A sort of death usually happens after divorce.
All of the shared creature comforts, dreams, and hopes for the relationship are supposed to be laid to rest. But long after the uncoupling, the ghosts of expectation can still haunt the mind.
Kenya Duke can attest to this.
For just shy of 20 years she was married to Gary Owen, the famed comedic actor who’s built a career sharing funny musings about his family life both on stage and screen. Duke said she was right by his side acting as his unofficial manager, sometimes helping to negotiate deals and regularly handling operational details all while raising her family as a full-time stay-at-home mom.
“He was my best friend,” she told ESSENCE. “I really thought we were going to do this life thing together, you know?”
The two met in the early aughts at one of his comedy shows in LA, pre-smartphones. Despite that, as soon as Duke gave him her number he found a way to immediately call her. The rest was history. Over the years, they shared their blended family—which includes two sons and a daughter—with the world by way of a 2016 reality TV show on BET, Owen’s popular video podcast and a highlight reel of relatable social media posts documenting their most down-to-earth moments. If you scroll through the comments, everyone gushed over their chemistry—they’d comfortably rib on each other, crack jokes, and easily flow from conversation topic to another. The quintessential picture of soul partnership. When Owen publicly opened up about his relationship, which was often, he’d shared that the secret to its longevity was friendship.
This wasn’t lost on Duke, especially when things took a turn.
“That’s why I was so shocked with how the divorce went down,” she told ESSENCE. “Even when I realized it was over, I thought we’d be able to sit across from each other and talk out how we were going to do this, together.”
She continued: “When the divorce came out, I pictured us in Starbucks—he loves coffee—and he’d say ‘okay, what do you need?’ ‘How should we go about getting it done?’ But that hasn’t been the case at all, especially with the money. Most of my heartache wasn’t the loss of the marriage—it was what I went through financially.”
Their estrangement was first made public in July 2021 through a series of social media posts Duke made on her accounts. Ever-outspoken, via Instagram she detailed that amid other grievances, she was most upset about the “Think Like A Man” actor’s abrupt end to the family’s financial support.
“I was really scared”—she hadn’t officially worked an official job in nearly two decades. Duke explained she would take care of household expenses only from the money Owen deposited twice a month in a shared bank account. During their separation, the deposits stopped.
“Although our children are college-aged, they’d still come home and would need support,” she said, offering a further explanation about why she’d need money for her young adult children.
Duke said that for the year-and-a-half it took to finalize the divorce proceedings, she had $0 coming to her directly from Owen, and couldn’t even afford to buy food for the family dog.
“It’s funny now to think about but Daisy only had about two more feedings left that I could afford,” she said referring to their beloved pet. “Daisy is our world, but I just didn’t have any money. And I was like, how is this going to work?”
Duke shred she’d been involved in real estate alongside Owen for years, so she quickly turned to those skills to sell a home which helped her temporarily stay afloat. At that moment Duke said she vowed to never find herself in that type of situation again.
“I’m ok now, but I should’ve always had my own,” she said, pointing out that she would’ve thought twice about completely handing over all financial control to a romantic partner if she knew then what she knows now. Growing up, she said she always envisioned a more “traditional” home life, in which her partner shouldered the financial responsibilities, and she the domestic. And together, they would make partnered decisions about important moves for their family. Now, she sees things very differently.
“The first thing I do when I get a new check is to buy Daisy food,” she said laughingly. “But what it took to get here was incredibly eye-opening.”
Now solvent by way of other business ventures, Duke is sharing the lessons she learned during that tough period and so much more in her new podcast Truly Kenya. She offered some key tips to keep in mind while navigating a financially draining divorce:
1. “Once you make it through the business of the divorce and the judge has made a decision on financial distribution, you have to have a plan how you want to receive the funds with the least amount of tax liability to you. This goes for bank and retirement accounts, capital gains taxes from selling a house, etc.”
2. “Financially figure out what you want vs. what you can actually live with and then ask for more. People love to say no to the 1st offer, so let them. Then negotiate to the number you can live with.”
3. “Create a budget for the next 3 years to make up for the 1/2 retirement funds you had to share.”
4. “Make sure everything is in the divorce document. What you are getting, who is paying for what, and when. Don’t take your ex’s word that they will do this or that, just get it in writing.”
She dives into this, and a litany of other topics in the new podcast, something she says is a gift to help guide others through tough times. But make no mistake, it’s also a project that’s finally solely for her.
“For so many years, I took care of my marriage, my children, everyone. It’s finally time to do something for myself that’s authentically me. A part of me definitely died, for sure. But I’ve been reborn.”