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An Interview ith Georgia Durante - The Thrill of the Ride

BY Rachel L. Miller

As we all know, an epiphany can occur at any time.

This split-second feeling of enlightenment can suddenly hit you while you're standing in line at the grocery store, while you're deep in prayer or, if you are stunt, performance driver Georgia Durante, it can strike while you're careening out of control over an oceanside bluff in a vintage $250,000 Ferrari.Durante, who was driving the car as part of a Bugle Boy jeans commercial, said the accident helped put her life in perspective. 

"As I'm rolling to my death, I'm thinking 'I just wrecked a $250,000 car,'" she said. "I'm not thinking about my family or about my life." 

The incident, which Durante escaped without serious injury, got her thinking about her past — one that she had kept hidden for decades. A past that included all the elements of a finely crafted Hollywood screenplay — murder, mobsters, romance, intrigue and, of course, suspense. Following the terrifying Ferrari crash, Durante's therapist suggested that Durante write every day in a journal, a habit which eventually led to penning her successful autobiography "The Company She Keeps," in which she tells of her life as Mafia wife, model, mother, stunt driver and owner of Performance Two, a precision/stunt driving team. 

Never having written professionally before, Durante, 50, wasn't sure she could tell her story without help from a ghostwriter.  

"I had no confidence, so I called up my friend (and best-selling author) Sidney Sheldon, thinking he would be able to suggest a good ghostwriter," Durante said. "After reading what I'd written, he said, 'Lady, you can write. You don't need a ghostwriter.'" 

"I had no idea I could write," Durante confides, laughing. "I can't spell. This is an inspiration for people who have a story to tell but think they can't write." 

"It was hard work convincing directors that I could drive. Being a wheel woman for the mob, I knew I could drive. But you don't want to put that on your resume." 

So with pen in hand, Durante started exploring her life, starting with her childhood in upstate New York and the modeling career that resulted in being the most photographed girl in the country as the "Kodak Girl." She married, had a daughter and was divorced before reaching her twentieth birthday. She then entered into marriage with a businessman who had ties to the Mafia and witnessed (as well as endured) painful beatings. And to this day, the scariest moment in her life occurred while married to the mobster, who played Russian roulette with a loaded gun to her head. 

Durante and her daughter escaped to Los Angeles and lived in hiding from the mob and a deranged stalker who had tried to kill Durante and kidnap her daughter. It was while she was trying to conceal herself from hit men and the FBI, who were tailing her to attain information on the mob, that she started toying with the idea of stunt driving. 

Even though she had been modeling, she suddenly couldn't afford to do anything that would help the mob locate her. 

"I started watching car commercials and realized you could never recognize the driver," she said. "It was hard work convincing directors that I could drive. Being a wheel woman for the mob, I knew I could drive. But you don't want to put that on your resume." 

"It was a tough road, but once they used me and saw I knew what I was doing, I started to work all the time," Durante said. 

She was getting so much work that she thought, "If only I could clone myself, I'd make some money," she said. In 1986, she established Performance Two, a performance and stunt driving team tailored for the automobile commercial industry.  

"I took race car drivers and stunt people and I trained them in precision," Durante explains. "What the Blue Angels do in the sky, we do on the ground. We're who the car companies come to when they want a team of six to 12 drivers. There's a large trust factor and that's why you have a team. When someone sees taillights, they know not to slam on the brakes." 

Even though she and Performance Two have worked for all the major automobile manufacturers, she sometimes found it difficult being a woman in the male-dominated stunt driving industry. 

"It's a tough business to make it into, especially for a woman," she said. "I started doing it 25 years ago when they were still putting wigs on men. It's an old boys club, but if you've got what it takes, you just keep pushing until you get it." 

And her advice for fellow women business owners is short and sweet: "You need to stay feminine, but think like a man." 

But what in the world is going through her head while she's on the job, when misjudging by a mere inch can result in a fiery collision of twisted metal? "When you're doing stunts, you have a whole different frame of mind," Durante said. "You can't think about dying and what could go wrong. You have to be positive." 

And her upbeat attitude, coupled with her innate talent, is why she's been hired as a stunt double in many feature films (such as Casper) and network TV shows like Melrose Place, Diagnosis: Murder and Unsolved Mysteries. She's even doubled for model Cindy Crawford. 

Between running a company, working like mad and promoting her book (she does five to seven radio talk shows a day), it doesn't seem like Durante would have time for much else. But this is Georgia Durante we're talking about, after all — a woman who seemingly thrives on not having a moment's rest. And her newest project, writing the biography of Morton Downey, Jr., will definitely keep her busy. Durante was at Downey's side almost every day before he died in March after a long battle with lung cancer. 

"He read my book, liked my writing style and wanted me to do his," Durante said. "Toward the end, I was with him every day — I have 60 hours on tape. We had lunch every Thursday; it was like instead of  'Tuesdays with Morrie,' it was Thursdays with Mort."

Durante says one reason she wants to write Downey's biography is that she wants the world to know what he was really like. "The mouth was an act," Durante claims. "The man was a sensitive, generous human being."  

Even though she's been able to balance all of her commitments in the past, Durante feels that she's at the point where something has got to give. 

"I've got to find out what I really want to pursue at this point," she said. 

"This is what God's plan was for me, having to live through what I did in order to help other people."

It'll be a hard decision, especially with the rights sold to Hearst Entertainment to turn her book, which has sold over 35,000 copies, into a television movie. Without a doubt, her life story has more than enough twists and turns to keep people tuned in.  

Durante agrees. "Every chapter of my book could be a one-hour movie," she says, laughing. "Every day of my life feels like a movie." 

And even though she's insanely busy, Durante, a mother of two, still finds the time to help those in need.  

"I speak to abused women and kids on drugs," she said. "For the kids, I try to convey to them the importance of how the company they keep today can effect the rest of their lives. For the women, my story gives them hope. When you see what I was up against, it gives them the courage to take positive steps in getting their lives back on track."

She's also discovered that women reading her novel have gotten that message. 

"A 23-year-old woman wrote me an e-mail, saying she was planning on killing herself that weekend," Durante explains, "but reading my story made her see that her life is important. Now I'm helping women take hold of their lives. If I could break free and live my life, so can they. 

"There's a reason for everything," she continues, her voice strong with determination. "This is what God's plan was for me, having to live through what I did in order to help other people."

"Throughout my life, I never saw myself as a victim," she adds. "I refused to be unhappy. Happiness was just out of reach and I just knew I would get to it someday."

And it looks as though Durante finally has it in her grasp.