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Adieu to L.A.'s Gazillionaire- Widow Tax Base

February 13, 2001|GINA PICCALO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A chapter is closing in the colorful life of Darcy LaPier Robertson Rice Van Damme Hughes, a woman who started as a chicken catcher in Molalla, Ore., and catapulted to tabloid fame as a jet-setting glamour puss known for landing super-rich husbands.

On Wednesday, she would have celebrated her second wedding anniversary to her fourth husband, Herbalife International Inc. founder Mark Hughes, who died at home in Malibu last May at 44 of a toxic mix of antidepressants and alcohol.

Instead, the 35-year-old widow is packing up. She is leaving Los Angeles for Portland, Ore., with $34 million, her share of Hughes' $100-million estate, according to estate executor Conrad Klein. The rest is going to her 9-year-old stepson, Alexander, Hughes' only son by his second wife, Suzan Hughes, with whom she waged a months-long legal battle. Mark Hughes had intentionally excluded his wife from his will because their prenuptial agreement provided for her after his death.

The settlement may not be all Darcy Hughes had dreamed. She walks away with significantly less than the nearly $64 million to which she and her attorneys believe she was entitled. Among other things, the prenup provided $4 million to Hughes for a Portland house and, in the event of her husband's death, $10 million within 45 days and the right to live in a mansion "commensurate" with the couple's $29-million Grayhall estate in Beverly Hills. In exchange for moving out of the mansion, she will receive $20 million.

She will leave both their mansions, said Klein, "to relieve the estate of the burden of maintaining a household."

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What a burden it was: Court papers show that during the first few months of her most recent marriage, Hughes spent close to $1 million redecorating their Malibu and Beverly Hills mansions. Her touches included 19th century French tapestries, gilded Italian lamps, monogrammed towels for their three children from previous marriages and for the couple (hers: "D," his: "Mr. H") and a $38,000 antique commode.

The settlement agreement also includes a clause that allows Hughes to pursue legal action against the estate for "a widow's allowance"--unpaid funeral expenses totaling about $100,000. Among those expenses, court records show, were $1,400 for her husband's cremation and an additional $32,000 for her own costs related to the funeral--including $750 for celebrity hair stylist Jose Eber.

Not long after her husband's death in the bedroom of their 35-room Malibu beachfront home, Hughes dug in her heels there and threatened to tie up the property in litigation if the estate didn't give it to her, according to court papers. The ploy was unsuccessful; she will forfeit any claim to what she and her late husband called their "beach house."

Also around that time, she posed for the British magazine Hello! in a sitting room of the house wearing jewels and evening gowns. "Screen action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme's ex-wife Darcy LaPier talks of the tragic sudden death of her [fourth] husband, as she shows us round the stunning Malibu mansion they once shared," read the headline in the magazine's November 2000 issue.

Hughes refused to be interviewed for this story. "She's been instructed not to comment," her assistant said. Attorneys on both sides have also refused to comment on Hughes or her settlement agreement.

Hughes' story reads like the stuff of pulpy romance novels.

She was the only child of Native American parents, dropped out of high school and worked a series of low-paying jobs in the rural suburbs of Portland, Ore., including catching chickens headed for slaughter and servicing X-ray machines.

In 1986, Hughes married a longtime friend, Larry Ray Robertson, and gave up aspirations to a health care career when she realized her good looks could help pay the bills. "I was interested in science, but my girlfriends soon discovered the power of using the right lipstick, and when I looked at myself in the mirror one day, I thought, 'Hey, I'm pretty good-looking!' " Hughes told Hello!

After she won the Oregon Miss Hawaiian Tropic title in 1986, she caught the eye of the suntan oil company's founder Ron Rice. "I noticed her and thought she was very beautiful," Rice said in a telephone interview from Daytona Beach, Fla. "But she had very short hair, and I liked long hair, and things didn't click at the time."

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Nevertheless, Rice visited Hughes when she moved to Phoenix and launched a modest acting career in TV and movies. Eventually, he invited her to Los Angeles to appear at company promotional events, and soon the two were inseparable.

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