For over 30 years, the timeless beauty Jennifer O’Neill was a face for Cover Girl cosmetics, making her instantly recognizable to others for her photos over several decades. She also received accolades for acting in well-known films during her Hollywood career, including the 1970’s award contender, Summer of ’42. She’s had quite a life, but not one without challenge and tragedy. With multiple failed marriages, family dealings with depression, substance abuse, and hard times, she’s been through more than most of us can possibly imagine in her seventy-three years. Impressively, Jennifer has used all of the heartbreak and suffering combined with her first love, which was horses in order to help others in pain. She’s currently active in running, expanding, and promoting the healing resources she founded located on her home’s property, Hillenglade Hope & Healing.
While this alone might seem like more than most people would be willing to take on at her age, she’s still exploring her other creative outlets. In fact, she’s filming alongside lead actor Dennis Quaid in the upcoming presidential biographic, big-screen film, ‘Reagan’ which is in place to be one of the most anticipated movie releases of early 2022. Here, she shares a bit about her motivation behind supporting and helping others, her career over the years, as well as what inspires her to stay mindful and in the moment no matter what life brings her way.
The Nashville Edit: Throughout your philanthropy career, you have championed many different causes. How did you decide to pursue the equine therapy work you are doing at Hillenglade Hope & Healing?
Jennifer O’Neill: Horses and helping heroes are my two passions. I believe that I came out of the womb loving horses. I bred and showed for over forty years. I even started working as a model at age 15 to earn money because I wanted to own a horse. God has now recycled my passions for horses and helping the military and first responders at Hillenglade. This is how I honor the animals.
When I found this house, it was falling down the hill, and there was really nothing here. But I saw eagles soaring (such a good sign) as I first came down the driveway as well, and then a vision for what I wanted to create unfolded in my mind. It started with equine-assisted therapy for first responders and their loved ones, which was important because I was married to a marine who served in Vietnam. I know first-hand the trickle-down effect of PTSD on the family unit. I also grew up with a dad who was a WWII hero. He was held in a German prison camp for almost three years.
Kathie Lee Gifford donated the covered arena to Hillenglade a little over two years ago so we could do our work year-round, which makes such a difference. I will love her forever for this—such a giving heart! We work with various organizations, including the VA, Fort Campbell, and Operation Stand Down, and have recently implemented a transition program where individuals can live on the farm. In the last few years, we’ve built a mess hall, chapel, pavilion, three giant living suites, a recording studio, and a bunkhouse. We have also hosted weddings, retreats, and corporate events. The most crucial factor is that 100% of any profits go directly to supporting the 501 C-3. The next plan phase is to open the facility to the public. This might include making films – some of which I’ve written the script for. Overall, the most exciting thing about our place of hope and healing is that the vision continues to grow and expand.
TNE: You’ve had two successful careers: a long-time philanthropist and the other as an actor and model. Were both equally satisfying?
JO: Not even close. While I wasn’t crazy about modeling, I am very grateful for the beautiful 30-year run I had as a Cover Girl, which allowed me to have everything I enjoy now. I must admit that it is pretty cool to be featured in the Smithsonian for one of the longest-running beauty contracts! Acting in 38 movies and writing scripts is creatively satisfying, but from the outside, it looks better than it actually is. (Starts to cry) Nothing moves me more than when I can help other people. A fireman I was able to help recently was this big, burly guy but also extremely hyper-vigilant. He had a moment when he was around one of our horses where he felt completely out of control. Walking around the animal triggered him because he felt so out of his element. However, he went through our transition program, and it helped make his anxiety exponentially better. Another gal from the Air Force couldn’t be touched. She didn’t like people. But after the third visit here, she was smiling, laughing, and hugging everyone, and even affectionate with the horses. Stories like that show me the power of equine therapy. This is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life.
TNE: Switching gears a bit, you have been acting since the late ’60s and are currently preparing for your next role in the feature film “Reagan” shooting this spring, in which you’ll play the former president’s mother, Nelle. Do you want to share a bit about your involvement in this project?
JO: I visited the White House years ago and was able to meet President Ronald Reagan. I adored that man and am just so grateful to be part of this movie. My job now is to get to know the mother/son relationship as much as I can from research. Apparently, they were very close, and she had strong faith. Nelle had a huge influence on him, as much as his wife, Nancy. I am studying my character through reading history books. I also don’t think that many people knew Reagan’s mother very well, making it fresh material. I am just going to play her as truthfully as possible. When I am playing a fictional character, my job is to be authentic in an imaginary circumstance. I’ll approach this role similarly. However, I am incredibly interested in knowing every detail about who she was and who they were together to show the depth of the relationship on screen.
TNE: Over the years, were there any actors who had a notable influence on you or your craft?
I studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York City for three years. Then, I got the call in 1970 to act in the film “Rio Lobo” with John Wayne. I must admit I was a complete snob because I didn’t consider him to be a real actor. (Laughs) How ridiculous is that? Ironically, it was the year he won the Academy Award for “True Grit,” so what did I know? John was a delightful person and bigger than life. He was a true gentleman who I remember as always being courteous and on time. He would try his best to help shape the young actors on set, myself included. I still admire him to this day.
I eventually moved to Europe to work. On those sets, practically no one spoke the same language. I was reminded of something John had said to me once – “Every time you do a scene, it has to be fresh. That only comes from really listening.” I had to pay close attention to my fellow actor’s intonation and body language to break language barriers. While I haven’t thought about it until now, a similarly intense experience happens when I am with the horses. I have to pay attention and be totally present as the animals certainly are.
TNE: Because you look incredible for your age, what is your beauty secret?
Primarily I credit good genes, exercising, and eating well. My biggest beauty secret is taking the focus off of myself. If I get stuck in a rut, I go out and help someone and immediately feel better. There is always a person who has it worse. I try to keep that in mind, always. We’re designed to help others, and that is what drives me and keeps me young. That’s the way it’s always been and will be.