A king’s heir makes living under a legacy look easy. By Glenn Belverio. (From ZOO Magazine, Spring 2008)
When Riley Keough, the 18-year old model and granddaughter of Elvis Presley, made her runway debut at Dolce & Gabbana over four years ago, the mass media and fashion world palpitated like love-struck teenage girls. The portentous moment elicited a chorus of oohs and aahs over Riley’s Elvis-like features: heavy-lidded eyes, full cheeks, and a moody stare. A few front-rowers (Ruth La Ferla of The New York Times, specifically) even claimed to spot the ingénue break into one of Elvis’s trademark curled lip snarls. “The resemblance to Elvis was uncanny. We were all stunned,” one fashionista gushed. And of course Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana chimed in. “When we met Riley last year, we were immediately struck by her beauty and fresh, pure spirit. With her mother’s beauty and her grandfather’s attitude, she is sure to be a star!”
These days Riley’s reaction to the media’s relentless gawking is understated, to say the least. “I haven’t been looking for attention, so I haven’t gotten much of it,” she says. “My job isn’t the lowest profiled job so some attention is inevitable and expected, but I don’t really want more than that.” This is, of course, Riley staying true to form. She is known to be demure and as someone who considers the act of publicity-seeking distasteful. You won’t see her baiting the paparazzi by driving around West Hollywood with a rent-a-guru ala Paris Hilton or gallivanting panty-less around town ala starlets too numerous to mention. “She doesn’t have that whole ‘I’m gonna be a sexy teenager’ thing,” her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, said at the beginning of Riley’s modeling career. “She’s actually got so much class. She’s very graceful and has this sort of Grace Kelly-esque thing to her. She has had this elegance and finesse since she was a baby.”
Looking back to May 29, 1989, the day Riley (her birth name is Danielle Riley Keough) was born, there was something elegant if not protectively discreet about the way the daughter of Lisa Marie and musician Danny Keough entered the world. Her birth in Santa Monica, California was cloaked in secrecy; only one photographer, a friend of Danny’s named Cesare Bonazza, was allowed in the hospital room. (He reportedly sold a photo of the newborn to People magazine for US $300,000—a huge sum for a celebrity photo back then.) Baby Riley managed to elude the mob of paparazzi outside the hospital in a way that resembled Baby Moses being secreted down the Nile. But the pharaonic media caught up with her soon enough. Stories emerged that the child would be named “Elron” in honor of both Elvis and L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, the controversial organization of which Lisa Marie, Priscilla Presley (Riley’s grandmother), and Danny Keough are all reportedly involved. Tabloid astrologers were more charitable, predicting “a screen and music career” for Riley.
Crawling out from under Elvis’s massive shadow has been a long-term theme, almost a cliché, in the lives of Lisa Marie, Priscilla, and now Riley. The persistent memory of Elvis exists as an array of archetypes: corruptor of youth, musical revolutionary, sacred deity, camp actor, comeback kid, totem of kitsch Americana, damaged martyr. Generations have watched (and re-watched, through thousands of hours of perpetually released film footage) with awe and sadness as a sweet, sexy country boy was transformed into a dissolute neurotic by the harsh realities of fame. His incalculable influence on 20th and 21st century culture is, like Andy Warhol’s (the Popist’s 15-minutes-of-fame prophecy is routinely fulfilled) sometimes easily dismissed—partly because its lingering effect has been so thoroughly successful and ubiquitous. You’re not always aware of it but, to quote a long-running American dishwashing liquid commercial, you’re soaking in it.
Considering what they’ve had to live up to, the Presley women have not so much crawled out from under that shadow but negotiated it, as they’ve forged their own identities in the process. And their preservation of the legacy, it should be noted, has been admirable. Lisa Marie fought, and won, in court to retain the rights to her father’s name, image, and likeness. (The law at the time, which Lisa Marie permanently changed with her victory, dictated that such rights became public domain rather than be turned over to heirs.) When Graceland was set to be handed over to the state or put up for auction due to the large debts Elvis left behind after his death in 1977, Priscilla masterminded the plan to turn the property into a museum. It opened in 1982 and is visited by over 600,000 people a year.
Last September, Lisa Marie and Riley appeared together on The Oprah Winfrey Show. After performing an imaginary and rather audacious duet of “In the Ghetto” with her father (The King appeared in vintage footage on a jumbo video screen), with backup from the Harlem Gospel Choir, Lisa Marie fielded questions from the Big O. Speaking about Riley, Lisa Marie explained, a bit tongue-tied, that, “I didn’t want her to lose her own identity…I wanted them [Riley and her younger brother, Benjamin] to be raised normally…I didn’t want her to have that shadow where she felt in competition or intimidated by anything. I was raised never to flaunt who I am so I’ve raised them the same way…just do your own thing.”
But was it hard for Riley growing up in this dynasty, with this legacy? Oprah wanted to know. “Not really,” Riley responded nonchalantly before laughing and gesturing toward her mother. “Not like her.” Long story short, life for Lisa Marie has been a bit bumpier than a one-week stay at the Heartbreak Hotel. In her late teen years, her mother sent her to the Scientology center for their version of drug rehab. It was there she met Danny Keough and married him shortly thereafter in October 1988. After her divorce to Danny in 1994, she notoriously married the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. He was not popular with Riley—she reportedly fled in tears whenever her eccentric stepfather entered the room. Lisa Marie’s next husband was Elvis fan Nicholas Cage. That lasted about three months. Her current marriage to musician Michael Lockwood—the pair wed in 2006—has been more promising, as Lockwood is now her music producer. Even before the marriage, Lisa Marie had already begun to establish her recording career. In 2005 she released her second album, Now What. Riley sang backup vocals.
“We have a really good relationship,” Riley says glowingly. “My mom is extremely strong and can deal with pretty much anything thrown at her. And she has the biggest heart at the same time. Both of these things are really inspiring to me.” Although Riley loves music, listening to everything from Daft Punk to The Grateful Dead on her iPod, she has been adamant about not following in the musical footsteps of her mother and grandfather. And while she has been tight-lipped about her interest in photography and a rumored foray into acting, her modeling career has been marked with more than a few highlights. After her stint with Dolce & Gabbana, the 5-foot-7-inch mannequin walked for Christian Dior for four seasons and scored the campaign for the brand’s Miss Dior Cherie fragrance. In 2005, she appeared in a campaign for David Yurman alongside Amber Valetta and Kate Moss.
“I love working. I love meeting new photographers and seeing how they create,” says Riley, who has worked with Nick Knight, Mario Sorrenti, Peter Lindburgh, Rankin, and Arthur Elgort. “My favorite thing about being a model is being able to travel.” While she says there is nothing she dislikes about her career, Riley—who debuted as a model at age 12 for a Tommy Hilfiger campaign—does have her criticisms of the industry. “I don’t like how much attention is put on girls’ images, especially young girls,” she says. “I think it’s really unhealthy for 13 and 14-year olds to be worried about what they look like. It’s not always the case but when it is, I don’t like that at all.”
What’s next for Riley? A cosmetics campaign, a juicy movie role, a career as a social worker? Social worker?! “I’m involved with the Presley Charitable Foundation which is a non-profit organization that provides housing, daycare and counseling for homeless families so they can get back on their feet again,” Riley explains soberly. “We are currently working on opening up a center in New Orleans. I’m also working on various projects with different organizations. I love charity work; it’s something I want to be involved in as much as I can. That’s one thing that truly makes me the happiest.”