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How Lisa Marie Presley turned tragedy into hope

Lisa Marie PresleyReuters

Lisa Marie Presley, who has died at the age of 54, stepped out of her father’s shadow with her music, but experienced “more than anyone’s fair share” of tragedy and heartbreak in her life.

“I’ve dealt with death, grief and loss since the age of nine years old,” she wrote last August.

She was just nine when her father Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, died.

She was 52 when her son Benjamin Keough, killed himself in 2020.

Her four husbands included the late singer Michael Jackson and actor Nicolas Cage.

The Presley family

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Born in 1968 to Elvis and her actress mother Priscilla, Lisa Marie spent the first four years of her life at her parents’ mansion Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.

Elvis doted on his daughter and even named his jet after her. But following her parents’ divorce in 1973, Lisa Marie went to live with her mother in the suburbs of Los Angeles, with regular visits to her father at his home.

It is the place where he died in 1977, at the age of 42. Doctors said he died of a heart attack, which was likely brought on by his addiction to prescription barbiturates.

The Presley family

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Perhaps not surprisingly, her teenage years were troubled.

In 2003, she told the Los Angeles Times that following her father’s death, her mother sent her to a series of private schools when “she began acting out and experimenting with drugs”.

“I was kind of a loner, a melancholy and strange child,” Lisa Marie told the newspaper.

“I had a real self-destructive mode for a while. I never really fit into school. I didn’t really have any direction.”

Lisa Marie and Elvis Presley

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Elvis Presley boarding his private jet, named the Lisa Marie

ZUMA Press, Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

She credited Scientology “with helping her break from drugs and start building some self-esteem”, saying the controversial church was “a form of self-help, self-discovery”.

“It’s not so much a God thing. It’s nondenominational. It offered answers to questions I had about life. In the most basic way, it’s like Humpty Dumpty. When I fell off the wall, they helped put me back together.”

‘Suffering silently’

It was sometimes difficult to keep herself together. She became addicted to opioids and painkillers following the birth of her twin daughters in 2008, according to CNN.

She opened up about the addiction in the foreword for the 2019 book The United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain.

“Many more people are suffering silently, addicted to opioids and other substances. I am writing this in the hope that I can play a small part in focusing attention on this terrible crisis,” she wrote.

She also had two children, Riley and Benjamin, with her first husband, musician Danny Keough.

Her second marriage was to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, in May 1994. They divorced in 1997.

Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson

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Lisa Marie memorably appeared in his music video for You Are Not Alone in 1995, which was oddly interspersed with what looked like intimate bedroom footage of the scantily-clad couple.

She told Rolling Stone magazine in 2003 she had been attracted by his mysterious lifestyle and wanted to protect him from allegations of child abuse.

Lisa Marie also said she was “not proud” of her brief marriage, which was so bad that by the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, the hostility between them was plain to see. She was left glaring at him from the audience as he performed a medley of hits.

“It just got really ugly at the end,” she said.

‘A bad situation’

She demanded a divorce, but he refused to speak to her, adding that the experience sent her into a mental and physical breakdown – which she took to writing songs to overcome.

But she added: “I’m not into Michael-bashing at all. I know people want to know what that was about, and I’m trying to say it without making him a bad guy.

“It’s hard to do, because it was such a bad situation.”

Lisa Marie Presley


At the end of the 1990s, she felt able to try to step into the spotlight as a musician in her own right.

Although she had written songs during her early years, the pressure of being the King’s daughter had been an understandable deterrent to making her music public. There was so much to live up to.

In 1997, she performed a duet with her late father, singing on his 1968 track Don’t Cry Daddy.

Then songwriter and producer Glen Ballard encouraged her to make solo music, co-ordinating a deal with Capitol, with a slated release for her debut album in 2000.

Her personal life was still fraught, however, with a 2002 marriage to actor Nicolas Cage, who won an Oscar in 1996 for the film Leaving Las Vegas and starred in Face Off. They split after just 107 days together.

Her first album To Whom It May Concern eventually came out in 2003, followed by two more in 2005 and 2012.

Mixed reviews

Lisa Marie had written the majority of the often downbeat lyrics, and co-written the melodies.

The Guardian gave her first album one star, with critic Alexis Petridis writing: “It sounds like Alanis Morissette pushed through a sieve until every distinguishing feature has been strained away.”

But AllMusic.com describes it as “a sharp, ambitious mainstream pop/rock album performed by a singer with real character”, calling her “sharp and brash”.

Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley


It reached a number five on the Billboard chart, while her second album made the top 10. Her third, Storm & Grace – a collaboration with T-Bone Burnett – only charted at 45 but had a much better critical reception, with Q magazine calling it a “likeable record if not a startling one”.

In 2005, she told Oprah Winfrey that being compared with her father was “a huge mountain to climb”.

By the following year, Lisa Marie was married to musician Michael Lockwood, and two years later their twin daughters Finley and Harper were born. Presley and Lockwood stayed together until 2016, and she told Oprah the best thing she did for her children was “overwhelming them with affection and love”.

Lisa Marie Presley's children, left, watch as she feeds a piece of birthday cake to Priscilla Presley, far right, during the 80th birthday celebration for Elvis Presley at Graceland on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015.

Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo

Lisa Marie’s life was in some ways cushioned by her huge inherited wealth, but she was quoted as saying: “Something happens to people around fame and power and money – it can bring out the worst and best in people; it’s a monster you have to tame.”

The story of her father’s rise and fall has recently been told in director Baz Luhrmann’s biopic, titled simply Elvis, which obviously touched Lisa Marie deeply. She called it “nothing short of spectacular” and “absolutely exquisite”.

Seen just earlier this week at the Golden Globes, where Austin Butler won best actor in a drama film for his portrayal of her father, she and her mother cried as he collected his award.

Searing essay on grief

Lisa Marie leaves behind what could be described as a story of tackling and often overcoming tragedy.

In an essay about grief following the death of her son Benjamin, Lisa Marie wrote in August 2022: “Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not ‘get over it,’ you do not ‘move on,’ period.

“I’m saying this… in the hopes that maybe today or as soon as possible, you can reach out to someone who is grieving someone they loved and lost. Whether they lost a child, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a fiancé, anyone.

“Ask them how they’re doing, ask them to talk about their person. Yes! We DO want to talk about them. That’s how we keep them alive in our hearts, that’s how they don’t get forgotten, that is what keeps us alive as well.

“And do me a favour, don’t tell them that ‘you can’t imagine’ their pain. The truth is, oh yes you can – you just don’t want to.”

Perhaps that message will end up as her legacy, as her family now deals with one more tragedy.

Around the BBC

  • Who was the real Elvis Presley? – BBC Culture

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