amazingly candid, eager and mature—'Okay, let's get to the bottom of things.' Very impressive, something very few people over do." Says Chynna: "It was very scary to open up, but I felt safe enough to know she wouldn't abandon me. She deserved to know what I felt. After we spoke I felt a huge release and inner peace. I had honored myself."
Last February the ex-spouses crossed paths to honor Chynna at the Grammys, where her trio was up for a quartet of awards—though it won none of them. Chynna invited John; Wilson Phillips's SBK label invited Michelle. "It was the first time in about 20 years I didn't have terrible feelings about John," Michelle says. "He was making an effort, he was there. Maybe John, at 55, is realizing how important that thread to his child, his family, is."
A more upbeat issue to cope with these days is money—perhaps because there's so much more of it around. Chynna lives quite modestly in her condo, which reportedly cost a half-million dollars. Michelle, who is "much more humble and grateful" about fame and fortune this time around, has urged "the girls" to invest wisely, not to rush out and spend untaxed money, and to fight for song-publishing rights. "I was traumatized when I left John," she recalls. "I prefer to blame him for blowing my fortune. I left with nothing."
"I've always been down-to-earth about money," Chynna says. "I keep track of what I spend, even though Mom may say I've gone crazy this year. A couple times early on it scared me too much. I would go to an expensive clothing store and spend thousands of dollars. And then I'd call my accountant and ask if it's okay. Now I call before."
"I'll tell you one thing," says her proud Mama. "Chynna never calls me for money anymore."
With their busy schedules, the Phillips women don't get much time together these days, beyond the occasional lunch or call. Chynna's itching to team up with the girls to write and record the next LP; Michelle's about to begin filming another Knots season. Both women seem proudest, however, of their teamwork in the longest-running series of their lives. "When Chynna was born," recalls Mom, "the first thing I said when they placed her in my arms was, 'I'm going to have so much fun with this little girl.' And I have. I've tried to guide her, make her life happy and just let her prepare for life."
It hasn't always been easy, but it worked. "It's not like I need to have my mommy there for me all the time," says Chynna. "I have a much greater understanding of who Chynna is now. I've definitely grown up. It's like we both have."
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