As if the ATL needed anymore drama, "The Real Housewives of Atlanta"-NeNe, Kim, Sheree, DeShawn and Lisa-have agreed to live under a microscope and allow America to share their myopic views about their lives as they see fit. Because we're hooked and each episode is juicier than the last, we checked in with Linnethia "NeNe" Leakes to find out what she's been up to since the show premiered and get an inside scoop on what's going down next. With October being National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Queens, New York, native shed some well-deserved light on her organization, The Twisted Hearts Foundation, which helps young women escape the pitfalls of abusive relationships. ESSENCE.COM caught up with the boisterous belle to discuss those "exotic dancer" rumors, what she really thinks about cast mate Kim Zolciak, and breaking free from an abusive boyfriend.
ESSENCE.COM: NeNe, the show has become such a hit! Without giving away too much, what can we expect from the rest of this season on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta"?
NENE LEAKES: You will see alliances change among the girls and find out whether or not Curtis is my father. When I found out the results of the DNA test, I [was] surprised, and you will also see my son going off to college at Clark Atlanta University.
ESSENCE.COM: There has definitely been some conflict between you and a couple of the other ladies on the show. What are your relationships like with Sheree and Kim today?
LEAKES: We are cordial. Sheree and I will probably never be the same. We've known each other the longest-seven years. I avoid making the same mistake twice. I don't think that we'll ever have the same relationship again, but we are cordial [because] we have to work together. And Kim is something else. She is a piece of work. As an adult, I've learned that I like to be around women when the friendship is stress-free. Since the show has ended, I'm closest to Lisa. I do feel as though my relationship with Kim's daughter Brielle has been strained somewhat as a result [of my relationship with her mother]. I really do love Brielle, she and I really clicked when we first met, so it is kind of hard for me.
ESSENCE.COM: Since we last spoke, rumors have circulated on the Web about you having once been an "exotic dancer." Is this true?
LEAKES: Well, you know I don't read the blogs, but I dance every night at home for Gregg [my husband] and he loves it. (Laughs.) I don't have a pole, but I dance around this silk plant in the corner.
ESSENCE.COM: (Laughs.) Alrighty then! Your husband, Gregg, is not a ball player, but a successful businessman, which is refreshing on the show. What exactly does he do and how do you keep the fire going after 11 years of marriage?
LEAKES: You don't have to date an athlete to be successful. Gregg is a real estate investor. When I first met him he owned several cellular phone businesses, and then he got into flipping houses. Since the market is so bad in Atlanta right now, we are pursuing other ventures together as entrepreneurs. I like smart men. (Laughs.) I am his second wife and he's 13 years older than me. He supports me. I think communication is key, so I don't like to argue with Gregg.
ESSENCE.COM: As you know, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. What is your organization, The Twisted Hearts Foundation, doing to promote awareness?
LEAKES: Lisa and I are writing a book together and already have a title, "Battered But Not Broken." We're just going to tell a little bit of both of our stories of [surviving] violent relationships. And then on the show I had my first annual Big Hat Brunch. This year we raised about $45,000, as you will see on a future episode, and next year I hope to raise $150,000. We're going to invite even more women. I also volunteer at a shelter in Atlanta called My Sister's House. I help serve food to women there who have been displaced and I mentor as well. There are a lot of young girls, as young as 20, at My Sister's House who have already been victims of domestic violence.
ESSENCE.COM: How were you a victim of domestic violence?
LEAKES: I was in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. It was really bad and it took me a while to finally break out of the relationship. He had a night job at the time so I was able to sneak out into a new apartment [that he didn't know the address to] while he was at work. I knew that he could not know where I lived. I had to go into hiding for a while. That was how I finally got away. He was very abusive when we were together; he busted my car windows, flattened my tires. I thought I was in love with this fool. I was very young and confused. I would try to break up with him, but he didn't like to take no for an answer. I really wanted it to work.
ESSENCE.COM: One last thing before we go. What do you have to say to those readers who think you are "ghetto"?
LEAKES: Oh, yeah, I love that one. I'm okay with it. If keeping it real is ghetto, then I'm ghetto. I am not a fake person and I'm not about to change. I'm the life of the party, chile!