Los Angeles Times

Tawny Kitaen: Who she is today

NEWPORT BEACH — Sitting on an oversized plush chair in baseball legend Chuck Finley's Newport Beach home, actress Tawny Kitaen seems to be in a much different place than she was eight years ago. A soccer goal is visible in the backyard, and her daughter's art covers the refrigerator in the family home.

Her adopted dog, Woody, nuzzles Kitaen as she talks about a new off-camera passion: helping others.

A volunteer at Kathy's House, a shelter for at-risk women in San Juan Capistrano, and a member of the board of directors at Testimony Life Resources, an alternative counseling center, Kitaen appears to be a far cry from her role as the eccentric star of "The Surreal Life," or the woman battling a dependency on prescription pills on "Celebrity Rehab."

For Kitaen, the last eight years have not been easy. Originally, the San Diego native, whose real first name is Julie, achieved fame for her presence in the 1980s heavy metal scene. Known as the iconic, cart-wheeling redhead in Whitesnake's 1987 video "Here I Go Again," Kitaen later became the wife of front man David Coverdale and appeared in films such as "Bachelor Party" alongside Tom Hanks and on the TV show "The New WKRP in Cincinnati."

After their divorce, she graced the pages of People magazine for moving on and trading vows with Finley, arguably one of the most celebrated Angels pitchers in team history.

However, on April 4, 2002, Kitaen ended up in the news for much different reasons.

The Daily Pilot reported that Newport Beach police had arrested her for allegedly attacking her husband in their SUV a few blocks from their home. Finley had cuts, bruises and scratches to his hands and face. Newport Beach Police Sgt. Steve Shulman said the incident occurred in the vehicle but the 911 hang-up call came from the couple's Newport Coast home.

Kitaen pleaded not guilty to the charges of domestic violence, and the case was dismissed in 2003 after she attended court-mandated counseling. When she and Finley divorced, she released a statement saying she was being treated for a dependency on prescription drugs and vowed to become "the healthiest and the best mother possible" to her two daughters.

Today, Kitaen maintains that the media misrepresented elements of that story.

"It got blown out of proportion … completely blown out of proportion," Kitaen says. "If Chuck was sitting right here he would tell you the exact same thing."

In a phone interview, Finley says that his ex-wife has moved forward with her life and has become a wonderful mother.

"Tawny has had an amazing journey since the first time I met her," Finley says. "And though there have been bumps in the road, which we all experience, I could not be more proud of where and who she is today.

"I witness daily what a tremendous mother she is to our daughters. I know how she embraces each and every day with optimism. She's at a point where she has found balance in her life, and has been for years really. We talk almost every day about the girls, about what each of us are doing, and how she is looking forward with enthusiasm, to whatever tomorrow might bring, both personally and professionally."

Kitaen denies what is perhaps the best-known element of what happened that night: that she hit Finley with a shoe.

"I don't know where this shoe came from," she says.

After a verbal argument in a Land Rover, Kitaen says she asked Finley to stop the car and admits that she did pull his ear. As for the arrest, Kitaen says that she is the one who called 911, an act she now regrets.

"The cops came. I looked at Chuck, and I looked at the police, and I thought, 'Oh my God, our lives are going to completely change right here,'" she says. "I will never call 911 again."

The incident played out the most publicly right where she lived, in Newport Beach.

"I felt like a leper in this city," she recalls. "It was just a horrible, horrible time for me. I didn't want to leave my house."

However, when she did step out, Kitaen was surprised by the reaction.

"I got hungry and I said, 'I have to go to the grocery store.' I left and people were very nice to me," she says. "It was surprising."

Nowadays, Kitaen says, her relationship with Newport Beach residents couldn't be better.

"I love it down here because people really leave you alone," she says. "I have great neighbors."

Now tanned with a new blond 'do, the 49-year-old mother of two looks transformed from her 2002 mug shot.

"So much has changed and happened since then," she says.

Family photos cover the mantle of Finley's home, where she is staying. Kitaen points to one in particular.

"That's from my birthday," she says. "We all hang out as a family."

The picture of Kitaen, Finley and their two daughters is taken at a restaurant during her recent birthday. They look like any family, albeit a good-looking one, and for Kitaen, it sounds like that's exactly what she wants them to be. Just like any other family.

This all begs the question about Kitaen and Finley: Are they back together?

Kitaen demurs.

"It's complicated," she says with a smile.

Finley, in the phone interview, doesn't address the context of the relationship but praises his ex.

"We have been and will continue to be there for each other," Finley says. "As far as I am concerned, she has no bigger supporter than me."

She asserts that her stay in his home is "temporary" and that she'll soon be moving to another home, a five-minute drive away.

Although she isn't clear on the status of their relationship, she says, "We worked things out in our own way."

Kitaen's 13-year relationship with Finley has faced its ups and downs. Her battle with Vicodin, a painkiller, allegedly put a wedge between the couple, but it was another relationship that really brought her life to a breaking point.

Following the 2002 divorce from Finley, Kitaen says she got involved with a man who was physically and verbally abusive.

"Chuck hated this guy. My parents, my friends and family hated this guy," she says. "I couldn't see it. I was in so much pain from the divorce."

It was during this relationship, in 2006, that Kitaen says she developed a dependency on cocaine.

"A friend said, 'Do you want to try this?' I tried it and I went on a run for about six months … hard," Kitaen says. "I had made a reservation at Promises (a rehabilitation program) to get off the coke."

She made a decision: Dump the boyfriend and the drugs.

The day before she left for Promises, Kitaen says she gave 15 grams of cocaine to authorities.

"I handed it to them. I said, 'Look, I'm going to rehab tomorrow,'" she says.

Nine months later, after her stay in rehab, she was contacted by the authorities and asked to complete drug testing and counseling in order to dismiss a possession charge.

Now, Kitaen says she abstains from drugs and alcohol. However, Kitaen prefers to say she is "living" versus "sober" because she believes the commonly used "sober" has negative connotations.

Kitaen says her battles with drugs were situational, that she hasn't had a long history with drug abuse, therefore it isn't a day-by-day struggle, rather a lifestyle change.

"There was a time when I was struggling — that was a couple years ago," she says. "We wouldn't be sitting here in Chuck's house if I was still struggling."

Due to her experiences with the man she termed abusive, Kitaen became involved with Kathy's House, which offers a place for battered and abused women to live after fleeing dangerous situations.

Kitaen has offered herself as a supportive voice, answering phones and helping young women figure out a part of their day that many of us take for granted: where they will sleep.

The former model tells a story of one caller who sticks out in her memory. A victim of domestic abuse, the woman and her 10-month-old were forced to live with her parents in a retirement home because they had nowhere to go. The home would only permit her to stay there temporarily so she called Kathy's House for help.

Kitaen answered the phone.

"I called around and tried to find a place for her and her daughter to go," Kitaen says. "I called and I called and no one could take her. Finally, I found her and her daughter a place to live. It was the greatest feeling in the world."

Diana Spitz, director at Kathy's House, was happily surprised by Kitaen's devotion.

"At first I was apprehensive that was I going to get Tawny Kitaen, as I am with any celebrity, but then I experienced a day with her and she was great, upbeat … moving from project to project," Spitz says. "I believe she has a heart to help people in need."

Passionate about the battle facing battered women, Kitaen hopes her story can help other women come out about their relationships, past and present. Kitaen once felt ashamed to tell people that she was being harmed, but now realize that opening up can be of help to those in the throes of abuse.

"You don't want to tell anybody because you feel like a complete fool for staying. You protect them," she says. "You do everything you can so other people don't find out that he's abusing you."

The ordeal inspired the actress to write a book that will include her personal story of domestic violence as well as others. On her Facebook page, Kitaen has been asking people to privately send her their stories. She has been touched and surprised by the results.

"I have gotten letters from women that have said, 'I have never told anybody this before. My family doesn't know this,'" Kitaen says.

She's also been caught off guard by the gender of the writers.

"This isn't a women's only club," she says. "I'd say 50% of the letters I got were from men that were abused by their mothers, fathers, or girlfriends. People think abuse is just for women. It must drive men absolutely insane because men get abused as well."

Besides her domestic violence work, Kitaen has also lent her life experiences in the form of counseling. Testimony Life Resources, just like the namesake, offers resources for people to come back to life after facing issues such as addiction, eating disorders, depression or suicide. Based in San Juan Capistrano, Kitaen sits in on one-on-one sessions, offering her advice.

"I've been around the block a few times," she laughs. "There is still a lot to learn but I've learned a lot in my life through error."

Kitaen believes Testimony offers a special program, combining mental, physical and spiritual counseling, providing people with the necessary skills to get back up on their feet.

"Sometimes people don't even know the basics and that's OK," she says. "As long as there are people that do know the basics and we can match those people up … then we can move from there. That's what Testimony is."

While Kitaen helps others get their lives going, it seems that she's doing the same with her career. She says MTV is talking about a 30th anniversary coffee table book and the network has approached her for an interview due to her presence in Whitesnake's iconic music videos, particularly the one in which she kicks up her legs on the hood of a Jaguar. The video for "Here I Go Again" had logged 10.3 million hits on YouTube, as of Friday.

She's also working on an autobiography.

When she's not volunteering, writing or acting, Kitaen is just a normal mom, picking up her daughters from school and taking them to the movies. She recently took her eldest to Bali, where they took Thai cooking classes. During the interview she mentioned they were all going out to sushi that night.

"It's always been one big happy family," Kitaen says. "Well, it hasn't always been … but we've evolved into that."

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