ARUN RATH, HOST:
Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs, big and small. Georgia Durante was a model for Kodak Film who went on to a lot of TV and commercial work as a stunt driver.
In the '90s, she appeared in Chevrolet ads and was the stunt double for Cindy Crawford in a Pepsi commercial. What her Hollywood colleagues didn't know was that her driving skills were honed from a career as a getaway driver. Durante's story begins in New York City at a mafia-run club called Sundowners.
GEORGIA DURANTE: It didn't start until two o'clock in the morning. And people would leave at six. When I first got there, you had to knock on the door, like, three times, and then a guy would open it. And if you were OK, he'd let you in, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
DURANTE: You never really knew what was going on. You were never told what was going on. But the intrigue was what really drew me into that world. It was a pretty dark world that I eventually - it wasn't fun anymore. It was scary. I'm there and, like, five feet away from me, this guy pulls out a gun and shoots the guy next to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEAT)
DURANTE: Everybody scattered. The guy fell to the floor. Frankie was the owner of Sundowners. And Frankie threw me the car keys. And he says, Georgie-Girl, go get the car. Bring it up. Threw him in the backseat and I'm in driver's seat.
So I'm driving to Bellevue Hospital. I'm only 17 at this time, you know. We get to the hospital. And we got there in record time. And they just pulled him out and left him on the sidewalk, beeped the horn and took off. All they talked about was, man, Georgie-Girl, can you drive a car.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DURANTE: So it started out just picking up packages and delivering them to wherever. And it graduated to what they called pick-ups. And I would wait around the corner for these guys and drop them off - wait around the corner. And they were actually robbing places. But they never told me. One day, they came out with their guns out. And I heard sirens. And they jumped in the car and said step on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)
DURANTE: I was driving on sidewalks, down alleys. I ducked into one alley. And then we saw the cops go by. So they never saw us getting into the alley. And then once we didn't hear the sirens anymore, we knew it was safe to come out. It was intense. It was very intense. You know, I just got in pretty deep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DURANTE: This mob war breaks out, and they were killing everybody who knew anything. And I fled to California with my seven-year-old daughter. I end up in San Diego. And I was married to a guy in the mob at this time. And he was very abusive. And his abuse really became intense then.
And my daughter and I, we would spend many nights out at the beach, shivering, afraid to go home. If I could get out with my purse, you know, we'd go to the theater and watch the same movie over and over and over again, you know. And then, one day, I took her by the hand, got in the car and started driving. And I just kept going.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DURANTE: We ended up living in the car. And I'd steal food in convenience stores till I finally found my friend who lived in Brentwood. And he let us stay at his place.
I was hiding from my husband. I was hiding from the mob. I couldn't be out there. And I said, what, you know - what could I do? The only thing I've ever done is model, drive cars. That was it. So while I'm there, I'm watching TV every day, you know, trying to figure out what I'm going to do. But then I realized that every time there was a commercial, it was a car commercial.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEVROLET COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is today's Chevrolet.
DURANTE: Most of the time, you could never see the driver. I said, that's perfect. My friend who was an actor - he knew when they were shooting commercials and where they were shooting them. And he would tell me where they were. And I'd show up on the location. And I'd start bugging these directors. And they'd look at me like, yeah, sure, she can drive, uh-huh - you know - and finally, said, all right. We'll see what you can do. And that was my big break. Before I knew it, I was turning down work. I was only one person. I couldn't do it all, you know. If I would've taken no for an answer, who knows where I'd be now.
RATH: That's Georgia Durante, stunt woman and author of "The Company She Keeps." You don't have to be a Hollywood stunt driver to have a big break. Tell us your story. Send us an email at email@example.com.