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Out of this world

A former runway model now living in Old Seminole Heights has had some quirky roles as an actor. Catch her in Christopher Reeve's new TV movie.

JANET ZINK
Published October 22, 2004

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - Eugenie Bondurant, dressed as a dominatrix, has crouched at the edge of Madonna's bed.

She has hugged Edward Norton, mauled Gene Wilder and danced with Alice Cooper. She has played an alien, a vampire and a male transvestite.

But when the makeup and the leather come off, she leads a simple life walking her dog, making bread and doing crafts.

In her Old Seminole Heights home, the actor pours strong coffee from an antique silver pot into hand-painted china cups and explains the Madonna incident.

It happened when the pop star was guest host of Saturday Night Live during a Wayne's World skit about hot babes. Bondurant played a part in Wayne's fantasy about Madonna.

Tall - she's 6-foot-1 - sharply angular and broad-shouldered, Bondurant can pull off intimidating or downright scary roles.

"Once I realized that would be the area where I could make the money, it kind of became a shtick," she said.

In fact, she doesn't even like scary movies.

"I've actually scared myself," she says.

In the movie Space Truckers, starring Dennis Hopper, she played a biomechanical killing machine.

"I knew the script backwards and forwards," she said. But at the movie premiere, when her character came on-screen, "I was the one in the audience who screamed first."

Most recently, Bondurant was cast in a less aggressive role.

She plays a woman whose marriage falls apart after her son is paralyzed in a car accident in The Brooke Ellison Story, a triumph-over-tragedy film about a paralyzed woman directed by actor Christopher Reeve, who died last week. "It was the highlight of my career. What an amazing man," she said. "He thanked me for being on the set. He thanked me? Who am I?"

Reeve, best known for his movie role as Superman, spent the last nine years of his life battling paralysis after being injured in a horseback riding accident. He told Bondurant he wanted her character to show what kind of impact such tragedies have on the families of the people who are injured.

The movie airs at 8 p.m. Monday on A&E.

Sadly, Bondurant says, Reeve's death from an infected bed sore just weeks before the movie's debut gives the film even more impact by highlighting yet another risk faced by people who are paralyzed.

"What a gift from him and how sad," she said. "He really wanted people to understand the things for which he was fighting."

Bondurant's on-camera career began when she was in high school in New Orleans, her hometown. Her family encouraged her to model for a local department store, hoping it would help her become more comfortable with her height.

After high school, she earned a degree in finance from the University of Alabama and planned to work in fashion merchandising. Instead, she ended up selling commercial real estate in New Orleans.

She thought about pursuing a modeling career but was reluctant to move to fast-paced New York City.

Two years later, she began experiencing excruciating pain in her back and legs that had her doubled over and barely able to walk. She dropped to 115 pounds and visited a handful of specialists who could find nothing wrong with her.

Her family thought she was anorexic. A college friend, Ruth Kupsha, dragged her to a psychiatrist. He sent her to another doctor, who diagnosed her with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I never met anyone who was happy to find out they had cancer," said Kupsha, who lives in Hawaii. "She was just tired of hearing it was in her head."

Bondurant quit her real estate job and began taking modeling gigs because the hours were flexible and could be worked into her chemotherapy schedule.

While working at a television executives convention wearing one of her favorite wigs, a man approached her and suggested she visit him in New York, where he would put her in touch with some modeling agents.

Her brush with death gave her the courage to follow her dream, she says. She went to New York and immediately landed a job modeling new clothing lines for department store buyers.

She decided to make the move permanent.

"I felt like if I could go through chemotherapy, then I could live in New York," she said. Within a year, she was a runway model in Paris.

A boyfriend persuaded her to move to Los Angeles, where she got her first acting role in a pantyhose commercial.

From there it was on to horror films and television roles.

In Los Angeles, she met Paul Wilborn, a Tampa native and former newspaper columnist who was working for the Associated Press. Six months later, they were engaged. They moved to Tampa in June 2003 after Wilborn accepted a job as the city's creative industries manager.

"She's an incredibly positive person who wakes up happy," Wilborn said. "She's got this look so Hollywood always casts her killing people or an alien. And then (between takes) she's knitting. That's how she is deep down. With Martha Stewart locked up, Eugenie could take over any time."

Kupsha, who says Bondurant was "very '80s, very preppy" in college, describes her friend as "down to earth" and remarkably strong.

"She doesn't know a stranger," Kupsha says. "She always finds some way to connect with people.

"Life has thrown her some curves but she's been able to take it and run with it."

- Janet Zink can be reached at 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com

Eugenie Bondurant

AGE: 43

FAMILY: Husband, Paul Wilborn, the city of Tampa's creative industries manager; three sisters

PETS: Kaila, a 5-year-old German shepherd mix; Grisgris, a 4-month-old cat

HOME: Old Seminole Heights

ON CAMERA: Bondurant appears in The Brooke Ellison Story, directed by the late Christopher Reeve, airing at 8 p.m. Monday on A&E.

MOVIE, TV CREDITS: Fight Club, I'll Do Anything, Frazier, Wings

BEHIND THE SCENES: Bondurant teaches on-camera acting classes at the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory.

SUCCESS STORIES: One of her Patel students is among three people under consideration for a starring role in an upcoming Queen Latifah movie.

OFF STAGE: Bondurant likes to garden, sew, knit and cook. "I'm a homebody," she says.

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