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Lauren Porter
Feb, 01, 2018

In 2014, fans of the popular Food Network couple Pat and Gina Neely of Down Home With The Neelys were devastated when the pair announced that after 24 years of marriage they were ending both their business and personal relationships. 

Now, the former culinary queen is opening herself up again to a chance at love on Bravo's new series, To Rome For Love, and she's sharing why her marriage with Pat suffered during that time. 

"I never aspired to be a chef," the 51-year-old told her fellow castmates on the show developed by event planner Diann Valentine told PEOPLE magazine. "My ex and I worked together at a family restaurant BBQ business. I thought it would be one show, we’d go back to our regular lives. Who knew it would be the highest-rated show on Food Network?"

Down Home With The Neelys, an instant hit, debuted in 2008 and showcased the couple's love for each other, family and food.

"That was Pat’s dream. Everybody was over the moon except for me. This wasn’t the life I planned for me," Neely continued. "The TV show became bigger than the marriage. He became more my business partner than my husband. I didn’t ask for a business partner. I needed my husband."

Ultimately, the stress and pressure of keeping up with the show's image while having problems at home got to Neely and she tried to leave her marriage five times. 

"I was always seen as this person that has it together," she said. "I would cry in my pillow at night. I would cry in the car. I would cry anywhere anyone couldn’t see me...I had so many inboxes on my Facebook page of women asking me, 'How did you have the courage to leave a 24-year marriage.' And I applaud myself because I didn’t think I would have the courage to do it. And I did."

Neely is a mom of two daughters--her oldest, Spenser, from a previous relationship and Shelbi, who she and Pat welcomed during their marriage. The star admits that it was setting an example for her girls that finally gave her the strength to leave.

"I was always worried about my girls," she says. "And it was also important to me that I just didn’t go out blabbing on their dad and being ugly because, at the end of the day, they’re our daughters."

In the end, Neely told PEOPLE that walking away from life with her ex-husband has given her a newfound sense of pride and freedom. 

"I feel like layers are dropping off of me. Finally, I can breath."