PEOPLE looks at the aspiring-actress-turned-spiritualist-turned-political-operative at the center of the scandal

By Frank SwertlowLorenzo Benet and Nicole Weisensee Egan
Updated August 14, 2008 12:40 PM
Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty; Billy Farrell/PMc/Sipa

Rielle Hunter, the 44-year-old campaign aide with whom former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has admitted to having an affair, seems to have had as many personal transformations as she’s had names.

Hunter went from a New York City party girl to an aspiring actress in Los Angeles to a New-Age spiritualist and then, finally, to a political operative.

Pigeon O’Brien, a music publicist who’s known Hunter for 20 years, says she’s most puzzled by Hunter’s latest role. O’Brien was especially disturbed by negative comments Hunter made about Elizabeth Edwards in a recent Newsweek story.

“The person I’m seeing now confuses me,” O’Brien tells PEOPLE. “Where is Buddhist Rielle? She is a very grounded, spiritual, beautiful person, and I don’t know how to reconcile that with the woman in the Newsweek story.”

Born Lisa Druck

Hunter, who has disappeared from public view in the time since the scandal broke, was born Lisa Druck in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and stayed in the state until her late teens, dropping out of the University of Tampa after two years.

By 1987 she was in New York and hanging out with a hard-partying group, including Bright Lights, Big City novelist Jay McInerney, whom she dated for several months. He was 30 when they met, and she was 20, McInerney tells PEOPLE. He was inspired to write the book Story of My Life by hanging out with her and her friends.

“I was fascinated by the way they talked,” he says. “It was a different generation than my own. Today, it would come under the rubric of Valley Girl talk, the use of ‘like,’ instead of ‘to say.’ They were open speaking about sex.” Says Hunter’s older sister, Roxanne Marshall, “Rielle is the black sheep of the family. We were all raised the same way. She chose a different path.”

Hunter later moved to Los Angeles and married Alexander Hunter III, who financed the production of a play for her – a coming-of-age story about a group of tough 30-something New Yorkers and titled Savage in Limbo, recalls costar Elizabeth Dennehy.

Drove Out Bad Spirits

Dennehy recalls that Hunter called the cast together and lit some sage in the theater, “to clear the space of bad spirits and bring in the good ones. But it was all meaningful and earnest.”

In 1994 Hunter changed her first name to Rielle because “it just came to her,” according to O’Brien. She and Hunter divorced in 2000, and four years later, Rielle created a Web site called

It was in May 2006 when Hunter met John Edwards at a Manhattan hotel bar. And, according to Pigeon, she fell in love with the rising Democratic politician, whom she called “Love Lips.” A new chapter in Hunter’s multi-storied life had begun.

For more on Rielle Hunter and John and Elizabeth Edwards, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

• John & Elizabeth Edwards talk to PEOPLE about what keeps them going through campaigns & cancer: each other
• Back in 2004, PEOPLE introduced John Edwards’s greatest asset: his wife Elizabeth
• From philandering politicians to cheating celebrities, check out these affairs to remember
• From prostitution rings to illicit interns, read more about sex scandals