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NO DIVORCE IS FUN. BATTLING OVER THE KIDS, THE HOUSE, the car, the savings, even the lawn furniture, is nobody's idea of a good time. But there's another whole dimension of angst for those left behind by—or pushed into leaving—a high-profile spouse whose career is soaring. "It's hard enough to get divorced without having to look at Jim's face on the sides of buses," says Melissa Carrey, whose seven-year marriage to actor Jim Carrey ran aground in 1993. "It's cruel and unusual torture."

Divorcées like Carrey (as well as women whose splits never made the tabs) are real life first wives, models of a sort for the vengeance-hungry spouses in the movie of the moment, The First Wives Club, starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. Tossed aside for gold diggers, Midler and Co. join forces to clean out their arrogant exes and humiliate their nubile rivals. Their mantra is supplied by Ivana, the former Mrs. Trump. In a spunky cameo, she urges, "Ladies, remember, don't get mad. Get everything!" That exuberant revenge fantasy, it seems, taps into a collective resentment of ruthless guys-on-the-make. First Wives grossed $40 million in just two weeks, a pace likely to make it one of the most popular women's movies ever.

In real life, of course, a woman rejected by a celebrity spouse seldom rebounds so easily. She must regain her footing in a world where her former husband is idolized and has wily lawyers to boot. Often she must fight for a share of the spoils, even if she supported him in the lean years. At the supermarket there will be gawkers who titter and tabloids touting photos of the exes with their new honeys. And despite her public pain, sympathy may be in short supply—especially if she walks away with a few million dollars.

PEOPLE interviewed a flock of former wives left by spouses who have achieved power, fame and fortune. Most of these women have moved beyond fantasies of getting even, and some are doing well on their own—still the best revenge. But often the hurt remains. Even after her day in court, a celebrity's ex-spouse must live in a very large shadow. "My husband was a godlike figure to a lot of strangers," says Lynn Landon, whose 1982 divorce from actor Michael Landon (who wed Cindy Clerico the next year) came after five children and 19 years of marriage. "I gave up a lot of myself to support that image. When he left, he took a lot of me." Landon. now 63, began to reclaim her life in 1981, when she rallied 18 former showbiz wives to form a support group called LADIES—Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane. Now she lectures women's groups about divorce, offering black humor and war stories to help the spurned back on their feet.

And first wife Olivia Goldsmith, 41, was left by her corporate executive husband in 1984 after five years of marriage. She worked her way out of her funk by writing the book upon which the movie is based; so far, it has been translated into 24 languages. The movie is a hit, she theorizes, because more divorcees are learning to relinquish bitterness and fashion a better life for themselves. "This generation of women," she says, "will not allow ourselves to be ignored."

No, they won't. Here, other first wives tell how they coped and what they have learned about themselves as well as their men. (Only one—Donald Trump—returned our calls. "I gave Ivana a lot of money so she and the kids could live beautifully. I'm glad I did that," he confided.)

Melissa Carrey: Second fiddle to stardom

"When Jim walked onto the set [of the 1994 hit Ace Ventura: Pet Detective] as 'Mr. Carrey,' it was all over," Melissa Carrey, 36, told PEOPLE in 1995. Though she and Carrey had been "best friends" since the days when she worked as a massage therapist and he scrambled for any role he could land, she says he "did a 180" after his first major movie: "I couldn't even ask him to take out the garbage without his going berserk because it would pull him out of his creative state."

Like other Hollywood wives, Melissa was displaced by an entourage. In the fall of 1993, Carrey (who wed Picket Fences' Lauren Holly last month) retreated to a bachelor pad in Los Angeles. By Melissa's account, he refused to discuss their problems; when he ended the marriage with a phone call, lawyers and gofers closed ranks around him. "Jim has everyone doing everything for him now," said Melissa, herself an actress. "He's got assistants who buy his underwear. What makes anybody think he could get divorced by himself?"

Melissa's anger dissipated when a 1995 settlement, ended the Carreys' two-year divorce battle. She received around $5 million from Carrey (who initially offered $500,000 and $25,000 in monthly support for their daughter Jane, 9). Now, says a friend, "Melissa has been able to move on, but you know what? A broken heart's a broken heart—and it sucks, whether you're famous or not."

Indomitable Ivana: Yes, there's life after Donald

Six years after headlines proclaimed the Trumps' "Billion-Dollar Blowup," Ivana, 47, has rebounded as neatly as one of the movie's fictional first wives. She has a devoted husband (civil engineer Riccardo Mazzucchelli, 53), homes in London, Manhattan, Switzerland and Palm Beach and, she says, "a wonderful life."

But the beginning of the end was brutal. Ivana found out about her husband's other woman the hard way—from the other woman. Model Maria Maples confronted her while they were skiing on the slopes of Aspen in the winter of 1989. "The public attention made it all worse," says Ivana, then manager of the Plaza Hotel. Dropping out of the social scene for six months, Ivana fretted away 18 pounds before she calmed down and decided to "build a new life."

How did she find the strength? "I always felt equal to my husband," asserts Ivana, who, on Sept. 18, celebrated her role in The First Wives Club at a postpremiere bash held—yes—at the Plaza. It helped, of course, that she walked away with custody of her three children (Donald Jr., now 18; Ivanka, 14; and Eric, 12), $300,000 a year in child support, another $350,000 in alimony, $14 million in cash and an 18-room mansion in Greenwich, Conn. Since the split, she has begun her own clothing business and designs a successful mid-range line sold on the Home Shopping Network. Says Ivana: "I always knew I could do the business." A sense of perspective also helped: You have to say, 'Hey, I'm not going to go on the streets, and there are a lot of women [who] might.'"

Chrystie Scott: No hard feelings

Chrystie Scott, now 46, had been married to Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner for seven years when he left her for Linda Thompson (an actress who once shared Graceland with Elvis). At the time, Chrystie was two months pregnant with daughter Casey, now 16. Still, the first Mrs. Jenner refuses to harbor a grudge. "I don't blame Bruce," says Chrystie, an interior designer in Santa Monica. "It takes two. We had the energy and enough maturity to get to the [Olympic] goal, but we didn't have what it took to keep it together."

The Jenners began as friends as well as partners. Bruce and Chrystie, a minister's daughter, were students at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, when they met in 1968. A football player and track star, he decided to focus on the Olympics. After they wed in 1972, Chrystie supported him by working as a flight attendant and doing what she could "to remove the clutter from his life: Get the bills paid, and no emotional hassles at home. After Bruce captured the gold in 1976, she says, "he didn't sleep all night. He would get up and walk around naked with the medal around his neck, beaming and flexing."

Success, though, had its price. "Things changed so rapidly," says Chrystie. "It got to be such a frenzy, the joy was removed." Encounters with some of her husband's admirers, she says, were particularly embarrassing. Invited to lunch at the 21 Club in Manhattan by Ethel Kennedy, Bruce pulled out a wad of cash when the check arrived. "They laughed at us," for offering to help pay the bill, says Chrystie. Undaunted, Bruce plunged into a fast crowd that included O.J. Simpson and others who made Chrystie feel insecure. When he left in 1979, she says, "I was devastated because I was losing my best friend."

Though both remarried (Chrystie wed lawyer Richard Scott, whom she divorced earlier this year; and Bruce took Kris Kardashian, ex-wife of OJ's close friend Robert Kardashian, as his third wife), she has retained her respect for him. There were no court battles over money or custody of Casey and Burt, now 18. "Bruce is a good father, and I want him involved with my kids," says Chrystie.

According to Chrystie, only the good memories have survived, and nostalgia sweeps over her during the Olympics. The rest of the time, she stays focused on her children and her thriving design business. At the moment, she says, she is throwing her considerable energy into "my goals."

Anicka Bakes Rodman: Wishing for a steamroller

A Ford model in 1986 when she met Dennis Rodman—now the Chicago Bulls' diva in residence—Anicka Bakes Rodman weathered seven years of a "love-hate" relationship with a husband she still calls "the only man who ever really understood me." When the two met at a bar in Sacramento, the New Jersey-born National Basketball Association rookie, then 25, was a sensitive sort who "thought of himself as ugly," she says. "He just needed nurturing." Anicka obliged.

After a car accident ended her career in 1986, she moved in with Dennis (then warming benches for the Detroit Pistons). Soon afterward she became pregnant with Alexis, now 8. Though she and Dennis separated repeatedly over his infidelities, Anicka always came back: "I thought, 'I'm going to fight for this guy.' " When they finally wed in 1991, she says, it was "a comedy." At a chapel in South Lake Tahoe, Nev., Dennis wore sunglasses during the ceremony, then the newlyweds wheeled to a drive-through McDonald's for a postnuptial feast.

As Anicka tells it, the cheating continued after they moved to posh Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1981. "I would go away for a couple of days and find that a woman had slept in my bed," she says. Desperate, she pumped iron to hone her body: "I thought, 'There's got to be a way to keep him at home.' " (With her buzz cut, platform sneakers and tattoos, she still reflects her ex's aesthetic.)

When she left in 1992, says Anicka, it was to protect Alexis from their emotional upheavals. And although she couldn't live with Dennis, she is finding it more difficult to live without him. His public profile—the vamping and MTV gigs and confessions about Madonna—is embarrassing to her, and being a single mother, she says, is tough. "Nobody can comprehend what it's like being Dennis's ex-wife," she says.

Anicka herself is unpredictable. Although in August she said she would remarry her ex "in a heartbeat," she has since had a change of heart. "If he was run over by a steamroller," she says. "I would watch the whole thing."

Barbara Cochran Berry: Independence first

Though she claims the bitterness is behind her, Barbara Berry also has plenty to say about her ex. Last year, in her book Life After Johnnie Cochran, she portrayed the father of her daughters Melodie, 34, and Tiffany, 27, as a cheat who physically abused her. "Johnnie is charismatic," says Berry (a first-grade teacher who met Cochran in 1959 when both attended UCLA), "but there's another side that's filled with deceit."

As Berry tells it, the violence began two years after their wedding. As he dressed for a banquet in 1962, she says, he instructed her to stay home. When she asked whether other wives would be on hand, "he said, 'I'm going alone,' and then he hit me across the face." Though she was "disgusted," friends counseled her to keep silent-even when the abuse continued. "That was the middle-class black mentality at the time," she says. "Everyone said, 'Just be quiet and sit tight—he pays the bills.' "

In 1973, after Cochran "calmly informed me that he had a son" by another woman, Berry told herself, "You deserve better than this." It took four more years to walk out, but she did it. With a happy marriage to former postal worker David Berry (who died in 1992), she made her peace with Cochran—though her settlement from him had been "a small, meager" sum. In early 1995, however, when Basic Books offered her a tidy advance for a tell-all about their marriage, she accepted. When it hit the stores, Cochran vehemently denied abusing her. Now Berry claims that she never intended to write a "trash Johnnie" book. Instead, she says, "I wanted it to be a book of hope and inspiration" for others.

These days, Berry is urging frightened wives to opt for independence. "I'm giving speeches—I tell women, 'Don't try to hang on to the same life you had when you were married. Get a life of your own.' "

JOHNNY DODO, TOM CUNNEFF, DANELLE MORTON' and MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles, GABRIELLE SAVERI in San Francisco and LISA KAY GREISSINGER and LIZ MCNEIL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Johnny Dodo,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Danelle Morton,
  • Michele Keller,
  • Gabrielle Saveri,
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger,
  • Liz McNeil.