January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

Preston turns on some movie heat of her own

IT IS GOOD TO BE THE QUEEN OF THE household where John Travolta is king. Kelly Preston lives with her husband of five years and their son Jett, 4, in a seven-bedroom, Mediterranean-style house in Brentwood that, on this day shortly before Christmas, is bustling with a staff of six. In the kitchen, their chef whips up tabbouleh and hummus; nearby, an assistant checks over Preston’s 135-person gift list; and, just a limo ride away, a Gulf-stream II waits to fly her and Jett to their secluded, 22-room estate off the coast of Maine, where they will spend the holidays. (Travolta, who also owns a Learjet, will join them later.) So why in the midst of such splendor is Preston, 34, holed up in the master bathroom, holding court at a marble makeup table? “It’s the only place in the house I allow myself to smoke,” she says, lighting up a cigarette.

Excuse Preston if she needs to relax a bit. After years of being known mostly as the woman on Travolta’s arm at his movie premieres, she is finally attending some high-profile parties of her own. While Travolta, 42, does his angel act in Michael, she is generating heat as an aggressive NFL publicist engaged to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. She’s also proving that she can play more than bodacious bombshells by donning a mousy brown wig as a strident proabortion attorney in Citizen Ruth. “This is,” says Travolta, “an elegant and talented woman.”

And if need be, a raunchy one too. Preston gets Maguire off to an iterated start by urging her bed partner Cruise, in language not printable here, to keep making love to her. She used that scene for her audition and, says director Cameron Crowe, “she just brought the house down every time she delivered her opening line. She comes to a project with all the enthusiasm of a first-time actor.”

Preston, though, has taken a long and winding road to where she is today. She grew up in Honolulu, the daughter of Linda Carlson, a mental health center administrator, and Peter Palzis, a personnel director who wed Linda and adopted Kelly after Kelly’s natural father drowned when she was 3. When Preston was 14, her parents divorced (“It wasn’t difficult for me because I knew they weren’t able to live together,” she says), and the future actress, her mother and brother Chris, now 28 and a screenwriter, moved to Australia for two years. Back at Punahou School in Honolulu, the tomboyish Preston, upset that girls were excluded from football, signed up for the boys-only team and didn’t withdraw until the school threatened expulsion. “She’s a very determined person,” says her father.

Few people have had a stranger entrance into show business. When Preston was 16, a mallard flew into her Aunt Chula’s swimming pool in Honolulu. Preston, thinking the bird was domesticated, went around the neighborhood posting Stray Duck notices. She didn’t find any despondent owners, but she was spotted by a photographer whose pictures led to work in TV commercials. A short time later, she flew to L.A. to screen-test for The Blue Lagoon. The role went to Brooke Shields—director Randal Kleiser thought Preston was “not innocent enough.” But in 1982 her sultry aura helped land her a role on the soap Capitol. That led to a onetime spot on NBC’s Quincy and film roles, including one seducing Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1988’s Twins.

She and Travolta had met the year before, when both were working in Toronto shooting a now-forgotten comedy film, The Experts. At the time, Preston was a year and a half into her marriage to actor Kevin Gage. “I remember thinking how impressed I was with how devoted she seemed to her husband,” says Travolta, who had never been married but had dated Diana Hyland and Marilu Henner. “I thought, ‘God, I’d love to have that kind of devotion to me.’ ” But Preston’s marriage soon ended. “We were just not meant to be together,” she says. She lived with George Clooney for a year, was engaged to Charlie Sheen for a year, and in 1990 she found herself again north of the border with Travolta. He was in Vancouver to film Look Who’s Talking, Too, while Preston was shooting Run nearby. “He always said he waited for me,” Preston says. Six months later he gave her a 7.5-carat yellow diamond; they wed in Paris in September of 1991.

Preston says she loves “everything about John”—including his commitment to Scientology. In 1985, Preston had studied with an acting coach who used the principles of Scientology in class, and so when she and Travolta started dating, says the actor, “she was more willing to hear what I had to say.” Says Preston: “It’s very much a spiritual science. It creates ways to handle everything, whether it’s in your love life or in your work.”

Right now, Preston is between projects and should have little to handle other than some quiet time at home. Unless, that is, Travolta gets the urge to travel. “John’s very spontaneous,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, hon, feel like going to Carmel for the weekend?’ We’ll pack the bags and be on the jet.” And her partner in this two-blockbuster family, thanks to Maguire and Michael, is thrilled to have her on board. “What you see is what you get,” Travolta says. “A good wife, a good mom and a good person.”


TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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