Leeann Tweeden is a knockout. She has appeared on the covers of FHM and Maxim, she has modeled for Sports Illustrated, and was the star of the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog and the Venus Swimwear line. Her magazine covers are some of the highest selling of all time. She has hosted a variety of programs, from “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” to ESPN’s “Fitness Beach.” She regularly appears with Dr. Drew on HLN and is the spokesperson of Rethinking Autism.
But there’s more to Leeann than glossy pages and her superstar smile. Since 2002, she has toured with the USO over 16 times visiting military in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and beyond. She tirelessly dedicates herself to military causes, speaking at events, and traveling to military hospitals to visit with the wounded.
Leeann Tweeden is the daughter of an Air Force Veteran. She is a mother. And she is also a military spouse.
Leeann’s father, Bill Tweeden, a retired Air Force Chief Mechanic who worked on B-57s, met her mother, Catherine, in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. Together they settled in Manassas, Virginia, where they raised Leeann and her older brother, Billy. She describes her childhood as ideal, filled with the warmth of a loving family as well as opportunities to learn and play. “My dad instilled a lot of pride in our country and for those that serve. He was also sure to focus on manners with us,” she laughs. “I still stay yes ma’am and no sir. We joke that my dad says ‘yes ma’am’ to the 18-year-old girl in the market.”
Though she remembers her childhood as idyllic, Leeann grew up with a spirit of wanderlust. From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a model. Ambitious, Leeann graduated high school at sixteen; she left Virginia to pursue that dream and landed in Colorado, a temporary stop on her way to Los Angeles.
A Shining Star
While in Colorado, Leeann entered the Venus Swimwear competition on a whim. She won her local competition and was spirited away to Florida to compete for the international title. Leeann won and was immediately signed to a contract with the company.
Leeann’s career skyrocketed. Her beauty jumped off the page, but it was her friendly nature, hard work, and humility that made her such a sought-after talent. After a yearlong contract with Venus Swimwear, she received offers with many more media corporations. Her second FHM cover is the highest selling cover to date.
But always remembering the love of her family and the lessons she learned from her father, Leeann wanted to do more-she wanted to give back.
A Father’s Journey, A Daughter’s Love
While helping her father sort through old photographs when she was young, Leeann had come across a signed photograph of bombshell Raquel Welch. At the time, she hadn’t heard of the USO. In their talks, her father described meeting Welch while he was stationed at Phan Rang in Vietnam. “He said Bob Hope [had] brought Raquel Welch. And for the first time he was over there, he forget where he was for a moment.”
And so the spark was struck. Maybe I could be someone’s Raquel Welch, she thought.
In 2002, when her manager called her and asked if she would be interested in doing a USO tour, Leeann jumped at the opportunity. “I said yes! And then my manager said, ‘You need a passport and you need to be able to leave in a week.’ Again, I said, ‘Yes, yes, I’ll do it. I have a passport and I’m ready to go.'”
When she hung up the phone, she immediately called her father. “I felt like he was so proud of me. I always wanted to give something back because I felt guilty I didn’t serve.”
Leeann’s first USO tour was in 2002 to the Balkans, and once she returned to the States, she couldn’t wait to head out on another. Her next tour was to Afghanistan in November of 2002. “I was there early, our troops were still living in tents, still showering in tents and had no hot water. That was back at Bagram when they were still in the old buildings from the Russian war. I looked at the girls like how do you do this? They laughed and shared, ‘You go in, you pump yourself up and you jump under the water for two seconds. You quickly soap up and rinse off as fast as possible.’ I was impressed.”
Leeann has performed 16 tours with the USO. “I always said, ‘Please send me. I want to go.’ Then it started to get more dangerous, the wars got bigger.” That never stopped Leeann.
Through her tours with the USO, she experienced some remarkable moments in history. “In 2003, we were getting ready to depart for another tour and we were gearing up to leave from Andrews Air Force Base. It was pitch black and our van pulled into base and there was a whole slew of traffic and lights. As we’re getting ready to get out and leave, we found out that Saddam [Hussein] had been captured in the middle of the night. A ton of people filled up all the other slots on our plane, because we were the first plane out of DC headed to Iraq. These reporters wanted to be on that first plane to get back over there and cover the story.”
“My greatest memories were the tours I did with Robin Williams,” she shares. “In 2003, I toured with NASCAR driver, Mike Wallace, Olympic Gold Medalist and WWE wrestler Kurt Angle, and with Robin; I just remember that you got to see a different perspective of Robin and how he interacted with the troops. He was brilliant. He supported the troops and wanted them to know he supported them. He was gracious and funny and intelligent. Everything you hear, it’s all true and then some.”
When Saddam was captured, Leeann recalls of her tour with Robin, “I remember when we landed, we went into the tent with the troops who had just captured him and morale was through the roof. Everyone was dirty and in their ACUs, but spirits were high. It was an interesting new perspective and I couldn’t believe I was there to experience that moment. And then Robin came out and did a hilarious skit afterwards and everyone was filled with laughter.”
Leeann’s USO tours have not only allowed her to give back, they also brought her husband into her life. On her first tour in 2002, Leeann befriended the pilot of their C-130 Captain Tyler Thompson. He had forgotten his camera, but Leeann promised that if he gave her his email address, she would send him the pictures. True to her word, Leeann returned home and emailed the images.
The two struck up a friendship. Through the years, Leeann stayed in contact with Tyler during her travels. On a trip back to Virginia in October 2004, Leeann invited Tyler to join her and her friends. Tyler asked to bring a friend from his unit; they were getting ready to deploy and had decided to take the weekend off. “Yes,” she remembers saying. “I told him, ‘Yes, bring him; any friend of yours is a friend of ours.'”
And that’s how Leeann Tweeden her husband. At the time they were both in other relationships. But in two months time the situation would change.
Love is in the Air
Two months later, Leeann was ready for another holiday tour with the USO. Though she wouldn’t receive her itinerary until the plane was in the sky, she hoped that she would be flying where Chris and Tyler were stationed. When the plane lifted off, she learned that was indeed their destination. Excited, she asked The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, if someone might help her find them.
“When we landed, I was trying to get ready for a show with my compact-using the windows of the plane for light. We weren’t going to have a chance to stop anywhere; it was just off the plane and to the first show. So I get off the plane and an escort approaches me and says, ‘I hear you have a couple of friends.’ I replied, ‘Yes I do.’ I was escorted back stage and put my stuff down. A young airman had just escorted me back from the restroom. As soon as I walked around the corner, there were Tyler and Chris standing back stage.”
After that first show, she, Chris, and Tyler ate together in the chow hall. The following morning, Leeann left to do a show downrange.
“I’d been awake since 4:30am the previous day and it was around one or two in the morning. Robin [Williams] put on an hilarious show and with all the troops laughing, we didn’t want to leave.” As she and Robin walked back toward the waiting C-130, she heard a familiar voice saying, “Hey, I know you.” It was Chris, who was assigned to fly the performers back to their base.
“When we got up to level off,” she remembers, “I stood up to talk to Chris. At some point in the conversation, we discovered that we were both now single. Then Robin Williams came up by us and he’s telling jokes a mile a minute. I’m in Chris’ left ear, Robin’s in his other ear, and we’re flying out of a warzone. It was surreal.”
Once they landed, Leeann and Chris said goodbye…but not for long. During that tour, Leeann and Chris talked at every opportunity. When he returned home from deployment (a few months later), Leeann was waiting for him in North Carolina, and they started dating immediately. Chris asked her to marry him in 2008, and they were married in 2010. Now, ten years after their first date in the skies, Leeann and Chris have a beautiful son.
Chris has transitioned from Active Duty into the Air National Guard. At the time of writing, Chris had just returned from another overseas deployment. Leeann Tweeden still finds new ways to give back. Despite her busy schedule as a model, a feature contributor on Dr. Drew’s HLN show, “Dr. Drew On Call”, and creating a new podcast with her friend Dana Commandatore at TomboysRadio.com (and her job as a mother!), she volunteers tirelessly for those that serve, speaking at military bases, working with the USO, and supporting the Boot Campaign. She is often found visiting wounded warriors.
When Military Spouse announced our plans to profile Leeann, we received many excited responses. Many of our supporters had met her personally. Navy Lieutenant Katie Easterly, for example, was in charge of driving Leeann around the base (along with Bradley Cooper). “She was simply the most charming person,” Easterly recalled. “So down to earth.”
Years ago, when Leeann found those photographs of Raquel Welch in her father’s belongings, she was inspired. She deeply understood the importance of normalcy and that laughter can ease the burden of grueling deployments and warfare. While she wanted to give back, she may never know her true effect on her audiences over those 16 tours.
Leeann Tweeden is a military spouse that gives back.
Perhaps she is someone’s Raquel Welch. Or maybe she’s simply someone’s Leeann Tweeden.
In addition to her USO tours, Leeann is also a spokesperson for the organization Rethinking Autism. Founded by friend, Dana Commandatore, Rethinking Autism provides positive support for parents of autistic children. The organization’s goal is to eliminate the negativity and fear surrounding an Autism diagnoses. For more information on Rethinking Autism, visit: rethinkingautism.com