In the wardrobe room after wrapping the Oct. 11 episode of Dancing with the Stars, Sara Evans merrily threw out costume ideas for the following week's show while her 2-year-old daughter Audrey jangled the neon yellow and green bracelets her mom had worn during her hip-shaking samba routine the day before. Exiting the studio with Audrey in her arms, Evans smiled before offering a cheery "See you next week!"
But while the rest of the Dancing stars tackled a group disco number on Oct. 17, Evans's appearance (which had been taped three days earlier) on the ABC hit was more somber: Explaining that "I just needed to take care of my children," the country music star—who had already left L.A. to return home to be with her three kids in suburban Nashville—made her official exit from the show. And yet the dramatic announcement was just the tip of an extraordinarily ugly scandal that has engulfed Evans, 35, and her husband of 13 years, onetime Republican congressional candidate Craig Schelske, 43. Allegations of adultery, pornography and betrayal are playing out like the tawdriest honky-tonk heartbreak song ever. "To say people are shocked is an understatement," says a Nashville industry source. "On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 15. It's out there."
Known in country music circles for their Republican bent, Christian faith and commitment to their children, the pair had long been regarded as one of Nashville's golden couples—"squeaky clean," as one record company executive puts it. That image was shattered on Oct. 12, when Evans filed an unusually explicit divorce petition in which she accuses Schelske of, among a long list of sordid marital misdeeds, conducting an affair with their onetime nanny Alison Clinton, 28, collecting online sex ads and maintaining "many pornographic photographs" of himself and others on his home computer. The petition also charges that on Sept. 28 the couple's 7-year-old son Avery came across his father watching pornography on TV at the family's Franklin, Tenn., home.
It doesn't end there. Evans, who has been granted a temporary restraining order against Schelske, went on to claim that he frequently threatened her, told her she was crazy and, in a subsequent court filing, alleged he made several unauthorized transfers of nearly $275,000 from the couple's joint bank accounts.
Schelske promptly denied the charges, issuing an Oct. 17 statement saying, "I cannot explain why Sara is waging a false media campaign, but I intend to defend myself." Counters Evans's attorney, Nashville-based John Hollins Sr.: "Everything we allege, we've got photographs to back up." But in a cryptic comment, a source close to Schelske vowed, "A very big shoe is going to drop. Craig will be telling his side of the story very soon."
Also denying the allegations is Clinton, the former nanny who watched over Avery and 3-year-old Olivia for two years and has worked for the past 11 months as Evans's assistant. When informed of the allegations, "I thought it was a joke," Clinton told PEOPLE. "My husband and I, my parents, my brother—we just racked our brains. We don't know how this happened. It's a huge shock." Evans and Clinton were so close that Evans—who served as the matron of honor at Clinton's July wedding—even became an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association after supporting Clinton through her struggles with anorexia. On Sept. 17 she performed at a fund-raiser for the Eating Disorders Coalition of Tennessee in Nashville, where she brought Clinton onstage. "It's just so surreal," says Clinton. "One day you're absolutely best friends with somebody, and then the next day it's almost like you're enemies."
Meanwhile, those close to Evans are particularly appalled by Schelske's Oct. 13 statement in which he said that Evans has become a "dramatically different person" in the past year and "it is something we have struggled to deal with." Evans's pal, songwriter Marcus Hummon, insists that the singer is "terrifically level.... I do not think she's given to flights of fancy at all."
A country music darling—she's up for female vocalist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards in November—Evans hadn't given any public hint of trouble in her relationship with Schelske, whom she called her "one true love" in the liner notes to her 2003 album Restless. In addition to political persuasions—Schelske currently heads a Republican political action committee (see box); Evans performed at the '04 Republican National Convention—the pair were vocal about their family focus. "Her marriage and her family are very central to Sara and who she is as a person," says Hummon. "I was surprised by everything." In her Oct. 17 interview, Evans acknowledged "there were some things in motion" regarding her marriage but added that she had planned to try "everything within my power" to save the union.
Beyond the success of her country career—she has sold some 4 million albums since her 1997 debut—Evans had become a fan favorite on Dancing with the Stars, despite frequent criticism of her performances from the show's judges. The singer "had a tricky time on the show anyway because the judges were mean to her," acknowledges executive producer Conrad Green. "And possibly she was having a tough time and we didn't realize it might have been related to something other than the show." (In her interview, Evans pledged to return for Dancing's November finale.)
While Evans struggled to keep her quickstep on track, Schelske and the children temporarily relocated to L.A. to be near her. And yet behind the scenes, Evans says in her divorce petition that Schelske was wreaking havoc, at one point calling a costumer from Dancing a "sodomite" and saying how awful it was to have the children in the home when the costumer was present. Why go into so many details in the public document? If she were angry and hurt enough, "it may have been a combination of emotional and legal reasons," says Nashville divorce attorney Rose Palermo, who has represented Wynonna Judd, Natalie Maines and others. "If you're trying to get a restraining order, you might put some additional allegations in there. But generally, you don't say a lot more than you need to say."
With things promising to get even messier in the weeks to come, Evans is bracing for the ongoing storm. In a recent e-mail from the embattled singer, she expressed a simple sentiment, says Hummon: "'Send prayers.'"
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