It had been “quite a journey,” the day so far, Nicole Travolta said. She had flown from Los Angeles to New York, gotten lost on the subway, and paid twice for one train journey. But how lovely it was to walk the sun-bathed streets. The energy of the city was so “much more refreshing” than the cocooned-in-cars contrast of LA. The Theater District meeting she had attended to talk about her dreams for her new stage show had gone well. She had left the meeting, New York in full flow all around her.
Then a bird pooped on her head.
“I went to a street cart, got water, napkins, and people started giving their opinions,” she recalled to The Daily Beast a few hours later, all traces of avian excretions erased. “One person said, ‘It happens.’ Others shrugged and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ ‘We’ve been there.’ ‘It’s good luck.’”
Travolta hopes most that the poop symbolized the latter. She’s in New York to perform her solo comedy show, Nicole Travolta Is Doing Alright (Soho Playhouse, Feb. 14-24), which contrasts her experience of falling ever deeper into debt because of a credit-card spending addiction with one of the measures she took to alleviate the situation—becoming a spray-tanner to LA’s rich, famous, and just plain weird.
These New York dates are critical for Travolta; she wants the imprimatur of not only performing the show in New York, but also to attract an audience of the influential. She hopes TV people come see the show; she’d love to either find a streamer to film the work, or create a Fleabag-style show out of the material. “I really have a goal for this, and that’s it. That’s what I really want.”
In person, Travolta is just as she seems on stage—light, bright, ready to make jokes, laugh, and also be honest about the mess she got into that has provided so much rich material. Yet, just as on stage, even before she gets into her own story, there is the matter of her name. John Travolta is her uncle, and his brother Sam is her father. Wherever she goes, the name goes before her. In one sense this has opened doors in the entertainment world where she has chosen to make her career. Outside of that realm—say going to Starbucks, or doing anything in the public realm where the name comes up—it can be incredibly frustrating.
Travolta hopes the show “catches fire,” and she gets to perform it longer in New York, then take it on tour. She is contemplating a geographical move, craving a “different energy” to LA, the “smoke and mirrors” of the business there, and the “toughness” and “flakiness” of the people, although she has found a supportive group of friends. She loves the people on the streets—walking, drinking, eating—in New York, and this may explain the Instagram post she made to publicize the New York dates: a re-enactment of the Sex and the City opening titles (made in LA, cheeky!), with Travolta as her own Carrie Bradshaw, tutu dress and all.
Travolta loves Sex and the City, and, like many fans, rewatches it today. Something about the much-debated sequel, And Just Like That, is “lost” for her (again, as it is for many fans—particularly when it comes to the new, bewilderingly weird Miranda), “but no disrespect to it. I will still watch it happily every week. I love the show, and always will.”
The trailer also alludes to Travolta’s other great skill: impressions. She does a very good Carrie (friends rightly tell her she looks like Sarah Jessica Parker), a lascivious Samantha, and away from that show, a spookily spot-on Jennifer Coolidge, and a very good Jennifer Aniston, and Drew Barrymore. When she was young, Travolta did impersonations of her family, and of Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in Grease singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
Part of her stage show, Travolta says, is about how she “lost a piece” of herself, her drive and instinct for this comedy, when her addiction took hold. She had been raised in a home where her mother had loved material things too, and so it was that Nicole herself came to create a “façade of who I thought Nicole Travolta should be for people to stick around, to want to be around me.”
Travolta says this fear of abandonment, which underpinned all her demons, originally took root at the time of her parents’ divorce when she was a girl. “There were people coming in and out of my life. I felt like I couldn’t hold on to people, so I created an almost different version of myself.”
“I had 12 credit cards, all maxed out.”
Her surname had always loomed unhelpfully large, Travolta told The Daily Beast. “I felt this very strange pressure from myself that I had to fill this name. When we lived in Florida, people asked me if I came to school on a private jet. But my mom and I didn’t have a lot of money.” Your uncle didn’t give you lots of money? “No, and it’s not his responsibility to do so. Part of my overspending was wanting to fill that role in myself. It was like, ‘If I have these things, then I am this.’”
Does she mean she felt she had to live like how people may imagine a “Travolta” to live?
“Yes. The weird pressure I felt coming from the public was around how very strange it was to carry around this name.”
Her family, pre- and post- her parents’ divorce, moved at various times between LA, South Carolina, and Florida, “and every time I went to a new school people called out my name. You don’t want it, because you don’t want people asking you questions.”
“The burden of it is walking into a Walmart and having a cashier, who sees my last name, screaming and asking if she can touch my hand like I’m royalty. But I’m not royalty. It’s weird.”
— Nicole Travolta
But, I say, it’s also a USP when it comes to carving out an entertainment career, and surely—as many a so-called nepo baby has discovered—a lucrative benefit. So, can it be reasonably seen to be both positive and negative, a benefit as well as a burden?
“Yes, it is both,” Travolta said. “I’m very proud of my family. They’re kind, good people. We come from a family of kind, good, very humble people. The burden of it is walking into a Walmart and having a cashier, who sees my last name, screaming and asking if she can touch my hand like I’m royalty. But I’m not royalty. It’s weird.
“It’s a lot to walk into Starbucks and have people freak out. People literally freak out over it. It’s wild. They ask you the craziest personal questions. In a McDonald’s once, a girl asked me, ‘Have you ever been inside of his bedroom?’ Literally. I usually don’t say anything in reply, just laugh and leave it. But what kind of question is that? It’s crazy. It’s just wild you would ever ask somebody if they had been inside a family member’s bedroom before.”
Travolta makes clear she came from “an amazing family. They are full of talent, and these wonderful people are a big piece of who I am. The name is like this weird territory where people project things onto you. People ask, ‘How much money do you have?’ ‘Do you see your uncle?’ ‘Do you talk to him?’ You wouldn’t ask those questions if he wasn’t who he is.
“Also, I’m not him, so I’m doing this weird song and dance. I have this very strong name, but I’m not John Travolta. But it’s also my name. ‘Why don’t you change your name?’ people say. Because it’s my name too.” Travolta says she hasn’t spoken to her uncle about all this. “The brothers have, the siblings have. Everyone knows, the whole family.”
“I get there’s an interest and intrigue, and the name also means I get to connect with others,” Travolta conceded. “For me, it’s about showing up and being myself.”
“These are internal things,” said Travolta of the complex web of feelings she has about her family name, and what they in part precipitated for her. “Why do we drink? Why do we do drugs? Why do we shop? Hoard? There’s a reason for those things. For me, I just always felt this feeling of pressure.” This intensified when the family moved from LA to Florida when she was a girl, when people’s “meddling” because of her last name increased. “It was very confusing for a kid. When you overspend, you’re almost filling a void in yourself. I didn’t feel whole in myself, and I also felt this lack of stability.”
“All I cared about was, how do I buy things?”
Marriage, Travolta hoped, might provide an answer, or at least the security she so desired; she and her then-husband had been together since they were 18. But no; the marriage was not right, and the spending continued.
Travolta said she was “very nervous” about getting married, “because people who come from a broken home carry that around with them a little bit. I thought marriage was the answer. We’d been together a long time (since 18, ten years before their marriage). It seemed like the next step to do it. We had a big, massive, fancy, OTT wedding. But we couldn’t afford that wedding. I was so crazy about every little detail… the napkins… but the whole day I felt sick inside, sick to my stomach. I almost knew deep in my gut we shouldn’t be taking these steps. The marriage quickly fell apart. I will talk about my mistakes only—hiding my debts and not being honest.” Her husband even ran a credit check on her, which I had forgotten her talking about on stage.
“I always felt like I was being treated as a wind-up doll who was broken.”
— Nicole Travolta
Travolta smiled, and laughed. “Don’t worry. There is a lot of trauma to remember in 75 minutes!” Travolta would hear from him and others, “What’s wrong with Nicole?” “There’s something wrong with her.” “She needs help.” Travolta said, “I always felt like I was being treated as a wind-up doll who was broken.”
The couple separated, and divorced in 2017. Travolta felt abandoned again, the spending continued, she knew she needed help, and felt if they’d had held they could have “grown together.” She wishes him well, she said, and while they are no longer in touch she thinks each hopes the other is happy. “It’s put to rest—that’s the healthiest way to continue.”
“When I eventually hit rock bottom, when my marriage broke down, all the stuff came to a head,” Travolta said. “I had to address and come to terms with the adult trauma I had, so I could break the cycle of all that had happened in my life.”
Central to that mission was confronting the constant consuming. Travolta’s first memory of out-of-control spending was witnessing her mom leaving the house with “tons of cash”—from her own horse-racing bookie mother—to go shopping on Rodeo Drive. “That’s how my mom herself got into a lot of trouble. The most gratifying thing about doing the show is having people come up afterward, or get in touch on social media, to say how much the show meant to them—that they have had the same issues, or felt the same shame.”
Travolta’s mother eventually remarried (to her “fantastic” stepfather), and Travolta began to live on her own. “The only way I knew how to survive was with credit cards,” she said. “The spending on things, and the things themselves, made me feel as if I was enough. These things made me feel like I was enough for other people. I was also gifting things to other people —like Victoria’s Secret tracksuits for my friends for Christmas. Or going out to nightclubs and buying bottle service. It was a mask I was putting over myself.
“All I cared about was, how do I buy things? Like a $300 face cream. It was so drastic. I had 12 credit cards, all maxed out. This is a real addiction people have that fills some sort of void When I finally addressed it, I realized, ‘Holy shit, I never felt like I had my feet on the ground. I never felt stable.’”
“I couldn’t walk into a place without buying something,” Travolta recalled. “In Neiman Marcus, I would have to get that new mascara. It felt good, like a reward. I see a lot of similar things being expressed by millennials online: ‘I had a tough day, so I had to reward myself.’ I loved the serotonin release of buying a new thing, of swinging those pretty bags through the streets, people saying, ‘Oh my god, I love your new dress.’ There’s a strange mental, psychological thing with spending and shopping. You can get yourself into a lot of fucking trouble.”
Travolta’s total debts mushroomed to $45,000. Giving her surname to one debt consolidation company representative, she was met with a “Travolta, huh? God, I love Saturday Night Fever.” Travolta laughed. “I was sitting there, in this desperate situation, thinking, ‘Even the debt consolidation woman!’ You couldn’t write this shit better.”
A turning point came when, having been served lawsuit papers by American Express, she had no idea how to pay off the debt except by taking on work. A friend who ran a spray tan company suggested joining the team of bronzers.
“I worked my ass off. I tanned those clients. I saw those vaginas and buttholes, and made their bodies brown and glowing.”
— Nicole Travolta
Some of those close to her were surprised Travolta took on the gig, as she had appeared in sitcoms like Two and a Half Men, The Middle, and Anger Management. But she had to come to terms with the financial mess she was in, and her desire to forge her way back to financial health.
Also, the spray tan customers were great source material for a comic. Travolta observed each one, took notes—and the funniest parts of her show bring them alive, like the woman who wanted to ensure her vaginal folds were the right shade of sun-kissed, and another woman—who she endows with the smoke-and-ash growl of Patty and Selma, Marge Simpson’s sisters—who complains about having something stuck in her vagina.
Over four years, she sprayed and sprayed, and paid the debt off. “I worked my ass off. I tanned those clients. I saw those vaginas and buttholes, and made their bodies brown and glowing. I went in every day no matter how bad I felt, or the crumbling smile on my face.”
Travolta saw human vanity and personality in many forms—from the sweet to the weird to the menacing to the nutty. “You’re meeting these characters. You have all these requests. I have seen and heard it all. In Scotland, at the Edinburgh Fringe, someone came up after a show and said, ‘I spray-tanned. Everything you said up there was so true, no one understands how weird it gets.’”
In the show, there is a weird man in a gas mask, and a woman who is more worried about an accidentally smashed chandelier than the injury said chandelier may have done to Travolta.
“With a hair appointment, you sit in the chair, and you may say something, or not, over a period of time with your hairdresser,” Travolta said. “With spray-tanning, everything happens the second before you arrive. The client could have had good news, bad news, an argument. Then they come into the tent to get sprayed, and you meet whatever mood they’re in. You see what they ate for breakfast, the fights husbands and wives have. It’s very personal, which wasn’t hard for me. I care deeply about people, I really do. The bad thing was I took on a lot of their energy, meaning if it had been a weird, late-night appointment I couldn’t sleep afterward.”
“I would ask myself, ‘Why am I here?’ Then go, ‘Because I am in debt, being sued, my marriage has broken down, and I want to take improv classes. That’s why I can’t leave, even if costs me my life.’”
— Nicole Travolta
Her keenly observing nature, her innate desire to impersonate, were also helpful. She could read and match her clients’ moods “on impact,” and be as friendly or as brief and quick as she needed to be.
Travolta laughed. “I would ask myself in some situations, ‘Why am I here?’ Then go, ‘Because I am in debt, being sued, my marriage has broken down, and I want to take improv classes. That’s why I can’t leave, even if costs me my life.’”
The title of her show is significant, Travolta said. “I needed therapy, I still do. I believe we are works in progress. I chose the title ‘Doing Alright,’ because that’s what I am—I’m doing alright. I’m not going to do alright every day. I’m not fixed, I still need help. I meditate. I journal. I check in on myself.” She laughed at the therapy-ese of her words. “I sound like a bit of a freak, but I really believe in this. Our brains are so powerful, and so is the person who lives in there telling you awful things about yourself.”
“I really found the real Nicole again”
Travolta says she doesn’t blame her mother for showing her an early example of overspending. “She stopped her own cycle,” Travolta said. After she saw the show, her mother called her. “She started crying, and said, ‘I hope you know how much I love you.’ She said, ‘It was hard to sit there and listen to it, but at the same time it was amazing to listen to you speak so vulnerably and openly. You’re telling your truth about how these situations made you feel. I am so endlessly proud of you.’”
Travolta feels the show has brought her closer to both her parents. As she watches other comedians attempt similar projects—finding humor in the outwardly unfunny—she says, she “never wanted it to feel like I was making myself out to be a ‘poor me’ victim. I wanted it to come from a place of me owning my shit. It’s always funny to see the expressions of people—their shock when I talk about the woman who wanted me to spray her vaginal folds, and also how much debt I was in.
“People get so involved in it. In Vegas there were two women in the front row who were saying things like, ‘Oh girl, she’s not going to that house?’ so much, I eventually said to them, ‘You know she did.’ It’s funny and magical when people respond in that way.”
“In the beginning, my tears came from reliving a lot of trauma. Today, they come from thinking about how far I have come.”
— Nicole Travolta
At the end of the show, in early performances, Travolta’s emotions around her own survival bubbled up to the surface; they do during this interview too. “In the beginning, my tears came from reliving a lot of trauma. Today, they come from thinking about how far I have come.”
Travolta, who is in her mid-thirties, says she cares about aging. “I love a little Botox,” she said laughing. “I get a little pinch here and there, and we’re good to go.” She is single, dating, and “in a place of being open to something if the right person comes along, but very focused on myself right now.” She has frozen her eggs (“just in case, I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself”), but is planning on having only one child. She smiled. “I don’t want to have three. I want to travel.”
In 2020, Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife, died, as did Nicole’s brother. “It was hard, it doesn’t even feel real that we got through that,” she said. It was the pandemic, it felt very disconnecting. So many people went through tragic things at that time. It was tough, and life gets tougher, and—back to the relationship thing—I want to be OK in myself, and then find someone who will go through all of life’s ups and downs with me.”
Travolta quit spray-tanning four years ago. When asked if she misses it, she shouted, “NO!” and laughed. “I think I’m OK with it being done.”
Can she ever imagine going back to it?
“I hope not, I want to move to New York and make a success of this show,” Travolta said, laughing. If she walks past a spray tan salon, she shouts, “Peace out!”
She still gets spray tans herself and remains proud of her friend for building such a robust business, and is grateful for the employment she offered Travolta.
“It opened me up to a new world of people,” Travolta said. And it offered up all the material for this show; when her co-creator and director Lauren Burns heard all the anecdotes, she told Travolta to start writing it immediately. Together with the improv classes and groups she took at Upright Citizens Brigade and Groundlings, the show has pushed Travolta, happily, out of her “comfort zone.”
Until that moment, Travolta had appeared as “that girl” in sitcoms, “and I loved every one of those jobs. Charlie Sheen was such a joy to work with (on Anger Management) and a pleasure to be around. It was a wild set because he was so wild, but he was great to me. I got very lucky.”
However, Travolta finds “something magical about becoming a totally different character.” She suddenly breaks into a pitch-perfect Jennifer Aniston. “I watch her, and she’s magical. She’s so smart and brilliant.” When Jennifer Coolidge “liked” a brace of Travolta’s impressions of her, “I flipped out,” as Travolta remains a huge fan (and does a killer, “These gays, they’re trying to murder me”).
“I am not just John Travolta’s niece. I am Nicole Travolta, and I now feel like I’ve figured out who Nicole Travolta is.”
— Nicole Travolta
Besides her ambition to have Doing Alright be filmed as its staged incarnation or adapted into a series (Molly Shannon as her mom would be the dream), Travolta would love to appear on Saturday Night Live—“Everyone dreams of SNL”—and/or star on a prestige show like The White Lotus, playing a character vividly different to herself.
Today, Travolta feels “a sense of freedom” in herself, having “felt very trapped for a long time within my inner feelings and inner thoughts.” A certain level of clarity has come with “a lot of therapy and a lot of being honest with myself and my past and things I felt about my life, and being vulnerable. The Nicole I found within myself was always there. She’s free. She is enough. I am enough. I don’t need 27 bags, and buying bottle service for people.” By crafting a comedy of her crises, she says she is not laughing at her mistakes—“well, I kind of am I guess”—but “you have got to walk through the fire to get through it.”
Debts paid, entertainment career in gestation, stage show honed, spray-tan gun set down, and bird poop washed right out of her hair, Travolta said she was finally feeling secure in herself. “I really found the real Nicole again, I feel so free and happy,” she told The Daily Beast. “I am not just John Travolta’s niece. I am Nicole Travolta, and I now feel like I’ve figured out who Nicole Travolta is. She’s weird, she’s kooky, and she’s alive.”