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I AM LARGER THAN LIFE -- AND REFUSE TO MAKE APOLOGIES FOR IT
Go to Athens, Georgia, right now, and people will tell you in a heartbeat: Nene hasn't changed one bit. I've always been loud, a little brash, unapologetically truthful, and, above all else, real. I'm like Simon Cowell on American Idol: If you say something I don't like, I might as well correct your ass. It's my opinion, and there's nothing wrong with having one. I have, at least, the right to express it, don't I?
And I love expressing it on The Real Housewives of Atlanta -- in the spotlight. What, you didn't know? I was meant to be in the spotlight. I knew this from the time I was a little girl, trust. I was that girl, honey. I would be at home, at my aunt's house, playing with my Barbie in her little pool and my Candi doll, too -- you know, the one with the hair and the makeup and the rollers -- having loud conversations with the two of them about how Janet Jackson, who was then starring as Penny on Good Times, didn't have nothing on me. I'd be doing their hair and getting their makeup right and baking cakes in my Easy-Bake oven and having parties for them and me, just bragging to them and the four walls about how we were all going to go big-time and how my Easy-Bake needed 100 watts because we needed to go big with it. Be clear: My people were sharp, honey. My dolls and I would all be in there looking fierce and I'd be just going on and on about how I was going to be a star, for real. My friends and I would be over there on Dearing Street, hopscotching and playing baseball -- the tree was first base, a shoe was second, and a piece of cardboard, third -- and we'd be getting down, me talking smack the whole time. If I got my hands on a piece of chalk? Oh, it'd be over. I'd plop right there in the middle of the street and write "Nene" in big bubble letters in different colors, just like I intended to see it up in lights, punctuating each letter I drew with, "I'm going to be famous, y'all. I don't know when this shit is gonna pop off, but I'm gonna be ready when it hits!"
My aunt and everyone else thought I was just a trip. They'd bust into the bathroom and see me in the mirror, posing like that picture of Janet Jackson -- the one where she's smiling all cute with her hand behind her head -- and crack up laughing at me. They just didn't know where I got all that big personality from, where I got it in my mind that I was going to be a celebrity. But I knew all along I was destined for greatness, and that greatness wasn't about to be found in the old dirt roads of Athens. I was raised on the outskirts of Athens, a cute but small college town in north Georgia. My aunt built her a nice house there -- though it looks small today, it seemed huge when I was a kid -- but we didn't have even the simplest things everybody had in town. Like cable and paved streets. You could wash your car and spit-shine the tires and then drive down the road leading to my aunt's house and it would seem like your car hadn't seen water since it left the dealership lot. And don't even get me started on how we couldn't watch any good shows on TV. Lord, I couldn't stand being out there with no channels, moving those damn rabbit ears to try to get reception so I could watch something decent. That just wasn't any way for a future star to live.
Besides, I saw early on that Athens did something to people -- made them settle for that small-town life and a small-town way of thinking. I watched all my friends and their brothers and sisters, too, graduate from school and then start working at the plant almost the day after they crossed the stage. It didn't seem like it ever occurred to them that the world was so much bigger than our little corner of Georgia, that there were bigger, better opportunities out there. But I had big dreams, and they would reveal themselves in Technicolor and with clear Dolby sound. I was going to be a model, and act, and have money, and a man who was about something. And everything I did was geared toward making my colorful, loud dreams a reality.
I convinced my aunt to let me live with her daughter so that I could go to the school in the city of Athens and so that I could join both modeling school and an acting class downtown. I was on the basketball team and the cheerleading team, and you could usually find me holding court in the restaurants and boutiques in the cute little downtown area near the University of Georgia, the college that anchored Athens. My friends would just watch me move and goad me on. They knew I was a gogetter -- a hustler -- and that I wasn't hardly studying staying there in Athens the rest of my life. I wouldn't even date a dude from Athens. My girls would date those country guys from in town, and I would be somewhere bragging about the guy I was dating from Oglethorp or the boy who was driving in from Atlanta to visit. And while I was waiting for him to show up? I'd be talking about making it big. Oh, I was a celebrity already in my own mind -- was always like, "I don't know what's wrong with the rest of these people, but they better recognize: Nene is a star!"
Now, it didn't pop off like I planned until much later in my life. I got sidetracked with a nogood man who abused me, and then became a young single mom, and after that wound up doing some not-so-popular things to survive, things I'll talk about later in the book. But I never forgot the dream, never lost sight of my vision. I'd find my way to auditions here and there, and eventually ended up meeting the casting director Robbie Reed-Humes, who'd gotten her start casting Spike Lee's earlier films and was enjoying a smoking hot career as the person booking talent for the hottest black movies on the big screen. When I met her, I'd been looking for a speaking part in a film so that I could get my Screen Actors Guild card, and Robbie was casting The Fighting Temptations, the flick about a secular music producer who agrees to direct a church choir in order to get his inheritance. She got me in front of the director, and he liked me enough to bring me back for a second audition the next day.
Still, because I didn't have a name, I didn't get any of the big parts. Instead, they gave me a bit as a stripper auditioning for the choir. I had on a shirt and jeans, and I had to go up in front of Cuba Gooding's character and take off my top while I tried to convince him I was just perfect for his church group. My scene ended up on the cutting room floor, but I did get that SAG card, which led to me landing a guest starring role on The Parkers, and I even auditioned for a lead role in Girlfriends -- opportunities that kept opening doors for me. I also landed the lead role in A Time to Dance, a theater show in Atlanta. My agent even got me a meeting with the head of casting over at UPN. I wasn't on my game in that interview, though. I thought it was an audition and so I showed up in the standard audition outfit of jeans and flip-flops, ready to read and take a head shot and leave my callback information and be on my way. I must have looked so new to her, like I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not going to lie: I didn't. I had no clue that she wanted to talk to me about a new TV show the network was planning -- Eve -- and they were thinking about me as a sidekick. That lady saw my inexperience, but she kept talking to me, and her words inspired me. I learned the lingo from her and got some ideas, too, namely, that a reality show might be the perfect platform for Nene to go big.
I could have gone on Survivor or Big Brother or the Flavor of Love, but none of them felt right, none of them spoke to me. But when a producer came knocking on my door, talking about The Real Housewives of Atlanta?
Yeah, it was on.
On the Real
I was a fan of The Real Housewives of Orange County -- loved those evil bitches calling each other friends and slicing each other up while they smiled and partied together. I thought it was delicious, and it reminded me a lot of the crazy experiences I was having as a wife, a mom, a friend, and some women's worst nightmare right here in the black Mecca -- Atlanta. Honey, you couldn't tell me that the drama between me and my girls wasn't as interesting and nutty and off the chain as the mess the Orange County housewives were tossing at my screen every week.
And then, sure enough, I got the phone call.
A friend of mine was talking about how Bravo's Real Housewives franchise was trying to set up shop here in Atlanta and they were looking to cast African-American women who "live behind a gate," meaning they had to be wealthy, in the spotlight, and definitely in the know when it comes to what's popping in the ATL. I didn't believe her at first; she's always trying to act like she's so connected and whatnot, so I just said, "Whatever," and kept it moving.
A few days later, though, I got a call from a woman who was out here looking for people to interview. She'd gotten my phone number from my girl and wanted to know if she could stop by to ask me a few questions on camera -- you know, to see if I had the right look and feel she and the producers of the show were looking for. She made clear that because they hadn't gotten the green light from Bravo, nothing was assured or guaranteed, even if she got me on camera and thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now, I was on the other line running my mouth when she called, and honestly, what she was saying sounded a lot like, "I'm going to come to your house, talk to you like you're my best friend for an hour or two, and then go on about my business like we never met," so I was like, "Let me get your number and call you back." After I finished taking my time wrapping up my conversation, I called the woman back and let her talk me into inviting her to come by the house the next day.
Mind you, I still hadn't processed what was about to happen some two hours before she was supposed to be over to the house. I had a lot of stuff going on -- there was shopping to be done, and I had a couple of things going on at my younger son's school, and my husband, Gregg, and I had a few things bubbling with our businesses, and frankly, I didn't feel like going above and beyond for this woman. When she showed up to the house with her cameraman and assistant, I was still in flip-flops, camouflage pants, and a wife-beater, hungry because I hadn't eaten and a little lifted because I'd had almost an entire bottle of wine on an empty stomach, you know, to loosen up. Needless to say, when she walked into my house, I was a little loopy, talking about "Heeeeeey! Girl, come on in here!" Being all loud and whatnot.
We just got to gabbing and I got to saying all kinds of stuff to her, and somewhere in the middle of all the action, Gregg, who was on my last good nerve at the moment because of a disagreement we'd had earlier, said something to me and I got really smart with his ass. When I figure out how to ask my inebriated self just what the hell I said to him, I'll let you know, but my sober self remembers clearly that the minute I took a bite out of my husband is the minute I could see in the woman's eyes that she liked me for the show. She kept insisting that she couldn't make any decisions until she passed the tape on to someone else to review, but I knew before the door closed behind her that I was in the mix, for sure.
Finally, I was getting my chance to shine.
I Put 'Em in Their Place
I knew The Real Housewives of Atlanta was going to be a big deal, but I didn't realize it was going to be this big a deal. The first season ended up being the biggest freshman series for Bravo since Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and everybody was talking about it -- even CNN's Anderson Cooper, who called me his "favorite" housewife. (For the record: That gray fox could definitely come visit my henhouse anytime!) What most surprised everybody, though, was how the viewers latched on to my tell-it-like-it-is-put-'em-in-their-place straight talk. That was just Nene being Nene. I can sit back and let you get your licks in, but you're not about to push my buttons and take me all the way there without me putting five on it. I really don't care who's around -- I was dead serious when I said that I will put you in your place. That doesn't mean I'm not a good person, because I am. I have a really big heart and my friends will tell you that I'm as sweet as can be. I don't set out to hurt anyone. I know the difference between telling it like it is and getting smart and making somebody feel bad, and I never set out to make someone feel bad when I'm speaking my mind.
Most times, I do recognize that there's a right and wrong time to speak up, and times when you need to bite your tongue and keep your thoughts to yourself. So I think that above all things, my Real Housewives of Atlanta fans appreciated that when I was on their TVs, in their living rooms, the one thing they could count on was Nene being genuine and real. They could tell that I knew when to bite my tongue and when it was time to speak up, and I think they could tell and were proud of the fact that I was being genuine, being who I am. I don't put on airs, I don't boast or brag. I don't see the need for it. My personality is about being outgoing and real -- being plain ol' fabulous Nene.
My genuineness came across, and that's why I get love from the people. They can see that I'm just a real girl, a regular chick. I'm not trying to die in Dior or wear Dolce & Gabbana to my funeral. I'm not trying to keep up with the Joneses, either. I was dead serious when I said, "I am the Joneses." I drive that nice car. I have the fly husband. I live in the big house. I carry the best handbags and rock the baddest shoes. It's what I do anyway. Why would I try to keep up with you? I'm the girl you are and the girl you're trying to be, all mixed up in one. I'm the one with no makeup on, going out to dinner, getting tore the hell up, singing songs in the car -- being real. The clever one who speaks her mind and tells it like it is.
I know where I came from.
And I know exactly where I intend to go.
This I Know for Sure
Being persistent pays off, that's for sure. I'd always known I would have an incredible platform to showcase my talents, and after years of going on auditions, strutting the catwalk as a model, and even scoring a role in a big-screen motion picture, I was on my way. Maybe the people around me couldn't see it, but I could see it for myself, and I truly believe that my unrelenting desire to be something more than what others envisioned for me helped push me further than anyone could have possibly imagined. It takes a strong person to overcome the adversity I've experienced in my lifetime; coming through those fires wasn't easy, I'll tell you that much. Some days, it felt like I was in the middle of a damn inferno. But always, in the back of my mind, I knew that I was bigger than it all -- more fabulous, too. I knew what I wanted, and I wasn't about to let anything get in the way of me being what I wanted to be.
While persistence had a lot to do with my getting my dream gig, I know that being myself took me straight to the top. I'm one of the most popular housewives of the Housewives franchise -- across all ages, across all races, across both sexes. I've got a Bravo AList Award to prove it; I took top honors as "Reality's Guiltiest Pleasure," up against Bret Michaels of Rock of Love, Kim Kardashian of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kendra Wilkinson of The Girls Next Door, and Gretchen Rossi of The Real Housewives of Orange County. And I'll tell you this much: I deserved it. I gave a decent acceptance speech, but what I really should have said was this: "I want to thank all the fake people, because here's what keeping it real will do for you." Some of the people on these shows are wearing the best designer clothes and faking the funk thinking people will like them more, and I didn't do any of that and still walked away with the award.
Every last one of my fans has said they tuned in to the show because they knew I was going to say out loud exactly what everyone else was thinking -- maybe even with a little more attitude than most. Don't believe me? Check the blogs. Everybody else does, and every now and again they cough up something true. More important, I think fans of the show appreciated that I was just being me; my personality, who I am and how I roll, was clear from the first moment they heard my voice. It's really easy for people to completely switch up who they are once those cameras are on -- you might get shy, you might be uncomfortable expressing your opinion, or you might take on the characteristics of someone who, when the cameras are off, you wouldn't dream of being in front of people who know you intimately. All of a sudden it's like, who are you right now? People get to tripping and start getting manipulative and ratchet up all kinds of needless drama, all in the name of getting their shine on. They're trying to be someone they're absolutely not, and the viewers -- the fans -- can tell who they are. But they can also tell who is being genuine, and they're going to go hard for that person -- root for her, pray for her, and wish her well.
That's the reward I got for being Nene, for being real on a reality show. I appreciate the love and the support, and I made a point of letting anyone within the sound of my voice know it, too. And some people -- specifically a couple of the housewives of Orange County -- got a little pissy about that. Okay, a lot pissy about it. And yup, I raise my hand and cop to the fact that I got them all hot and bothered with my bragging.
See, we'd all been at rehearsals for the AList Awards literally all day, and doing different events in between, and by the time the evening rolled around, we were all dead tired and hungry and in need of a good drink. Vicki Gunvalson, an Orange County housewife, told her fellow cast mates, a few girls from the New York housewives, and me, Sheree, and Lisa that she had reservations for ten at a beautiful rooftop sushi restaurant, and that we were welcome to accompany them to the spot. Vicki and her crew headed on over, and the Atlanta housewives ran back to the hotel for a quick minute, then went on over to the restaurant (Lisa didn't go, but Candy did) -- only to find that Vicki's table for ten had no room for us. They'd filled up all the extra seats with people we didn't even know, and what's worse is that while we were standing there trying to figure out why those heiffas didn't make good on our seats, only a few of them bothered to open their mouths to speak to us!
When I tell you we didn't pay them any mind, I mean we didn't pay them any mind, just sashayed our cute asses right behind the hostess on over to the couch while she had someone prepare a table for us. We waited for about twenty minutes for a table right up against a wall overlooking their restaurant and, specifically, the Orange County housewives' soiree. But our attention was on us -- our conversation and laughter came easily as we recalled the day's events and looked forward to the awards ceremony. While we were kickin' it, Orange County housewife Tamra Barney and her husband came over to the table to say hello -- the only two at the entire table to show a little class and at least come over and speak. But she didn't come empty-handed. She had dirt on Kim, who apparently had been running all around town saying all kinds of foul stuff about us. When she finally wrapped up her story, I just looked at her and said, "Y'all are a trip. Vicki and Jeana [Keough, another OC housewife] are not being friendly."
Tamra didn't say anything, just stared. And I kept going. "But anyway, I don't care what you say -- the Atlanta housewives put the Housewives franchise on the map!"
Whoo -- what did I say that for? Tamra let out a nervous laugh. "You know Vicki and Jeana are going to kill you for saying that!"
"Oh, no, the hell they're not." I sniffed. "Run on over there and tell them I said it."
Well, Tamra walked her ass back to the table, my eyes following her all the way over to my nemeses and then training on the three while Tamra let my words rush through her lips. She must have been making it really juicy, too, because all I could see was Vicki and Jeana leaning in and shaking their heads and their mouths falling agape, like someone had just told them the most tragic news. And quick as a wink, Vicki headed back to our table; steam practically rose from her blond dye job, she was so damn pissed. And when she stomped up to the table, I put a big ol' grin on my face, waved my hand, and gave her a cheery, "Heeeeey!"
Vicki didn't bother with niceties -- she just laid right into my ass. "Don't even try it, Nene. I paved the way for the Atlanta housewives!" she insisted, shaking her head.
"You may have paved the way, but the Atlanta housewives put the Housewives franchise on the map," I said smugly, still smiling.
"Oh, no you didn't!" she said, clearly not amused.
"Yes we did," I continued matter-of- factly, getting her even more heated.
When she finally saw that I wasn't budging, she changed the subject and started talking about her insurance company or something, and then she turned her attention to my husband, Gregg. He was interested in the insurance business so Vicki gave him some advice, and then she was on her way.
Oh, it was just perfect. I knew Tamra would be the perfect one to spread the word. I'd been looking for someone all day to take that message back to Vicki, knowing full well she'd blow a damn gasket. I mean, those girls are some hateful bitches -- mean and impossible to work with. Same for a few of the New York girls. In fact, Ramona Singer from The Real Housewives of New York almost caught it that same week when we were all in the green room waiting to go on to our next function, and I was midsentence talking about something or other, and she just yelled out to me, "Shut up!" Like she'd lost her damn mind. "I'm hungry and I'm ready to go and you guys are talking and I just want you to shut up!" she whined.
"Oh, you better hold on, Ramona," I snapped. "Somebody better tell those chicks from New York that shit is not about to happen up in here!"
I don't know if she temporarily lost her damn mind, but I wasn't about to stand there and let her tell me to shut up, like I'm some child. I mean, those girls from the other shows would have me ready to box on the regular. I told Bravo that if they really wanted a good show, they should have all of us live together. Now that would be a trip.
But whatever -- can't none of them hold a candle to my shine. I meant it when I said it: The Real Housewives of Atlanta did put those other shows on the map, and if we're going to tell the truth about it, we might as well go on ahead and give me my props for keeping it interesting.
And you best believe, the fun has just begun.
Copyright © 2009 by Linnethia Leakes