Goodbye, Bel Air; Hello, Gotham! at 31, Cheryl Tiegs Switches Careers—and Leading Men

updated 04/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

When a $2,000-a-day model declares she's found her true calling in some gritty corner of the Real World, it's often attributable to an onset of wrinkles. But Cheryl Tiegs, still the world's hottest model at 31, has given herself to such a life change with no ulterior motive in sight. Emboldened by the precarious experience of making her first ABC documentary, Africa: The End of the Game, which aired last week, and in no risk of underexposure from the four years left on her $2.5 million contract with the network, she's taken an apartment in Manhattan, is hard at work on a beauty book, continues thrice-weekly coaching sessions to modulate her voice to some listenable timbre—and for the first time, if inevitably, is offering herself up for a starring movie role. "It's a little more substantial than just being a pretty girl," she says of her burgeoning portfolio. "I have an incredible new life."

It has, of course, meant largely dismantling the old one. She's cut back on transcontinental commutation—and life with husband Stan Dragoti—to take in the New York nightscape with photographer Peter Beard, who co-starred with her in Africa. Friends say it's heavy. Meanwhile Dragoti minds their mansion in Bel Air. "We're trying to work out the spatial conditions of our relationship," he says in the special argot of admen-gone-Hollywood. "We need our own space right now." Still, the man who gave the world "Try It, You'll Like It" doesn't much: "It hasn't been especially fun," he concedes.

Life goes on; Stan's film-directing debut, a comic Dracula called Love at First Bite, opened Friday the 13th. "I couldn't be happier for him," says Cheryl. "We are as friendly and as understanding as can be." Nonetheless, she no longer plans to help promote the movie. "We're incredibly unofficially separated," Cheryl says. Does Dragoti blame Beard? "No man can break up a marriage," Stan replies firmly. "When two people split it's just between them."

Beard's love of urban-jungle wildlife is profound; he's dated everyone from Lee Radziwill and Carole (Obscure Object) Bouquet to Suzy Chapstick. In contrast to the smooth, steady Dragoti, 45, Beard, 41, is a flash-tempered, Yale-educated artsy type whose sartorial taste runs to coveralls and sandals and whose modus operandi seems often to range from expedient to abusive. When a right-to-life rally was clipped from his African film, Beard blew up at the network. "He just wanted to make a comparison between human and animal overpopulation," says Cheryl, who was nearly killed twice on location for the cause—by a charging rhino and by an elephant she escaped by diving into the bush. "Peter drove us crazy sometimes," Cheryl admits. "But," she says, "I've always been willing to try anything once. If you're going to do something, I always say, go all the way."

It's the same advice, somewhat extrapolated, that she's retailing in her beauty-book-in-progress (for which Beard took some of the pictures). "I'm trying to get women off the sofa and soap operas and up to doing something about themselves," she says. "It's easy to go down jelly-roll lane and get fat." For herself, Tiegs clearly believes that giving up all but such monster modeling contracts as Clairol and Cover Girl will pay off in the long term, even if the collateral changes mean some painful readjustment. Last year she said of her wish for a baby, "It's really going to be next year." Now her forecast is a nervous hedge: "There's still time."

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