In the days when you could buy 80s movies on DVD individually from a store, as opposed to, at those same stores, multi-film packs that stripped the titles of extras, I bought quite a few titles from these displays. One of them was the 1984 comedy “Blame It On Rio”. I purchased it after having read about it in several books I owned, and the cast member who made the biggest impression on me was my next interview subject, Michelle Johnson.
About a year ago, I befriended her on Facebook, and I saw that not only is she an actress, but she’s also an amazingly talented singer. I spoke to her manager, Andra Dalto, about the possibility of doing an interview with Michelle. I spoke to her last week, and I invite you all to get to know this talented and gorgeous performer.
Without any further ado, here is the latest Pop Geeks Flashback Interview: With Michelle Johnson.
Johnny: What were your favorite pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Michelle: Cher, when I was a little girl. I loved her, and, of course, every kid wanted to look like Farrah Fawcett. I tried to get my haircut like Farrah’s and it was a total disaster. My mom wouldn’t take me to the place where it cost more money. She would take me to the place where it was 3 dollars a cut back then. As to Cher, I used to sing in my hairbrush in front of the mirror to “Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves”, and pretend I was on stage. For singing, it would be Cher. For acting and beauty, it would’ve been Farrah. I loved “Aquaman” and I was a Trekkie. I loved “Star Trek”, and “Kung Fu”, I loved that. I loved the kind of spiritualism behind it.
Johnny: Moving into my next question, what were your high school days like?
Michelle: TORTURE! I mean, who wouldn’t say torture? When you’re a teenager, you’re going through this phase of life where you’re a kid, but you’re kind of becoming an adult. You’re finding yourself. You don’t really know how you fit in or where you fit in. My freshman year was just terrifying, because I was painfully, painfully, shy. If somebody said hi to me in the hallway, I didn’t know how to say hi back. I would just look down and keep walking. That’s how incredibly shy I used to be. I had a girl friend in high school. Her name was Melissa Ogel, and she was kind of shy like me, and we even kind of looked alike. We both had big brown eyes and were a little well-devloped for our age. Her and I became instant friends and were inseparable, and through each other’s friendship, we both gained courage. I ended up trying out for the pom-pom squad, and I eventually made that. I almost didn’t make it because I threw a big kick in the audition and I popped my hip out of its’ socket almost, but eventually it healed and I was on the team. After that, I was still really shy, but not as shy. I was much more social after that. It sort of bought me out of my shell.
Johnny: This next question I have is: You were a model in your teens. Who were your favorite designers to work with, and what was your favorite outfit that you wore?
Michelle: Oh, gosh, let me think. You know it’s so many years ago now. You want to hear how I started modeling?
Johnny: Oh, sure.
Michelle: I was on the pom-pom squad, and one of the girls who was on the pom-pom squad, Tracy, worked at this restaurant called The Big Apple. It had sawdust on the floor, and you wore a little cowboy hat and fake guns on your hips and all that. She got me a job there as a hostess, so I could start to earn money to buy a car. I ended up not having a very good experience. I think I worked there one week because the manager just didn’t like me for some reasons, and the associates didn’t like me, so when she had me clean the baby trays for, like, the 6th time in a row, I said “Look, I just finished washing them.” She said, “I don’t care. I’m the manager. You have to do what I say”. I said “No, I don’t”. I threw the rag at her and I said “You can wash them yourself. They’re perfectly clean”. I quit. She said, “You can’t quit. You’re in the middle of a shift”. I said “Watch me”, and I was just so upset. It wasn’t so much that I was upset about the baby trays as it was the disrespect I was being treated with. In a way, it was kind of good because it prepared me for Hollywood. It taught me to just stand up for myself a bit more. I walked out, and I was now driving my mom’s broken-down Maverick. I’m driving home crying, and I overreacted. “Oh, my God. What did I do? How am I ever going to earn money to buy a car?”. I’m driving and I see a modeling agency. I pulled in and thought “Maybe I could take modeling classes and be a model or something”. As fate would have it, when I was walking in, Alan Rogers, the owner was walking out. He kind of did a double take and looked at me and said “Who are you?”. I said, “I’m Michelle Johnson”. I had tears kind of staining my cheeks a bit. “I was working at The Big Apple. I sort of, kind of quit. I think maybe if I took some modeling classes, I could become a model”. He said, “Oh, honey, that was the wrong job for you. Come with me”. He said to his assistant, “Cancel my dinner appointment. Come with me, honey”. He signs me up right there. I’m in classes the next day that he comped for me, and within 3 days I had a modeling job. My first modeling job was J.C Penney’s lingerie. What was good about lingerie for J.C Penney was, first of all, it’s not that risque, and second of all, they paid triple. I made in a 2-day shift for J.C Penney more than I made in 2 months at The Big Apple. That was a nice start to my modeling career. I think when I first started modeling that the Marciano Brothers were my favorite designers. I was actually the first Guess girl. That other girl with the blonde hair, God rest her soul, she was kind of the first big bombshell Guess girl, but I was the first official Guess girl, as far as I know, because it started in Scottsdale if I’m remembering correctly…
Johnny: The person who’s passed on that you’re thinking of, I believe, is Anna Nicole Smith.
Michelle: Yeah, that’s it, yeah. She was so beautiful, but I was the one that wore their clothes first as far as I know. I did a lot of ads for them.
Johnny: I’d love to see if any of those are online.
Michelle: Ooh, yeah, I wonder. I wore a big bowed shirt with ruffles and blue pants. Of course, back then, it was the 80s.
Johnny: Well, I definitely know that you wore it well. Unlike a lot of people, I like 80s fashions and hair.
Michelle: Yeah, the big hair. I did a cover for Cosmo, I think in either 1982 or 1983. I did a cover with Scavullo. Because it was the 80s with the big hair and make-up, they actually had to go back and airbrush some of the make-up off of my face, because it was too big. I thought that was kind of funny.
Johnny: Moving from modeling to acting, your first movie, “Blame It On Rio”, was also Stanley Donen’s last theatrical feature, although he has directed some TV projects since then. What was it like to work with a legendary director like him, and was filming enjoyable?
Michelle: It was pretty incredible, I have to say, and even more so with Stanley Donen and Michael Caine.
Johnny: It was a very enjoyable movie to watch. Was it enjoyable to film?
Michelle: Yes and no. I mean, it was the first time I ever acted. I remember my first day there. The first night, I had to do a topless scene and I was terrified. I was just so nervous and “Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into? Can I really do this? I’m not really an actress. I think they’ve made a big mistake. I don’t know what I’m doing”. I’m sitting in my trailer crying, and Demi Moore was with me, and she’s trying to comfort me. She’s like “Look, it’s going to be okay. You’re doing to do great”. She was really supportive, but there was just no consoling me, so she went and got Michael Caine. Michael came into my trailer and said, “Well, I was afraid of this. I was afraid this was going to happen. Look, kid, you’re going to be just fine. I’m going to be there every step of the way with you, and you’re beautiful. Your body’s beautiful. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. I’m going to be right there. Stanley’s going to be right there”. He kind of just coaxed me out of the trailer, and we did the scene, and we did it, and I just went for it. That was good. After a while, I started getting the hang of it and started building up my confidence. Every day, I got a little more confident. With Stanley Donen’s support and Michael Caine’s support and Demi’s support, it was great, and I ended up having a blast doing it.
Johnny: It was definitely a very cool movie to watch.
Michelle: Oh, thank you.
Johnny: My next question: From 1984 to 1985, according to the Internet Movie Database, you had a recurring role on “The Love Boat”.
Michelle: That’s not something I usually like to talk about and remind people of, not that there’s anything wrong with “The Love Boat”. It’s so iconic, and Aaron Spelling was just an amazing person to work with, and the cast of that was very professional and fun people. It was MY work I wasn’t too happy with on that.
Johnny: Aaah. The question I was going to ask was: Did you find TV acting to be easier or harder than film acting?
Michelle: I guess the only difference would be, especially back then since things have changed tremendously in television, TV was a bit of a quicker pace where you’d get only one or two takes and they’d set up the next scene, whereas in film you have a little more luxury of time.
Johnny: Moving back to movies, “Waxwork” was a very fun horror movie to watch. What was your favorite memory of working on that film?
Michelle: I’d have to say “Waxwork” is one of my favorite films I’ve ever done. Tony Hickox, the director, was just so great to work with. Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman…It was like going to a party every day. I could hardly wait to get to the set. It was so much fun and everybody was pulling pranks on each other. Tony Hickox pulled one prank on me. At the time, I wasn’t too amused by it, but afterwards, I got even with him. He said, “Okay, we’re just going to do one more scene that I forgot that we really need”. I’m like, “Sure, okay”. Tony says, “Just sit there. We’re going to get this one really cool shot of you”. I’m like, “What am I supposed to do?”. He says, “Just sit there. It’s going to be an artsy thing. You’ll see”. I’m like, “Okay”. The next thing I know, he goes “action” and he poured a huge bucket of water on me. That was the shot he got. It was for the gag reel and it was for his own amusement, not for the film obviously. Later, this has to be maybe a year later. We’re still all friends, hanging out occasionally. I’m hanging out, having lunch with Tony Hickox, and I think maybe Zach Galligan was there. It was at some restaurant near Sunset Plaza, and I went back and said, “I’m going to pull a prank on him. I need to get back at my friend for what he did to me a year ago”. I got a big bucket of water and doused him with it. We were outside, so I got away with it, although I think the people sitting next to us were not amused.
Johnny: I actually purchased one DVD from a seller online who specializes in old broadcasts of vintage material. I got from him a recording of a Monstervision double feature. The first film was “Coma”, and the second was “Waxwork”. Joe Bob Briggs wasn’t that enthusiastic about “Waxwork”, but I have to disagree with him. I thought it was a very enjoyable movie. I thought it was tongue-in-cheek and I really think that worked out well for the movie.
Michelle: I 100 percent agree with you. It was very tongue-in-cheek and maybe some people didn’t quite get that. You know, I was originally offered the lead role in it, but I went to Tony and said, “Can I please play China?”. He said, “But that’s just a supporting role. I wanted you in the lead”. I said “But China’s so much fun. She’s so campy, and she says some of the most outrageous things”. He goes, “Okay, sure. If you want to play that role, I can see that. Okay”. So then Deborah came in and did the lead, and I played China. It was all meant to be very tongue-in-cheek. I agree with you.
Johnny: Moving on to my next question: Two movies that stand out in your filmography for where they took you for filming were 1987’s “Beaks” and 1991’s “Driving Me Crazy”. The former was filmed in Mexico and the latter was a German co-production. What was the difference for you between international filming and American filming?
Michelle: Well, “Beaks” was actually shot in Spain. I don’t want to sound negative on Spain or anything…Maybe it’s just the restaurants they took us to over there, Chris (Atkins) and I, but the food wasn’t very good, and I lost 10 pounds for the 2 weeks I was filming that. “Driving Me Crazy”? It was fun to work with Jon Turteltaub. He was great to work with. The German guy, (Thomas) Gottschalk was great to work with, too. That was another fun movie to film. We got to film that in L.A, so I didn’t have to travel and pack a bag. I guess that’s one good thing about working in the states. It’s just more familiar, but I like to go to exotic locations, too.
Johnny: To my next question: In a change of pace from a lot of your previous work, you played Grace in Ron Howard’s sweeping drama “Far And Away”. What was your favorite part of that movie?
Michelle: Oh, wow, so many. I honestly almost didn’t get that part. When I went to audition for it on the 45th floor in Century City, one of my fears is I have this phobia about getting stuck in elevators. Naturally, I’m already nervous because I’m meeting with Ron Howard. I’ve already worked with Ron, but I’m still nervous. It’s a big part. It’s Ron Howard, after all, and Tom Cruise. I really wanted the part, and I knew exactly how to play it. I was so excited about it. I was a little nervous about the accent, though, because I had never done an Irish accent before. Luckily, I had seen an Irish Spring commercial literally about an hour before I went in for the meeting. I was like “Okay, now I’ve got it a bit better. It’s not Scottish, but at least it’s closer to Irish”. On my way up, the elevator gets stuck. There’s a couple of other people on the elevator with me. Luckily, a big strong guy wedged the doors open, and we all crawled out. Now, of course, I’m shaking. I can’t believe this is happening right now. I get in the stairwell, and hike up the other few floors. I get there, and Ron Howard is like “Whoa, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”. I was shaking so badly, and I go, “I was just stuck in an elevator, and it’s one of my biggest fears”. He’s like “Oh, God. You want to come back tomorrow or something?”. I’m like, “No. Let’s just do this”. Ironically, because I was so afraid of being stuck in this elevator for 10 minutes, all my fear kind of dissipated once I started auditioning, once I started doing great, and I think that’s what helped me get the part, ironically. Sometimes your fears can work for you.
Johnny: That’s true. Just a brief side note: I know that Enya contributed the song “Book Of Days” to the soundtrack. I was looking online, and I saw that that song was nominated for a Razzie, and I was like “Really? I think it should’ve been nominated for an Oscar”.
Michelle: Yeah, you have good taste. I agree.
Johnny: On a related note, that wasn’t your only Universal picture in 1992. You also played Anna in “Death Becomes Her” and Tamara in “Dr. Giggles”. Had you signed a contract with Universal, or was it all a coincidence?
Michelle: It’s a magical coincidence. I love Universal Studios. They’ve been one of my biggest fans as far as studios go. I’ve worked for Paramount and I’ve worked for Warner Brothers, and have been very happy working with them, but Universal has definitely been my number one fan as far as hiring.
Johnny: It’s not just that. It’s also in TV as well, since you also did two guest shots on the Universal series “Murder, She Wrote” for example.
Michelle: Oh, yeah. That was a blast. That was fun.
Johnny: To move on from acting, in recent years, you’ve gone from acting to singing. What led to that change?
Michelle: As I told you earlier, I always had fantasies of being able to sing. Since I was a little girl, I’ve always written poetry and songs and even little plays and stuff in music class. I guess it was a few years ago, I started changing my poetry into music, and through a friend, started recording. I thought, “Wow!”. The minute I started in the studio, I just felt it down to the core of my being, like “this is what I want to do always. I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. I love it so much”.
Johnny: You might have already answered this question earlier, but who have been you biggest influences as a singer and songwriter?
Michelle: Gosh, so many. Well, Madonna, for one of them, because I used to hang out with her. When I was 18, I met Madonna. We used to hang out and go to Jane Fonda’s studio and work out together, and kind of pal around a bit. I just always admired how well-read she was, how seriously she takes her craft, and the work she puts behind her. Her work ethic is unsurmountable. That woman is up at the crack of dawn, working out, working on her music. She’s just really disciplined. I admire that, and her artistic skills, and even her wardrobe and all her different videos. I said “This video is so different from that. How do you do it? How do you come to that”. She goes, “I just have to, because if I don’t, if I’m not always creating, I’m just not happy”.
Johnny: I definitely know that feeling as a writer myself, not of music, but of articles. I know that feeling.
Michelle: Yeah. If you’re an artists, it’s important to be creative. It’s sort of like lifeblood, oxygen.
Johnny: To move on to the next question: Your song “B.D.C” is one of the most enjoyable dance songs I’ve heard in recent years. What was the inspiration behind it?
Michelle: Oh, that’s a funny story. I was dating this Navy Seal, and we hadn’t really met yet. He was a really cute guy, and so we started talking to each other first on the Internet. He didn’t really know a lot about Hollywood, and I said, “Oh, you sound like a Hollywood virgin”. He types back, “Oh, yeah, just the tip on prom night”, and I laughed my ass off. I go, “Wow, this guy’s got big dick confidence. He’s got B.D.C”, and then I thought, “Gosh, wait”. I happened to be listening to this one groove that my producer had done for me, and I went “Wow, that’s it!”, and I stayed up all night writing it. It’s about confidence when you walk in the room. Madonna has B.D.C. It’s not just about the male anatomy. It’s about an attitude. It’s about all of it and there’s many layers to the song, believe it or not.
Johnny: Oh, I would fully believe it. I definitely picked up that vibe from the lyrics. It seems like the kind of thing that, I don’t know, maybe Andrew “Dice” Clay might walk out on stage to.
Michelle: Ooh, I love that. I love Andrew “Dice” Clay. He’s so funny.
Johnny: I must also say you looked gorgeous in the video. I think you always have looked gorgeous all the way from the 80s to today.
Michelle: Aw, thank you. That’s very sweet.
Johnny: No problem. On a different tack, I think “Lost My Way” is a great ballad. Did you have any difficulty recording that, and when I say that, I mean it’s a very emotional song.
Michelle: I wrote that after my divorce. I don’t know if you’ve ever been married or divorced…
Johnny: Still single.
Michelle: Divorces are not easy. I was sitting at my kitchen table writing a poem, and I just said, “I’ve got to get all of this out of me”. After my divorce, I didn’t know what direction I was heading. I hadn’t started writing the music yet, just because that was 2002 or 2003. In 2003, I was officially divorced, and I just felt lost. I went “Man, what am I going to do with my life? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do now? I thought I’d be married for the rest of my life and have a family and be doing that and now here I am, by myself, no real direction”. That’s how I wrote that. That’s one of the songs that gave me the songwriting idea, as opposed to just writing poems.
Johnny: It’s a very emotional piece, and I think you sang it quite well, and I think it’s proof of how diverse your music can be.
Michelle: Thank you, thank you.
Johnny: On a similar tack, what musicians would you most like to work with?
Michelle: Well, I’d love to work with Prince. I love his older stuff. I’m a huge, huge Prince fan. I love how brave he is, how creative he is. He’s not afraid to take chances, and I would give almost anything to get in the studio with Prince. I mean, there’s so many, but that’s just the first one that pops into my mind.
Johnny: Well, now that he’s back with Warner Brothers Records, who knows what might happen?
Michelle: Yeah, you never know. There’s so many talented people out there, though. Adele, even though I love singing “Lost My Way”, I would love to have her sing it, because the lungs…She could just sing it in a way that I’m just not capable of. She could really belt it in ways I’d love to be able to do.
Johnny: I definitely think that maybe you should get in contact with her about it, and see if she could cover it. I mean, I’m not in the music business myself. The only musical experience I have is at karaoke.
Michelle: That’s how I started. I started at karaoke nights. At my house, I have a karaoke machine, and that’s how I really started getting into it, getting the fever.
Johnny: That’s how it was for me, too, from 2006 to 2013. They stopped because it didn’t have the following it once did, and a pool table at the bar I attended was drawing in more money. They just stopped doing it without announcing it. I had to find out in a private message on Facebook from the bar’s owner.
Michelle: Aw, bummer.
Johnny: I know.
Michelle: What was your go-to karaoke song?
Johnny: Without a doubt, you mentioned Prince earlier. For me, it was “Purple Rain”.
Michelle: Oh, great, great song.
Johnny: Enough about me. Let’s go back to you. What would you say is the biggest change in the entertainment industry from 1984 to 2014?
Michelle: Well, gosh, there’s so many changes. In the early 80s, it was sort of like you’re a TV actress or you’re a film actress, and never the twain shall meet. Now it’s all-inclusive. Now you see big, huge stars like Meryl Streep, who I’m a huge fan of and adore and loved working with her on “Death Becomes Her”, doing all sorts of different things. I love that that freedom has been given to artists now to do that. You’ve got wonderful, creative producers like Ryan Murphy. I’m a huge, huge fan of “American Horror Story”. I’d love to be on his team someday. I guess there’s just more freedom now than there used to be. There’s always been amazing, creative people, but there’s more freedom now. Being able to do TV, movies, even TV commercials, stage…You can do it all now. You can sing, you can act. Of course, Frank Sinatra could do that, but he was ahead of his time. There’s just so much more freedom now. There’s freedom in writing, like what HBO’s done. A lot of these cable shows, you know, they can be more expressive in the writing and more realistic, too. They’re not censored as much as they used to be. When “Blame It On Rio” came out, that was really “Ooooh!”, a big deal, but now it’s child’s play compared to what’s shown on TV now.
Johnny: That’s true. On a different tack, to go back to “Blame It On Rio” for a moment and its’ director Stanley Donen, he was in the news a while back for staging readings of a script written by his girlfriend Elaine May with the hopes of turning it into a movie. Would you audition for a role in that movie if it ever entered production?
Michelle: 100 percent! I love Stanley Donen. If it weren’t for him, I would not have a career. He discovered me. His wife at the time, Yvette Mimieux, saw my picture in “Woman’s Wear Daily”, and said, “Well, what about her, honey?”. He said, “Yeah, she’s definitely got the right look”, and that’s how I came in and read for Wally Nicita, another great casting director, and then screen-testing and getting the part. It was all about Stanley Donen. He just discovered me, and he also discovered Lana Turner. Funnily enough, I got to meet Lana Turner on “The Love Boat”. I sat right next to her on the airplane home from Acapulco. We had a very nice exchange. She had a bunch of different stories. She was a great lady.
Johnny: When it comes to “Blame It On Rio”, I was actually on YouTube watching the tribute to Stanley Donen that was given to him when he won his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998, and there was the montage of clips from his films. I find it strange that they didn’t include “Blame It On Rio” in there.
Michelle: I think they did, didn’t they?
Johnny: I watched the montage clips, and they included clips from most of his movies, even the less successful ones like “Lucky Lady”. I didn’t see “Blame It On Rio” in there, which I thought was rather disappointing. I know it didn’t exactly have the best critical reputation, but I definitely think it should have been included.
Michelle: I thought it was. I thought there was a clip in there, only because they paid me for the clip, so I assumed they used it.
Johnny: Those Academy Award montages are edited rather quickly, so I’ll have to look closer next time I watch it.
Michelle: I think it might have been a bathroom scene, but I’m not sure.
Johnny: Maybe. Finally, I come to the question that I end every interview with, which is this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge you have now, would you do anything differently?
Michelle: That’s a great question. Yeah, I’d do a lot of things. You know, sometimes people go “I have no regrets”. I have a lot of regrets, but I think if we’re honest with ourselves, of course. You know the old adage, “Youth is wasted on the young”. Well, of course, you’re still learning and you’re going to stumble over things. Yeah, there’s a lot of things I would do differently.
Johnny: On that note, I would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to work with me. I know that your album “Popular” is coming out in a few weeks, and I have to ask: Will it be digital download only, or will there be physical copies of it?
Michelle: You know, I’m not quite sure. Andra, my manager, handles all that stuff for me, so I’m really not sure. It’s going to be on iTunes, and as far as physical copies, I’m sure she could get you one if you’d like one.
Johnny: Oh, absolutely I would, because I definitely think you’re an amazingly talented singer and I’m definitely looking forward to more output from you.
Michelle: Thank you. I’ve got about 30 songs in my catalog, so we’re kind of just picking and choosing a few right now to release. I’m always continuously writing every day, or in the studio doing something. I’m very excited about its’ release, and I put my heart and soul into every song I do.
Johnny: And it definitely shows.
Michelle: Thank you.
Johnny: Well, that’s about it from me. I look forward to further communications with you in the future on Facebook, and I thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Michelle: Wonderful. We’ll be in touch.
Johnny: Likewise. Thank you very much.
Michelle: Have a good day.
Johnny: You, too.
Michelle: Bye bye.
I would once more like to thank Michelle Johnson for agreeing to speak to me, and I would like to thank her manager, Andra Dalto, for setting this interview up.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a wonderful day.