Michelle Phillips Interview: Candid Conversation with the Mamas and the Papas Sole Surviving Member
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to Michelle Phillips
Michelle Phillips rose to fame as a vocalist in the folk rock quartet the Mamas and the Papas in the mid-1960s and is the last surviving original member. She also established a successful career as an actress in television appearing in Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Hotel, Knots Landing, Malibu Shores and Beverly Hills, 90210, just to name a few. Film credits include Dillinger, Shampoo, Scissors, Army of One, Harry + Max, Jane White is Sick & Twisted and Unbeatable Harold.
Phillips recently auctioned her original “California Girl” memorabilia and her videotaped hand drawn group image of the Mamas and the Papas. In support of charity, funds go to the Painted Turtle, which offers its flagship camp for kids with serious medical conditions.
"I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, but when your parent or parents die when you’re five years old, you don’t really understand what that means. You don’t know what forever means."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Michelle, how are you today?
Michelle Phillips: Excellent. It’s so beautiful here in West Los Angeles. Too bad I’m not in Palm Springs (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you coping with the pandemic?
Michelle Phillips: Well most of us are fully vaccinated, and we still wear masks when we go out. We try to encourage people to vaccinate. There are people who just won’t do it. But ultimately, that’s going to be their problem not mine. I don’t know why people have this problem with the vaccination when in fact, it’s proven to be so effective, and it has brought down our problem in California by something like 80%.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Let’s talk for a few minutes about the recent charity auction to benefit the Painted Turtle. Have you worked with this group for a long time?
Michelle Phillips: Yes. The Painted Turtle was introduced to me through Lou Adler, the Mamas and the Papas producer, and his beautiful wife Page. They are on the board, and Page works incessantly to get children to camp who otherwise would not have the opportunity to go. Every summer, hundreds of children go to camp, and they go swimming, fishing and go trotting around the grounds of the Painted Turtle.
I like to contribute to children’s causes because I am such a child myself. I understand that it’s fun to do these things, it’s fun to make new friends and fun to get out of your community, which may not be the hottest place on earth, you know? But that’s how I got involved.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You auctioned off a drawing of the Mamas and the Papas. How did that come about?
Michelle Phillips: The original drawing was created by Lou Adler. Then I drew it for the organization. But it’s such a beautiful rendition of what the Mamas and the Papas were and looked like. You could look at it and say, “That was the Mamas and the Papas.” It’s funny and very sweet, and Lou is quite an artist. He made this drawing himself, and I was so impressed by it that we eventually used it as an ad in either Billboard or Cashbox magazine or something. It’s just been one of those little doodles that has lasted forever.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: During 1966 and 1967 especially, the Mamas and the Papas were more commercially successful than some of the other bands during that time. Did you realize at an early age that you had such a beautiful soprano voice?
Michelle Phillips: (laughs) That’s really nice of you to say that, Melissa.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, it is true. Were you involved in any musicals in your early school years?
Michelle Phillips. Absolutely not. I had no ambitions to be a singer. I had absolutely no ambitions to do anything but wear a really pretty black cocktail dress with my hair up in a chignon and a little drink in my hand at clubs. That was my ambition. Then I met John Phillips, and his group was breaking up. He said, “You know, you’re going to be in the next group.” I said, “What on earth are you talking about?” (laughs) He said, “I want you to be in the next group.” I said, “I don’t know how to sing, John.” He said, “Michelle, you sing just fine.” (laughs)
Then he sent me to get voice lessons. John always said that if you wanted to learn how to do something, you study for it. There was a lot of wisdom in that because even if you don’t see yourself as a singer, if you start to sing with someone who’s been helping you professionally, you’re going to learn a lot. That’s what happened with me. And really, I could barely utter a sound when I first started singing with John and the group. But by the end, I was a pretty good singer.
Smashing interviews Magazine: I believe that’s an understatement. Was it John’s idea to name the band the Mamas and the Papas?
Michelle Phillips: No. That came from a television show the four of us were watching one afternoon. Sonny Barger, who was the president of the Hells Angels, was doing an interview with a big afternoon talk show host. The host kind of implied the women that associated themselves with the Hells Angels were sluts. Sonny Barger said, “Some people call our women cheap. We just call ‘em our mamas!” Well, Cass was right on it. She said, “That’s it! We’re the Mamas! I don’t know who you guys are going to be, but we’re going to be the Mamas!” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears is considered one of the best pop-rock albums of all time. What do you remember about recording that record?
Michelle Phillips: Well, I’m going to disappoint you here. All I know is that I did not have the chops well enough to sing with Cass, Denny and John. I felt very insecure. I just tried to do what John told me to do. He said, “Sing this note and sing this,” but I was very insecure. I couldn’t believe it when the album went to number one. The album became a huge hit with “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday,” and all these tracks started coming off the record. All of a sudden, we were just getting tons of money, tons of accolades, and we were the best thing since sliced bread. You know, that was kind of fun. I can say a lot about success (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But since you felt insecure, did you ever not want fame?
Michelle Phillips: That is a good question. Did I ever not want it. No, I did want it, but I wanted to be good enough at it that I deserved to be in the group. It was complicated, but John always said, “Michelle, anybody can sing. You just have to practice, practice, practice.” So that’s what I did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Now, I’m not sure I agree with that from my own personal perspective (laughs). I do believe there has to be some talent there also, which you definitely had.
Michelle Phillips: (laughs) But you know what? If you had John Phillips’ whips at your bottom, you’d be singing it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was Laurel Canyon just a great big commune in the 60s and 70s?
Michelle Phillips: It was where everyone went to live who couldn’t afford to live in West Hollywood or couldn’t afford to live in Bel Air. It was all about the money. The rent was cheap, and it was just an affordable little community (laughs). So yeah, we went to live in Laurel Canyon along with the Byrds and everybody else. I can’t think of any musicians who didn’t say they lived on Lookout Mountain (where we lived) or Skyline Drive or any other street there. Everyone lived there. Also, it was a very social place. If you wanted to go visit friends, you walked down the street. You didn’t have to go anywhere. You just walked up and down the streets. You’d have your guitar with you, and you’d write a number one song (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was transitioning from music to acting tough for you?
Michelle Phillips: Oh, transitioning into acting was so much fun. I wasn’t going to be a soloist, that’s for sure. And I wasn’t going to try and put together a new group. So it was acting. At the time, I was going with Jack Nicholson, and I told Jack, “I want to be an actress.” As a matter of fact, that’s why I met him. I went in to read for a movie that he was directing called Drive, He Said. I think he would’ve given me the part, but I turned it down because the girl was having sex on the kitchen table, and I found that very offensive (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Offensive because she was nude?
Michelle Phillips: Oh, no, no, no, no. It was just clean old sex on the table (laughs). But, I just thought it was in bad taste. I didn’t see that there was any reason to put that scene in there, and I told Jack that. The next thing I knew, he was inviting me out to dinner. So we had a very, very nice relationship for about two years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And then Warren Beatty entered the romantic scene?
Michelle Phillips: My Warren (laughs). I adore Jack, and I adore Warren. We’re all very, very good friends.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you enjoy your time on Knots Landing?
Michelle Phillips: Oh, my goodness! I was doing every show that Aaron Spelling had on television because he liked me, and he saw something in me that was something he could use commercially. One day, I got a call from my agent who said, “David Jacobs wants to meet with you day after tomorrow for lunch because they want you to be in Knots Landing.” I said, “What’s Knots Landing?” He said, “You just meet with him.”
So I had to confess to him that I had never seen the show. I did not have the slightest idea what it was about. Jacobs said, “We wrote this part for you. Today is Thursday, so you can see the show tonight, and we’ll send you over the last two episodes. Let us know tomorrow if you have any interest in doing the show.” I called him back the next day at seven o’clock in the morning and said, “I want to be in the show!” (laughs) It was so much fun the way that they wrote my character. I was a villainess, Nicollette Sheridan’s mother, and I was just the meanest bitch!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That had to have been loads of fun to play.
Michelle Phillips: Oh, yeah. I won the best villainess award that year. So I have nothing to complain about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s your relationship like with your children and grandchildren?
Michelle Phillips: My children and grandchildren are the light of my life. My children are Chynna, Austin, and I adopted Aron when he was a little boy. He was my foster child. So we’re all a big happy family. I have five grandchildren, much too long a list to burden you with (laughs). But it’s great.
I did not have much of a family when I was growing up because my mother died when I was five. My father took us to Mexico City where he went to college. So I guess my family were my stepmothers. I think I had five stepmothers (laughs). My father was very agreeable to anyone who wanted to marry him. They’d say, “You want to get married?” He’d say, “Fine.”
I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, but when your parent or parents die when you’re five years old, you don’t really understand what that means. You don’t know what forever means. It wasn’t until I was about eight that I realized, “Oh, my God, I’m never going to have a mother.” I mean, my stepmothers were all great gals, but it’s not the same.
I’m not sure what the impact was of losing my mother when I was so young, but I do know that I had a very happy childhood. My father was a wonderful man. He worked for the probation department at Juvenile Hall. So I knew a lot about sex and drugs by the time I was 13. He just wanted to protect his girls, and he did a really good job. You can see how sane I am (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was your father proud of what you had accomplished in life?
Michelle Phillips: He was driving a school bus at one point after working at Juvenile Hall, and it was covered with Mamas and Papas memorabilia. All of his kids on the bus knew exactly who I was because I was Gil’s daughter (laughs). He loved it.
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