At first, she hoped she could remain anonymous.
When The Miami Herald‘s bombshell front-page headline — “Miami woman is linked to Hart; Candidate denies any impropriety” — hit newsstands on May 3, 1987, the 29-year-old woman in question thought her name could be kept out of what quickly spun into the first big political scandal of its kind. Hart, of course, was Gary Hart, the married U.S. senator from Colorado who, at the time, seemed to be coasting toward the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.
The woman, spied by Herald reporters who staked out Hart’s Washington, D.C., home to investigate his reputation for womanizing, was Donna Rice, then a pharmaceutical sales rep and model-actress living in Miami.
Known today by her married name, Donna Rice Hughes spoke exclusively to PEOPLE for the new issue on newsstands Friday, ahead of the Nov. 21 nationwide opening of The Front Runner, director Jason Reitman’s big-screen retelling of the 1987 sex scandal that shut down Hart’s campaign and tarred Hughes, in her words, as a “bimbo, homewrecker, sleaze.”
“The Miami Herald didn’t know my identity. Somebody in the Hart campaign released my name to the media and so within the day the story broke, my name and other things were released,” Hughes, now 60, recalls in an interview at the kitchen table of the D.C.-area home she shares with her husband, Jack, a tech-industry businessman.
“I was blindsided and thrown into a media feeding frenzy,” recalls Hughes. “I kept saying, ‘I just wanna go home.’ ” But because news cameras mobbed her Miami apartment building, there was no sanctuary there. “I felt I was put on trial. … The media fixated on me for the next 18 months. My reputation was destroyed worldwide.”
The scandal was fueled when women she thought were her friends fed tips to the press — about the March 1987 weekend Hughes and Hart first connected in Miami aboard a charter boat called Monkey Business — and then sold photos of her without her permission. One, appearing on the cover of The National Enquirer, showed Hart, now 81, grinning and in a “Monkey Business Crew” t-shirt while holding Hughes on his lap.
More than three decades later, Hughes, is a grandmother of three in the 24th year of her work with the nonprofit Enough is Enough to protect children — from pornography, bullying and other threats — in a digital world. But the anxiety of her life at the center of that scandal — which she tells PEOPLE was “like the hurricane that never ends” — still revisits her.
“What’s interesting with a traumatic event is that it often happens once and then you’re left with it. In my case, it was over and over and over and over again and for a long time. So, there’s not just one thing and the trauma is deep. I did have PTSD. I just didn’t know what that was,” Hughes says. “Things can trigger feeling out of control —being blindsided can trigger that, trusting people and they turn out not to be trustworthy.”
Most recently, that happened when she learned—via a Google Alert—that Hollywood was making a movie about the worst days of her life. “That was a true blind-side,” she says. (She adds that she subsequently spoke at length with Reitman and was convinced the film would handle her story with compassion — a conclusion confirmed when she privately screened the film in August.)
An evangelical Christian, Hughes says it was faith that brought her healing. “But that doesn’t mean that all of this coming back up again [with the movie] — that old concern of a media encampment and not being able to manage a narrative could surface again. The last time cause me so much pain.”
“On my best day, it was traumatic. On my worst day, I didn’t know how I would survive. I was just holding on by faith.”
For much more of Donna Rice Hughes’s story and the upcoming film version, pick up the new issue of People on newsstands Friday.