July 26, 2011 -- She's the ex-wife of one of the most controversial men in Hollywood. In the annals of celebrity motherhood, Denise Richards might have one of the toughest jobs of all: shielding her daughters, Sam, 7, and Lola, 6, from father Charlie Sheen's drama, which has played out for all the world to see.
"My first thing is to protect them. ... [T]hat's all that matters to me," Richards said in an interview with ABC News' JuJu Chang.
It has forced her to talk to her daughters about their dad's alleged drug use. "I was lying so much to them and making excuses, and I just had to explain … what's been going on," Richards said.
Richards, 40, said she works hard at doing what so many divorced women struggle with: getting along with the ex for the sake of the children.
"Charlie and I, we will be in each other's life the rest of our lives, so if I want to ... be mad all the time and create drama around these crazy circumstances, it's toxic energy and I just don't want that. I want to be positive and have a healthy relationship and a healthy dynamic for my family," Richards said.
Richards has written a memoir, titled "The Real Girl Next Door," because she believes her story is universal, she said.
"A lot of women … can't relate to being married to Charlie Sheen or divorcing him, but they can relate to going through a divorce and how did it make them feel … the feelings of anger and hurt and sadness," Richards said.
"I take it day by day," she went on. "And today [Charlie and I] are in a really, really good place. I think it's good … for the girls to see that we get along."
One such time made for a surprising scene in October. The divorced couple took their children on a family trip to New York City. But what began with a visit to the American Girl doll store ended in one of the most infamous nights in their lives.
"We had a great time until a certain incident happened, and then it kind of went south," Richards said, laughing.
Sheen invited Richards to a late-night dinner party at a fancy New York restaurant. The night ended in scandal, with a nude woman locked in the bathroom of Sheen's suite at the Plaza Hotel, police on the scene and Sheen in the hospital, accused of assaulting the woman.
Richards said Sheen invited her to the dinner because, she quoted him as saying, "I didn't want you to feel left out."
"I honestly thought we'd have a nice time. I thought, Oh, this is really great. We can be friends," Richards said. They would get dinner for the children, then "have a grown-up night with some friends," she said.
Those "friends" turned out to be escorts Sheen had hired. "I knew within 20 minutes. Less than that," Richards said. "I know my ... ex-husband. … [H]e kind of likes a sort of entertainment. So it didn't take long for me to put two and two together."
One of them, a porn star named Capri Anderson, sat next to Richards at dinner and asked for a picture with her. The photos were later sold to TMZ. Anderson was the woman who ended up locked in the bathroom. Richards left the dinner early, and returned home to her girls. She said the kids slept through the commotion across the hall, in the hotel's Eloise suite.
After having been married to Sheen, the scandalous night didn't shock Richards. "This stuff is so crazy, it's become my normal," she said.
Before her marriage, Richards was best known for her role in the 1998 thriller "Wild Things," which featured a racy lesbian sex scene.
"I loved my role in 'Wild Things.' That was my favorite character. But those scenes were, of course, very uncomfortable to shoot," she said.
The role helped her become a Bond girl the following year, playing Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear scientist, in "The World Is Not Enough."
Richards then fell in love with Sheen on the set of "Spin City."
"The man that I divorced wasn't the man that I married," she said. "He wasn't doing all of this. When I met Charlie, he was sober for three years. And I admired his sobriety and how he worked on himself and how humble he was, and charming, and we just had a deep connection."
She married Sheen in 2002 and had daughter Sam in 2004. Five months later, she posed nude for Playboy.
"I was having some problems in my marriage and felt very insecure," she said.
She left Sheen soon after, six months pregnant with their second child.
"I just knew that I had to leave," she said, adding, "It was very, very difficult. I loved him so much. … I felt so guilty. … Guilty of splitting up my family. … Guilty that, you know, we were a failure as a couple."
The divorce was one of Hollywood's nastiest, and it got even more controversial when Richards took up with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora during his divorce from actress Heather Locklear.
"I didn't steal someone's husband ... and that was the truth," Richards said. "They were already going through a divorce."
Denise Richards Makes Room for Adopted Child
The bad press unfairly hurt her career, Richards said. When she was offered a reality-TV show, she accepted. "I needed a paycheck," she said.
"Denise Richards: It's Complicated," featuring Richards, her father, Irv, and her kids premiered in 2008 on E!. It ran for two seasons.
Sam and Lola didn't mind the cameras, but they've grown uncomfortable living under the Hollywood microscope, Richards said.
Now Richards is a busy, working single mom. She stars in the Spike TV program "Blue Mountain State" and is launching a hair care line and a perfume. In her spare time, she works with homeless and abused animals.
Richards adopted a six-week-old girl last month who is part African-American, part Hispanic and part white. Richards named her Eloise Joni, after Denise's mother, Joni Richards, who died of cancer almost four years ago.
"I love being a mom more than anything. And I wanted to have more children. And I had to make a decision, 'Do I wait until I meet the right person? Or do I keep moving forward with my life and do it on my own?'" she said.
"My daughters are so in love with her and love her so much," Richards said. "Adoption's not an easy process. … And, you know, the right baby found me. … [S]he's just a beautiful, gorgeous baby, a beautiful soul."