In May of 1987 the bombshell news broke that a beautiful 29-year-old model and pharmaceutical sales rep, Donna Rice, was linked to the married Democratic presidential election front-runner, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.
In less than a week, the scandal shut down Hart’s White House campaign. Soon after, an infamous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap landed on the cover of the National Enquirer. A film about the scandal, The Front Runner, opens in theaters nationwide Nov. 21 and stars Hugh Jackman.
Now a 60-year-old wife, stepmother, grandmother and internet-safety crusader, Donna Rice Hughes recalls how painful it had been for her to be in the center of a media maelstrom for some 18 months.
“My reputation was destroyed worldwide,” Hughes tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “I hit rock bottom.”
She began to heal through her Christian faith, and stayed out of the spotlight by taking “a time-out that lasted seven years,” she says of finding community among Washington, D.C.’s evangelical Christians.
In 1994, she married Jack Hughes, a tech-industry businessman, and became a step-mom to his two children.
That same year Donna began working with the anti-pornography nonprofit Enough is Enough, inspired after learning that hardcore porn promotes the myth that when a woman says no, she means yes. Years earlier, Hughes had confronted this same scenario when she was the victim of date rape.
Hughes’ groundbreaking work involved what was then a new frontier for pornography—the internet—and helped launch the modern internet safety movement with press interviews and testimony before Congress in 1995.
“I was back on the horse that threw me—politics and the press,” says Hughes, who in 2013 won an Emmy for her PBS TV series, “Internet Safety 101.” (For information on Enough Is Enough’s work protecting children in the digital world, go to enough.org.)
Today, Hughes relishes her time as a “fun Grandma” to their three grandchildren, Jack says.
“She was a great mom. Of course when the grandchildren came along, she just absolutely adores that,” he says.
Adds Hughes: “It’s because I play games. I don’t sit in front of a TV or do technology.”
Hughes has taught two of the children how to play volleyball on visits to their California home. When her 7-year-old granddaughter, an aspiring cheerleader, wanted to learn some athletic routines she turned to Hughes, a former head cheerleader at the University of South Carolina.
“Donna would actually teach her all of the back flips and all these walkover stunts,” says Jack, “all these crazy moves that they do in cheerleading.”
Donna is also writing her memoir — “The movie is not my story,” she says — and continues her anti-pornography work, pressing restaurants and other businesses where children might log onto free Wi-Fi to add porn filters.
And she’s running a “High Road” campaign to promote civility in social media. “I had experience surviving sexual exploitation,” Hughes says. “And this was a wonderful way to give back.”
With reporting by Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
For much more of Donna Rice Hughes’s story and the upcoming film version, pick up the new issue of People on newsstands Friday.