When you leave Kansas City and marry a former child star 16 years your junior, there’s only one thing that can save you.

Cheese Nuts 

When you leave Kansas City and marry a former child star 16 years your junior, there’s only one thing that can save you.

When it comes to marriage, a danger sign might be when the husband says, "I've always been attracted to craziness."

Another possible warning: The bride is 32, the groom, 17.

Or when your relationship makes the pages of The National Enquirer — that could mean trouble.

But Heidi Van Pelt has never been conventional.

Her parents divorced when she was barely a year old, and she was shuttled back and forth between a mother who missed her swim meets and a father who couldn't remember her birthday.

Marsha Duncan could see that her daughter was anything but a conformist. In elementary school, Van Pelt had such a unique style that Duncan says she called a teacher to say, "Please don't think I dress my child like that." Still, Duncan (a native Midwesterner who has worked in corporate human resources and city clerk jobs) encouraged Van Pelt to find her niche — no matter how offbeat.

"Probably something most people don't say to their children: I said, 'If you want to be a prostitute, you damn well better be a good one and get the high dollar,'" she recalls.

At Oak Park and Blue Springs high schools, Van Pelt was the odd, artsy girl who wore bright turquoise and orange in the dead of winter. After graduating in 1986, she studied fashion design at Stephens College in Columbia, but her classmates, she says, were more like sorority girls than couture creators. She tried studying German and philosophy at the University of Missouri but was lured to Seattle in 1988 by the University of Washington's Russian Studies program — she hoped to become a CIA agent.

She quit that program with one semester left. She started a media company called Emergent Films, but when work dried up in the grunge capital, she reluctantly moved to Los Angeles. She quickly grew frustrated bouncing between TV and movie sets as a production assistant and a prop master.

But Los Angeles proved an ideal place for Van Pelt to find her true calling: vegan cooking.

Van Pelt had been a vegetarian for several years, and in Seattle, she'd met animal-rights activists who also shunned dairy products, eggs and even honey. To a Midwesterner, even an eccentric one, this sounded like a cult. She joined.

In the years that followed, Van Pelt's skills as a vegan chef took her to the center of the Hollywood party life, where she met the child star who would become her husband.

Now, her culinary skills have brought her back to Kansas City, where her ridiculous marriage is dissolving in a sordid, lawsuit-ridden explosion of vegan cheese. In 1994, with an online certificate from the American Academy of Nutrition, Van Pelt worked as a nutritional counselor at a clinic in Los Angeles' rough Watts neighborhood. She taught homeless people how to salvage the shriveled greens they got from food pantries and instructed Head Start families how to eat a balanced diet on little income.

Van Pelt also co-hosted a show called Raw Health on the local Pacifica radio station. When her name started circulating, she landed catering and nutritional counseling jobs — Woody Harrelson was among her clients.

So when Zachary Ty Bryant and Taran Noah Smith — both young stars of the hit sitcom Home Improvement — showed up at her house for a raw-food dinner party in 1998, it was hardly anything to write home about. Smith was just some 14-year-old, meat-eating kid; Van Pelt didn't pay him much attention.

But the two crossed paths again at a movie premiere in 2000. They struck up a conversation about the band Radiohead. Among Van Pelt's numerous hobbies was playing the bass; Smith invited her to his house in Sherman Oaks to jam in his recording studio.

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