Lisa Marie Presley's Life Growing Up In The Spotlight

By the time she died on January 12, 2023 (per The New York Times), Lisa Marie Presley had established her own identity and public reputation. Her obituary in The Guardian noted the three albums she had to her name, filled with songs addressing the roller coaster of life in the spotlight. She had an impressive resume of philanthropic work. And she has three surviving children (a fourth, son Benjamin Keough, predeceased her from suicide in 2020).

However, Presley remained under the cloud of others' celebrity. It wasn't only her father whose fame confined and influenced Presley's life. Her brief marriage to Michael Jackson generated a storm of tabloid coverage, coinciding as it did with the first wave of child abuse allegations brought against the pop star. Presley's other romances, including one with Nicolas Cage, generated their own headlines. But it was her family's fame and fortune that had the greatest degree of influence over Presley's private life and public image, and the one she both accepted and worked to define herself against during the course of her life.

Her birth rocked her father's image and her parents' marriage

Lisa Marie Presley was born on February 1, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, to Elvis and Priscilla Presley. According to The Guardian, the birth date was exactly nine months out from the date of her parents' wedding. Asked by Barbara Walters (via YouTube) if she thought Lisa Marie was conceived on the wedding night, Priscilla could only say, "I would say so!" From the start, the couple's daughter attracted media attention, with photographers snapping pictures of Elvis and Priscilla leaving the hospital with their new infant in hand.

Priscilla commented more than once over the years that Lisa Marie's birth compounded marital difficulties between her and Elvis. She told Walters that the two of them were terrible at communicating with one another. When he learned that he would be a father, Priscilla wrote in the Orlando Sentinel, Elvis was initially delighted, but a panic over the potential impact of fatherhood on his image and career soon set in. He once asked Priscilla what she wanted to do about the pregnancy reassuring her "whatever you want to do" he'd support her. He also briefly considered separation during Priscilla's pregnancy, but nothing came of either thought.

A more lasting problem was that, after Lisa Marie was born, Elvis couldn't look at Priscilla the same way again. Years later, Priscilla told Barbara Walters that she felt Elvis was unable to reconcile the image of her as a young bride he mentored with her as a mother, and therefore lost sexual interest in her.

Elvis' fame and power let her get away with anything as a kid

When Lisa Marie Presley was five years old, according to The Guardian, her parents divorced, and the youngster found herself dividing her time between two houses and two coasts. Priscilla Presley moved out west to California while Elvis Presley remained in Graceland in Tennessee.

In her father's house, Lisa Marie was pampered and indulged. Speaking to Diane Sawyer in 2007 for "Good Morning America" (via ABC News), she described Elvis as a loving father who sang lullabies and wrote her messages — and who did not, she said in an earlier interview with Sawyer, make a regular habit of eating fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches (also via ABC News). She considered life with him exciting, and her father's deep pockets brought her many luxuries. One gift, a genuine fur coat, was returned on orders of Priscilla.

Elvis' indulgence of Lisa Marie was echoed by the staff of Graceland — not that they had much choice. "I knew that no one was going to tell me what to do because they would get fired," she told "The Talk" (via YouTube), confessing that she was a "terror" as a child when in Tennessee. But Elvis' lax and spendthrift parenting only extended so far. Out in California, under her far more disciplinary mother, things were different, and the whiplash from moving back and forth between two such households was confusing for Lisa Marie growing up.

She was at Graceland when Elvis died

In 1977, when Lisa Marie Presley was just nine years old, her father Elvis Presley died at age 42. Lisa Marie had observed her father's use of prescriptions and his erratic behavior growing up (per ABC News), and she recalled in later years that she would plead with him not to die. But years of unhealthy drug use had taken their toll.

A defector from the Church of Scientology, Karen de la Carriere, claimed to have been responsible for counseling Lisa Marie on the church's behalf. She told the New York Post that it was Lisa Marie who found her father's body, and she volunteered that Lisa Marie's later drug use was fueled by remorse. These claims are at odds with the widespread report that it was Elvis' girlfriend, Ginger Alden, who first found him unconscious (per PBS). And Lisa Marie did not mention stumbling upon her father's body.

She did discuss her struggles to comprehend what was going on, and the intense attention paid during and after her father's cardiac arrest. She remembered him being taken away in the ambulance, and how she drove a golf cart and smoked cigarettes while legions of fans flocked to see his body. "I did a lot of strange things that day," she told ABC, "because it didn't really settle in." Graceland's preservation in its last state before Elvis' death let Lisa Marie have her childhood home throughout her life, a strange but moving time capsule.

Her mother's boyfriend went public with some very disturbing thoughts

After divorcing Elvis Presley, Priscilla Presley entered into several relationships, some of them within the public eye. The year after Elvis' death, she granted an interview to People magazine alongside her then-boyfriend, model and actor Michael Edwards. The couple took care to praise one another for helping the other to grow and achieve, while also shutting down speculation of any impending marriage. They spoke of their children (Edwards had his own daughter from a previous marriage) and how well they handled the new, blended living arrangements. The impression given was of a well-adjusted romantic pair with equally well-adjusted daughters.

Years later, in her own interview for Playboy in 2003 (via Elvis Australia), Lisa Marie Presley would paint a very different picture. In the years since the People interview, Edwards confessed to having a sexual attraction to Lisa Marie while he was seeing Priscilla, in a memoir widely perceived as seedy and self-serving (per a Kirkus review). "He's a sick f***," Presley agreed. She corroborated one of Edwards' stories, about feeling lust for her after she came out of the family swimming pool, and added a story of her own. Edwards, she said, would get drunk and attempt to get into her bedroom — a far cry from the "father substitute" he named himself in 1978 to People. While prepared to discuss Edwards to Playboy, Presley needed a moment before she reminisced about the man she also called a "sorry-a** f***."

Her teenage years were rocky and drug-fueled

By her own admission, Lisa Marie Presley was a tough and troubled teenager. As she prepared to launch a solo music career at 35, she looked back to her adolescence with the Los Angeles Times and was frank about what she saw. "I was kind of a loner," she said, "a melancholy and strange child. I had a real self-destructive mode for a while."

Presley went into more detail on just how she damaged herself in an interview with Playboy in 2003 (via Elvis Australia). She confessed to jumping into anything that would earn her mother's disapproval. "Smoking, drinking, drugs, boys, whatever I could get my hands on," she listed. "I went through a drug phase for like three years." Sexual escapades came as well, after Presley turned 15. With her mother's public image so strait-laced, and her parenting style so firm (she used private schools as a way to encourage discipline), Presley was keen to set herself apart (per Marie Claire).

With hindsight, and after reading her mother's autobiography, Presley gained some perspective on the strict household she was reacting against. "[My mother did] things that weren't what your average 14 year old would do," she told Playboy, "and I was doing the exact same things." But Presley also volunteered some of her good traits as a teenager, like befriending the kids left out of the popular table.

She was criticized for her faith, then (allegedly) became its critic

When Lisa Marie Presley was still a child, her mother became involved with the Church of Scientology. The religion didn't hold any strong appeal for Presley at that time. "I dabbled in it for a bit," she told Playboy in 2003, "then ran off to be a spiteful teenager." By the end of her adolescence, however, she credited Scientology with helping her recover from drug addiction and with instilling in her a sense of responsibility. The church was a beneficiary of her philanthropic work (per The New York Times) and her advocacy before Congress (via her website).

But Scientology was already contentious by the time Presley became publicly active with it. "It's attacked because it's not understood," she told Playboy, "and that annoys me." While not as associated with the church as some celebrity practitioners, Presley didn't escape controversy and conspiracy theories. Some defectors from Scientology blamed it for her marriage to Michael Jackson, as they claimed it to be part of a plot to recruit the pop star (per The Washington Post).

Presley began having doubts about the church beginning around 2008. By 2014, according to the Irish Examiner, she had left Scientology. Tony Ortega of The Underground Bunker claimed not long after that Presley was disillusioned by the experience of Ron Miscavige, father of the church's president, and was working to undermine the religion. Some of her song lyrics were interpreted as rebukes of Scientology. But Presley offered no direct or public criticisms before her death.

Her first rock concert wasn't her dad's

As the daughter of one of the most famous names in rock 'n' roll, the man nicknamed the king of the genre, one might think that Lisa Marie Presley's first concert would have been one of her dad's. But while Elvis Presley would sing his daughter lullabies around the house (per ABC News), he didn't take her to his shows. Presley's first exposure to a rock concert would only come after Elvis' death.

In an interview with Pop Entertainment in 2005, Presley revealed that her first rock concert was Queen, a year or two after her father's passing. There was a connection to Elvis in the experience; Presley gave Freddie Mercury a scarf that once belonged to her dad. But quite apart from any family ties, she enjoyed the show on its own merits, particularly its theatricality. Splashy production values remained a favorite element of Presley's as she explored more bands, regularly taking in acts like Marilyn Manson.

Aside from showy rock concerts, Presley named The Sweet Inspirations as a favorite act of hers growing up, tying them to a favorite genre. "Soulful music always impacted me," she said. "Gospel music. I just loved their voices," she said specifically referencing the group's hit song "Sweet Inspiration." By coincidence, The Sweet Inspirations performed alongside Presley's father, a mixed blessing for the group. "I think they were underrated," said Presley, "because my father snagged them at some point."

Her famous name hurt her first marriage

In 1988, at the age of 20, Lisa Marie Presley married for the first time. People magazine reported on the wedding, done through the Church of Scientology, between Presley and musician Danny Keough. Keough was a Chicagoan from an ordinary family with a good reputation within the church. It was as low-key and secretive a wedding as could be managed, but when it was made public, it was followed in short order by news the couple was expecting.

Presley and Keough would have two children together, and according to the Los Angeles Times, they remained close friends for life. But as husband and wife, the specter of Presley's fame soon came between them. Keough was a relative unknown when he married, and his union got him more headlines than his musicianship. "Even if you have talent," Presley told the Times, "which Danny does, you immediately become Mr. Presley in the world's eyes."

This wasn't necessarily jealousy. In another interview with Playboy in 2003 (via Elvis Australia), Presley said that Keough valued anonymity and resented being known as her husband. "We didn't treat each other well," she added. Motherhood gave Presley a grounding she hadn't had before, but she considered the disparity between her and Keough's fame and backgrounds too great. In 1994, per The Guardian, she obtained a divorce while in the Dominican Republic.

She felt their compatible upbringings made her and Michael Jackson a good match

Next to her father, the most famous man associated with Lisa Marie Presley is her second husband, Michael Jackson. Dubbed the king of pop just as Elvis Presley had been dubbed the king of rock 'n' roll, Jackson's reputation had already taken a turn for the bizarre when he and Presley first became romantically involved in the early 1990s. With her first marriage badly affected by the disparity between her wealth and fame and her husband's, Presley considered Jackson, who grew up with a comparable level of notoriety, more compatible. "I was just in a bubble," she told Marie Claire, "and able to be snowed. I hadn't been bitten by the snake of life yet."

Their 1994 marriage was widely speculated to be a sham, motivated by some ulterior motive of Jackson's. For her part, Presley told Playboy (via Elvis Australia) that she saw Jackson as misunderstood and lonely and felt she was in love with him. She was quick to defend him against the charges of child sexual abuse that first became public at that time (per The Guardian), and even after their marriage ended, she maintained she never saw signs that he was inappropriate with children.

But Jackson's strange behavior, and a suspicion that she had been manipulated, were enough for Presley. She obtained a divorce in 1996, and later told Marie Claire that leaving her first husband for Jackson was her biggest mistake.

She was discouraged by her famous name from singing for a long time

Many a child of famous actors, singers, writers, and politicians have sought to follow in their parents' footsteps. In the performing arts, touched as they are by glamor, fame, and means of self-expression, the attraction can be even more understandable. Lisa Marie Presley was no different than other children of great artists in wanting to be a singer like her father.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Presley's ambitions to make her own music were present as early as age 16, but her teenage years were troubled and self-destructive. Besides the unsettled state of her private life, there was another impediment. Elvis Presley remains one of the biggest names in popular music. Any attempt by his daughter to become a performer herself would draw inevitable comparisons, and those could easily become unflattering.

"Ever since she started talking about a recording career when she was 16 or 17," mother Priscilla Presley told the Times, "I warned her the doors will open because of who she is, but they will close just as fast. We've all seen the flashes in the pan in this town, and she knew she had to be ready because she would only have one chance to prove herself." That chance proved to be almost two decades in the making.

Her music career was a way to distinguish herself from her family's name

Lisa Marie Presley was well aware, when she prepared to release her first album at age 35, that her name was inextricably linked to her father's, and to former husband Michael Jackson. Her mother had discouraged her from striking out as a singer to avoid comparisons, and she had walked away from earlier opportunities. But when the time came, she was clear about wanting to establish a piece of her legacy on her own steam, not on the basis of blood or marriage. "I'm not doing this to be a pop star," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm doing it for credibility."

The aspiration was doubted and mocked in some quarters. Looking back after Lisa Marie's death, Amy Argetsinger of The Washington Post noted the low expectations — and how they were challenged by the quality of Presley's output. Her three albums were well-received and decent sellers, and their content both reflected Presley's upbringing and presented her own voice. Argetsinger considered the work all the more impressive for coming relatively late in life, when Presley's most notable achievement besides family connections was her skill in promoting her father's legacy through Graceland.