How the actress survived ex-husband Charlie Sheen, intense
tabloid scrutiny and the loss of her mom to cancer.
by Allan Richter
On their first date, Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen ate portion-controlled meals from a health food delivery service as they quietly watched the World Series at Sheen’s condo. Except for a couple of scoops of mint chip and chocolate ice cream after dinner, the date was the very picture of moderation. On their next dinner date, Richards writes in her memoir The Real Girl Next Door (Gallery Books), she even saw an “endearingly shy, sensitive side” to Sheen, then three years sober. It wasn’t long before the two actors fell in love and married.
Three years later, while pregnant with the couple’s second daughter, Richards filed for divorce. The messy parting was fodder for the tabloids, its discord eclipsed only by the custody battle that Richards won and by Sheen’s more recent wild and very public departure from his hit television series, Two and a Half Men.
The divorce was only the beginning as Richards saw setbacks and tragedy unfold over the next three years. After she went through the humiliating divorce, she saw her public image tarnished and career suffer. Then, her mother, Joni, was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, or kidney cancer, and died.
In the midst of the heartbreak, there was a bittersweet moment. Three months before she died, her mother bought two copies of Leo Buscaglia’s The Fall of Freddie Leaf (Slack), a book that teaches about death as part of the cycle of life, and arranged for it to be given to Richards’ children. In the inscription she wrote that she had safely arrived in heaven and would always be watching over and protecting them.
Far from a dirt-dishing tell all, Richards’ memoir chronicles her efforts to cope in the aftermath of those often dark and difficult days, regain her health and focus on her family. This year daughters Sami, 7, and Lola Rose, 6, got a new baby sister when Richards adopted Eloise Joni. “As I went through the worst times of my life,” she writes, “I also experienced the best—being a new mom.” Richards, 40, spoke with us in New York as she fed Eloise on her lap and snacked on a pretzel and coffee.
Energy Times: You write in your memoir about the optimism you called upon to survive the three very intense years you had—the parting with your husband, a bitter custody battle, the glare of the tabloid spotlight and losing your mother to cancer. Where does that optimism come from?
Denise Richards: As a kid my dad always told my sister and me life is what you make of it, and when you’re dealing with some challenging times sometimes it’s easy to have a pity party and feel sorry for yourself. I’ve had days like that. But for the most part I realized I could make a choice. Do I want to feel sorry for myself and be selfish or do I want to pull myself out of this and start picking myself up and move my life forward and become the person that I really want to be? As hard as all that was, it was also a big lesson for me.
ET: The fact that you had children must have been a big motivator.
DR: A huge motivator because I didn’t want to sit in my room crying. I wanted to put on a brave face for them and be a good role model. They were a huge reason for me getting through all that. I call them my little pillars of strength. I had to be the kind of person I would want them to be.
ET: You also write about listening to your inner voice, which you say is similar to listening to your body.
DR: I think we all have that little angel, whether we want to listen to it or not. Call it gut instinct or whatever it is, there’s that little voice that tells you, “This isn’t right” or “You should do this,” and we don’t listen to that a lot. I’ve learned to truly be quiet and follow my gut on certain things. Our strength is really within us. God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle. We’re stronger than we think we are. There are times, like when you’re going through a divorce or you lose your job or home or whatever it may be, when many people feel they have hit rock bottom and don’t have the strength to go on. That was my whole thing with this book. It wasn’t to tell my side of the story or change perceptions. It was to say that I truly did hit rock bottom—a lot of people don’t know that—and I had to pick myself back up as a lot of people do these days.
ET: You learned from everything you went through. Did you also learn anything new about yourself or lessons from the process of writing this book?
DR: I did. I have a new respect for authors. It was a lot harder than I thought. But it’s not a tell-all. People have said to me that it must have been very cathartic. But I didn’t get into a lot of the details; I got into the feelings. My Twitter followers were a big inspiration for me writing the book because many had asked me how I got through the dark times. I decided to write this and share my story and feelings. If I can give hope to just one person who might be going through something and thinks there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, that’s very fulfilling and gratifying. Going back and writing all of that, and rereading it, I was really amazed at how I did put on a brave face and how I did get through everything. At the time I just powered through it because I didn’t know what else to do.
ET: After your mother died, your father moved in with you and took over cooking duties, which put about 15 pounds on you because, as you say in your memoir, he only knew how to cook multicourse feasts and every meal was like a Thanksgiving dinner. What did you do to take what you called that “emotional weight” off?
DR: I really just decided to start being very consistent with my workouts. I hired a Pilates trainer and started working out at 5: 30 in the morning six days a week. I’d work out from 5:30 to 6:30, then get the kids off to school. I was just very diligent with my diet.
I had put on weight when I was pregnant but it came off pretty quickly. But this was the first time I realized I needed to figure this out. Fifteen pounds on my frame is a lot. [Celebrity gossip show] TMZ and a few other sites were kind enough to point that out. A lot of it was emotional weight from the death of my mom. That took a long time to get through. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.
That was the only thing that I could think that caused me to put that weight on because I don’t have a weight problem. I come from a very thin family. I work out to keep things firm. But I didn’t feel good. I felt like a part of me had died.
ET: Your mother’s gesture, arranging for the Leo Buscaglia book to be given to your children, was tremendous and shows what a generous spirit she was. How did that affect you?
DR: It was so profound and she was so brave to do that three months before, knowing she was going to die. She never talked about it with us and what she said in private to my dad I don’t know. I just could not believe that she was still helping us after the fact.
ET: How often do you look at the book your mother left for your kids?
DR: You know what, I can’t look at it. I saw it once. Recently I took a picture of the book and put it in my memoir. But it’s always there for me when I need it.
ET: How did your mother’s death give you a new outlook on your own health?
DR: I was always pretty healthy but I just saw so many people getting cancer. There’s no age now for cancer. I definitely changed. I changed everything. I want to be really healthy. My mom died at 53. The one thing I have a fear of is not being around for my kids so I want to stay as healthy as I can. I am on every vitamin. Omega oils. Juices. I want to stay healthy. I drink a lot of green tea. The omega fish oil I take is lemon-flavored so it doesn’t taste so fishy. I take vitamin B. I take a vitamin D supplement. D is very important, plus I use a lot of sunscreen so I don’t get a lot of vitamin D from the sun.
ET: And what is your diet like today?
DR: I’ve been so busy that I have been taking snacks in a cooler in the car. But I wanted to eat something more balanced so I started using this food delivery service called Zen Foods. I love it. They send these great meals: egg whites and fruits and lots of salads. About 80% of my diet is vegetarian. But I eat all day long. I find that that keeps my metabolism going and I don’t like to be super full. I like to eat enough. I find I need well-rounded tiny meals. I eat when I’m hungry, every few hours I would say. I do everything in moderation. You can’t go too crazy.
ET: Do you like to cook?
DR: I do actually cook a lot. I love homemade soup. My favorite meal, when I’m not feeling like chips and guacamole, is homemade soup and a big salad. I make a good minestrone soup. I make lentil, which is healthy. Butternut squash is good. I like to make a big pot of soup and have that in the fridge.
ET: Being so conscious of your own diet and health, how do you ensure that your kids develop healthy habits?
DR: You know my kids actually have a very good palate. They love salads. They love vegetables. They would actually prefer chicken, vegetables and potatoes as opposed to burgers and fries. I’m actually pretty lucky. They like their sweets, so I have to limit that, but as far as their actual diet and food intake they eat pretty healthy.
ET: Where do you think they got that?
DR: From birth. I started introducing that kind of thing when they were young. But then some people introduce that and the kids don’t like it. I think I just got pretty lucky that my kids eat healthy.
ET: What’s your attraction to Pilates?
DR: I love Pilates. I found it was the only thing that got my stomach flat after having two C-sections. Pilates elongates your muscles. I like that it kind of gives you a dancer body. And I work muscles that I didn’t know I had. I actually invested in a reformer machine after I had Lola. It’s actually my favorite workout combined with dance classes with Louis Van Amstel, who’s a pro dancer on Dancing with the Stars. He teaches a cardio-ballroom class that’s so fun you don’t even feel like you’re working out. I’m pretty physical anyhow. I literally do not sit still. I’m very active. I go from the time I wake up until I go to bed. I’m not sitting on the couch and eating potato chips.
ET: Most of our readers are women, and they’re going to want to know your beauty tips.
DR: I like the basics, like putting sunscreen on your face. I don’t smoke. I find that smoking, besides not being healthy for you, really ages the skin very quickly. And I drink a lot of water. But I find the biggest thing is sunscreen. Even if it’s cloudy out I still put sunscreen on my face.
ET: You are devoted to rescuing dogs. How many dogs do you have now?
DR: I would say too many to count. At the moment I have a mom and some pups that we are fostering that will be getting adopted out very soon. I adopted a 17-year-old dog. I didn’t want her to end her days at a shelter. I have one that has terminal cancer. One was abused and has three legs. I find I gravitate to the ones that need extra care and have special needs.
ET: I’ve got to ask you a question or two based on your experiences with Charlie. Do you have any tips for women with an ex, especially when there are children involved? Besides soldiering on, what would you say?
DR: I say you have to make it about the kids. Even if you have to fake it in front of them, be nice to each other. Pretend like you’re friends. The kids will benefit greatly if the parents get along.
ET: And you’re still in touch with Charlie?
DR: Yeah, it’s up and down, depending on where he’s at. I’m always available for when things are good. When things are great it’s a hell of a lot easier. It’s nice when it’s in a good place.
ET: Any tips for being in love with someone who has unhealthy habits? You write in the book that you didn’t want to change him.
DR: You can’t change them. That’s my advice. If you don’t like someone smoking and it really bothers you, don’t marry him. You can’t change people and they’ll smoke more. If they drink, they’ll drink more after they’re married. If it really bothers you, don’t think they’re going to change after you tie the knot.