Beauty in Adversity

Andrea Leonelli, above and right, in glamorous images from her modeling days.

In 1996, Andrea Leonelli’s life was perfect. Retired from modeling but still a great beauty, Leonelli had nine years of sobriety behind her and was happily married to businessman Rick Palmer. The couple had just moved into their dream home in Malibu. 

That Thanksgiving, Leonelli’s stepson was driving the family to Las Vegas. Andrea was sleeping in the back with her two-year-old daughter, Allie, when the car crashed. Leonelli remembers being drawn toward a bright light, but knew she had to go back to take care of her daughter. With a broken neck, dislocated hip, fractured pelvis, broken wrists and knee, and her teeth knocked out, Leonelli dragged herself up and hobbled around in agony looking for her daughter.

“The will of a mother is very strong,” Leonelli said. “It was my job to take care of my daughter. I knew Rick would take care of his son. Allie had been thrown from the car into a bush. I was in terrible pain, but I kept repeating the serenity prayer and I found her.”

Her stepson was OK and Allie just had a tiny cut on her forehead. Leonelli didn’t know it then, but her husband had died instantly. Leonelli’s family was told to prepare for the worst as two teams of surgeons worked for 12 hours to put her back together. She was in a coma for three days and in hospital for weeks.

“I shouldn’t even be alive,” she said. “I live in pain almost every day, but I am so grateful I can stand up.”

Her husband didn’t have life insurance. After the accident, Leonelli had to get back to work as soon as possible. She had a master’s in fine arts and a degree in psychology but her business was in “lease labor” — workers’ compensation and payroll. Despite her injuries, Leonelli’s company became a multimillion dollar business. She signed her first contract after the accident for $6 million, while still in a wheelchair, with a brace screwed into her head and no teeth.

Now 58, and clean and sober for 32 years, Leonelli tells her story without self-pity. She traces her drug dependency to being sexually abused as a child. She started using heroin at 14 and became a model at 17. 

“In my youth, I thought drugs were my strength. And drugs lied to me. They lie to everyone,” Leonelli said. “Nobody knows when they cross the line. Other people can see it, but you can’t get anyone to stop using unless they want to.”

Despite kicking her habit, Leonelli still felt fatigued all the time and was diagnosed with hepatitis C, caught from shared needles. She is also living with mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma, a cancer attributed to hepatitis C. “The treatment I was prescribed in 2008 to treat the cancer didn’t work and almost killed me,” she said.

Then came another bombshell. Leonelli was diagnosed with HTLV-1 (Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1) in 2013, a virus she contracted while modeling in Africa. Her doctor at UCLA said she’d seen patients with HTLV-1 survive three years. “It was a long drive home,” she recalled. 

Leonelli attributes her survival to the immunotherapy she’s receiving in Germany and eating whole, unprocessed food. She realizes not everyone can afford to go abroad for the best treatment, but believes cancer patients should be involved in their own research and recovery. 

“Everything you need to know is on the internet,” she said.

Leonelli now focusses on life’s simple pleasures. “I’m happy just to hear the birds sing, being with my girlfriends. And Allie.” 

Mother and daughter speak daily, sometimes five times a day, as Allie, now 22, studies for a master’s degree in business while working as an executive in the corporate department at American Express.

Having lived an eventful life and feeling lucky to still be around, Leonelli’s best advice is to take care of the people you love, think before you speak and wear sunblock. 

“Remember,” she said, “you will have to live with the consequences of the choices you make.”