The Real Housewives of Atlanta firebrand NeNe Leakes graces the current cover of Ebony—bathing in what appears to be a tub of diamonds—and people aren’t happy about it.
The backlash hasn’t let up since Ebony’s esteemed Power & Respect issue hit national newsstands last week. In the comments section of the popular gossip website Young, Back & Fabulous—where the first image of the cover surfaced—a trove of harsh criticism has appeared. “Ebony magazine has lost any credibility that it once had,” one commenter opined, while another simply asked, “Ebony couldn’t get ANYONE else on the cover???” One comment even called the 45-year-old new grandmother a “Donkey With Diamonds.”
That’s just a sampling of reactions online. On her nationally syndicated talk show, Wendy Williams—who also appears in the issue—spoke out against the criticism of Ebony and Leakes, referring to it as “crabs in a barrel.”
Leakes herself bluntly defended the magazine’s decision to put her on the cover when she appeared at the recent star-studded gala unveiling Ebony’s Dec/Jan 2013 issue at New York’s Lincoln Center.
“I absolutely deserve to be on the cover,” she tells The Daily Beast. “This cover is about money, power, and respect. And it’s about a come-up story and I’m the one that had that story this year … Not only did I come out as a reality star that was very boisterous and vivacious and outspoken and all those things. I flipped that into money and respect. And a lot of people can’t do that.
“But listen to me, definitely all of the negative feedback definitely came from my own; African Americans were the ones that were the most negative,” she continues, adding, “And it’s so funny to me because I would call [the editor] over at Ebony and she would say ‘Girl please, glass houses. That’s all it is. They don’t want to see you on the cover, they don’t really understand the reason why you’re on the cover, they don’t know your story.’”
And a story it is—Linnethia Monique Johnson was born in Queens, N.Y., and at age 4 was sent to live with an aunt in Athens, Ga. Growing up she experienced harsh life lessons as a single mother, a stripper, and a victim of domestic violence. After many ill-fated attempts to become an actress (small parts on some black sit-coms, a deleted scene in The Fighting Temptations), Leakes put aside her acting dreams and concentrated on being the wife of Atlanta businessman Greg Leakes. It was the role, ironically, that made her a household name—and a paparazzi target, and a popular guest on daytime talk shows and comic fodder for late-night television (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon famously spoofed her on its "Real Housewives of Late Night” skits). The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the show that made her famous, continues to be a ratings juggernaut for the Bravo network, even in its fifth season.
“Those who take issue with reality television’s role in pop culture have questioned whether Ebony made the right decision by glorifying one of its most popular characters,” said Amy Dubois Barnett, the magazine’s editor in chief.
“As the magazine of record for the black community, it is Ebony’s role to both reflect the aesthetics and interests of our readership, and to inspire them toward higher aspirations for themselves and for all African Americans. The November issue featured the Obamas on the cover, and was a perfect example of the latter. The December/January issue featuring NeNe Leakes on the cover is an excellent example of the former.”
Other notables featured on Ebony’s “Power 100” lists include TV personality Gayle King, radio-show host Tom Joyner, filmmaker Tyler Perry, celebrity blogger Natasha Eubanks, basketball star LeBron James, model Joan Smalls, TV producer Shonda Rhimes, Attorney General Eric Holder, author Toni Morrison, and BET honcho Debra Lee.
The controversy hasn’t deterred Leakes in any way, however. According to her, it’s par for the course. “It’s true and I know you’ve heard it a million times, [African Americans] just don’t support one another,” she says. “But it’s OK for you to go pick up a magazine cover with Kim Kardashian. She’s my girl. We are cool. We talk. We do drinks and all of that. But her story ain’t no different than mine. You know what I mean? I might’ve worked at the strip club, but she made a sex tape.”
Never one to mince her words, Leakes is as bawdy as they get on reality television. But like a Kardashian, she’s laser-focused on branding beyond the genre. “There are a lot of girls on these reality shows who are outspoken, they are on there for the purpose of fame,” she says. “That was never my story. I’m on there for money, because I wanted to be able take care of my family.”
Supplementing her reported $1-million salary from Bravo, Leakes recently inked a deal with global-brand licensing agency Beanstalk to offer “fashion-forward, affordable apparel and accessories.” Last year, she invested in Famous Famiglia, an eatery on the new concourse of the Sacramento International Airport. That initial venture inspired her to expand on the concept. “My goal is to hopefully have restaurants and bars in the airports throughout. You know I travel a lot and I became obsessed with the airport because I’m in there every week and I always think about how to make travelers’ lives easier and what restaurants would be quick for them to grab something, or should I put a boutique inside the airport."
“Oh listen, you don’t have to go out to look for consumers when you put a business in the airport,” she beams about the advantages. “You cut down on burglary and all of that stuff and the consumers are already there.”
Also fueling Leakes’s runaway train to success are her burgeoning acting pursuits. Not only is she “acting up” on The Real Housewives of Atlanta—she says her fights are really her own and she never blames misbehavior on editing (like others of the genre do)—she has acting roles on two hit primetime series—NBC’s daring new comedy The New Normal, and Fox’s wildly popular musical Glee. Not bad for someone who not long ago was losing out in auditions to the likes of Holly Robinson-Peete, LisaRaye McCoy, Shanice Wilson, and Golden Brooks.
“It’s so funny to me how things like that work,” she reflects. “I know it sounds so cliché, but dreams really do come true.”
Now, NeNe Leakes is one in a million—literally. As the only reality star to cross over into mainstream television, the former Celebrity Apprentice contestant clearly sees what the landscape is churning out: copycats and clones. “When Housewives of Atlanta first came out, there were no Basketball Wives, there was no Hip Hop Wives, no Hollywood Exes, none of that stuff. When Real Housewives of Atlanta came out, we were the first African-American ensemble like that on reality television. And right after that, there’s every housewife you can think of: basketball, football, baseball, ex-wives, any and everything. Trust and believe, I’ve looked at their shows and I say, ‘there goes their NeNe’ or ‘they’re trying to find their NeNe.’ I swear I feel like that every time.”
“I have to be honest—I really do love trash television but out of all these reality shows, I always say the difference between those shows and the Real Housewives franchise is, the one thing about our franchise is, you have to have a story line. They want you to be out trying to open up a business, or putting out a product. They want that. On those shows they go from gossiping to gossip.”
Now that she’s found success on prime time, Leakes has designs on the day time. Last week, she co-hosted Anderson Live with Rosie O’Donnell. At the end of the show, the two humorously announced that they were going to host their own talk show together. But was Leakes kidding? She’s said before that she wants to co-host a panel show like The View, with Khloe Kardashian, Kelly Osbourne, and a male co-host.
“Reality TV is not going to be around always,” Leakes says. “Hell, I ain’t going to be on there always. So I try to think about my future … I need to do everything that I can possibly do because I’m not interested in always being a reality star. I mean, who wants to do that all the time? It will wear you out, child.”