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Ann-Margret at 82: What I Know Now

The actress-singer on being an immigrant, keeping wire cutters handy and leaving Elvis out of it

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Peter Yang

Five-time Golden Globe winner Ann-Margret, 82, recently released Born to Be Wild, a new album of covers, featuring her old friend Pat Boone and her Tommy costar Pete Townshend. She talked to AARP for the June/July issue of AARP The Magazine about keeping her relationship with Elvis under wraps, how she doesn’t mind being called a sex symbol and her 50-year relationship with her husband and manager Roger Smith.


Emerging from huddled masses

I started moving around to music and singing for Mother and Mooma, my grandma, when I was 4. Two years later, we moved from our little village in Sweden to America. We had relatives here, so my mother learned how to speak English from them. And I learned at school. I remember wanting to learn English as well as I possibly could because I felt like an outsider. I know how hard it must be for people who come here if they don’t know the language.


A showgirl makes her mark

George Burns discovered me when I was 19, singing in Las Vegas, and made me part of his annual holiday show. When I made State Fair, I posed for some photos with Pat Boone, kissing his shoulder. When the photo came out, the press said that I was nibbling him! That was very, very racy in 1962!


Going big

Bye Bye Birdie [1963] was my third movie and the one that made me a star. [She lifts her shoulders and arms to match the dance to “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.”] We did that number for three weeks. Onna White did the choreography, and I instinctively did the steps the way I felt them, and I guess she agreed!


Keeping her love affair with Elvis under wraps

I don’t like to talk about him. I can say that when I made Viva Las Vegas with Elvis in ’63, we recorded three duets and had such a great time. But I did not want to re-record those for the new album. It was a very precious time doing those, and I would not want to do any of them again without him.


Shake ’em up!

In the very beginning, they said, “Oh, all she does is just shake her seat.” And that hurt. Carnal Knowledge [1971] turned that around. I’m an only child and I never wanted to disappoint my parents, but my daddy never wanted to see Carnal Knowledge — it was too much for him.

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Sexy is as sexy does

I didn’t mind being called a sex symbol. If a guy comes up to you and says, “Hey, you’re really looking good,” I just think, Well, how nice! [Singing:] “I’m a woman, W-O-M-A-N. I’ll say it again.”


Singing to Jack

In 1963, President Kennedy invited me to sing at his birthday party. And because I was really young, I guess 22, I had the audacity to sing “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” Unbelievable! But he was just wonderful to me. Very friendly. Very gentlemanly.


Keep calm, and get back up

When I was 11 and we were living in Chicago, Daddy fell from the second floor of a building onto cement. I remember Mother and I going to see him all the time as he recovered. I learned this strength from my mother and my father. You just keep on going. And when I had my own fall off a stage platform in Tahoe in 1972 — I fell 22 feet and smashed my face and broke my jaw and arm — I was back up onstage in under three months. Daddy was then very ill with cancer. And the only way that I could show him that I was fine was to get on that stage. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still alive with all the stuff that I’ve gone through. But I’m a very determined person. And I know there’s somebody up there who wants me to live. So here I am.


Bring your wire cutters

When my jaw was wired up after the accident, I’d go out with a friend, and Roger [Smith, a former actor who became her husband and manager] would give them wire cutters in case I had an emergency. It was really fun to go out shopping: “I’ve got wire cutters with me!” I think we only had to use them once.


The zen of motorcycles

Roger did not want me to ride that bike again after I had an accident in 1997 that broke my ribs and my shoulder. So I didn’t ride it for a long time. But I still ride. I make sure there’s not a lot of traffic. I’ve got that thing in me — I love speed. Vroom! Vroom!


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Laugh along

Kristen Wiig was so great spoofing me on SNL! That thing she did when she got on her back and kicked her legs? I have done that several times in my life. Imitation really is the highest form of flattery!


The enduring power of love

I loved my Roger with all my heart. And we had 50 great years together. I always tried to listen and to be the best partner I could be. And by 50 years, my goodness, you know what makes someone happy, what makes them angry, what makes them sad. And he was very funny. Being able to laugh together — that’s one of the secrets of a good marriage. And then he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis. I’d say the last five years were rough. Roger died in 2017. My stepson Jordan passed away not long after. My faith kept me going.


Be a pal

It’s harder to make friends as we grow older. But I’ve had friends for 50 and 60 years, and I’m loyal to them. If you have a good support system around you, you can get through anything. And of course, I want my friends to feel like they can come to me about anything. If they’re going through something that is really hurting them, maybe I have gone through something similar. I’m here to help. I’m ready. Here I come!


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