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America got a good look into the lives of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” on “dramality” TV. Their gated mansions, luxury shopping sprees, exclusive parties and scandalous showdowns were laid bare for millions of viewers who tuned in to see how African-American socialites do it in the Dirty South.

But here’s what Bravo’s highest performing freshman series didn’t show. Before they were stars, and before they met and married the husbands featured on “RHA,” NeNe Leakes and Lisa Wu-Hartwell—two of the runaway hit’s divas—lived quite another reality, suffering mind-boggling abuse at the hands of men they’d once had relationships with. Now they’re taking a stand in the hope that their stories will give other Black women in unhealthy relationships the inspiration and strength to leave and start anew.

“He had a great personality; he was fun. Whenever we went out, he was a gentleman. I thought he was a great guy,” Leakes says of her ex. “I call him a Jekyll and Hyde. He’s extremely sweet and caring and all those things, but he has a flip side.”

Leakes recalls the first time she spent the night at the man’s house, just a short time into their relationship. “When we got ready to go to bed, he took out a gun and laid it on the nightstand,” she says. “I’d never been around a gun before. It really freaked me out. My thoughts were, Okay, I need to do what he says. I need to be really nice tonight. That should have been my warning.” But Leakes failed to heed her own intuition.

Ugly. Fat. Whore. Conjure up the worst words one can call a woman, and the man Lisa Wu-Hartwell used to love laid them on her. In fact, she got so used to his calling her out that she was shocked only when he came up with a new word. “He was very sweet at first, but looking back on it now, there were signs of him being controlling from the beginning—little things like taking keys from me so I couldn’t leave or standing in the doorway so I couldn’t get by,” she says. When the verbal abuse began, “I’d dismiss it by saying to myself, Oh, he’s upset-he’s calling you these things because he’s angry. You can’t see clearly when you’re in the situation—it’s almost like you don’t want to acknowledge it, especially if you’re all about that person.”

Now that Leakes and Wu-Hartwell have spoken out, they have decided to write a book that will not only chronicle their abuse, but also, they hope, help other victims rebuild their own lives. The project is still in its infancy; the two plan to pitch it to publishers sometime this year. Leakes also intends to up the ante on the Big Hat fund-raising event for Twisted Hearts, the domestic violence nonprofit she founded while taping the first season of “RHA.”

For the complete story, pick up the March 2009 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands everywhere February 12.

Denene Millner is coauthor, with Steve Harvey, of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (Amistad/HarperCollins).