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Stepdaddy’s Little Girl

Maggie Rizer’s fresh-faced, malleable appeal made her a $30,000-per-day supermodel. Then her small-town stepfather got hooked on a lottery game called Quick Draw, and, click, all her money was gone.


(Photo credit: Marla Sweeney)

Modeling, all great models will tell you, is hard work. Of course, the hard work comes after you’ve won the genetic lottery, and after someone has picked your picture from among those of the thousands of girls who’ve been similarly blessed. Some take to this new reality as if they’d never known anything else. Others, however, are reluctant to let go of their old selves, which seem so much more solid. Maggie Rizer, an oval-faced 27-year-old from Watertown, New York, the de facto capital of the bleak expanse of upstate known as the North Country, was one of the latter. She’d starred in campaigns for Prada, Oscar de la Renta, Versace, and Calvin Klein and been on the cover of Italian and American Vogue, W, and Elle, to name a few.

As an American girl, Rizer stood out among the Eastern Europeans and South Americans who’d come to dominate the industry. And she didn’t have a lot of built-in attitude—she could present as a freckle-faced, fresh-scrubbed ingenue, although that was only the beginning of her range.

“She was a canvas you could manipulate and mold into whatever mood or look you were doing, which made her, obviously, a very popular model,” says Ford agent Neal Hamil. “That, and the fact that she was so eager to please.”

Rizer’s small-town humility was far from a pose. She’d never outgrown her roots in Watertown. Along with her $1.6 million condominium in Tribeca, she built herself a cottage on Lake Ontario, where she’d spent her summers growing up, and bought her family one of the nicest houses in Watertown. In New York City, she lived a fairly modest life by supermodel standards. In her first five years of modeling, she built up a nest egg of over $7 million, managed by her stepfather, John Breen, a jovial Watertown insurance man.

For many models, the lure of the big city is what gets them off course. For Maggie, it was the town she’d come from. The first sign of trouble came in the summer of 2002, when Maggie went home and her stepfather gave her a gentle lecture. He told her she had “nothing liquid” and prescribed some fiscal remedies for her situation. He said she needed to follow a real budget, work more, and take better care of her laptops. (She’d destroyed three, throwing them in her purse when she traveled to Europe.) Maggie even had to skimp on Christmas presents.

Then, in January, Maggie’s mother, Maureen, called from upstate. Sounding exhausted and distraught, she told Maggie that John was drinking again and that, on the advice of friends, she’d checked him into a rehab facility an hour from their home. With her husband out of town, she’d looked at Maggie’s finances and discovered that John had done some strange things with her money, splitting it up into different accounts. Money seemed to be missing.

Maggie’s first response was that she didn’t believe it. Her mother tended to overreact—and she assumed that this must be one of those times. Besides, John had filled a big void in her life. Maggie’s real father, Kevin Rizer, and Maureen had divorced before Maggie’s 2nd birthday, after announcing he was gay, and was out of Maggie’s life for most of her childhood. They finally reignited a relationship, but he died of AIDS in 1992.

Maggie trusted John like—well, like a father. He adored her. Everyone could see it.

But Maureen insisted, and so Maggie did something she had hardly done since her career began. She picked up the phone and called her bank.

No, that account was closed months ago. She called about a different one. No, it’s been withdrawn. Impossible. Maggie called an investment house where she’d bought some mutual funds. No, the money had been pulled out. “I’d check six accounts to find out there were, like, twenty accounts that existed that I didn’t even know of,” says Maggie. “And all of them had been emptied without me knowing it.

“It just got worse and worse. And I just felt like crawling in a hole because I didn’t want any of it to exist.”

During Maggie’s senior year in high school, Maureen saw an Oprah episode called “Can Your Child Be a Star?” She’d never been shy about directing her children toward fields she thought they’d excel in. Her oldest daughter, Julia, deemed the smart one, was already majoring in English literature at Boston University, with plans to go to law school. Maggie was a field-hockey star, long-legged, blonde, and stunning. Everyone always said she could be a model. And, thought Maureen, why not?

Modeling would also mean an escape from Watertown. The postindustrial city of about 30,000 is surrounded by dairy farms, soybean fields, double-wide trailers, and a massive Army base. Watertown’s biggest claim to fame is that it was home to Frank W. Woolworth, father of the five-and-dime-store chain.

So before Maggie graduated, Maureen sent her picture to the Ford model agency. Almost miraculously, a rep called back, asking if Maggie could come to New York over the summer for an open call.

“Here was this very shy, very pretty young girl, who was very soft-spoken and sort of like, ‘Do you really think I can be a model?’” says Ford’s Neal Hamil. “And we were like, ‘Yeah, we think so.’”

In 1997, she caught photographer Steven Meisel’s eye, and he shot her for the cover of Vogue Italia’s September issue, with a twenty-page couture portfolio inside. She’d spent a year perfunctorily attending classes at two upstate colleges—ironically, she studied accounting—but when her career started to boom, she dropped out. She joined Christy Turlington and Kate Moss in an ad campaign for Calvin Klein and was hired to be the face of MaxMara in ads shot by Richard Avedon. She walked the runway for Prada in Milan and did shows in London and Paris.

Maggie’s sunlit brightness made her the perfect American girl-next-door in a Tommy Hilfiger campaign and a believable cheerleader in ads for Clinique. But she was also the face of Fendi in Asia and appeared as a sophisticated temptress on the covers of Japanese Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

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