Niki Taylor can still be found awake most days at 4 a.m., just like when she was living in the fast lane as one of the faces of Cover Girl and a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swimsuit-issue model. But today she's up at that hour to check on her puppy Kaia (who at 6 months old isn't quite housebroken) before fixing breakfast for her 11-year-old twins, Jake and Hunter. She centers the rest of her day on her boys, driving them to summer school, accompanying them on dirt bikes and begging them to pick up after themselves—as she did recently upon noticing the plastic BBs they'd littered across the driveway of the family's four-bedroom, French colonial Brentwood, Tenn., home. "I tell them, 'Guys, you better go clean it up,' but they just put it under something!" sighs the 31-year-old ex-supermodel, who has no nanny and drops into bed each day by 9 p.m. Still, she says, "I love being a mom and the chaos it brings me. It reminds me how lucky and blessed I am."

Those aren't words that first come to mind when reviewing Taylor's life. In 1995 she saw her younger sister Krissy, also a model, die at age 17 from a rare heart ailment; a year later Taylor's marriage to the twins' father, Arena football player Matt Martinez, fell apart. Then there was her battle with prescription drugs and the car crash five years ago that left her clinging to life and resulted in more than 50 surgeries and procedures to repair her wrecked body.

Yet as Taylor looks out over her 7-acre retreat—replete with moss-coated woods and a triangle hanging by the kitchen door that she uses to call the boys for supper—she says, "I have a good thing going on." She rarely models anymore, instead focusing on a slew of fashion-related enterprises (see box). She has even found a way to stay in touch with her wild side: by riding her Harley-Davidson Road King, an odd choice, perhaps, for someone who nearly died in a car crash. But Taylor shrugs off such concern. "I'm not one to worry—what's the point?" she explains. "We are only here for a short amount of time. You have to live your life. I know that."

A lot better than most. A native of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who broke into modeling at 14, Taylor grew up with sister Joelle, 36, and Krissy, to whom she was particularly close. It was Taylor who found Krissy lying near death on the floor of the family's home in 1995. "I will never get over that," says Taylor—who has the name Krissy tattooed between her left-hand thumb and index finger—of her sister's death. "That is probably the worst thing that happened in my life, losing my sister and my best friend."

Only a year later Taylor—who had married Martinez in 1993 at 18—was divorced. She would eventually go on to develop an addiction to Vicodin and Xanax. (In 2001 she briefly went into rehab and says she no longer has a drug problem.) At the time, "I was all over the place, trying to figure out my life," she explains. Then, in April 2001, Taylor was with friends in Atlanta when the driver of the car she was in attempted to answer his cell phone and lost control of the vehicle, smashing it into a utility pole. "The doctors prepared us several times for the worst," says Taylor's mom, Barbara, 59, a photographer. (Her father, Ken, 66, is a deputy sheriff in Broward County, Fla.) "They said, 'Don't expect any miracles.'"

During the six weeks she spent unconscious, Taylor says she experienced terrible nightmares "of people chasing me or cutting me. It was really sad." When she finally regained consciousness that June, she says, "I went through every emotion possible and was like, 'Something has to change.'"

Taylor refocused her life on her boys, settling in Brentwood after she fell in love with the area during a visit. It was there that she dated ex-boyfriend Keith Urban (she calls him "Kiki"), whom she was with from 2002 to 2004 before "his career got really busy, I got really busy, and we never saw each other," she explains, adding, "We're still friends, and I'm so happy for him and Nicole."

She hopes that kind of happiness is in her cards too. "I want to find the right man," she admits. But only homebodies need apply. "On Friday I just want to stay on the couch and watch a movie with the boys," says Taylor. "That is the perfect night."

  • Contributors:
  • Daniel S. Levy/Brentwood.