The Housewife Who Keeps It Real
Perhaps you’ve heard of NeNe Leakes, the former stripper turned millionairess and undisputed star of Bravo’s hit show Real Housewives of Atlanta—a weave-loving, trash-talking, bank-busting preacher of unadulterated truths.
Then again, perhaps you’ve just heard her.
Leakes has one of the loudest voices in the Western Hemisphere, something between an operatic soprano and an air-raid siren. She uses it to tell off “toxic bitches” and “second-place chicks” in clubs, on street corners, at department stores, across tables in fancy restaurants, from the comfort of her living room, and anywhere else her “larger than life” life takes her, with Bravo cameras in tow. At long last, that clarion call, which leaves “fakers” cowering and sends millions rushing to their TV sets every Thursday night, is now headed to a bookstore near you.
An example of NeNe Leakes, from an episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta, keeping things extremely real.
Never Make the Same Mistake Twice: Lessons on Love and Life Learned the Hard Way, is the memoir of Linnethia Monique Johnson, a sweet girl of modest means from Queens, New York, by way of Athens, Georgia. Abandoned by her mother, estranged from her father, young NeNe (pronounced "knee-knee," as in: one to the groin, one to the face) made a series of bad decisions. Most notably, she spent six years of her life, on and off, with a man who beat and raped her; who spurned their unborn child and impregnated another woman at the same time; who lived with his mother, was a sweaty slob, and once kidnapped her at gunpoint. She turned to stripping, first in upscale Atlanta clubs, then in private underground "jack shacks," to put her young son, Bryson, through private school.
In the end, Leakes stepped away from the pole and into the arms of a real-estate mogul, who paid her electric bill and spirited her off to one of Georgia's fanciest gated communities. One day, after drinking an entire bottle of wine on an empty stomach, Leakes welcomed a Bravo producer into her home, and the rest is history: two seasons of vicious bickering on a breakout hit reality show, a blog, a book, a forthcoming line of "just fabulous shoes for big-feet people" like herself.
Leakes was in New York last week to promote the book and do a little gay-clubbing. On Thursday night, she made a guest appearance on Watch What Happens Live, the new late-night show hosted by Bravo executive Andy Cohen. She arrived at the studio at 10 p.m. in oversize sunglasses, head-to-toe white denim, and her 6.2-carat diamond engagement ring, accompanied by a three-man entourage of her assistant, her hair stylist and her hair stylist’s assistant.
She disappeared almost as soon as she arrived, sneaking away to have a tearful chat with Cohen about her book. That left Derek J., the hair stylist, a short man in Gucci sunglasses and purple toenail polish, free to strut around in Leakes’ brand new Christian Louboutin pumps. An assistant began to steam Leakes' outfit for the show: a black BCBG jumpsuit with the tags still on. A producer came to ask if they would prefer Champagne or a sweet Riesling, Leakes’ favorite.
“Both,” Leakes hollered from the hallway and ordered up some orange juice too because “that’s how we do our Champagne.”
“Could she be ready by 10:30 p.m.?," the producer asked her assistants in a whisper.
“Oh, that’s not doable at all,” Leakes said, storming into the room and settling into a makeup chair with a Sprite and two bags of Wise honey-barbecue chips. Susan, the makeup artist, approached with an eyeshadow brush. Leakes batted her away. “I have my makeup covered,” she said. “I have to do my whole face.”
The trip had been successful so far, apart from a trying incident outside the Barracuda, a gay club Leakes had visited the previous night with Danielle Staub, one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Paparazzi cornered them to ask about a brawl Leakes had with sworn enemy and fellow Atlanta castmate Kim Zolciak, to whom Leakes devotes an entire chapter in her memoir. (Zolciak accused Leakes of choking her back in April, an allegation Leakes dismissed, saying “Would I be walking the streets if I strangled Kim?”) In her book, Leakes diagnoses Zolciak as “certifiably crazy” and says she has a “serious need for prescription medication and a good talk with Jesus.” She repeatedly accuses Zolciak of dating married men and calls her “simply too toxic for my ass.”
“Kim is so dumb. Write that down!” Leakes shouted as Susan tried to apply a layer of lip gloss.
“You think Michelle gave him some birthday sex? Secret Service man standing outside that door with his white hair all up? Get it Michelle! Like, Barack is really hot, though.”
Between the flirtations with libel and the trauma of dredging up her distant past, Leakes said the book project nearly drove her crazy. “I had to go back in time and relive all of this stuff. It was very heartbreaking,” she said. “A lot of people will relate.” On top of that, the writing process was agonizing. “There were days when the co-author wanted me to read what she’d written, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
While Derek J. flat-ironed her brunette pixie cut, Leakes talked about the pros and cons of fame. The blogs and tabloids have made her "bananas" for the last year, digging into her personal life and turning up questionable real-estate dealings and rumors from her time as a stripper, both of which she addresses at length in the book. (She says the real-estate problems, which involve a dispute over rent payments on their Atlanta manse, were the fault of an irresponsible owner. As for the stripper rumors? Those are true.) On the bright side, “I’ve met a ton of celebrities that really like me,” including Rosie O’Donnell and Rachael Ray. "I get to meet Gayle King tomorrow. She’s a big fan of mine.” She’s yet to meet Anderson Cooper, who once called her his “favorite Housewife,” although they have emailed a bit. “For the record: That gray fox could definitely come visit my henhouse anytime!,” she writes in her book.
Leakes also hopes also to meet the first family someday. "I love the Obamas! I love Michelle Obama's hairdo!," she said. "I'm so a Democrat. First of all, I was just really, really proud to see an African American take the seat. We were having viewing parties! Can you imagine? I'd never even watched an inauguration before." Derek J. and his assistant agreed. "Now, I love his two little girls. Sasha? She's fly... Everybody's talking about Michelle Obama's arms. She must work out with a trainer, lift weights, something. She's a tall woman. She needs to wear my shoes. I bet that woman wears a size 11!" Leakes paused for a sip of Sprite. "I would love to meet Michelle Obama! Who wouldn't? You think she gave him some birthday sex? Secret Service man standing outside that door with his white hair all up? Get it Michelle! Like, Barack is really hot, though. Like, the moment he became president, his sexy went up like 1,000 percent! Everyone was like 'Sexy Obama!' Until the other day when I saw him throw that pitch in? His jeans were not hot! They were very old-man like. Kind of pulled up high, legs tight. He should have been rocking some Phat Farms or some True Religions or something. I was shocked, girl."
Does Leakes have any advice for young women, like the Obama girls?
"Don't get pregnant!," she howls. "That would be the first thing I would say. Don't get pregnant. And No. 2 would be: Pursue your dreams to the fullest."
Her book includes many other pieces of wisdom, such as "Stay away—far away—from nuts"; "Hustler is not a good job title"; and, in reference to Zolciak, "Never trust a bitch to be a friend when you know she's sleeping with another woman's husband." In her private life, she applies her wealth and the benefits of her wisdom to a more serious cause, counseling victims of domestic violence through her Twisted Hearts Foundation.
The high drama of Real Housewives of Atlanta has made it the most-watched series in the entire Housewives franchise, owing in no small part to Leakes' raw emotionality and willingness to tell it like it is. That's made her a hot commodity—and a pampered network star. Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, stopped by to visit Leakes before her appearance on Cohen's show Thursday night. Producers scuttled around to get the diva and her entourage straws, juice, steam-irons—anything they needed to prepare. On a giant flat-panel television on one wall of the makeup room, an episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta played on mute in the background.
Show runner Matt Anderson came by to check on his star at one point in the evening, just as Leakes was explaining how she chose the title for her book. "I truly have no regrets," she was saying. "If my mistakes hadn't happened, I wouldn't be here. But I've learned from them! That's why I say I'll never make the same mistake twice."
"That's right," Anderson said, nodding. "Just keep making new ones!"
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.