In Her Own Light
05/05/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Her hips don't swivel, her pelvis doesn't thrust, but even without the familiar gyrations, the singer onstage at Orlando's Marriott World Center has the audience's full attention. For the first time in a quarter of a century, a Presley is rocking the house. The hooded hazel eyes, high cheekbones and twitchy lips—it's easy to see Dad's legacy in Lisa Marie Presley. "Thank you," she says with familiar phrasing after belting out three tunes at the music industry convention. "Thankyouverymuch."
However uncanny the resemblance, Lisa Marie, at 35, is no mere Elvis impersonator. Her debut album, To Whom It May Concern, opened at No. 5 on Billboard's Top 200 chart, while her first single, "Lights Out," called a "powerful, hauntingly personal work" by Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn, has received healthy radio play, thanks to smoky vocals that sound more like Cher than Dad. "Her music is a little on the dark side," says producer pal David Foster. "She's gritty, edgy, moody. That's not necessarily who she is in real life."
The real Lisa Marie—who, as Elvis's sole heir, has an estimated worth of more than $150 million—can be an enigma even to those who know her best. "In some ways Lisa is still the little girl I knew at Graceland," says former Elvis girlfriend Linda Thompson. "She still has the intrinsic sweetness. You could see her at a parent-teacher conference"—Presley is by all accounts a devoted mother to Danielle, 13, and Benjamin, 10, her children by her first husband, Danny Keough—"and then in the next moment see her in the company of Marilyn Manson," one of a coterie of rockers with whom Presley socializes. (Indeed, Manson, Rob Zombie, Beck and Deborah Harry celebrated her birthday with her Feb. 1.)
"She's a great combination of tender and tough," adds Thompson. "Wide open to the world and yet mysterious. There are parts of her life that can't be kept secret, but there are also parts that are very private."
Over the years much of her privacy has been exposed by tabloids chronicling Presley's quirky, quickie marriages to Michael Jackson (20 months) and soon-to-be-ex-hubby Nicolas Cage (separated after three months; their divorce is still pending). Presley does a bit of the same on the new album, dropping hints of life with—and without—Elvis. "Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis," Presley sings in "Lights." "That's where my family's buried and gone...in the damn back lawn." Says Thompson: "It's been a great, cathartic experience for her just to express herself musically. It was almost like going through analysis."
A celebrity since her ballyhooed birth in 1968—nine months to the day after the fairy-tale wedding of Elvis and his bride, Priscilla Beaulieu, now 57—Lisa Marie grew up in Graceland, Presley's 13-acre Memphis estate. Famously indulged by her father, who dressed her in miniature fur coats and jewels and once flew her to Idaho aboard his private jet (dubbed Lisa Marie) so she could play in the snow for the first time, she cherishes her memories making music with her dad. "He would always wake me up to sing in the middle of the night," she told Diane Sawyer last month. The star of her father's universe even after her parents split when she was 4, Lisa Marie, who divided her time between Graceland and her mother's home in Los Angeles, often attended his concerts and learned songs to play for him on the piano he bought her. "He liked that I played piano," she told Sawyer. "I don't know how unshy I was at the time, but he'd get me to sing sometimes." Recalls Thompson: "When she was a little girl, she was full of vinegar—mischievous, bright, whimsical."
That all changed on Aug. 16, 1977, when Elvis died before dawn, a victim of heart failure brought on by years of drug use. "What's wrong with my daddy?" 9-year-old Lisa Marie reportedly screamed as her father lay dead on the bathroom floor at Graceland. A brooding, lonely child in the aftermath of her father's death, Lisa Marie lived in the Beverly Hills mansion her mother later shared with longtime love Marco Garibaldi. According to friends, she chafed at the strict discipline imposed by Priscilla, the daughter of a career military officer whose enforced curfews and rigid rules were a far cry from Elvis's lax ways. "Her dad was just, 'Hey, whatever,' " recalls Thompson.
"I was always blasting music in my room," Presley told The New York Times, "and it got me through all the tough times in my life."
When Priscilla, a longtime member of the Church of Scientology, suspected that Lisa Marie, then in her early teens, was experimenting with drugs, she enrolled her in a church-run school. "I was never addicted," Lisa Marie told Rolling Stone. "Maybe it was to scare hell out of my mother, if anything." By 1986, Lisa Marie was drug-free and on better terms with her mother. The pair grew so close, in fact, that she was present in the delivery room when Priscilla gave birth to her son by Garibaldi, Navarone, now 16.
After dropping out of L.A.'s exclusive Westlake School for Girls in 11th grade, Lisa Marie moved at 18 into an apartment in the Scientologists' Celebrity Center on Sunset Boulevard. It was there that she met Danny Keough, the aspiring musician whom she married in 1988 in a ceremony at the center. Divorced since 1994, the couple remain close friends, sharing custody of Danielle and Benjamin. "He's still very much a part of her life," says Thompson. "I think it speaks well of her that she's been able to maintain a friendship with basically everybody that she's been involved with."
Well, almost. Calling her brief 1994 marriage to Michael Jackson a mistake—"I was really in this lioness thing with him.... I wanted to protect him," she told Rolling Stone—Presley said she now believes Jackson, who was fending off accusations of child abuse at the time, was using her to bolster his badly tarnished public image. "I absolutely fell in love with him and fell into this whole thing, which I'm not proud of now," she said. Jackson's King-size persona, Thompson points out, "epitomized the closest thing to Elvis at the time. On a subliminal level, she may have been trying to get closer to her father, to get a stronger sense of him and what his life was like and what fame did to him."
If anything good came out of the relationship and bouts of ill health and depression that followed, it was Presley's heightened urge to express her feelings in music. Signed by producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette) in 1998 after he heard a demo of her songs, Presley impressed her collaborators. "She was really down to earth, focused, very dedicated," says producer Eric Rosse of a series of subsequent recording sessions. When Presley brought her children in to sing backup on Concern's title song, "She was the bandleader for that session," Rosse says. "They were definitely wild. Lisa said, 'Okay, let's focus.' They did great. There's obviously a tremendous amount of love there."
Likewise between Lisa Marie and her mother, whose home is an easy drive from her daughter's rustic $2.6 million mansion in Hidden Hills, a gated community near Los Angeles. "Lisa and Priscilla have children close to the same age, and they have a bond most mothers and daughters would envy," says Priscilla's longtime friend Kris Jenner.
It was at punk-rocker pal Johnny Ramone's birthday party three years ago that Presley met Cage. While their relationship was as volatile as it was short-lived—"We were both like two 12-year-olds," she told Sawyer—it doesn't appear to have ended as bitterly as her marriage to Jackson. "She wishes Nic well," says Thompson. "It's a lot healthier not to harbor animosity."
Now Presley is rehearsing with a band and planning to tour this summer to promote her CD—and has plans for a second. As president of Elvis Presley Enterprises, the privately held company that earned $37 million last year, and head of its charitable arm, the Presley Foundation, she is guardian of her father's legacy. That means frequent trips to Memphis and sometimes Graceland, where she visits Elvis's bedroom, which remains off-limits to the public. "Nothing has been touched," she told Rolling Stone. "It's a shrine.... It's very comforting for me."
But as much as she honors her father's memory, taking care of business means focusing on her own career and family. Though she admits that she feels a bit relationship-shy these days, she hasn't "discounted" another stab at marriage. "In the future, one day, maybe," she says. She even admits that she would like to have more children. "I kind of grew up along with my kids," she says. "When you have them when you're older, you've grown up yourself and you have a lot more to offer as a parent. You can stop being a kid yourself."
For Elvis's daughter, that don't come easy.
Jeff Truesdell in Orlando and Lyndon Stambler, Pamela Warrick, Alexis Chiu and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles