Rob Lowe on His Wild Journey from Teen Idol to Sober Family Man: 'I'm Grateful for All of It'

"Up until I turned 26, I spent all my time investing in my career. From 26 on, I've invested in me," Rob Lowe tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story

Rob Lowe has literally never been so busy — or as deeply fulfilled.

"I've never been happier, personally or professionally [and] there's not a day that goes by where I'm not thankful about it all," Lowe, 57, tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story where he shares his revelatory journey over four decades as a Hollywood star.

On any given day, he juggles 9-1-1: Lone Star, his hit action procedural on Fox, two podcasts and a one-man stage show recently revived after a pandemic pause. But the most rewarding gig of his life? Being a husband to his wife Sheryl, 60, and father to their two sons, Matthew, 28, a lawyer, and John Owen, 26, a TV writer.

"I have gratitude and profound humility for the gifts that I've been given, and worked for, in this world," he says.

Lowe's good fortune was hard-won, earned in the face of dizzying early superstardom, a struggle with alcoholism and a deep-rooted unease from a young age. As a kid navigating his mother Barbara's consecutive divorces — from Lowe's father and then stepfather — and multiple moves, Lowe found solace in acting early on.

"I had a huge fantasy world in my head and then I found something I could focus all my energies on instead of living in the moment, which a lot of times as a kid was sad or uncomfortable," he says.

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Rob Lowe. Jonny Marlow

While his feature film debut in The Outsiders — Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 coming-of-age drama costarring Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon — was a dream come true, it also proved to be a training ground for a work-hard, play-hard lifestyle he'd come to embrace with open arms.

"People talk about how the industry has changed... Warner Brothers would provide beer in the van for 15-year-old Tommy Howell and 17-year-old Rob," he says. "It was just a different world."

As his career exploded after 1985's St. Elmo's Fire — the Brat Pack-era magnum opus costarring a who's who of up-and-comers including Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson — he was riding high... in every way.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Rob Lowe on or on the PeopleTV app.

He emulated his St. Elmo's character, the "loveable rogue" Billy Hicks, for years, he says. "I became so identified with it — the wild, fun, rock and roll, quasi-debauched with the heart of gold [guy]: that's my early twenties in a nutshell."

The overnight celebrity and hysterical fandom were especially disorienting. "I just knew that all the goodwill coming towards me wasn't really about me, because I hadn't changed," he says. "Look, there's also part of it that's super fun. I was in Santa Monica High School, and I really had to pick who I would invite to the junior prom because I didn't want to get turned down; a year later, people were breaking into my house and stealing my underwear." (Asked how many pairs, Lowe says, "Enough that I noticed.")

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Rob Lowe. Jonny Marlow

He enjoyed a succession of starry romances, including with Melissa Gilbert and Princess Stephanie of Monaco, and indulged in fast-lane living that would make Keith Richards, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty — Lowe's role models at the time — proud.

"I tell my kids, be careful who your heroes are," he says. "I literally designed, consciously and unconsciously, my life around [their example]."

But Lowe long suspected there would come a day of reckoning. "I remember watching Shampoo and when I saw Warren [Beatty] left alone and broken at the end, I absolutely felt like, 'Oh, this is how my life will play out if I don't figure it out,'" he recalls. "It would be many years until I did, but that was always my fear, that I would end up alone. Intimacy and I were not very well acquainted until very late in my life."

For more from Rob Lowe's exclusive interview, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

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Rob Lowe. Jonny Marlow

Lowe's bottom came in 1990 when he was 26. Home after the usual late night of partying, Lowe listened as his mother left a message on his answering machine saying his grandfather had a heart attack. She pleaded for Lowe to pick up. He did not.

Instead, "I remember going into the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror and my thought process was, 'You need to drink directly from this bottle of Cuervo Gold so you can go to sleep, so you can wake up, so you can deal with this,'" he says. "Out of all the things that had gone on in my life, that was the thing where finally I went, 'This is no way to live.' I went to rehab 48 hours later."

By that point, Lowe was ready for a different path. No small motivation was his developing relationship with Sheryl, who he'd worked with on the 1990 erotic thriller, Bad Influence.

Lowe saw something special in Sheryl, then a renowned makeup artist (now, a fine jewelry designer and owner of Sheryl Lowe Jewelry) and felt "seen" for the first time in his life. "I had the feeling that if I was ever going to be able to make it work with anybody, it was Sheryl," he says. "Alcohol and drugs were only going to make that next to impossible."

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Rob Lowe, his wife Sheryl Berkoff and their two sons, Matthew and John Owen. Courtesy

The two married in 1991 and welcomed Matthew in 1993 and John Owen two years later.

"I'm happy I lived the life that I lived because I have no regrets, but I was super ready to coach Little League, carve pumpkins on Halloween, read books and serve hot lunch on Wednesdays," says Lowe, who will celebrate 32 years of sobriety in May. "I really, really loved every minute of it."

Over time, Lowe has worked hard to craft a life of personal and professional balance. "Up until I turned 26, I spent all my time investing in my career," he says. "From 26 on, I've invested in me; my spirituality, my recovery, my marriage, my family. A lot of it has been, excuse me, f—ing hard. And no one has a perfect life... but I'm grateful for all of it."

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

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