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Jennifer O’Neill on Finding Happiness After Experiencing Tragedy

Playing an older woman who seduces a teenager may have made her a star, but nothing in the 1971 classic Summer of ’42 can compare to the many dramatic moments in Jennifer O’Neill’s life. She attempted suicide at age 14, broke her neck and back in a horse riding accident at 15, married her first of eight husbands at 17, checked into a mental institution and, years later, accidentally shot herself in the stomach.

“I try to look at everything as a learning curve,” Jennifer, 71, exclusively shares with Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. Indeed, after experiencing these and other hardships, she found peace through her faith and lasting love with her husband of 23 years, Mervin Louque, 68, and her children, Aimee Sadler, 52, Reis O’Neill, 38, and Cooper Alan, 32. Through them, she’s learned to “be resilient, never give up and never lose your dreams.”

Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with Jennifer!

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After working as a teen model, you had your first big role opposite John Wayne in 1970’s Rio Lobo. What was that like?

He was everything and a bag of chips, but I was a snob. John Wayne was a giant star, yet I didn’t think of him as an actor. But on the set he was delightful and very giving. I wish he was around for me to give him a big hug!

You made a big impact in Summer of ’42.

I think I was only in the film for 14 minutes! It was a lovely film. But being known as the older woman at 22, people think I’m around 110. [Laughs] I have white hair, I don’t care!

How did it change your life?

For years, women would come up to me really happy and say, “Jennifer, my husband loves you!” Now they say, “My husband is in love with you, and so is my son!” They keep playing the movie, so it has a generational following.

Did you always want to be an actress?

Oh, no. I was born in Rio de Janeiro and moved to the U.S. when I was a year old. I started modeling at 15, which I didn’t care for, but it was a means to buy a horse. Then I married at 17. I was just in a hurry.

Jennifer O’Neill
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How did you get started modeling?

My parents were city folk. They lived in Connecticut for my sake and my brother’s sake until I was 14. They told me we were moving to New York City, which was disastrous, losing my ability to take care of a horse that I was able to ride. They wouldn’t let me take our dog and took her to the pound. Two guys that lived next to us suggested that I could model. That appealed to me, because then I could buy my own horse and no one could take anything away from me again. So I strolled into Eileen Ford’s agency, and she signed me on the spot.

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And you had a Cover Girl contract for over 30 years! What’s your secret?

Good genes? I’m in the Smithsonian [Institution’s National Museum of American History], for one of the longest-running modeling contracts. If it ain’t broke, don’t change it!

How did you jump to films?

People were offering me movies and Hollywood contracts, but I wanted to study acting first. I was at the Neighborhood Playhouse [in NYC] for one-and-a-half years and started acting in my early 20s.

You’ve talked about your suicide attempt. Why did that happen?

I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to be heard. It was just a rebellion against my parents’ decisions. What seems like a bump in the road as we get older, to a teenager can seem catastrophic. I was in a coma for a couple of weeks, as I recall. What’s important is that it’s given me a platform to address what’s become an epidemic in this country.

Jennifer O’Neill
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You started a foundation, Hope & Healing at Hillenglade, that helps members of our military overcome trauma. What’s that been like?

After 40 years of breeding and showing horses, being able to share them in a therapeutic manner with soldiers comes full circle from my suicide attempt. If there’s a place that can give them healing, I want to be a part of it.

Do you regret marrying at 17?

Would I advise a 17-year-old girl to get married? No. But things are so different now. I grew up very quickly, and was traveling the world on my own at age 15 and 16. So it seemed pretty normal to me, and I wanted the anchor of having a family and a child.

After you had your first child, Aimee, you had electroshock therapy. Why?

I had postpartum depression, which was not identified at the time. Because I had that experience at 14, I was scared, so I put myself into a hospital and they gave me shock therapy. I had regressed to a place [mentally] where I didn’t hurt, so they gave it to me to bring me to the present.

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Your fifth husband sexually abused your daughter. How did you get through that?

My daughter and I are very close today, but we were in court for a year and I didn’t know who to believe. He passed lie detector tests, so it tore my relationship with her apart. He remarried and did the same thing to his next teenage stepchild. He was just a masterful liar.

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How did you restore your relationship?

When I understood how much she needed me to recognize that she was telling the truth, and she recognized that I didn’t have a clue. She was integral in helping bring him to justice. She was so brave, she put a wire on and got him to admit what he’d done.

You also have two sons, Reis and Cooper.

Yes, and four grandchildren too!

How has being a mom changed you?

Sort of in slow motion. You can’t give what you don’t have. My parents were completely involved with themselves, so I didn’t have a model. I’ve been told by my kids that I’m a great mom, so I guess it evolved.

What did you learn from your marriages?

I’ve been married now 23 years, and I keep going back to my faith, because I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have it. It gave me a solid foundation of understanding that a relationship with anyone should not be the barometer of your happiness. I was always looking for love in all the wrong places and, until I came to my faith at age 38, for someone else to make me feel valuable.

Jennifer O’Neill husband
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Any words of wisdom to share?

People will disappoint you and you’ll disappoint yourself, so forgiveness is essential!

For more on your favorite celebs, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!

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