Meg's New Life: Her Rock Star Romance
updated 01/24/2011 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/24/2011 AT 01:00 AM EST
Meet the new Meg Ryan: At 49, the spotlight-shunning actress is openly embracing her budding romance with rocker Mellencamp, 59. Whether kissing at a SoHo bistro, holding hands at art galleries or dining fireside on Martha's Vineyard, the very private Ryan has been surprisingly public with her new guy, who recently split from his wife of 18 years, model Elaine Irwin Mellencamp. "She's been introducing him as her boyfriend," says one local on Martha's Vineyard, where the pair spent New Year's Eve.
The actress's return to the public eye comes a full decade after she first left it. One of Hollywood's most bankable leading ladies in the '90s, she commanded $15 million per film and charmed audiences in romantic blockbusters like '89's When Harry Met Sally and '93's Sleepless in Seattle. But those who know her say she was never fully comfortable with the mantle of America's Sweetheart. "I always found Meg to be totally the antithesis of the characters she played onscreen," says one Hollywood source. "She is a very shrewd woman who drove her career with savvy moves early on." Adds the source: "She is not the cutie-pie she appeared as onscreen, wandering around in a lovely haze. She is very driven, feisty and opinionated." Especially in her love life. "She really liked studs," says the insider. "Rough and ready guys-guys' guys."
She wed actor Dennis Quaid, now 56, in 1991, and the couple welcomed son Jack a year later. The marriage was held up as a Hollywood success story-until she began an affair in 2000 with Russell Crowe, her costar in Proof of Life, as her nine-year union with Quaid was unraveling. The brief romance made tabloid headlines, and Ryan's good-girl image took a hit. "I don't need to justify my life to anyone," she told Harper's Bazaar. "Particularly...whether my sweetheart image has been tainted or not." Moving forward, she picked sexier roles (including '03's drama In the Cut) and stepped off the fast track to devote herself to her son and daughter, Daisy, 6, whom she adopted in 2005.
Now she seems determined to start another new chapter. After so many years spent far from the Hollywood glare, does her public romance with Mellencamp signal a desire to step back into the spotlight? "She could reinvent herself," says an insider. "But I'm not so sure she wants to."