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From Hooters Waitress to HGTV Megastar: Inside Nicole Curtis’ Unlikely Rise to Fame

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Nicole Curtis‘s road to success has had more ups, downs and detours than even loyal fans of her show, Rehab Addict, may realize.

In her new memoir, Better Than New: Lessons I’ve Learned from Saving Old Homes (And How They Saved Me), Curtis shares how she went from working an array of odd jobs to claiming her spot among HGTV’s top talents.

“I’ve had this pretty incredible life so far, but it wasn’t easy,” Curtis, 40, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands now.

Straight out of high school she was carving her own path: Forgoing higher education, she instead left her hometown of Detroit and moved to Tampa, Florida, with a boyfriend. Over the next several months she worked as a house cleaner, Hooters waitress and cellphone salesperson, before eventually moving back to Michigan to take classes at a community college.

“I just had lunch with one of my original Hooters girls from Tampa,” Curtis says. “She just laughed and said, ‘You were always the responsible one. We’d all be out and you’d be up at 8 in the morning cleaning houses, always making the most of your time.'”

RELATED: Nicole Curtis’ Secret Pregnancy, Her Hooters Past and 3 Other Mysteries Revealed in the HGTV Star’s New Book

Her priorities shifted dramatically when she discovered she was pregnant with her first son, Ethan, at just 21 years old. Although Curtis tried to make it work with the the baby’s father, the two split less than a year after he was born, and Curtis suddenly found herself a single mom.

“I had to face it dead on and figure out ways to get through some challenging times in my life,” she says of her struggle. It would be one of many that tested the star’s resilience.

Several years later, Curtis moved to Minneapolis with another boyfriend and settled into a job as a real estate agent, renovating properties on the side. When a local TV production company approached her about appearing as a real estate expert on the show Sweat Equity, Curtis took the opportunity to pitch a series of her own, and Rehab Addict was born.

Lauren Noess
Lauren Noess

“People really related to it and loved it and always wanted more,” Curtis says of the show’s instant success. “It really is a pretty true portrayal of what goes on.”

She decided to allow Ethan, now 18, to be part of the show. “I did it because I was a mom, and I had to go back to work after picking him up,” she explains. “It was just our way of life; running to the hardware store for us was how people go to the grocery store.”

Nicole Curtis
Nicole Curtis

RELATED: HGTV’s Nicole Curtis Almost Took Out LeBron James: ‘He Stepped on a Nail’

But when she found out she was pregnant for the second time in 2014, she decided to go a different route and keep the journey completely private.

“It wasn’t anything strategic,” Curtis says. “I was very vulnerable and I wanted to hunker down and keep that time to me and to my newborn.”

Her attempts to keep her child out of the public eye were thwarted, however, when the baby’s father, Shane Maguire, filed for parental rights in December. The two are still entangled in the custody battle over their 16-month-old son, Harper, that has been detailed in local Detroit newspapers.

“If there’s one goal that’s out there for me it’s just that time will heal some wounds here,” she says.

Each rough patch, she says, has served as a lesson that’s helped her grow and emboldened her continue to succeed for herself and her family. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and that’s just the way it is,” she says. “It took me a long time to find this person.”