Stepdaddy’s Little Girl

(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.

John Breen, Maggie's stepfather, in his home the day before he was sentenced to prison.Photo: Marla Sweeney

At the height of her career, Maggie earned upwards of $20,000 per fashion show, doing up to 80 shows a year. Her photo-shoot day rate started at $30,000. As the checks flooded in, Maggie and Maureen realized they couldn’t keep everything organized. So in 1998, Maggie, then 20, hired a money manager in New York who would oversee her finances in exchange for 5 percent of her income.

“I had started making money, which in Watertown terms was an enormous amount. And a lot of people were telling me to get an accountant,” says Maggie. “And I went home for the beginning of the summer, and I just remember my parents screaming at me—mostly John—kind of like, ‘What are you doing? You’re throwing money out the window.’”

John told Maureen he was hurt that Maggie hadn’t asked him to manage her money. Though he was an insurance man, he prided himself on his financial sophistication—he could certainly handle paying Maggie’s Con Ed bill and put some of her money in mutual-fund accounts.

At first, Maggie was confused. “I remember lying on my bed and crying because I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I just remember thinking, Don’t mix business with family, but then thinking, Am I wasting money? Am I being foolish? Do I need a financial planner to take 5 percent of my money?”

“So I just said, ‘Okay.’ And I didn’t think much of it,” says Maggie.

John loved being the stepfather of a supermodel. “He didn’t have pictures of his three youngest children in his wallet, but he went around with the latest fashion magazines,” says Maureen. John always had a few of Maggie’s five-by-seven model cards with him, which he’d pull out and show to strangers. “He was always having her agency send him stacks more,” she says.

John came to New York often to visit Maggie—the two were close. “There was always something big missing from my life,” says Maggie. “You see other people with their dads and you’re kind of jealous.”

“I used to take people for their word,” says Rizer. “It’s like, if you’re a bad person, you’re supposed to be ugly and scraggly and mean.”

John filled that role. “It was great. He loved it,” says Maggie. “The way I look at it is, he was so amazed by what I was doing—well, not amazed but proud, and you could see it in his face. He was almost, like, envious of me in a weird way, which sounds a little sick, but I just think he was really proud and enjoyed seeing me like this.”

Despite the fact that Maggie knew that John had had a drinking problem in the past, they would go to the Tribeca Grand Hotel for cocktails when he was in town. “It just wasn’t even an issue,” says Maggie. “Him having a couple of drinks wasn’t him drinking again. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re celebrating my VH1 nomination for model of the year, have a couple drinks.’”

But what looked like social drinking in the big city was, back in Watertown, a serious alcohol problem. Maggie’s fame and success had caused John to lose his bearings. And in fact, he was leading a double life. He’d drop the kids off at school, and then go to a bar where he’d drink until it was time to go home for dinner.

At the Speak Easy, a bar he frequented that’s owned by the mayor of Watertown, John had become fascinated with a keno-like, state-run lottery game called Quick Draw. A Queens state senator called it “video crack,” which is what it became for John. Day after day, he sat at the Speak Easy, filling out Quick Draw tickets, drinking vodka, and slowly detaching himself from the father and husband his family knew.

Each ticket has a $10 maximum bet per game, but the game starts over every five minutes and John would play 50 tickets at a time. His bank account dwindled quickly, and it didn’t take long before he started writing checks he couldn’t cover. Before the Speak Easy or some other bar could file a bad-check claim, he’d write checks from Maggie’s account made out to “cash” or himself. He’d put the money back as soon as he won big, he told himself. Some weeks, John would run up $60,000 tabs. “Every night that I finished gambling, I’d say, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to do this anymore. It’s gotta stop,’ ” says John. “And the next day, I’d get up and just drive right back to it.”

The mayor, Jeff Graham, was a longtime friend of John’s. In 2000, he appeared in a television special about Maggie. According to Maggie, the mayor would sometimes call John at home to tell him about Quick Draw specials.

Eventually, John stopped working. “It got to the point that the best week I ever had in the insurance business wouldn’t even make a dent in what I was doing,” he says. Notices of overdue electrical bills started appearing attached to the front door of Maureen’s house. John told her she’d better rein in her spending.

From left, Maggie Rizer’s first cover, Vogue Italia, September 1997; Lucky, June 2003; French Elle, November 2003; and a Tommy Hilfiger campaign.

John Breen’s descent was not exactly a secret in Watertown. Partly because of Maggie, people knew who he was. They saw him at the Speak Easy, telling bartenders to run his tickets for ten games in a row. They saw him at the banks, writing counter checks every week. But Maggie’s borrowed glamour insulated him from criticism.

“I think John sat there talking to tellers,” says Maureen. “Telling them about all the places Maggie was going.”

One afternoon in January 2003, John showed up drunk at Maggie’s cottage. Julia, an older, fuller version of Maggie and now a criminal-defense attorney, was there alone. John poured himself vodka-and-Cokes and babbled on about how he had something to tell Julia, but couldn’t. He talked about how Maureen never loved him. He mentioned going to prison.

The next day Maureen made an appointment for John at an in-patient alcohol-rehab facility near Syracuse. On the way to the clinic the following day, though, he insisted they stop at his insurance office. For the first time, Maureen saw it was in total chaos—papers everywhere and several full large black garbage bags leaned up against the wall. John stomped over to his desk and immediately filled out some paperwork. “He puts it in an envelope, sticks a stamp on it, literally shoves it at me, and says, ‘If you’re not going to leave me alone, you can mail this for me. But don’t open it,’” remembers Maureen. “And that garbage, he wanted that garbage out.”

But they had an appointment at the clinic and there wasn’t time, Maureen said. The next day, she called a few friends and asked them to meet her at John’s office in the morning. After scouring John’s filing cabinets, someone suggested checking the garbage bags. “From the first thing we pulled out of the garbage, we just started going, ‘Oh, boy,’ ” says Maureen. There were forged check authorizations, retirements cashed in early, massive early-withdrawal penalties for investment accounts. Maureen had brought the envelope with her that John asked her to mail. “I finally did reach into my pocket. It was another withdrawal,” she says.

It took several weeks to figure out that the $7 million fortune Maggie had amassed was almost completely gone—even what she’d inherited from Kevin. “I remember feeling like someone took a bowling ball and knocked me in the head with it—and not in the sense that it hurt, but in the sense like, what the hell happened?” says Maggie.

In the aftermath of John’s betrayal, Maggie quickly lost her bearings, questioning everything. “I used to take people for their word,” she says. “‘You seem like a nice person. Okay, let’s be friends.’ It’s like, if you’re a bad person, you’re supposed to be ugly and scraggly and mean. It’s not just knowing that John’s not the person I thought he was, but God, what about the rest of my family?” asks Maggie. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. But what about the person next door?”

She went into a spiral of her own. She stopped exercising, living on pizza and cocktails. “I wouldn’t even look at a scale,” she remembers. “You turn around six months later and look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I can’t work with this pudgy face.’ ” She went from a size 2 to a size 6—a model’s way of committing career suicide.

Her agency—she’d moved from Ford to IMG—stopped actively promoting her and recommended therapy. “We suggested maybe it was best to take some time off,” says Ivan Bart. “We turned the faucet off a little bit.” They brought her in for jobs that weren’t “image producing” opportunities. Her fortune and now her career were disappearing as quickly as they’d come, and she was letting it happen. She could hardly get upset—had it all really belonged to her in the first place? Through all of this, she told everyone she was fine. Not everyone believed her, however.

When she was home for Easter in April 2004, she took a taxi to her sister’s house. There, Julia confronted her. “I couldn’t figure out why, when things were so bad, Maggie wasn’t angry and wasn’t dealing with it,” says Julia. “It upset me that she wasn’t kicking herself into gear.” The sisters argued, and Maggie left. “I woke my mom up because I couldn’t get into the house. She didn’t realize that I had been up all night,” says Maggie. Since they were both up anyway, Maureen offered Maggie the last thing she needed—a drink. “That was the worst,” says Maggie. “Absolutely the worst I’ve been.”

Last month, after pleading guilty to charges of grand larceny and conspiracy to defraud, John was sentenced to a term of sixteen months to four years in a minimum-security state prison. A week before his sentencing, John sat in the old house he once shared with Maureen. His adopted stray dog, Walter, lay at his feet. A weight bench sat in the next room—John had been lifting, getting in shape to prepare for prison life.

John said he felt the same about Maggie that he always had. “As far as Maggie and Julia—I’ve always loved all those kids,” he said. “A lot of times, I think this is all a dream and I’m going to wake up one day and this never happened.”

John said alcoholism and a gambling addiction had taken hold of him—a sickness from which he’s recovering. “But I dream angry,” said John. “I wake up and I’m mad at the world.”

Maureen is mad, too—she and the three children she had with John had to go on public assistance at one point. She’s baffled Maggie doesn’t feel the same.

After working out five to seven days a week at Trinity Boxing Club in the Financial District, Maggie’s back to a size 2 and says she’s in better shape than she was before. Her hair is newly red, and she has bangs again. A few weeks ago, her agents at IMG said it was time she stopped posing for obscure catalogues and reclaimed her place at the pinnacle of the fashion world.

Her agent, Ivan Bart, said he wanted to get her on talk shows and “evolve her” into a household name. She’s already shot a Dana Buchman campaign and traveled to L.A. to do a Hugo by Hugo Boss show.

Last spring, Rizer hired celebrity lawyer Ed Hayes (the basis for the Irish clotheshorse Tommy Killian in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which is dedicated to Hayes), which might appear to be a supermodel move but in fact wasn’t—he was recommended by her real-estate broker, who happens to be Hayes’s wife. Hayes is preparing lawsuits against the Speak Easy, two other bars, and several banks. Hayes argues that the people of Watertown—specifically Mayor Graham—let Rizer down. “The people in those bars had to know he couldn’t spend all day in there drunk,” says Hayes. “The only possible source for the money had to be his stepdaughter.”

Maggie wouldn’t phrase it that way herself. Most of her closest friends are from Watertown. It’s part of her—the old self she won’t give up. And she’s remarkably forgiving, as only someone who knows how randomly the world can deliver its blessings can be.

“I think John is a good person who made way too many bad decisions, took his life down the wrong path,” she wrote to the court. “He’s honestly not a bad guy. He’s just really messed up. I’d like to see him given the opportunity to now make the most of an awful situation. I want him to value his life, I want him to actually live and understand that life is a gift.”

Stepdaddy’s Little Girl