Jeanne Phillips began assisting her mother, Pauline Phillips, with the Dear Abby column at the age of 14 in order to earn an allowance. When Jeanne asked her mother for an allowance, Pauline answered, "What are you going to do for it?" Pauline then said that her Dear Abby column received a substantial amount of mail from teenagers and that Jeanne could reply to some of them. If Jeanne's responses were "good", her mother would use them in the column. If her responses were not good, Jeanne would rewrite them. Jeanne spent her allowance money on watching movies and plays. She went to San Francisco several times to see the play, Li'l Abner.
In the 1970s, Phillips helped her mother write over half of the columns for her nationally syndicated radio show on CBS News. In 1980, she became the radio show's column executive editor, and in 1987, she became its co-editor. Beginning in 1987, she worked with her mother on the nationally syndicated Dear Abby column. She began writing a majority of the columns since the early 1990s, though her mother did not publicly acknowledge her as the column's co-writer until 2000. Jeanne worked as the writer, while Pauline edited. While Pauline remained at home, Jeanne would manage the office and their paid staff. Mother and daughter were listed as the writers after a December 12, 2000, letter to readers. A photo of the two was affixed to each column. Beginning on July 22, 2002, Jeanne was attributed as the only writer of the column. Kathie Kerr, a spokeswoman for Universal Press Syndicate, the distributor of the column, said: "Over the past couple of years, Pauline Phillips hasn't had any day-to-day activities with the column."
Every day, her column is read by 110 million people and syndicated in about 1,400 newspapers. Every week, she gets from 5,000 to 10,000 letters and emails asking her for advice. Reading and replying to the mail sometimes takes her more than eight hours a day. After crafting a response, Phillips sets it aside. A few days later, she reviews it to ensure that her feelings about the subject remain unchanged. When she is not knowledgeable about a subject, she consults experts from various fields, including "medical, psychiatric, legal, ethical", and religious. Phillips noted that the column touches on numerous topics, including "organ donation, domestic violence, mental health, child safety, volunteerism, civility, alcohol abuse, inhalant abuse ... and the dangers of tobacco". According to Pernell Watson of the Daily Press, Phillips will send an unprinted, confidential reply to readers who send a "self-addressed, stamped envelope".
On Valentine's Day in 2001, the Dear Abby radio show was honored with the 2,172nd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Around 60 family members and friends took part in the 30-minute ceremony. Jeanne Phillips paid the $15,000 sponsorship fee for the star and its maintenance to honor her mother. The Dear Abby radio show lasted for 12 years. Jeanne wrote and produced Pauline's shows; Pauline was the host.
Jeanne Phillips characterized her mother's style as "softer", while she herself "[gets] to the root of the problem quickly". Both Jeanne and Pauline have made gay marriage a topic in their column. In 1984, Pauline directed the parent of a gay child to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). In 2007, her daughter openly announced her support of gay marriage. In the same year, she was given the "Straight for Equality" award by PFLAG.
During the Vietnam War, in 1967, Phillips' mother started Operation Dear Abby, through which holiday messages were sent to American soldiers. Phillips' mother was inspired to create this service when Billy Thompson, a sergeant, requested a letter from home for his Christmas present.
When the 2001 anthrax attacks occurred, the operation was postponed. Jeanne Phillips collaborated with The Pentagon to create an Internet substitute. In 2003, the website received on average 20,000 to 30,000 messages every day. Prior to the Iraq War, the website received only 2,000 to 3,000 messages every day.
The messages are categorized by state and uniformed service but are not sent to specific individuals. Soldiers received the messages by either accessing them on OperationDearAbby.net or when their officers printed out the messages for distribution.
Phillips has appeared on many television talk shows, including multiple appearances on CNN's Larry King Live. Many prestigious national organizations have acknowledged her for her advice and efforts to educate her readers on different topics including those related to health, safety, and acceptance of multiculturalism and diversity.
On December 1, 2005, Jeanne made her first live radio broadcast via Internet radio. In her press release regarding that broadcast, she said that she sometimes calls people who have written her since, in many cases, it is easier to advise people over the phone than through letters.
Jeanne Phillips was born in Mount Morris, Illinois to Pauline Esther "Popo" Phillips, the founder of Dear Abby, and Morton Phillips in 1942. Her grandfather, Jay Phillips, was born in Russia in 1898 and immigrated to Wisconsin when he was two years old. When Jeanne was three years old, her family moved from Minnesota to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Phillips went to elementary school in Hillsborough, California and attended Burlingame High School for two years. After her sophomore year she transferred to Crystal Springs Uplands School and attended the private school for one year. Shortly thereafter, her family moved back to Twin Cities in Minnesota so her father could take the helm of her feeble grandfather's liquor distribution business. For her senior year she attended Washburn High School in Minneapolis. Phillips enjoyed the school, saying, "I loved it. I was never the most popular girl in the class. I never aspired to be. But I did make very nice friends." In college, she majored in English and anthropology, and studied anthropology at the University of Colorado and UCLA though she did not work in the field. She attempted interior design but ultimately decided it was unsatisfactory.
Phillips' aunt, Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer—Pauline's twin sister and the final columnist of the Ask Ann Landers advice column—died in June 2002. In addition to penning a tribute column, Phillips read a poem about her aunt on Larry King Live. In an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2001, Lederer said: "Jeanne has been working with her mother for 20 years, and it seems to be a perfect fit." Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard, wrote an advice column for 45 years until 2013. After Phillips' appearance on Larry King Live, her cousin Howard censured her. Phillips said: "The term a lot of people have been using is feud. All I can say, and this is from my heart to yours, there's no feud on my part. I wish my cousin the best."
Phillips married a "brilliant, charming, talented" man in the 1970s, a California lawyer, but the marriage was not successful. She planned to remain single but later fell in love again. In 2002, she married her second husband, a real estate agent named Walter Harris.
Every day, Phillips reads the letters sent to her Dear Abby column and pens her column in the afternoon. In the evenings, she either cooks or goes out to dinner with her husband. When asked who her Dear Abby was, Phillips replied that her husband is her "primary support" and her friends her "secondary support".
She has largely kept her personal life to herself, making only occasional references to it while advising people or during interviews. In comparison to her cousin, Margo Howard, Phillips has been called "reserved".
Phillips had a brother, Edward "Eddie" Phillips, who was born in 1945 and died in 2011 of multiple myeloma. According to his obituary in the Star Tribune, Eddie was a "liquor tycoon", a "gifted businessman", and a philanthropist who "enlarged a family tradition of generous giving". He had four children: sons Dean, Tyler, and J.J., and a daughter Hutton; the latter two were twins.
According to a 2002 interview, Phillips and her husband have no children. In 2002, the Phillips family revealed that Jeanne's mother, Pauline, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Tim Johnson, a medical journalist for ABC News, wrote in February 2010 that Pauline resides with her husband, Morton, in Minnetonka, Minnesota and has caregivers. Pauline's son, Eddie, said:
We call them angels because they are who are with her 24/7. She watches a lot of television. She loves visitors. She loves to get out. And when she gets out she still wears her Dear Abby sweatshirt and loves to smile and wave and blow kisses.
Pauline Phillips died in 2013 at the age of 94.
Phillips is Jewish. In her column, she writes holiday greetings to people of many religions and occasionally gives advice to people based on their religion.