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From Lisa Jo to Rielle with a bit part as Alison

Woman linked to John Edwards has been on a search for guidance and enlightenment -- but not scandal.

September 06, 2008|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Rielle Hunter was in a business meeting in the lounge of the Regency Hotel in New York City when she saw Sen. John Edwards across the room. He, too, was in a meeting. They eyed each other. And not just once.

She left the hotel but later in the day found herself walking along Park Avenue toward the Regency. As she approached the hotel, she saw John Edwards on the sidewalk.

Face to face, their connection was instant. They spoke briefly, flirtatiously.

They could have left it at that. But they didn't.

Instead, they began an affair, according to Pigeon O'Brien, a friend of Hunter who said Hunter told her all about that first meeting. And Hunter fell in love.

"Head over heels," said O'Brien.

The rest is tabloid history.

When Edwards confessed on national television last month to his affair with Hunter, 44, she was already the focus of the most sensational scandal of the political season.

Edwards' public denial that he is the father of her 6-month-old baby girl was greeted with skepticism in many corners. So was his timeline.

Edwards said in his televised "Nightline" interview that their affair began after she had been hired in the summer of 2006 to produce the Web videos of an informal Edwards before the announcement of his candidacy at the end of December 2006.

O'Brien contends that the two met no later than February 2006 and started their relationship almost immediately.

O'Brien became friendly with Hunter in the 1980s in New York. The two women fell out of touch in the 1990s and reconnected at a Manhattan party for author Jay Mc- Inerney in 2004. O'Brien, 42, runs her own publicity company, concentrating on alt-country and Americana music performers. She also designs websites. She says she helped Hunter -- for free -- construct and maintain her own website, beingisfree.org. Hunter's website no longer exists and she seems to have gone underground.

Indeed, Hunter has spent much of the past few months closeting herself away in Santa Barbara.

But wait. Let's rewind the tape of the life that brought Rielle Hunter, nee Lisa Jo Druck, to that fateful meeting on Park Avenue with Sen. John Edwards.

And her name is pronounced "Ree -- elle."

Hunter's life has been equal parts magical mystery tour and perpetual job quest. She has been a party girl, a minor (but working) actress, a writer of oddly titled compositions, a yoga enthusiast and a spiritual seeker. During the 1980s and '90s, she bounced between coasts and made occasional forays in the world abroad, following one guru or another

McInerney -- a friend and former boyfriend -- immortalized Hunter to a degree by using her as the model for Alison Poole, the hard-partying, promiscuous, glib narrator of his 1988 novel "Story of My Life":

The first year I was in New York I didn't do anything but guys and blow. Staying out all night at the Surf Club and Zulu, waking up at five in the afternoon with plugged sinuses... Story of my life.

"She was thrilled," O'Brien said of Hunter's reaction to the book.

McInerney declined to talk for this story, although he did a Q and A interview with Hunter for a 2005 issue of a now-defunct magazine called "Breathe." His narrator was "inspired by Lisa," he wrote.

(Never one of his better-known works, "Story of My Life" is now hot; an additional 2,500 copies were ordered by the publisher last month.)

Hunter's incarnations have been dramatically different.

She told McInerney that she found enlightenment in 2004 and wanted to help others find it.

But she was also intrigued by fame, according to O'Brien, and titled one section of her now dismantled website "fame i am lives forever." She started the website, beingisfree.org, as an amalgam of spiritual musings and inspirations, but the site has vanished from the galaxies of cyberspace.

Barely a couple of years before she snagged the job of producing videos of Edwards for a six-figure sum, she was a hostess at Real Food Daily, a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood, for modest wages.

She has gone from renting rooms in people's houses just a few years ago to spending the last few months variously cocooned in a gated home and a seaside house in the Santa Barbara area. As the story of her affair with Edwards was about to explode on national television, she was reportedly whisked away from Southern California by private jet to the Virgin Islands.

In the McInerney interview, she had a kind of "the universe will provide" mind-set. "I have a strong desire to help people wake up -- how about for free? How I will survive, I do not know. Enlightenment is living in the not knowing."

She was born Lisa Jo Druck in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., one of four girls, and spent part of her childhood riding and showing horses.

"She rode nicely," said Don Stewart, who runs his own stables and horse training business in Ocala, Fla. But what may be more memorable about the young Druck is her inadvertent connection to one of the greatest scandals in the history of the horse show circuit.

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