A fearless Elizabeth Taylor once entered a shark cage while wearing her favorite diamonds. “She wanted to go down into the ocean and look at the sharks,” Kathy Ireland exclusively recalls to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “The shark guys were telling her to take off her diamonds because it was going to attract too many sharks. She just said: ‘That’s the idea!’”

Kathy, 56, a swimsuit model turned entrepreneur, shared a close friendship with the legend in her later years. To this day, she still thinks of Elizabeth as one of the most fascinating people she’s ever met. “We became family,” says Kathy, who met Elizabeth through a mutual friend. “She had a very curious heart and I think that kept her young. She was always growing and learning.”

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Kathy joined Elizabeth for Bible studies where they exchanged ideas about life. “She told me her thoughts about being a mom,” explains Kathy. “She was very detail-focused and a lot of the lessons she gave me were about looking at things from every angle.”

Elizabeth also inspired Kathy, who spoke with Closer at the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services’ Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards, to become passionate about philanthropy. “She loved without condition,” says Kathy of her friend’s “pure heart.”

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Liz especially adored children. She was always happy when she was around them, and that’s something that Kathy adored. “Our kids would come to her home when they were toddlers and make a mess and she would just laugh,” recalls Kathy, adding that Liz’s own four kids were the lights of her life. “She loved her children ferociously,” she reveals. “To her, they were beyond jewels and beyond treasures.”

For more on your favorite stars, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!