One afternoon last month, Chynna Phillips sat down on a lawn in upstate New York, took out her iPhone, and told more than 25,000 people about the time she crashed into a bus while on Quaaludes. Wearing an embroidered hot-pink tunic and a Larimar necklace, Phillips reflected on her teenage mishap, shaking her head, while the words “Cringeworthy Moment: 4” flashed across the screen.
This is a typical day for the Wilson Phillips lead singer, who has uploaded more than 300 videos on her YouTube channel, California Preachin, over the past two years. In a series that resembles a DIY reality show, Phillips candidly opens up about her personal life — from severe childhood trauma to her son’s battle with cancer — while doing everyday activities like driving and cooking pasta. But the center of each video is her deep-rooted Christian faith, which has helped her survive everything.
“I never imagined in a million years that anyone would be interested in me with very little makeup on, walking down the street with my dog, talking about my relationship with Jesus,” Phillips tells Rolling Stone. “But I realize now what people want is just integrity and transparency. They want to get to know you. They feel like you’re their friend.”
Phillips is calling from a Los Angeles hotel room, her last stop before returning home to Santa Barbara. Days earlier, she performed with Wilson Phillips at an outdoor festival — the trio’s first concert since the pandemic.
“When we get onstage and we do our harmonies together, it’s healing,” she says. “I can’t even talk to people after a show sometimes, because I feel this really incredible surge of power that runs through my body that I don’t get through anything else. I mean, I could meditate on a mountaintop for three days and I don’t think I would get the same feeling.”
Nearly a decade ago, Wilson Phillips had their own short-lived reality show, Still Holding On, which documented the making of their 2012 album, Dedicated. Although Phillips prefers to view California Preachin as a “life documentary,” she acknowledges the influence Still Holding On had on her YouTube series.
“That sort of planted the seed for me,” she says. “I was like, ‘Huh. There’s a therapeutic thing happening here.’ Because even though the camera’s rolling and this isn’t ‘real life’ — we’d just be at a restaurant that they chose and we’re just showing up for our call times — we’re still talking about things that matter, things that were on our hearts, and things that we’re trying to process and work through.”
Carnie and Wendy Wilson have appeared on Cal Preach, as well as Phillips’ mother, Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and Papas, but the most recurring character is her husband, Billy Baldwin. In their “Chilly” videos, they openly discuss their marriage, have their son, Vance, tear open his college acceptance letter in real time, and bicker over the correct lyrics to “Margaritaville.”
Baldwin was hesitant to appear on Cal Preach at first (he’s not Christian, Phillips says he’s still figuring it out), but he warmed up to the idea when he started reading the video comments. “[They] would say something like, ‘Billy is a riot. He’s such a sweetheart,’ ” Phillips says. “He’d say, ‘Wow, people are nice.’ He thought they were all going to be like, ‘You’re going to hell! His brother Alec this [and that]!’ ”
Any “Chilly” video is a fan favorite, especially when Phillips tries to imitate his gruff, manly voice. “People realize that Billy is just this Long Island-Massapequa guy with strong opinions and a lot of testosterone,” she says. “I don’t even mind being the brunt of the joke, because he’s hysterical.”
Phillips has been saved twice: once when she was 12, and years later as an adult. “It isn’t even biblically sound,” she says with a laugh. The first time happened when she transferred to Redeemer Christian Academy in Los Angeles, after being bullied in her public school. When several girls caught her stealing chocolate milk from the cafeteria, they brought her to a bathroom and had her read the salvation prayer off a card.
“I wasn’t expecting anything to happen,” she says. “But as I was saying the words, I could feel all of the darkness and sadness and abandonment [melt] away.” But it didn’t take: “When I would go home, there’d be roaches in the ashtray and lots of drinking and no Bibles. So inevitably, I left that school after I graduated, and I just went on a path of trying to self-medicate because I didn’t have anybody to support me in my walk with God.”
Phillips spent her teenage years partying on the Sunset Strip, making frequent stops at the Roxy and the Whiskey a Go Go. During those years, she says, her vices were alcohol, cigarettes, coke, Quaaludes, and weed, before bringing it to a halt at age 19, when she woke up hung over and decided to make a change. “I just remember looking at myself and thinking, ‘If I keep doing this, I’m gonna die.’ I was petite and had five bleeding ulcers the year before. I was really sick.”
Within a decade of her sobriety, she started Wilson Phillips and married Baldwin. It was through her husband’s family that she was saved a second time. “I was a little angry at Jesus,” she admits. “I was like, ‘No, I tried you. You didn’t work.’ Then I saw Stephen and Kennya toting their Bibles around, and I didn’t really see myself taking it to that extreme. But what I didn’t know is that God does impossible math and that he works in mysterious ways.”
In 2009, Phillips teamed up with Vaughan Penn for One Reason, financing the Christian album herself. But it was greatly overshadowed by her sister Mackenzie’s memoir, High on Arrival, where she admitted to having a sexual relationship with her father, John Phillips. “That got a bit hijacked by my sister’s book,” she says. “So that was really disappointing.”
For years, Phillips searched for a way to spread the word. “I always said, ‘Lord, I really don’t see myself going to the front lines of Africa or digging wells or building homes, and I get that that’s important, but I just don’t feel like that’s my calling. Show me how you can use me in a way that feels authentically right for me.’ And I just kept hearing ‘YouTube channel.’ ” With the help of her assistant, Tyler Wells, California Preachin was born.
The early videos of the series feature Phillips stiffly sitting in a chair in fresh makeup, reading spiritual segments from a teleprompter. She began to feel stressed out and anxious about each episode. It didn’t feel natural. Something wasn’t right. “If this is truly going to be an organic mission to serve Christ, it shouldn’t hurt,” she says. “I shouldn’t be in back pain. I should be inspired. My vocation should be my vacation.”
Philips tried to loosen up and go off script, randomly picking up her phone throughout her day to spontaneously share her thoughts. The vlogging method worked: Subscriber count began to increase by the thousands.
Viewers flood the comments section on every upload, admitting that because of her, they’ve picked up the Bible again. One woman even told Phillips that she almost committed suicide in 1992, but she heard “Hold On” on the radio and was convinced it was a sign from God. She’s now an avid watcher of Cal Preach, and she emailed Phillips to say that the series saved her a second time. “What more can you ask for in life than someone telling you that you saved their life?” she says.
Part of what makes Cal Preach so addictive is Phillips’ openness; rarely does she hold back. In May, she told viewers why she regretted getting breast implants, while last fall she revealed she was raped when she was a teenager.
“Before I post something, I’ll get this surge of fear or I’ll feel really shaky on the inside, like, ‘Oh, you can’t post that, you’re letting people see too much.’ And I know when I feel that way before I post something, that it’s probably going to be one of my best videos.”
Phillips thinks her vulnerability shatters the public’s perception of her as a privileged daughter of one of the most famous rock groups of the Sixties. She laughs just thinking about it. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, everything was handed to her on a silver platter,’ ” she says. “She [was] probably raised in Beverly Hills, and she was in a super successful pop group. She’s probably super rich, and she’s married to Billy Baldwin. She’s got this perfect life.”
“It’s very easy for people to go there, and I can’t blame them for thinking that,” she continues. “But it’s just so not true. I do have a lot of blessings in my life, but I’ve also been molested. My father was in jail, a heroin addict. My son had cancer. I had a miscarriage. I don’t have the perfect marriage; I filed for divorce at one time. There’s a lot of drug and alcohol addiction in my family. The list goes on and on and on. But once people watch my channel, they see that I’m just like everybody else. I’ve got real problems and real issues.”
She also thinks Cal Preach could potentially change the way society views Christians — that they’re buttoned-up conservatives who have zero sense of humor. “That’s such a delusion,” she says. “I’m laughing all the time.” She raises controversial topics like abortion and sexuality, navigating through the issues on her own terms. “[I’m] not saying homosexuality is a sin,” she says. “I’m just basically saying, ‘Let’s look at the bible. Let’s break it down.’ ”
But sometimes, Phillips can go too far. She recently shared that Wilson Phillips had been invited to a Nineties-themed tour — even revealing the lineup — and admitted that the trio had decided to decline. She immediately received a phone call. “My manager called and said, ‘Um, you need to take that down,’ ” she recalls. “They’re not going to say the lineup until like six months from now.”
Phillips is uncertain about the future of Cal Preach. While she’s going to start a Patreon account, she’s hesitant about doing anything bigger, particularly a television show. “It’s my brand, and it’s my baby,” she says. “So I don’t know. [But] I do know that Jesus thinks I’m to die for!”