15 MINUTES

03.02.16 5:01 AM ET

Snooki Is Still the Greatest Reality Star

Snooki is dead. Meet Nicole. Nicole is a wife, a mom, and, most jarringly, not a drunk on the Jersey Shore. She’s launching a new reality show—and is still the best at it.

“I’m not an idiot like people think I am.”

Nicole Polizzi—you might know her as Snooki, the pint-sized party animal from the MTV reality TV phenomenon Jersey Shore—knows what people think of her. It’s why she’s going to be so successful at changing your minds.

Polizzi was just 22 when a passion for Jäeger shots and tanning beds combined with a reckless on-camera abandon to turn the 4’ 9” guidette into TV’s biggest reality star.

For six seasons across three dizzying years, Jersey Shore would make Polizzi—more specifically, her tipsy, teetering alter ego “Snooki”—both our guilty-pleasure spirit animal and a lightning rod for society’s doom.

This is to say that at the dawn of an age of Real Housewives, toddlers in tiaras, and Kardashians we can’t stop keeping up with, Snooki was perfect, maybe even groundbreaking, television.

Now, Snooki would like you to meet Nicole.

Nicole is 28, married, and has two children. She’s a businesswoman—the head of a clothing company, the author of a series of books, and a radio host—and desperate to keep her career as a reality TV star going strong. Because she knows she’s really good at it.

The tequila shots may have been swapped with baby bottles but, as she hopes her new FYI home renovation series Nicole & Jionni’s Shore Flip will prove, her 15 minutes should last her another 15 years.

“When you met me, my vagina was out. I didn’t wear underwear. Tight leopard dresses that didn’t fit. So I was a slut,” Polizzi says. “Now I consider myself a classy hooker in this outfit today. I try and dress like a chic mom. It’s all about being a millennial mom.”

Nicole & Jionni’s Shore Flip is nothing if not her millennial mom showcase.

It’s a natural evolution from Polizzi’s last reality series, MTV’s Snooki & JWoww—a tanner take on Laverne & Shirley she shot with her Jersey Shore BFF Jennifer “JWoww” Farley. The new show—which airs Wednesdays on FYI—shows the mom raising her two kids and butting heads with husband Jionni LaValle, but with a trendier hook: the ever-popular genre of house flipping.

The season’s hijinx unfurl as the couple renovates a house on the Jersey shore, with the cameras following them back to their own home to show how the stress of construction affects their family dynamic.

“This was always Jionni’s dream, to flip a house,” Polizzi says. “Obviously my job is to do reality, and I wasn’t done with that.”

She says LaValle, who she met while filming Jersey Shore (“We were both blacked out. We woke up and were like, ‘Who are you?’”), hated filming her previous reality shows. But because Shore Flip gave him an outlet to satisfy a passion, he was, for the first time, giddy to do reality TV.

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At first it’s disarming to hear the remarkably self-aware way Polizzi discusses reality TV, as if it’s a business, or a career. Until she finally convinces you that it is—and that, in her field, she’s among the best.

There’s the way she answers your questions before you can even ask them, proving that there is no curtain she’s hiding behind before you can even attempt to take it down.

She and LaValle used all their own money to purchase and flip the house, she says, underlying emphatically that FYI didn’t help them financially before I could inquire.

She tells me that it was important for the couple to revamp a house on the Jersey shore, of all places, because that’s where Jionni grew up and she has obvious personal ties. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, she wanted to do something positive for the community that means so much to them.

Then, halting any skeptical eyebrows right in their tracks: “And, no, we weren’t doing it just to look like good people. In our hearts we really wanted to help out.”

Any reality star worth their salt knows the value in being aware of how people perceive you—embrace it, fight it, capitalize on it, brand it—but few are as skilled as Polizzi at crafting a narrative, and using the medium that turned her into a star in order to tell it.

In Shore Flip’s first episode, she recalls her debut on the Jersey beach as a 22-year-old.

“I was drinking, partying, having a good time. I was basically a hot mess,” she says. Minutes later, that narrative: “You grew up on the show,” LaValle says. “I kinda did,” she agrees.

And thus the point of Shore Flip, proving Snooki’s worth as a grown-up reality TV star. As a wife. As a mom. As Nicole.

“It’s been a struggle,” she admits. “People, I don’t care who you are, when you think of Snooki you think of the girl from Jersey Shore. She died four years ago.”

R.I.P. Snooki.

“I don’t go out drinking anymore. I have two kids. I’m married,” she continues. “I still have my same personality. I’m still the same person, but I have different priorities and responsibilities.”

In addition to being a mother, in the years since leaving the shore she has written three books, released fashion lines, and launched a podcast, Naturally Nicole. Despite her transformation from “meatball” to mom and successfully fronting a slew of branded endeavors, shedding the ghost of Snooki hasn’t been easy.

“I think it’s more frustrating for my brand,” she says. “When I try to pursue my clothing line and get into stores, they’re like, ‘Snooki from Jersey Shore? We don’t want that mess in here.” Driving the point that being a different person now takes work, she says. “You have to do this. Sit-down meetings. Say, ‘Hi, I’m Nicole. You knew me as Snooki but I’m not her anymore.”

It’s the blessing and the curse of reality TV: Instant visibility, opportunity, and access, but eternal liability. Preconceived notions of you are frozen in time, which can be problematic when that time is when you were too drunk to stand and getting arrested on a beach.

As for the people who continue to judge her because of those Jersey Shore antics? “Well, they’re idiots,” she says. “I always say, what were you doing when you just turned 21? They have to think about it in their own way, instead of judging.”

Then she starts laughing. “It’s really not a big deal. I didn’t kill people. I just got drunk. Relax.”

So while it’s a shock to see Polizzi, hardly the bumbling boozehound seared in your mind, perched confidently in a business blazer candidly discussing her career and various ventures, it’s a role that the star is effortlessly comfortable in. It’s reflective, perhaps, of the authenticity that made her famous—an ability to adapt to new environments without losing any the Snooki-ness that makes her, well, her.

It’s why she maintains that she’s just as entertaining to watch on TV now that she’s a mom as she was when she was getting drunk and having one-night stands in front of all of America.

“When you see me on Jersey Shore, you can relate to the time you got drunk and embarrassed yourself and wake up and are like, ‘I want to die,’” she says. “Everything I went through on Jersey Shore people can relate to even if they don’t want to admit it. And now a lot of my fans are following me as they’re settling down, [becoming] millennial moms, getting married.”

The word she repeats so often it could be a drinking game—you know, if that was still her bag: “relatable.”

“Honestly, when I got pregnant I was like, ‘Oh crap. I don’t even know how to hold a baby. I want to still party. What am I doing?’”

Relatable indeed. “But then I had Lorenzo and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’ My mommy mode kicked in.”

“I just think I was meant to have babies,” she says, when I ask how she transformed herself into the mom we see on Shore Flip. “I was meant to be an idiot, but then I was meant to calm down and have babies.”

In a way, being constantly underestimated—whether it’s as a mother, a businesswoman, or even a sober adult—has served Snooki in her favor.

No one expected her to be a good mom. No one expected her to excel in the business world—which she will show off on the new season of Celebrity Apprentice later this year. Heck, no one expected her to still be around.

The shelf life of a reality TV star is limited.

Again, always self-aware, even Polizzi knows that. “I think it’s a blessing that I’m still doing TV six years later,” she says. “It doesn’t really happen to reality stars.”

Watch Shore Flip, then, and be astonished at another thing you might have underestimated about Snooki: that she actually has talent. Flipping the house, she shows a real knack for design and decoration.

The house in the shore they flipped is still on the market, but Jionni and Nicole do a fantastic job on it. (As an HGTV addict, we consider ourselves a bit of an expert on the subject.)

It’s talking about her surprising design prowess that the defining quote of our conversation—and Polizzi’s strongest messaging—comes out: “I’m not an idiot like people think I am.”

But she also rejects the widespread insinuation that reality TV stars don’t have talent. “I don’t believe that. We’re entertaining people by being ourselves. That’s a huge talent, not being a boring hag.”

It’s been more than six years since we met her, and it’s still true: No one is as good at “not being a boring hag” as Snooki. And she’s quite proud of that.

“I love being a reality star,” she says. “It’s always been that way. I love doing reality. I don’t even call myself a celeb. I’m just a well-known idiot that likes to be on TV doing reality. I never thought that was a bad label. That’s your job, and you should love that.”