Ex-USC cheerleader says political sex scandal ruined her reputation. Now it’s a movie

This file photo shows Irmo High School, USC grad Donna Rice Hughes, who is portrayed in a new movie.
This file photo shows Irmo High School, USC grad Donna Rice Hughes, who is portrayed in a new movie. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A lot has changed over the past three decades.

Donna Hughes has gone from having her image plastered all over supermarket tabloids to a wife, stepmother, grandmother and a proponent for internet safety.

But a new movie, featuring one of the most famous actors in the world, has forced Hughes to deal with the past as it will be dredged up on the big screen beginning this week.

Hugh Jackman stars in the film that follows the rise and fall of Senator Gary Hart, who was considered the front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign was sidelined by a story of an extramarital relationship.

Hughes gained notoriety as Donna Rice in 1987 when she was accused of having an affair with then presidential hopeful Gary Hart. Now 30 years later, it is the major plot line of a new movie, “The Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman.

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This file photo shows Donna Rice, an actress and model who denied being romantically involved with Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart, at a news conference at the office of her attorney in downtown Miami, May 4, 1987. Bill Cooke AP

The Irmo High and University of South Carolina grad was 29 years old when her relationship with then Senator Gary Hart, a presidential hopeful, became a nationwide scandal.

“My reputation was destroyed worldwide. I hit rock bottom,” Hughes recently said, according to People magazine.

The scandal surfaced in 1987, when the U.S. Senator from Colorado was the Democratic front-runner in the presidential campaign. But he was confronted by allegations he had a romantic relationship with a woman other than his wife – Hughes.

The Miami Herald reported that Rice, a model-actress, spent the night at Hart’s townhouse in Washington, D.C. while his wife was away. Hughes was a Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of USC, where she was captain of the cheerleading team from 1978-80, according to the biography on her website.

Hart and Rice denied doing anything wrong, but Hart ended his presidential run a few days later after the media ran wild with the salacious story, The State reported. Not just distinguished news outlets like the Miami Herald or Washington Post covered the story, it was also fodder for tabloids like the National Enquirer.

Hughes was dragged into the limelight of constant gossip tabloids.

“It was the first time journalists had done that kind of private-eye sexual surveillance on a presidential candidate and actually run the goods in a newspaper,” Maureen Dowd wrote of the media circus in Vanity Fair.

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In this April 14, 1987, file photo, Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart fields a question during a news conference in Denver. The Gary Hart saga of 1987 is barely remembered by many, and seen largely as a sad political footnote, even an unfortunate joke. Makers of “Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman as the once-promising Colorado senator, argue that Hart’s story was hardly a joke but actually a watershed moment for American politics, journalism and culture, when politicians became celebrities and their private lives became public property. And, they say, it remains deeply relevant today. Ed Andrieski AP

Hart is portrayed by Jackman, who has starred as “Wolverine” in many “X-Men” movies, along with performances in popular films such as “The Greatest Showman” and “Les Mis.”

Hughes said she was “just a typical Southern girl” who did nothing wrong, The State reported. But at the time she said she was viewed as a “bimbo, homewrecker, sleaze,” according to People magazine.

“I was blindsided and thrown into a media feeding frenzy,” Hughes, now 60, said to the magazine. “I kept saying, ‘I just wanna go home.’ … The media fixated on me for the next 18 months.”

Sara Paxton, who was born in 1988, portrays Hughes in the bio-pic.

This file photo shows Donna Rice Hughes as a cheerleader at the University of South Carolina circa 1979. Courtesy of Donna Rice Hughes

Although Paxton and Hughes never met before the movie was filmed, the actress said she wanted to capture “the empathy of this woman,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“She was a person who was so much more than what she was portrayed as,” said Paxton, who did not want to play Hughes as a “villain” the movie-industry outlet reported. “I feel like she’s finally getting the voice that she didn’t have 30 years ago.”

Before speaking with director Jason Reitman, and viewing an advanced screening of the movie, Hughes was not enthusiastic abut having old wounds picked at publicly.

Hughes found out about the film when she received a Google alert, saying she felt blindsided, stirring up trauma that caused her to experience PTSD, People reported.

After a private screening, she had another view of the film. Hughes told the director she “was happy to have been portrayed compassionately,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“Donna Rice was a broken human being whose life had been stolen,” Reitman said, according to Vanity Fair. “The world feels as though it deserves to know everything about you. People thought of Donna Rice as a blonde object on a boat, not a human being. She didn’t sign up for any of that.”

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This file photo shows Donna Rice Hughes as the USC graduate fights to get access to pornography on the internet away from children. Ralph Lauer Fort worth Star-Telegram

Following the scandal, Hughes did her best to stay out of the spotlight for close to a decade. She did not return to the public eye until 1995, when she testified before Congress as part of her campaign to protect the internet from pornography.

Hughes has become president and CEO of Enough Is Enough, a non-profit organization that advocates for “Internet safety for children and families.”

Enough is Enough’s mission statement says it’s dedicated to raising public awareness about the dangers of internet pornography and sexual predators, cyberbullying and other dangers.

Her work in this field brought her in contact with the 2016 presidential campaign. Hughes praised President Donald Trump for signing a proposal during the campaign to make the internet safer for children, including preventing the sexual exploitation of children online, The State reported.

When she is not working for the nonprofit, Hughes can be found spending time with her three grandchildren, per People. She is even teaching her 7-year-old granddaughter moves that she mastered as a cheerleader at South Carolina.

The magazine also reported Hughes is writing an autobiography, saying “the movie is not my story.”

But don’t expect to learn details about the affair with Hart that ended his presidential aspirations, spawned a movie and might have changed journalism.

That’s because neither Hart nor Hughes has ever admitted to having an affair, Vanity Fair reported.

“The Front Runner” will open nationwide on Wednesday.

Accusations, payoffs and lawsuits: Here’s a guide to the latest White House scandal, which involves a porn star named Stormy Daniels.

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Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State and McClatchy Carolinas Regional Team. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.