When Erika Girardi first met her future husband Tom while cocktail-waitressing at the LA restaurant Chasen’s, where he was a regular, she never imagined they’d end up together.
Then 27, divorced and with a young son, Thomas, now 25, “marriage was the furthest thing from my mind,” Girardi, 46, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue.
But fate intervened, and after a year-long friendship, Tom, 78, a powerhouse attorney famed for the landmark case that inspired the film Erin Brokovich, asked her out.
Their connection was immediate. “Tom did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth,” says Girardi, who shares her own painful past in her new book, Pretty Mess. “We both came up the hard way. And we appreciate growth.”
A few months after they met, Girardi moved in; six months after that, Tom proposed.
Says Girardi of marrying Tom: “What was really important to me was my relationship. Tom wasn’t going to change. He was a grown man. It really was two people coming together who really enjoy each other’s company.”
Now 18 years into their marriage, Girardi says she respects and admires her husband as much as ever. “Tom is so bright,” she says. “He understands the trick to life. I love getting his advice.”
Watch the full episode of People Features: Erika Girardi — I Like to Break the Rules, streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.
And though she admits that early on in their relationship she was judged by the 33-year age difference, (“Everyone thought I was marrying him to have a baby and lock down the money, as ugly as that sounds”), Girardi says, “I see it less and less now.”
And when she started a singing career at 35, as alter ego Erika Jayne, “he was totally supportive,” says Girardi. “That’s the nice thing in this family. We all support each other for what we choose to do and for our passions.”
And Girardi opens up about some of the more traditional aspects of their marriage that she loves, including picking out his daily suits and coordinating colognes.
For more from Girardi, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
“It’s something I can do for him that he would not do for himself,” she explains. “It shows that I care, and I want him to feel good. And it gives a solid 20 minutes in the morning of one-on-one conversation. It’s a great way to begin the day. He knows my schedule and I know his. It’s kind of a ritual.”
Ultimately, Girardi says she’s grateful to have found the love and support she always yearned for.
“Tom believes in me and he supports me,” says Girardi. “That’s my favorite thing about our relationship.”