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