By Charlotte Triggs
December 15, 2008 12:00 PM

Maggie Rizer knew she had made it as a model when, about a year after she moved from the small town of Watertown, in upstate New York, to Manhattan, her agent called to tell her that she had booked a Louis Vuitton ad campaign. “I remember him saying, ‘It pays only $200,000—but don’t worry: Your rate will go up,'” she recalls, breaking into a laugh over breakfast at Sant Ambroeus on the Upper East Side. “I was 18, from the middle of nowhere, and had been worried about paying my $8,000 student loan! It seemed like play money.”

But not for long. Over the next few years Rizer parlayed her apple-cheeked charm into lucrative modeling gigs for everyone from Tommy Hilfiger and Clinique to Calvin Klein and Max Mara, amassing a $7 million fortune. Recognizing that “I couldn’t handle it myself,” she entrusted her accounts to her stepfather, John Breen, who had volunteered to manage her money for free. “I was like, ‘Fine, just pay my bills,'” she recalls. Instead Breen, 52, gambled away every last dime—and as if that news wasn’t devastating enough, Rizer also found out that no taxes had been filed on her earnings, leaving her about $2 million in debt to the IRS. “He had been lying to me for years,” she says. “In your wildest dreams, you never think your family is going to do something like that to you.”

The discovery destroyed Rizer’s world: Her mother, Maureen, 53, divorced Breen shortly thereafter, and he received a prison sentence of 16 months to four years for grand larceny. “I sent him to jail, which was a really hard thing for me to do,” Rizer says. “I mean, my mom married him when I was 8, so I grew up with him. He was a big part of my life.”

To pay off the IRS, Rizer did a few more high-paying ads, then sold her downtown Manhattan apartment and walked away from the business. “It was overwhelming for her, devastating,” says Rizer’s sister Julia Clement, 33, a lawyer. “She likes to look on the bright side, but there was no bright side.”

Today, however, the 30-year-old Rizer says, “I can finally pick my head up again.” A two-year relationship with Alex Mehran, 27, a real estate developer who lives with Rizer and golden retrievers Henry and Albert in New York City, has helped, as has a return to the spotlight. In October she signed with Trump Model Management (“Maggie is iconic; she can easily be big again,” says her agent, Dean Rogers) and in the past few months has shot ads for Sephora and worked with designer Nicole Miller, in addition to appearing as a guest judge on the new CW reality competition Stylista.

But what has healed her the most is coming to terms with the loss of her father, Kevin, who died at age 37 from AIDS. Rizer’s parents divorced when she was 2, after her dad came out as gay, a lifestyle he was open about with his daughters. “He wanted us to know,” Rizer says. His death, when she was 14, “still hurts,” says Rizer, who is producing an AIDS documentary. “It’s a big thing missing from my life.”

For a long time Breen did his best to fill the father hole—until suspicious transfers from Rizer’s accounts were brought to her attention. She hired lawyers to investigate (they found Breen had opened dozens of accounts in Rizer’s name and emptied them of funds), but even then, she says, “it was really hard for me to believe it.” “More than [losing] the money,” says Clement, “the betrayal was most difficult for her.”

Breen got out of prison last year, and though Rizer doesn’t have a relationship with him, she says, “I wish him the best and want him to get on with his life.” She’s certainly getting on with hers: In training for a half-marathon and at work on a memoir, Rizer says that even if she doesn’t return to the top of the modeling world, she wants “to feel successful with myself and with life in general. I’ve been in so many places where I felt the world was ending. It’s good to feel like life is good again.”