A New Tripp

updated 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

When most Americans think of Linda Tripp, visions of sugarplums don't dance in their heads. In the late '90s the former Pentagon aide was lampooned in the media as the plus-size humbug who taped Monica Lewinsky blabbing about her affair with President Clinton. Being called a snitch hurt, says Tripp, 54, but John Goodman's impersonating her on Saturday Night Live...ouch! "One picture truly is worth a million words," she says, "and in my case they had a lot to work with."

Don't look for that frumpy hausfrau at the Christmas Sleigh, the holiday boutique Tripp helps run in horsey Middleburg, Va., some 40 miles west of Washington, D.C. After weathering plastic surgery, breast cancer and assorted legal wrangles, she bears little resemblance to the much vilified tattletale of the Clinton era. Not only is she trimmer, brunette and partial to sweaters decorated with reindeer but Tripp smiles more often these days. That probably has a lot to do with boyfriend Dieter Rausch, 53, a German architect whom she'll wed this spring. "She has a new light and energy about her that's wonderful," says her daughter Allison, 24, a competitive equestrian who lives in the area. "It's a good ending. Or maybe a new beginning."

Few people were more in need of a second act. Six years after the Clinton scandal broke, Tripp still insists she was just an honest civil servant trying to expose wrongdoing in the Oval Office. "The notion of betrayal is ridiculous," she says of her decision to record her girl talk with coworker Lewinsky. "If I had looked perky, sweet and cute, I wouldn't have been defined the way I was by the press." Buried under an avalanche of bad PR, Tripp moved out of the two-bedroom Columbia, Md., colonial where she had raised Allison and Ryan, now 28 and a mortgage broker. (She split from Army officer Bruce Tripp in 1991.) "It had become a tourist trap," says Tripp. Accepting the invitation of a wealthy friend, she moved into a copper-roofed cottage on an estate in Middleburg, a hunt-country refuge popular with the rich and famous. Says neighbor Howard Halvorson: "No one is in a blaze about her here."

Tripp has kept a low profile ever since ("She didn't try to cash in on the scandal, like Monica with her handbags," says Allison, referring to Lewinsky's brief, unsuccessful stint as an accessories designer), but her legal woes didn't vanish. She continued to battle charges of illegal wiretapping in Maryland (the case was finally dropped in 2000), and she sued the Defense Department for leaking her personnel information to the media. Although she received a $595,000 settlement last month, Tripp, who lost her $98,744-a-year Pentagon job in 2001, says she's still deep in debt. "I have millions in legal expenses," she says.

Thanks to an anonymous benefactor, however, Tripp underwent plastic surgery for a facelift, liposuction and chin implant. "The attacks on my looks and motives took their toll," she says. "But they also prepared me for further adversity." That came in the form of a breast cancer diagnosis three years later. After a lumpectomy, she underwent an aggressive course of radiation and chemotherapy. The latter caused her dyed blonde hair to fall out; it grew back dark and curly. "It was a very hard time," says Rausch, "but she was a fighter."

Tripp and Rausch first met decades ago in Germany: He lived next door to Tripp's grandmother, whom she would visit during the summers. The pair rekindled their friendship three years ago, when Tripp was in Europe to see her ailing relative. Last year, after Tripp took ill, Rausch moved to Virginia to join her and start a new business. The couple opened the Christmas Sleigh a few months later. Says Tripp, who has designed several handblown ornaments for sale in the store: "We want to share our fantasy of our childhood Christmases."

Tripp's health scare has made her quit smoking and count calories. "I had eaten my way to oblivion," she says. "That traditionally has been my way of dealing with stress." After their small private wedding next year—"No press, no TV," says Rausch—and honeymoon, Tripp plans to devote time to her Institute for Integrity and Accountability in Government, which offers legal and moral support to civil servants who become whistle-blowers. Although her daughter hopes "people finally see how wonderful she is," Tripp says she has come to terms with her public image. "People either think I'm a hero or a villain," she observes. "I'm neither."

J.D. Heyman. Linda Kramer in Middleburg

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