At no moment in her life was Lisa Marie Presley allowed to forget she was her father’s daughter. When Presley, who has died aged 54, married Michael Jackson in 1994, the headline in The New York Times read: “Elvis Presley's Daughter Confirms She Wed Michael Jackson.” A decade later, reviews of her 2003 debut album, To Whom It May Concern, glossed over the music. Rolling Stone described Presley as “The King of Rock’s Daughter”. Village Voice suggested that nobody would remember the record “except Elvis fan clubs”.
In 2003, “nepo baby” had not yet been coined as a put-down for the offspring of the rich and famous. But if the record had been released 20 years later, you can bet it would have been caught up in the “discourse” around fame and privilege. This is a conversation that has rippled across social media in recent months, leaving in its wake a trail of spite and schadenfreude. Having begun on TikTok, the nepo baby phenomenon blew up in earnest in December when New York Magazine ran a snarky cover feature headlined “The Year of the Nepo Baby”.
“A nepo baby is physical proof that meritocracy is a lie,” went the piece. “We love them, we hate them, we disrespect them, we’re obsessed with them.”
Varying levels of scorn were poured on up-and-coming stars. Targets included Stranger Things’s Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) and The Boys’ Jack Quaid (son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan). The message – quickly taken up by the internet – was that nepo babies have it easy and we should never feel sorry for them.
Lisa Marie Presley certainly never had to struggle in any conventional sense. After the 1973 divorce of her father and her mother, Priscilla, Elvis would fly her from Graceland to Utah by private jet simply so she could play in the snow. Her mother saw up close how a childhood in the orbit of Elvis had affected her daughter. “Lisa Marie was so used to seeing people jump at her father’s command, that she took years to overcome this habit,” she protested in 1993.
Look deeper, though, and Lisa Marie Presley’s life story challenges the idea that the children of the rich and famous have won a figurative lottery. What that gleeful New York Magazine piece glossed over was that not all “nepo babies“ are created equally. Some are indeed born into vast entitlement. They glide through the world taking for granted the opportunities of which most of us can only dream. And don’t even seem all that grateful. But for others that gilded cage can be a pressure cooker. This is especially the case when their parent is iconic rather than merely famous – a figurehead rather than a celebrity. Nothing the child achieves can ever equal their accomplishments.
Lisa Marie will have grown up knowing that, short of curing cancer, she would forever be known as Elvis’s child. A generation on, the same was true of Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. She was too young to have clear memories of her father, who died by suicide when she was 18 months old. As with Lisa Marie Presley, her father was more than a musician – he was a generational figure. Kurt Cobain did not attract fans so much as acolytes to whom he represented something bigger than music. Against that background, she struggled – as she admitted in a moving Instagram post on her 30th birthday.
“Frances: '30!!! I made it! Honestly, 20-year-old Frances wasn’t sure that was going to happen,” she wrote. “At the time, an intrinsic sense of deep self-loathing dictated by insecurity, destructive coping mechanisms and more trauma than my body or brain knew how to handle, informed how I saw myself and the world; through a lens of resentment for being brought into a life that seemingly attracted so much chaos and the kind of pain tied to grief that felt inescapable.”
In the case of Lisa Marie, the scrutiny that came with life as Elvis’s daughter was compounded by private setbacks and tragedy. Her music career never got off the ground. How could it when every review mentioned Elvis first, her songs second? Her personal life was destined to be a circus, too. And that was before she married Jackson, one of four times she tied the knot. Two years ago, she meanwhile endured the unimaginable loss of the death by suicide of her 27-year-old son Benjamin.
“Nepo babe” memes encourage us to reduce the children of the rich and famous to one huge blob of oblivious privilege. And it is of course understandable that we should roll our eyes upon hearing that, for instance, Judd Apatow’s daughter, Maude had a staring role in Euphoria. Or that Malia Obama has joined the writer’s room of Donald Glover’s new show.
But not all celebrity offspring have enjoyed a charmed existence. And, as we survey the life and times of Lisa Marie Presley, we must conclude that, whatever else there is to say about her life and legacy, she didn’t have it easy.