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TV Actress and "Just Shoot Me" Star Wendie Malick

Malick plays Nina Van Horn, a model turned fashion editor on the hit TV series "Just Shoot Me." Malick's real life is not so far off: in the seventies, she worked as a Wilhelmina model. Malick was also on the TV series "Dream On," in the role of Judith Tupper Stone, for which she won four cable ace awards.

31:19

Other segments from the episode on July 1, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 1, 1998: Interview with Wendie Malick; Interview with Lisa Michaels.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Just Shoot Me
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of NBC's hit series' this year was "Just Shoot Me," a comedy set in the office of a fashion magazine. My guest is one of the stars of the series, Wendy Malick. She previously co-starred in the HBO sitcom "Dream On" as Judith Tupper Stone, the ex-wife of the main character. That role won her four Cable Ace Awards for best actress in a comedy series.

In Just Shoot Me, Malick plays Nina, an ex-model turned fashion editor. Here she is in a scene with the magazine's smart and down-to-earth writer Maya (ph), played by Laura San Giacomo (ph), and its dishy assistant to the publisher Dennis, played by David Spade.

Nina has been invited to a Sting benefit and Maya wishes she could go.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "JUST SHOOT ME")

LAURA SAN GIACOMO, ACTRESS, AS MAYA: I love Sting. What's the cause?

WENDY MALICK, ACTRESS, AS NINA: Oh, it's a fundraiser to ban human cloning.

DAVID SPADE, ACTOR, AS DENNIS: They're already raising money for that?

MALICK: Oh, it's never too early to jump on a good cause. I mean, otherwise you're left with something passe like orphans.

LAUGHTER

SPADE: Nina, aren't you forgetting something? Tonight's the Oscar Milosh fashion show.

MALICK: That's tonight?

SPADE: Yeah, the messenger just dropped off your passes.

MALICK: God, I can't miss this show. Milosh is an important designer. On the other hand, there'll be some industry types at Sting's. Although Milosh is a huge advertiser, but I really do feel strongly against cloning. God, I just wish times like this there were two of me.

GROSS: I asked Wendy Malick to describe Nina, her character on Just Shoot Me.

WENDY MALICK, ACTRESS: Someone said to me not long ago that she reminded him of Inspector Clousseau (ph), which I quite liked, because I think there is a sort of unconscious quality that she has that allows her to do all these outrageous things without -- without getting in as much trouble as she really should.

I mean, you know, if this was a woman functioning this way in the real world, she would either have some really dreadful disease or have died from one of these things probably long ago. You really can't carry on like this indefinitely.

But I think Nina's someone who -- who just really loved the '70s. And she never quite got out of it. You know, she's really sort of an idiot savant when it comes to fashion. She's very, very good at putting things together. And -- but still likes to have fun and damn the consequences. And probably has this sort of guardian angel watching over her.

GROSS: Now, Nina is a former supermodel. I'm wondering if back in your modeling days, you knew models who got too old to stay in modeling and watched what happened to them and how they handled getting older.

MALICK: Yeah, it's -- I have to say first of all that my -- my experience as a model was an entirely positive one. I only did it for about five years. It was when I was living in New York and making very little money doing dinner theater and off-off-Broadway. Had a chance to do it, and to me it was sort of a passport to see the world. And I couldn't have afforded to do it otherwise.

And it's always so interesting to visit a foreign country when you're working. Makes it far more interesting to me. And I -- I think I always saw it as a means to an end and knew that I wasn't going to be staying there indefinitely, and that I did want to go back to acting, but I just wanted a chance to make some money and see the world first.

But yeah, there were people -- I mean, I started modeling when I was 25 which is very old. And Wilhelmina kept telling me to shut up about my age and not tell anyone. That was sort of the cardinal sin. But I did see women who were definitely on the far end of it and who hadn't really made plans; hadn't really decided where they were going to go from there.

And that's probably one of the -- one of the most difficult things about attractive women growing up who have -- have an opportunity to do something that is dependent on their beauty, is they don't -- they don't always develop their other talents. And I think that can be a real scary place to be.

GROSS: Did you ever almost get there?

MALICK: No, no, no, no, no. I was, A, never even close to being a supermodel. I was like a some mid-level model. I worked a lot, but it was never, you know, I was never sort of the A-list. I just tan very easily and people would send me off to do bathing suit shots in Spain or Africa or someplace.

And I did a lot of runway modeling because I knew how to walk and do that model walk -- you know, the thing where nothing moves but your shoulders. Everything from the hips down -- you know what I'm talking about. It's a great walk.

It's like a very specific thing we learned how to do, where you pull your cheeks in and kind of have a lot of attitude and then you just slink up and down the runway. It was really fun. I quite enjoyed it.

GROSS: How did you learn how...

MALICK: ... my mother -- my mother was a model. She smiled a lot, so she wasn't quite as cool as we were in the '70s in New York, but she had been a model when my father proposed to her in New York, and continues to be the elder statesman model in Buffalo. She's still doing it, actually.

GROSS: So -- so you became a model at the age of 25, what you describe as pretty late for a model. How did you become one?

MALICK: I was actually walking down the street, down Fifth Avenue, and someone approached me from Wilhelmina's agency and they asked if -- if I had ever modeled. And I had done it in high school, just to make some extra money.

GROSS: Wait -- wait -- didn't you think they were really making a pornographic movie?

LAUGHTER

MALICK: No.

GROSS: And this was their come-on line?

LAUGHTER

MALICK: This guy was so definitely not coming on to me, if you know what I mean. No, he worked with Willie. It was very clear that he was in the business and he gave me a card and said "please call us. I think she would really enjoy meeting you." And he set up an appointment and I went in early the next week.

GROSS: Now, in Just Shoot Me, you and the other actors in the show work for "Blush" magazine -- a fashion magazine. What -- what did you like and what didn't you like about the fashion magazines at the time when you were a model?

MALICK: What I didn't like was 1975 was about the time that everyone had to be all American, blonde, and it was sort of the Christie Brinkley era. And so for sort of more exotic-looking brunettes, that -- it made it much more difficult. That was when I decided to go to Europe to work, 'cause they embraced people like me a lot more openly at that time. But that was -- that was a real shift to going back to sort of much more muscular, all American, blonde kind of -- they went for that Aryan thing there for a while.

LAUGHTER

And I just wasn't cutting it at all. Yeah. Of course, it still -- it's still the problem, but you know, they are trying to create the illusion of perfection and you know, one of the hardest things about being a model, and you know it going in, is you're setting yourself up for huge rejection and it's really all superficial.

You go in and you are just judged by the way you look and they sort of scrutinize every part of you. And I remember going into Wilhelmina's office one day and she said: "now, I want you to go home and practice smiling" -- 'cause I have a notoriously crooked smile. And she said: "you know, you can get rid of that if you just practice every day. Sit in front of a mirror and just try to smile evenly."

That was her advice to me. So practice smiling so I don't have a crooked smile, and never tell anybody how old I am. And I didn't do either one, so it probably didn't help my career in modeling that much.

GROSS: Did she succeed in making you feel old at the age of 25?

MALICK: A little bit. She said: "you know, you're no spring chicken, so I wouldn't be advertising how old you are."

LAUGHTER

I thought: jeez, I'm 25 and I was happy that I was 25. I'd already, you know, done a lot of stuff. I'd been to school. I'd worked in Washington. I'd been on a ski team. I mean, I'd sort of lived an interesting little life up to that point. And I didn't want to pretend I was 18 or 19. I didn't think 25 was -- I didn't think it was all over yet.

And I -- I looked around me, too, and watched my peers, we all did it. You know, being so obsessed with: were we pretty enough for this? You know, was our skin looking good? Did our rear ends look any bigger this week than they did last week? And what's the best hair color for me? And the best haircut. And it's -- you can become very, very, you know, sort of narrow in your -- and your self-esteem is really tested by that.

GROSS: Wendy Malick is my guest, and she's now starring in Just Shoot Me. What are some of the differences between working on cable television as you did with Dream On, which was on HBO; and working on a network show which you're doing now with Just Shoot Me?

MALICK: Oh, so much more freedom. They never, never bothered us on...

GROSS: On cable.

MALICK: ... on Dream On -- yeah. I mean, we were just so left alone and it was -- you get very spoiled. You forget that most of this is decision by committee, you know. And when we were at Dream On -- that was such a totally unique experience. I doubt I will ever be able to duplicate that one. It was one of those strange, odd little mixes that really just got better and better and more and more interesting. And I had such a lovely time on that show.

And it was -- we would go in and sort of collaborate on the set now and then, and say: you know what? This -- what if we said this? And the writers were all right there and they would come running in and chat about it. And there were no network people to sort of try and get it by, and you could be as outrageous, of course, as you wanted to be.

Sometimes, you know, sometimes swearing is just the only thing that will do. And we were able to do that when it was appropriate. And I think there was probably a little more nudity on that show than was required, but that's only my point of view....

GROSS: There were a lot of opportunities for little topless scenes. You didn't have to do any of those did you?

MALICK: Oh, yeah -- no, no, no. I was told that if I ever wanted to, I was welcome to but I declined.

LAUGHTER

I'm a big believer in mystery. I don't need to see it all. But I guess you know, there were 13-year-old boys who found it all extremely fascinating.

GROSS: Well, on Dream On, you play the part of Judith Tupper Stone. You were the ex-wife of the main character of the series, Martin Tupper. And your second husband was -- was like "The Saint." I mean, he -- he was a combination of like Mother Teresa and...

MALICK: Gandhi.

GROSS: ... and Gandhi and Ted Koppel and I mean, he was everything.

MALICK: And James Taylor.

GROSS: And James Taylor, yeah.

MALICK: Yeah, he was everything.

GROSS: Yeah, so do you have any favorite -- any favorite things that your husband is said to have done?

MALICK: Oh, God, there are just so many of them, like writing poetry for crack babies and...

LAUGHTER

... he hosted Saturday Night Live, I think, towards the end. He had written an opera. He of course saved the Pope. He ran in front of the Pope and took the bullet on Christmas in front of the Vatican. I think they even prayed together. And then he made me this dress.

That was one of the lines -- he flew me to Paris for lunch and he made me this blouse. So, he sewed as well. So this man was just -- I just -- and I so love that they -- I think they showed him once for about two seconds from the back of his head, and we all immediately knew: don't ever show him again. The poor actor who got that job.

But he was in for the long-run because he was talked about so much. But it was wonderful that we -- I think we only heard his voice once and you saw him from the back, I think one time. And he was back-lit, sort of like God...

GROSS: I love the way -- how, you know, in that show your first husband was always having to compare himself to your second husband -- a saint.

LAUGHTER

MALICK: He was. But he was -- it was very lonely being married to a saint. He was never around. Poor Judith.

GROSS: Not even when you gave birth and...

MALICK: Not even when I gave birth, except he showed up at the last minute, back-lit, as if from heaven. And of course, we were in Bethlehem and it was Christmas Eve, and we were in the manger. Oh God, they did come up with some pretty fabulous things on that show.

GROSS: My guest is Wendy Malick. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Wendy Malick. She stars as Nina, the fashion editor, in the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me. And she played Judith Tupper Stone in the HBO sitcom Dream On.

Let's talk about some of the things you did on your way to acting. You were part of a professional ski team.

LAUGHTER

What -- what kind of ski team was this?

MALICK: Are you impressed?

GROSS: What -- what -- it -- from the little I've read, it sounded like it wasn't exactly -- was this something like promotional professional ski team of attractive women -- or something like that?

LAUGHTER

MALICK: I like that. Are you going to say...

GROSS: What was this about?

MALICK: ... it doesn't sound like it was on the up and up? Is that what you were going to say?

LAUGHTER

I actually -- I got this job from Boston After Dark, believe it or not. They were advertising for attractive women who knew how to ski really well and could do fashion shows and hostess cocktail parties. Well, I knew I could do that fashion shows. I had done that in high school. And I figured of course I can hostess a cocktail party. I've certainly had enough to drink and I like people.

And the skiing part was the only kind of dicey part 'cause I grew up in Buffalo and we're not exactly known for our ski slopes. So, my skiing was fairly limited. But I can talk a good talk, so I sort of BS'd my way into this job. And as it turned out, there were five of us and three of the women were champion skiers and two of us kind of just really wanted to be there.

And on the first day, they took us skiing. We were all wearing these matching outfits. And it was a promotional team for Look Nevada and Nordica boots and Hart skis and Carling Brewery sort of sponsored it. They were -- they were the money behind advertising it.

And the very first day we went out, I realized I was completely out of my element. I was really good at falling, but I think I did like three somersaults forward, and ended up fine and they figured, well, she's not very good, but she'll get better.

And I did. I -- I improved vastly that year. And they sent us to France to do a promotional film for Air France, and we skied all over New England, and then ended up in Colorado. So it was a great -- a great way to spend the winter.

GROSS: And a lot of cocktail parties in between?

MALICK: Mm-hmm -- and fashion shows. But the problem was we always dressed and we looked like the ski team -- the U.S. ski team. We were always wearing red, white, and blue little matching outfits, so people would line up to watch us do these demonstrations, and the first three would be really good. Like we'd have to do helicopter jumps off of a jump, and there would be a man with a camera right there.

And the first three would do these beautiful jumps, and I just remembered how to do a cheerleading jump, so I'd do the jump, but if the camera followed me, you'd see me like crash and burn as soon as I got out of the view of the camera. So it looked great on film, but I was like black and blue from the tumble I took afterwards.

GROSS: OK, Wendy Malick -- another thing you did along the way to becoming an actress, you were an aide to Jack Kemp when he was a Republican Congressman from Buffalo.

MALICK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did you get, briefly, into politics?

MALICK: I asked him on a ski lift if I could come work with him when I got out of college?

GROSS: Seriously?

MALICK: Yeah, our families knew each other and we used to ski at the same -- same resort. And when I was home from college one winter I guess it was, we saw them out at this ski area. I think it was Kissing Gritch (ph) or Homewood Acres (ph) or something. And he asked me how school was going and what was I going to do when I got out of school.

And I said: well, I think I want to be an actress but I'm not sure if I want to do it right away. I might travel a little. And he said: well, have you ever thought of coming to Washington? Would you like to come and work as an aide? You could come see if you like it.

And I thought: what a great invitation. I may never have this one again. So I called him after I graduated and said that -- is that still an offer? And after that insane winter on the ski team, I decided I should get back to earth and do something on the ground; and went and spent about four months there.

GROSS: Did your politics coincide with his?

MALICK: Not at all. Not even remotely. No, I was quite liberal. I mean, I was in college from '68 to '72 and it was, as you know, a very radical time to be in school. And my father was an arch-conservative and I had always sort of felt like I was probably destined to go on the other side, but I never could quite get there until I left home.

And -- and I got fairly politicized when I was in school, and was wearing a McGovern button when I showed up in Jack's office that first day. And he was fine with it. He thought it was kind of interesting and amusing.

GROSS: The button?

MALICK: The fact that I just decided to go another way, but still wanted to come and work -- work in his office.

GROSS: He did make you take off the button didn't he?

MALICK: No, he didn't. He didn't. No, he was very tolerant.

GROSS: Oh.

MALICK: I think it made him look more tolerant, too.

GROSS: So, it was after your brief stay in Washington that you became a model?

MALICK: Yeah. I actually went back to New York and started acting, and was making like $75 a week doing dinner theater at a club in New Jersey, I think -- when that man approached me and said: would you like to model? And I thought, yeah, I think I would like to make some money here for a while.

GROSS: From modeling, you got into television, and I think early on in your TV career, you did the soap opera "One Life to Live."

MALICK: I was on -- I was in it when it was sort of limping towards its death. I joined them for the last -- last few months.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

MALICK: Yeah.

GROSS: So you were on it for the last gasp, so...

MALICK: At the very last gasp, right.

GROSS: Who did you play?

MALICK: Well, I was -- initially I was very excited. It was my first regular gig. It was on television and I had more than five lines to say, and this was a huge deal for me. But I played Nurse Jones, and she never got a first name.

And I had to wear that stupid nurse's outfit every day, and I apologize to any nurses out there, but I'm sure they know what I'm talking about. It gets really old when you want to wear beautiful things. And there you are in this little white dress with the little hat. And you don't have a first name, and then basically you're just doing the dirty work.

And all I did every day was recap sort of what so and so said to so and so the day before. It was pretty, pretty grim. And I kept thinking: oh, there must be more to acting than this. Oh, please God, give me a chance. So I was actually very happy when it said good-bye.

GROSS: Now, I know that you were -- for I guess a few episodes -- on "Baywatch" as David Hasselhoff's (ph) ex?

MALICK: Mm-hmm. Probably more people have seen that than anything I've done. I was in the original pilot that used to be on NBC at the very beginning. And we divorced -- I mean, it was just a guest thing. I assumed that I would never been seen again.

And then they had me back four or five times, where once a season, I would come back and -- Mitch, which was David's character, and I would -- would almost get back together, but then I'd realize that he really wanted to be a lifeguard just too much, and there was no room for me.

LAUGHTER

So I would go back to Ohio or wherever it is they banished me to. And I actually had such a good time on that show. It was so much fun. It just -- we just went to the beach all day. And David was always very sweet, and whenever I came on, he'd say: "I love it when you come on. We always do our most serious dramatic scenes when you're here, and I get to really act." And they were jokingly referring to me as "the Meryl Streep of Baywatch."

LAUGHTER

So I'm not sure I should -- should really let people know about that, but the last time I talked to the producers, they said: "well, we have good news and bad news. We're thinking about going to Hawaii this year and having -- having Mitch get married, and we figured everyone would love it if he remarried you. So that's the good news. But the bad news is then we're going to discover that you have leukemia and you'll be dead by next season."

LAUGHTER

But that never happened, so.

GROSS: That's Wendy Malick. She plays Nina on the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me. She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with actress Wendy Malick. She co-stars in the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me, which is set at a fashion magazine. Malick plays Nina, a former model, turned fashion editor. Malick is a former model, too.

When you started modeling, Wilhelmina of the Wilhelmina Agency told you to practice your smile 'cause your smile was a little crooked. So did you learn -- did what you learned about smiling from modeling ever pay off in acting?

MALICK: No, no. I think everything I learned about -- everything I learned from Wilhelmina I had to unlearn. No, and it's not just her fault. I understand why she said that. But I think one of the hardest things for models who try to go into acting is just getting past -- getting over yourself; getting past that obsession with: how do I look? How am I -- how am I being perceived at this particular moment? Is this a good angle for me?

When I -- when I think back on those early days of acting in New York after my modeling stint, which is when my -- I started acting on film, so you can of course see yourself. I was horrified. It was so awful. It was really wooden, terrible acting and it was obviously a woman who was -- who was completely self-conscious about how she was being perceived physically.

And there was so little -- so little of it had to do with what was going on inside the character. It was very superficial and very indicated and not at all good. So, I was just real lucky they let me sort of bounce around until I started to learn what I was doing; started to figure it out.

So, a lot of the ego that you need for modeling -- a lot of that sort of physical ego -- you have to really strip away, I think, in order to be good at acting; if you want to be an interesting, authentic actor.

GROSS: But of course, now on television you're playing somebody who's a former supermodel...

MALICK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... so you have to both strip it away, but use it at the same time.

MALICK: Use it at the same time, but you know, I think Nina is certainly one of the goofier people on television. Yes, she's someone who -- it's sort of like, yeah, you have to strip it away so that you can get it on -- get to the inside of who that woman is, and not be afraid to show how ridiculous she is, 'cause I think that that's the fun of playing characters.

And when I realized I was a character actress, that was the most freeing day. I was working as a guest on something and was playing actually a talk show host who was a psychologist -- a radio shrink; and was accused of killing a sort of Howard Stern kind of disc jockey who was a real pig. And Richard Belzer (ph) played the disc jockey.

And the character I was playing was bulemic (ph). She was a psychologist who happened to have a terrible eating disorder, and she was out of her mind. And at one point, I looked at the director and said: "I have become a character actress, haven't I?" And he said: "yeah, doesn't it feel good?"

LAUGHTER

And I said actually yes, it's very incredibly freeing. It's not about trying to sort of stay youthful and be the babe and have to compete with all those coming along behind me. It's -- it allows you to just sort of be as outrageous as you want to be and sort of go any direction that's required. And that's a wonderful freedom to have.

GROSS: Well you know, it's funny. For a lot of actresses who become romantic leads early in their careers, say in their 20s, when they enter their 40s, they're often in deep trouble in terms of their career. But you first became very well known in your 40s.

MALICK: Yeah, yeah, that's probably true. I mean, I think I was -- well, now we're talking about my age. Oh God, Wilhelmina would roll over in her grave.

LAUGHTER

But yeah, Dream On happened I guess right before I turned 40. And I feel like every sort of decade for me has been so much richer and better than the one that preceded it. I've had a very, very slow and gradual ascent, and I'm very grateful for it. I think it's helped to keep me balanced in a way that I'm not sure I would have been had it all happened very quickly.

GROSS: Now I knew that you and your husband do some kind of work, although I'm not sure what, in -- in various other countries?

MALICK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you tell me a little bit about the work?

MALICK: I met him -- I went down with a group to Mexico to build houses for poor families in the Tijuana area. A friend had told me about this group that went down through a church -- a local church here. And it's very much like Habitat for Humanity. There's another group called Corazon (ph) and they all do similar things.

So I didn't know any of these people and I thought I would go down and see what it was and spend the weekend building this little simple house for this family. And I don't build at all, but they teach you and have you bring your tools. And I met Richard on this particular trip.

And since then, we have formed this group that goes down every Thanksgiving and it's about between 15 and 20 of us go down and spend Thanksgiving weekend and we build a house for a family. And our Thanksgiving dinner is like a little tiny turkey sandwich, or a vegetarian version for those of us who don't partake.

And instead of stuffing yourself over Thanksgiving, you go and sort of give your time and do something that can change the lives of some people who aren't as fortunate as we. And it's a pretty remarkable, gratifying way to spend Thanksgiving. We also, that first summer we were together, took motorcycles and went on safari from Kenya to Zaire to take the bikes to a small village that he had lived in as a child, to their infirmiaes (ph), their nurses, so they could get to patients in the bush.

And we just went back recently and took a truck to Congo, which was formerly Zaire, to this same village where he had built a medical center and we took them a truck 'cause they lost their vehicles during the war.

GROSS: Interesting.

MALICK: Yeah, it's a great way to travel. Kind of gives you a different sort of focus and...

GROSS: Must be interesting, too, to get out of the show business world so completely.

MALICK: I get so out of it. Last night, I came home and my husband said: "you know, I was thinking today, you and I spend our days very differently, don't we?"

LAUGHTER

He's a builder and I'm off doing God knows what. And yeah, we are very, very different people and there are times when I feel that it puts my life in complete balance, and other times when I'm not handling everything so well, where it makes me completely schizophrenic. But it is -- it is -- I feel very honored to be able to pass from sort of one side of the world to the other as much as I'm able to. It's really -- it's something that I'm very appreciative of.

GROSS: Well Wendy Malick, thank you very much for talking with us.

MALICK: Oh thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Wendy Malick plays Nina in the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me.

Coming up, a counterculture childhood.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Wendy Malick
High: Actress Wendy Malick. She's currently starring as Nina Van Horn, a model turned fashion editor on the hit TV series "Just Shoot Me." Malick's real life is not so far off. In the '70s, she worked as a Wilhelmina model. Malick was also on the TV series "Dream On," in the role of Judith Tupper Stone, for which she won four Cable Ace awards.
Spec: Television; Media; Wendy Malick; Fashion
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Just Shoot Me
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 01, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070102np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Split
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Many of the young people who created the counterculture of the '60s were raised in conventional middle class families. When these young people became parents, they raised their own children in environments that violated many of the middle class ideas of what constitutes a good home.

And everyone wondered: what were these children going to be like when they grew up? Well, now they're adults beginning to tell their stories. Lisa Michaels, for example, has just written a memoir called "Split: A Counterculture Childhood." Her mother was a hippie. Her father was a member of the radical group The Weathermen, which believed that violence was justified in opposing an oppressive government.

When Lisa Michaels was a child, she had to visit her father in prison, where he was serving time for assault and battery after an antiwar protest. Before that, her parents took her to an antiwar demonstration and her picture ended up in Life magazine. Here's a reading about that from her book.

LISA MICHAELS, AUTHOR, "SPLIT: A COUNTERCULTURE CHILDHOOD": On the last page of the issue, under the heading "parting shots," is a picture of me just shy of three, carrying an unfurled Viet Cong flag across a patch of trampled grass. I look highly serious, hunched over to counter the weight of the long pole, wearing a short dress and little brown work boots -- a pint-size protester trudging along head down, my chin slung forward in concentration.

The editors at Life wrote a poem to go with the picture, which they called "The Burden of Protest."

Is toting a Viet Cong flag
In a war demonstration
The bag of a child or a parent?
We'd say someone's errant
This kid should be off playing tag

It's a smarmy piece of copy -- never a good idea to take the moral high-ground in a limerick. Notably, the poem took a pot-shot at my mother who to the editor's mind was conspicuously absent, having loaded me up with my ideological burden and disappeared.

But my mother says she was there that day and the picture lied. I had picked up the flag on my own. She can almost recite the doggerel from memory. "That poem was a criticism of my parenting," she said once with a laugh.

"Some mothers were worried about stuff going on at those rallies, but me, a nice girl from the suburbs, I was a trusting soul. I came to pick you up from your dad, and there you were dancing around with that flag. Your dress -- you can't see this from the picture because it's black and white -- was red velvet -- a real thick velvet, and some part of the flag was red, and you looked gorgeous. They found one shot where you seemed burdened, but really you were having a blast and the photographer knew it."

The first time I saw this picture was in my father's house. I must have been eight or so. He had trimmed away the offending poem, framed the photo in matte board and typed his own caption. I can't reconstruct his text entire, because the picture was lost in some move. But his final line sticks in my head: could it be that at three you caught the spirit of the worldwide movement for socialism and shouted: "hey everybody, wait for me."

GROSS: Lisa Michaels, what did your father's caption on this photo say to you about what he wanted you to be, when you were a child at this antiwar rally?

MICHAELS: Well, I think it was a fairly loving gesture on his part, but I think that he wanted to see me as a comrade in arms, and he was very proud of my going along with him to these rallies and us being sort of a political family. So, I found it slightly ironic as an adult.

As a child, I felt sort of proud to be framed and hung on the wall, but even then I think I registered a little bit that he had missed the mark slightly, at least about my consciousness about politics at that time.

GROSS: Do you have any actual memories of that day?

MICHAELS: Absolutely none.

GROSS: I'm wondering what the antiwar events that you were taken to as a child looked like to you then? Perhaps when you were a little bit older -- events that you actually have some memories of. Are there any demonstrations that you remember?

MICHAELS: Yeah, I have sort of specific memories of certain rallies that we went to when I was eight, nine, 10. I enjoyed going to them when they were going well, as long as there were lots of us and people were honking when they drove by.

But when it was sort of a slim turnout and I felt we were outnumbered, I always wished that I was somewhere else, basically. I would try to slink back into the middle of the line and you know, sort of carry my sign low.

GROSS: You know, for a lot of kids, their memories are more of, you know, getting taken by their parents to shop for linoleum or something like that, you know. So I'm wondering if you had the same -- "oh do I have to go, Ma?" -- kind of attitude that kids often have when they're taken to an event that means something to the parents, and not much to the kids.

MICHAELS: Oh, definitely. I felt like I was supposed to go to, you know, be supportive, basically. But it wasn't my idea of fun most of the time. A lot of the conversations and speeches went over my head and often it was hot and you were sitting out in some parking lot and -- but like I said, every now and then, I did catch some kind of spirit that was going on in the crowd. I really liked the Internationale. It was one of my favorite songs when I was little. And if there were a lot of us and everybody was singing, I could get really righteous about the cause.

GROSS: Your parents were married in 1964. They separated when you were about four months old. And so, before you had any consciousness at all, they had to decide how to share parenting responsibilities. What do you know about the early arrangements they came up with and their thinking behind those arrangements?

MICHAELS: Well they were sort of novel in the way they arranged their divorce at the time. Now, it's quite commonplace, but at the time people were complimenting them on how fair-minded and sort of enlightened it was. They would split the week. My mother would take me three days and my father four or vice versa.

And I think for a while, it really worked well for them. They both had a lot of freedom and, you know, taking care of a very small child is really intensive, and it was probably nice to get a three-day vacation once a week.

GROSS: When did that arrangement start to fall apart?

MICHAELS: Well, my dad got more and more involved in this radical politics and I think that he started to feel that he couldn't keep up those activities and take care of me at the same time. And there was a sort of historic battle in their relationship about which they're still not completely in agreement, where my father said that he felt that he needed to devote himself to bettering the world for all children, and that that was a more important goal in the short-term than taking care of me.

And my father feels that that conversation was very much a conversation between two people who agreed about the goal, if not the means. My mother claims to have felt fairly abandoned at that moment, and feeling that it was fairly self-indulgent. But since I was too small to remember, I just have to take their word for it.

GROSS: After your parents separated, your mother later found a man who became her husband -- a man named Jim. And he had a mail truck and the three of you took off in the mail truck to find a new home. And for a while, you actually lived in the truck.

Now, a lot of people in the '60s had this experience of, you know, traveling long distances and living in a van. And some of those people had children like you. I'm really interested in hearing what it was like from your perspective as a child to live out of a van for a while. It could be something of an adventure for the adults. How did it feel to you as a kid?

MICHAELS: I think that that was a slightly difficult time for me, in a way. I think that -- I mean especially as I got older, I certainly felt this way and I feel quite sure that I felt that way then, that I wanted a really simple normal life. I wanted us to have an address and I wanted kids across the street that I could play with.

And so I think it was kind of a hard time to be rootless, although I have lots of photographs of myself living in the mail truck, and I'm always smiling and happy. So I have this kind of disconnect between -- you know, there were obviously good times and I had two parents who were with me all the time, who never went to work and there were no "have tos." In any particular day, they would just drive around and say: "should we go to the Okeefenokee (ph) Swamp? Well, why not?" -- and hang out with me.

So, I think that must have been pleasurable. But I can remember feeling vulnerable sometimes. I slept in the front of the truck on this foam mattress that went on the engine cover. And I didn't like being out there in the cab. It sounds so funny now, a child's complaint. And I didn't like sleeping in the cab of the truck.

I wanted to be in the back where they were, which seemed slightly more secure. And once in a while, we'd be parked on a residential street and there was some question about whether we were going to be asked to move because people didn't quite like the idea of some hippies living out of a truck in their neighborhood.

So you know, it had its vulnerabilities. It also had its freedoms, and I think that's true of most of my childhood -- that kind of dichotomy.

GROSS: What kind of neighborhood did you end up settling in?

MICHAELS: Well my parents drove around in the truck and one day rumbled down this road in this really tiny farming town in Northern California, and just fell in love with the place. So we lived in this town of about 2,000 people, most of them ranchers, farmers, people who worked in the lumber mills. And it was a fairly conservative community in a way, although there was a sort of spreckling (ph) of other back-to-the-landers living there, most of them East Coast transplants like my parents.

GROSS: Now, some people with unconventional parents grow up in communities where many of the other kids' parents are equally unconventional. So the parents actually appear to be kind of average. Were -- but it sounds like the parents around you were actually living lives that were much more conventional than your parents' lives.

How did they -- how did your parents look to you compared to the rest of the community? And did you want them to be like everybody else?

MICHAELS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when we lived on the road, in a way I was spared from that kind of comparison because we were just this little traveling universe and I didn't have any other families to hold up as models for how to live. But when we landed in this town, I suddenly became really aware that, you know, I wore these hippie clothes and my mother picked me up from school in a mail truck, not a woody station wagon.

Then I began this campaign to try and reform them, and I wanted my mother to wear capri pants and makeup and I, you know, felt sort of self-conscious. When we would have field trips, my mother would always volunteer to drive because, Lord, we had lots of room in the truck. And I would sort of cringe and hope that some other mother would volunteer.

But of course, all my friends thought it was funny and enjoyed riding in it and thought it was kind of a kick. I had a certain self-consciousness that was probably out of proportion to what anybody else thought of me.

GROSS: My guest is Lisa Michaels. Her new memoir is called Split: A Counterculture Childhood. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Lisa Michaels. She's written a new memoir called Split: A Counterculture Childhood.

Were there any things that your parents did that you found really difficult to explain to your friends?

MICHAELS: Well, they were really unconcerned about manners, at least like the kind of petty manners that they thought weren't really important. I mean, I shouldn't say that...

GROSS: The bourgeoisie conventions?

LAUGHTER

MICHAELS: Yeah, exactly. Like, you know, what fork are you supposed to use and do you keep your left hand in your lap? And we were all big readers in the family, so when we ate dinner it was -- if everybody had something good to read, then we would just read through dinner. You'd tuck your book under the edge of your plate and we were all content.

But then I realized at a certain point when I went over to other people's house that I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. So I forced them to have manners night once a week, where they would show me, you know, how to lay my napkin across my lap and so forth. They thought that was really a hoot because they couldn't wait to, you know, get away from all that kind of stuff.

GROSS: Your parents were coming of age during the sexual revolution, and so their standards about sexuality were very different from their own parents standards and very different from a lot of the people around them who weren't part of the counterculture. When you started to come of age, your mother gave you some advice about what to do when you were ready to have an intimate encounter. Would you pass on for us what your mother suggested?

MICHAELS: Well, she was always very frank with me about sex from the get-go. I remember being always the one in elementary school who was explaining to the other kids how the anatomy worked. And I don't even remember hearing that information from her. It was almost like I just absorbed it by osmosis. She must have talked to me about those things before I had any self-consciousness about them.

But when it came time, when I was in high school and you know, she was aware that sex was on the horizon, she came to me and said that when I was ready, she really didn't want me having sex in the backseat of a car; that sex was a good thing. It was wholesome and healthy and I could come to her with my date, and tell her that I was ready to enter the world of sexual congress. And they would show me to the bedroom, which I was mortified by.

GROSS: With some birth control -- they'd also get -- help you get birth control.

MICHAELS: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, she would get me some birth control and -- she just wanted it to be a positive experience, but I think she didn't see the sort of thicket between us and the way in which adolescents need to sort of shield themselves from their parents.

GROSS: What was your reaction when she said, and you quote this in the book, that when you're ready to make love, we'll make sure you get some birth control and some privacy. You know, assuming that you and your date come and talk with her first.

MICHAELS: Well, I also felt quite sure that my stepfather would have gotten out the shot gun and warned the guy off the property, and I wasn't wrong about that. Later I heard that he was really opposed to this policy, but I was really embarrassed and mortified at the time, when my mother brought this up and I just couldn't imagine any date, any 16-year-old that I knew being willing to show up for such an encounter.

GROSS: So, how did you handle it?

MICHAELS: Well, the usual way -- finding, you know, some car, some abandoned house where the parents weren't home. Poor mother.

LAUGHTER

She hoped for the best for me.

GROSS: A lot of people grew up watching their parents go to work, often at jobs that they don't find particularly rewarding. And then the children often think: when I grow up, I'm going to try to have work I love. I'm going to try to, you know, live -- live a freer life.

Now, your father spent a good deal of -- has spent a good deal of his working life as a labor organizer. And doing industrial work to earn a living while he tried to organize the industry. And I'm wondering how that left you feeling? I mean, he -- he -- I think made a lot of sacrifices to do that work that he really believed in. What did it make you feel about life as an adult and the kind of sacrifices, you know, one makes to do work that they feel idealistic about?

MICHAELS: Well, I definitely absorbed that ideal from my parents, of you know, working for love, not for money. I'd say it's the one area of my life that I can very plainly say I didn't react against them, but rather took them as my models. Both my mother and my father worked at very low-paying jobs that they were very passionate about.

And it made me feel free when I came of age, and I graduated from college. I didn't get any kind of pressure about what's your plan, you know; what's your career going to be? They just sort of watched what I was going to do next with this very open and tolerant attitude.

And I do think in some ways one of the reasons I felt free to try and be a writer was that I had their example of doing what they loved and not worrying about putting money in their IRA.

GROSS: Well Lisa Michaels, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

MICHAELS: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Lisa Michaels' new memoir is called Split: A Counterculture Childhood.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Lisa Michaels
High: Writer Lisa Michaels talks about growing up in the '60s and '70s as the daughter of hippies in her new memoir, "Split: A counterculture Childhood." Michaels grew up craving the straight life, but as a college student, she came to realize that she shared many of her parent's values. Michaels is a contributing editor at "Threepenny Review" and a poet whose work has appeared in Salon and the New York Times Magazine.
Spec: Culture; The '60s
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Split
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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