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Meet Carnie Wilson: An Intimate Portrait

By Alice Ansfield

From Summer 1996 Radiance

At 7 a.m. California time on a Friday morning in January, I sat down at my computer and called Carnie Wilson at her home on the East Coast. I thought I might have perhaps an hour with her at the most, Carnie Wilsonso I had my questions ready. The next time I looked up at the clock, two and one-half hours had passed, and an 8000-word interview was typed into my computer. I had wanted to interview Carnie when I first saw her on a Wilson Phillips music video. The hit trio, Wilson Phillips, consists of Carnie Wilson; her sister, Wendy Wilson; and Chynna Phillips, daughter of Michelle and John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. Her voice was wonderful, and her presence was striking. Then last year I saw her again as host of her own talk show, Carnie. I was drawn to her passion, her honesty, and her heart.

Readers, I'm pleased to be able to present to you Carnie Wilson.

Alice: How long have you been singing?

Carnie: I've been singing ever since I can remember. I was hearing Pet Sounds [Beach Boys album] in my mother's womb! I've always loved music. At home, Daddy would play piano or music would be on. Some was popular music that we heard on the radio. I heard a lot of Carpenters, Doobie Brothers, Phil Spector, and, of course, a lot of Beach Boys music! I adored Elton John, still do! When I was six, I invited him to my birthday party. He couldn't make it, but he sent me flowers and a teddy bear and wrote me a note inviting me to tea. It was on a blue piece of paper! I think he is one of the most brilliant artists of all time. He and his cowriter, Bernie, are one of the greatest songwriting teams that has ever existed. A while back, Elton asked Wilson Phillips to be on an album called Two Rooms, along with other artists (Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, the Beach Boys, and Sinead O'Connor all were a part of it). I wanted to sing Elton's "Daniel," in three-part harmony. It's one of my favorite recordings done by our group! It's nice to hear women singing it. It's very soft and sweet. And Elton and Bernie said our version was the best remake of a song they had ever heard. Wow!

Alice: What was the first song you ever sang in public?

Carnie: My sister, Wendy, and I, have each performed since we were four years old. We used to sing by the fireplace mantle, using broomsticks as microphones! We'd sing Fleetwood Mac, the Carpenters. We were always performing for whoever came to the house.

When I was seven and Wendy was six and Chynna was seven, we recorded "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at a studio. We named our group The Satellites!

By high school, I was singing in talent contests and special performances. I was very active in the drama department. I had a lot of fun character acting and did some musicals. My favorite was Carnival. I played Rosalee, and it was a blast! I remember my dad crying afterward. He said, "Carnie, you were really wonderful. You blew my mind." He was real proud.

Alice: Have you done any other acting?

Carnie: A talent scout had come to one of the plays at Oakwood High and signed me up with an agency. After I graduated in 1986, I started auditioning for movie and TV roles. I got a lot of callbacks but was never cast for anything.

When I was younger, I did two commercials. One was for B. F. Goodrich Tires, when I was seven years old. They had me sitting at a desk across from a boy who played my brother. We were supposedly in our father's office. It was a comical thing. My brother says, "Where's Daddy?" I say, "He's outside putting some air in someone's tires." Then he says, "When he's done with the tires, is he gonna check the air in the blimp?" He looks up at me, and I had to give him a look like, Oh my gosh, and roll my eyes and put my head in my hands. We did it seven or eight times, and every time, when I gave the look, the director would throw his head back in his chair and laugh hysterically at the look on my face!

The other commercial was for Mardi Gras paper towels. I was about nine. I was in the kitchen playing like I was my mother, putting place settings down and comparing other towels with ours. That ad didn't run too long. But the B. F. Goodrich ad ran during the Rose Bowl. It was the first income I ever made, and my mom put it away for me. It was about $15,000 or $30,000. She said, "You'll need this one day." It's long gone, let me tell you!

Alice: Tell me about growing up.

Carnie: My childhood was scary for me. My dad was a drug addict and an alcoholic. My mother, Marilyn, is a fabulous lady and a great mom. She always told me and Wendy the truth about Dad and what was going on. She said, "Your father has a problem with drugs, and he also is a genius. Listen to these harmonies, these songs. Listen to his voice and his phrasing and how beautiful it is." It was a very strange, conflicting thing. I was very proud, but very embarrassed. I saw all of it. I saw him high on drugs many times. I knew he wasn't acting normal. And he wasn't around a lot. If he was around, he wasn't really mentally there.

I found out later that he tried to stay away so that he wouldn't hurt us. He had been hurt by his father, and he said to my mom, "You have to raise the kids. I can't do it." So she did. And they stayed together for fourteen years, and then she couldn't take it. She divorced him and we moved out of the big house. I was eleven. We moved to the San Fernando Valley, and those years were much easier for me. I was sad but I was relieved. Maybe every two years I'd see my dad. He was still on drugs. He was a mess. Not pleasant to be around.

Then a doctor came into his life and brainwashed him. It was a nightmare. He saved his life, but he also took my dad away from the family for ten years. We finally got the doctor out of the picture.

Alice: How is it now with you and your father?

Carnie: As of about three years ago, I have a relationship with him for the first time. And it happened through music. It's been a joy, it's the best. I recorded a song with him and Rob Wasserman, a bassist. We all sang together, and then we did promotion for it: press, interviews. I had to be with my dad. It felt more and more natural. I slowly confronted him, told him it's okay that he wasn't a good father, that I love him, that we can still build a relationship.

In the last year, he has become a different person. He's writing again, he's remarried, he's in the studio with the Beach Boys! He has a relationship with his daughters. He's in a really good place. I'm so proud of him.

Encouragement for mending the relationship came from my fiancé, Steven. Steven's father died about nine years ago. Steven told me, "You have to talk with your dad. You have to see him and tell him you love him. He may not be here tomorrow." I'd be scared and tell Steven I had nothing to say. "Call your dad," he'd say. "Say hello. Just call. He really wants to hear from you." When I did, I heard a spark in my dad's voice and felt so happy for calling him. I thank Steven for pushing me. My father adores Steven.

Alice: Tell me about Steven. How did you meet?

Carnie: I never had trouble finding boyfriends and I always had male friends, but I was never completely satisfied. Then Steven came around and was the most mature, smart, and sensitive guy I'd met. I immediately felt very spiritually connected with him.

I met Steven three years ago through my good friends Owen (daughter of Cass Elliot) and her husband, Jack Kugell (son of Marty Kugell, who produced the record In the Still of the Night). Jack and Steven went to school together. One night the four of us went to dinner. Candlelight was shining in his big blue eyes. I'm looking at him and looking harder, thinking, Wow, look at those big eyes, how beautiful! I wondered, Is he staring and smiling at me? I felt an energy. After dinner, we were walking outside, and he pulled a flower from a flowerbox and gave it to me. I was a goner from that moment on!

About eight months into our dating we realized we wanted to live together, so he moved into my house. We've been together since 1993. Us and the dogs! I have two little dachshunds, Willie Wonka and Olive Oyl. Steven has two labs, two big labs, Brutus and Spencer, a black and a yellow. The dogs got along beautifully from the first day on. One big happy family. The little dachshunds put their heads into Spencer's mouth and lick his teeth. Spencer sings while they do this. I keep telling Steven we have to get this on America's Funniest Videos!

Alice: I want to hear more about your mom and dad. What did you learn from each of them?

Carnie: My mother gave me a spiritual perspective. She felt her life was miraculous. She came from a poor background, one pair of shoes, from a loving Jewish family. She was fourteen when she met my dad. She married him at sixteen, and she had me at twenty. She grew up very fast. She taught me about karma: If you do something nice for someone, it'll come back to you. It's the most powerful thing on Earth. That's how I live my life.

My mother told me to give to people. And to believe in myself. I've been heavy since I was four. I'd come home from school crying because I had been teased, and she would be so comforting. She was an incredible mother: very liberal but she set the boundaries. I felt tremendous support and love from her. I learned to be an outgoing person, to express my personality, and to be a good person.

From my dad I learned the ability to arrange harmonies and to hear harmony. I did all the harmony vocal arrangements for Wilson Phillips. And I've learned a lot of other things from my dad in the past five years. Acceptance: accepting the situation as it is. I accept that he will never be the kind of father I see in the movies or the father next door. But he did the best he could. He has said to me, "Do the best that you can in your life, and accept who and what you are."

It's always been public that my dad had a drug problem and was kind of a recluse. But I've always been proud of the music he created. All I can do is learn from the situation. He warned me and my sister about drugs. He told us they're a dead end.

Alice: How did Wilson Phillips begin?

Carnie: It began in 1986, the year I graduated from high school. Owen called Chynna with the idea of getting all of the 1960s musicians' kids together to write a song, or record a song, and give the money to an antidrug association or an AIDS foundation. The four of us—me, Wendy, Chynna, and Owen—thought it was a great idea. Chynna and Owen came over and we called Donovan's kids, Moon Zappa, and Garcia's kids, and others. Nobody wanted to do it except us. I was so surprised. I said, Hell, let's just do it. So the four of us started to sing Heart and Stevie Nix songs. Wendy and I taught Chynna how to sing harmony, and we all decided to form a group. But Owen was clearly a solo artist. She's now pursuing her own career.

After about three months of singing harmony together, my mom heard us and said we sounded really good. We had no name, no plans. But we had a blend, a sound. And so Michelle Phillips, Chynna's mom, suggested we go see her friend who was a producer, Richard Perry. He produced Carly Simon, the Pointer Sisters, and Barbra Streisand. He took us under his wing, put us up in the studio. We started singing demos. We're grateful to him for our start and for introducing us to Glen Ballard, who became our songwriting collaborator and producer. Glen is one of the best people I've known in my life. He's not only a genius and a dear soul, but a fabulous producer.

Together we wrote "Release Me," "Hold On," "You're in Love." We wrote with Glen for two years, until Okay, we had enough songs to get a record deal. We did! In 1989. We made the album Wilson Phillips that year and released it in 1990. It sold ten million copies worldwide, which is so remarkable I still can't believe it. Our second album, Shadows and Light, sold three million. We hit like a storm. Three number-one songs. People were hungry for a new sound. I think the harmonies were pleasing, we had a nice blend. The lyrics were uplifting, honest, and inspiring. They described young love and relationships and life. People related to it.

Alice: What was life like for you at this time? It sounds very intense!

Carnie: We were doing this full time. Didn't have a minute off. Wendy and Chynna got sick and had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration. I just ate and gained weight and stayed healthy. The pace was fast, kind of like a dream. Before we knew it, we were in Japan and our record company called and told us that "Hold On," our first single, had gone to number one. I'll never forget that moment. It was 4 a.m. when I got the call. I screamed and then cried. Then I screamed and cried some more! Wendy had been sleeping next door, and she heard me and didn't know what was going on! It was the best feeling in the whole world. To want something to happen, to work and invest so much of your heart and your soul, and your energy, and to have it work! We made money, that was a great thing. But the best part was that the fans really got something out of the music. Our fan letters came from people aged seven to fifty! We got letters from people who had been suicidal, who after hearing "Hold On," chose to live. It was very moving for us all.

The second album, Shadow and Light, was very personal, because we were all in therapy at the same time. A lot of issues were coming up, and we wrote about them. How do you follow up a ten million seller? We were scared shitless. We decided not to think about anything else except what we wanted to write. We wrote about our fathers, our fears, our dreams. It was a very honest album. It was kind of sad, because it was so personal and quite beautiful. We wrote it fast, in three months, every day writing in an outpouring of emotions and feelings and thoughts. Glen would start with some music, we'd hear a chord we liked, we'd start a verse, and jot down ideas lyrically. It just came out.

Alice: Tell me about your music videos.

Carnie: We made eight videos. It's fascinating. It's very, very hard. You have your light that you can't move out of, you have to stay in your space. I was very upset, because the record company tried to hide me. Wendy and Chynna have known me heavy my whole life. They felt my weight was a plus, because it made the members of the group look like the real people we were. Something to be proud of. It's interesting. Chynna was always dealing with the opposite problem. She was always trying to gain weight. She's been thin her whole life. Her metabolism is a Ferrari! My metabolism, well, we're talking about a car with no gas!

We started to get letters from fans saying, "Don't hide Carnie." "Why are you hiding Carnie?" I would cry and get upset. They'd say, "Oh no, there's nothing wrong with your weight. Someone relates to each of you." They'd tell me to my face that my body was fine, but they wouldn't want to see my double chin on camera. That would really piss me off. But I was always pleased with the way I looked and how the videos turned out. I loved doing them.

Alice: Did experiencing this discrimination fuel you in some ways?

Carnie: It made me stronger. I'm not worrying about what everyone else thinks about me. I'm fat. I'm a big girl. It's my feelings about myself that I think about. I feel attractive, I present myself well. I'm well groomed, well dressed, put myself together. That image has been good for heavy people. I'm proud of that. I feel like a spokesperson for heavier women. I feel like I'm saying, You can have anything you want, you can be or do anything you want. You can be successful, whatever your size.

I always knew that if it weren't for me, our work wouldn't have its harmonies. I knew what I contributed. I feel I was lucky with the press. In articles, I was referred to as "the chubby one." It was true. I am large. But the focus would always go back to our music.

Alice: What happened with Wilson Phillips after your second album?

Carnie: While we were making that second album, we were under some pressure from the record company to get it out quickly. We were recovering from being on the road for a year and a half and experiencing fame. Our emotions were running high. The album was almost too personal, I think, for the public. After that, Chynna decided to go on her own and be a solo artist. That was very hard for Wendy and me. It was too soon. I was very upset for about six months. I felt that I was letting people and fans down. I loved our group so much, I didn't want it to stop there. My fear was, Oh no, it will never happen again. But the best thing is, at the end of 1996, I think we're going to start working on another album.

Wendy and I decided to make a Christmas album together in 1993. It was called Hey Santa. We wrote a song with Jack Kugell and made a lovely album. It didn't get promoted the way it should have, but it sold 200,000 albums in three weeks. Then Wendy and I decided to make a duo album. We were all ready to go, when the record company dropped us. They kept Chynna and dropped us. That was the worst. We were absolutely livid. I thought what we had was really good. We continued to look for a record deal. Then, out of nowhere, in April of 1994, I got the phone call for the talk show. It was a miracle!

Wendy and I had been on the Howard Stern radio show, promoting Hey Santa. Howard has always made fun of me because of my weight. We came on the show and he was playing our song "Hey Santa," but talking through the whole song. I kept telling him to shut up! He kept coming at me with these remarks, and I fired back at him. It was really fun! And he got a kick out of it. I wound up on his show a few more times. Cathy Chermol, who had been with Sally Jesse Raphael for eight years as executive producer and who works for Warner Brothers, heard the interview. (She's a huge Howard fan.) She said, "Anybody who can stand up to Howard like that deserves a talk show!" She called Warner Brothers and told them about me.

Around that same time, one day I went into a store called Love Thy Body, which has the most amazing lotions and bath gels. In the middle of the store was this woman psychic sitting at a table doing readings. The woman behind the counter told me to get a reading, that the psychic was really great. I love psychics. I sat down for a fifteen-minute reading. She blew my mind. This was in February or March of 1994, and I had been devastated about the earthquake that had just happened in January. I had post–traumatic stress. I was living in Sherman Oaks, where it had hit the hardest. I was still really scared. I sat down and she took my hand and asked for my birthday and my name. She said to me, "Now, you're not going to die in an earthquake, so just get it out of your head." I couldn't believe it! And then she said, "There's something coming around the corner that is enormous for you. This coming year is going to be incredible for you."

Two weeks later, I got the phone call to meet with the executives at Warner Brothers about the show. Mickey Shapiro, my manager, and I met with them and it went great. They wanted someone young, but someone who had some life experience and fame. They knew that I was very open and personable and very compassionate. They liked that. We agreed to put me on tape and make a couple of demo shows. They flew me to New York, and I did two tester shows. They wound up being the pilots, because they were so good.

Alice: How much decision-making power did you have about your show?

Carnie: None. It's hard. You've got ratings, and you've got what the advertisers want, what the TV company wants, what the public wants. The shows that got the highest ratings offended the advertisers. Mickey and I really pushed the entertainment factor, for me to sing and perform and have celebrity guests. Unfortunately, that's not what Warner Brothers wanted. Still, I feel that our show had a good variety of topics and guests. We had sleazy hookers and desperate parents, and people who were happy and people who were sad. But I played no role in choosing guests or topics.

Alice: How did you feel about being on TV, being so visible?

Carnie: I have always loved to be in front of people, performing and making people laugh. But I was very, very scared about being on my own, not having my partners with me. Plus, I'd never had experience with television, except those commercials!

I love talk shows and had watched them for years. I remember watching those shows and asking myself, Why isn't the host getting upset right now? Or why isn't the host giving that person a hug? But I never thought I'd be a host. I was very scared to start. Scared because I had to move across the country. Moving to the East Coast with Steven, in April 1995, was the hardest thing I've ever done. I was moving away from my mom and family and friends. And I was scared just about having a show and my name being out there. It was the fastest-selling talk show in history. We sold to ninety stations right away. That put pressure on me, the expectations were really high.

I prayed. A lot. I tried to focus my energy positively. Steven said it would be an adventure. But, I tell you, the first month we did the show, I was such a wreck. I had had regular periods since age ten, but I bled a lot then. I was more nervous than ever before in my life. I could get up before 200,000 people and sing and not be nervous and be having fun! But this was different. I felt so exposed, all eyes were on me. I spent the first month looking at the set, thinking, No way I have a show! I had to pinch myself every minute.

The work was hard. I'd spend six hours studying on my days off. I had to learn about each guest, which was about ninety stories a week! More work than I had ever experienced. I had headaches. I couldn't read the teleprompter, so I had to get contact lenses. There were many big changes for me. It was very, very intense. I got more comfortable as I went along, and I developed a lot of confidence and had fun doing the show. The audiences were great. I loved talking with them during the show. I learned to have fun with it and not be so worried about what I was doing.

I learned discipline and patience, and how to listen to people. We had some women heavier than four hundred pounds on one show. One of them told me, "You're my hero, you're my hero, you're my inspiration." It was so sweet. I cried. It felt so good.

Alice: How did you feel about the show being canceled?

Carnie: We're taping through February 9, 1996, and the show will run through the end of May. I was sad. I still am. But I was also frustrated, because we had higher ratings than some shows that have been on the air for years. We were just beginning to build our fan base, people were becoming committed viewers. But the company wanted to put its money in another show. I've learned it's all about money. It's really sick.

Still, I had a nice salary, I met great people, I got to express myself, I became more visible. It's almost like, Thank you, and ____ you. You know what I mean?! I told them, "Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to do this. I feel sad and disappointed. But I can't help but say thank you." Things happen for a reason.

Alice: What do you want to do next?

Carnie: I'm working on a clothing line for women size 14 and larger. I don't get why there's not a Vogue for large women. I love clothing. I want to do vests, active wear, and casual wear, and then move to all areas. I want my clothes to be very fashionable, current, and hip. And affordable. We deserve to dress in nice clothing. I'm working on it now. I'm meeting the heads of Walmart, and we'll see. It's pending. They love the idea. It'll be the Carnie Collection!

Alice: Please do supersizes! Don't forget about us! We're one-third of the plus-size market!

Carnie: I want to go up to supersizes. I would love to. There's no reason to stop at size 26.

I also just released an exercise video called Great Changes with Idrea, a dear friend and a motivator. She inspired me to do this, and I hope the video inspires millions of people to move and feel good. It's not only a great workout, but fun, too. And not threatening or intimidating to people of size. Whatever your size, you can still move and feel good right now. You can be 400 pounds and still feel endorphins. I'm really proud of the video and especially the message.

Alice: Have you been active throughout your life?

Carnie: Yes, always. I was always in sports, moving. I don't eat enough of the right foods, and I eat too much of the wrong foods! I make some poor choices. But I've always moved. However, I hated going to aerobics classes, where the women all have those little g-strings on and flash their little booties in my face, discouraging me! Then Idrea said, "You have to come to my class. I have people in there from four hundred pounds to a grandmother to whoever." I felt comfortable, inspired, and hopeful. Very positive. When I move, I feel great, alive. It centers me. Makes me feel like I'm being good to myself.

Alice: What do you do for fun, for relaxation, for balance, to get renewed?

Carnie: I do a lot of deep breathing, drink a lot of water, take walks. I love the earth, I'm a Taurus. I love walking on soil, on the ground! I love being outdoors: the smell of fresh air, nature. Just to be outside with nature is instant rejuvenation. I love walking, but I hate hills! But when I do walk up a hill that I didn't think I could walk up, it feels great.

I also like to cook. I love cooking! Cooking relaxes me. When I started going out with Steven, I wanted to be domestic. I started cooking everything: casseroles, beef, and chicken. It makes me feel so proud when he takes a bite and goes, Mmmm. It's the best feeling. It's like sex. It feels great.

Alice: How else do you unwind and relax?

Carnie: I like to lie on the couch with my dogs and watch my favorite TV shows, and rent movies. I love movies. My favorite TV show ever is America's Funniest Home Videos. Steven and I watch it every Sunday and get hysterical.

I haven't had any time for vacations at all. But Steven and I do love to take drives, especially in the fall on the East Coast. He squeezes my leg while we're driving in the car and goes, Mmmm, grrrr. I love it. He loves me. He loves every inch of me. And that feels good. It's sometimes hard when I can't find the time to be with Steven. He works as a loan officer at a bank, nine to five. I have irregular hours. But during the weekends, we're together all the time. Our legs are intertwined!

Alice: Which world do you want to do? Music or TV or both?

Carnie: I think I could do something like Tracy Ullman's show: do a lot of characters. I do a lot of dialects, a Spanish accent, a New York accent. I can do Southern. I love to make people laugh. I've thought about stand-up. But my true love is music. It's my life. I like to produce records, to produce vocals. It's really a good feeling, and I miss it a lot. I miss singing.

Alice: Do you sing at home?

Carnie: Oh! When do I not sing! I can't shut up. I sing all the time. In the shower, in the car, at the show between tapings, in the dressing room!

Alice: What would you say to our readers about taking chances, finding out their true worth and beauty?

Carnie: I would say, Don't compare yourself to other people. Focus on your own energy, your own talent, because everybody has some. Believe you can have anything you want in your life. You can make it happen. Don't worry about what other people think. Be positive. That's the biggest thing. Stay positive. There's a reason for everything, and there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. Always. I have felt tremendous pain and tremendous joy. It's always a learning experience. Believe in yourself.

Alice: Doesn't it infuriate you the way fat people are the object of such blatant discrimination?

Carnie: It upsets me so much. I went to Hawaii three years ago. As I got off the plane, a little boy looked at his dad and asked, "Why is she so fat?" It took me right back to my childhood and being teased, of thinking I was no good. I said to myself, You're here to enjoy yourself, you're a good person, you're a beautiful person. You just have more flesh!

I feel like I was put on the Earth to help people like themselves more. And live their lives more fully. I truly like myself. I love myself. I think I'm a good human being. But many people don't feel that way about themselves. They're too worried about money, or status, or their bodies. They haven't taken the time to see who they are. It starts with the heart, who you are inside. What are you going to do for yourself and for the people that you love?

Alice: It's really great that you're out there being so visible, being seen by so many people, large and small! You give a lot of people hope just by being who you are. I thank you for your time, for sharing yourself so openly with me. I wish you the best in your life and your career.


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