By Liz McNeil
July 19, 2010 12:00 PM

Only six weeks after the birth of her baby girl Bryn, reality star Bethenny Frankel and her husband, Jason Hoppy, planned a family getaway to the Hamptons. There was only one hitch: “I realized we needed the green light from my ob-gyn to have sex,” Frankel, 39, says with a laugh. On their way out of town, they stopped at the doctor’s office. “I was like, ‘Can you make it snappy? We’re double-parked.'”

Bethenny pauses for a moment. “I know,” she says. “I’m the queen of too much information.”

But it’s this brutally honest, refreshingly inappropriate candor that has won her millions of fans, first as one of the stars of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City and now in her own spinoff Bethenny Getting Married?, which had the network’s highest-rated series premiere ever. When Real Housewives of New York City launched in 2008, Frankel, a healthy-food chef, was the only single gal on the show-the one whose aspiration to be a “housewife” was often thwarted by partying a little too hard (downing six margaritas after she broke up with a boyfriend) and seeming a little too lost.

But in the past 18 months, as she met and fell in love with Hoppy, 38, an easygoing sales executive, she found herself first engaged, then pregnant and later planning a wedding in the space of six weeks. She has provided only brief on-camera glimpses at a darker prior life: “I was raised in a cave … by wolves,” she quipped during the first episode of Bethenny Getting Married? “She’s determined to be the mother to Bryn that she never had,” says Hoppy of his wife’s upbringing. “I can see why she is so hard and unwilling to let people in sometimes. It really breaks my heart.” Now Frankel is finally opening up about a past filled with addiction, neglect and despair.

“I never had a true childhood,” Frankel says, sitting barefoot on the sofa in her roomy downtown apartment after nursing Bryn and settling her down for a nap. “There was a lot of destruction: alcohol abuse, eating disorders and violent fights,” she says. The only child of legendary horse trainer Bobby Frankel and his first wife, Bernadette, Frankel was 4 years old when her father walked out, leaving her with a mother who was “extremely volatile. She was never a mother to me.” She temporarily moved with her father to Los Angeles, but Bobby Frankel “lived a very hotshot life-drugs, young girls,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a life for a little girl. I never watched cartoons. I was always at restaurants or the racetrack.”

After her mother married another horse trainer, John Parisella, Frankel returned to New York at age 5 and moved at least seven times over the next 10 years. Though she occasionally visited her father, he cut her off when her mother accused him of withholding money. “He said, ‘I’m washing my hands of the whole situation,'” Frankel recalls bitterly.

As for her mom, Frankel describes a “beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer lookalike” who, she says, “was always drinking,” behaved erratically and had explosive arguments with Parisella-who, Frankel says, sometimes became physical. She remembers her mother “smashing things: dishes, pictures, the TV-anything she could see,” she says. “The house would be in shambles.” Sometimes a young Bethenny would hide in the closet to escape. Other times she was the one who called the police to stop it. The next day however she’d often hear them reconciling-in the bedroom. “I heard everything,” she says quietly. “It would make me so angry. It would kill me.” Despite all the chaos, she still calls Parisella “the only father I’ve ever known.” Though it was Parisella, she says, who taught her how to gamble at age 13, “he took care of me when my mother wasn’t around.”

It was Frankel who often ended up looking after her mother, who she claims was a severe bulimic. “She was someone you needed to take care of,” she says. She recalls helping clean up the bathroom-and her mom-after severe bouts of purging. “My mom would say to me, ‘Don’t tell your father,'” Frankel says sadly. When contacted by PEOPLE, Frankel’s mother, Bernadette, now 59 and divorced from Parisella for more than two decades, confirmed that arguments with her husband sometimes resulted in calls to the police but denied ever smashing anything and further said she never had an alcohol problem or bulimia. Parisella, however, told PEOPLE that Bernadette showed “signs of bulimia” and that she drank heavily. As for any violent behavior toward his then-wife, Parisella admitted that on one occasion, “when she was in a frenzy, I slapped her,” but denies ever physically beating or harming her.

Frankel is the first to admit she’s had her own struggles-some not unlike her mother’s. Though she steadfastly maintains that she has never had an eating disorder, Frankel says for years her relationship with food was severely skewed. Starting at age 13, she alternately binged and then starved in her quest for thinness. Though she never weighed 20 lbs. more than she does now (she’s 5’6″ and 118 lbs.), “I was owned by dieting,” she says. “I hated myself. I was completely obsessed and consumed.” Five years ago, after compulsive dieting had wrecked her metabolism, she knew she had to stop clinging to rigid ideas about “forbidden foods.” “I would never be extreme again,” Frankel says. “It just doesn’t work.”

Other problems remained. Frankel spent part of her teen years hanging out in Manhattan clubs, drinking and experimenting with cocaine on a few occasions. Distrustful of men, she was married once for just eight months and broke off two different engagements. Finally, four years ago, Frankel realized that years of late-night partying with noncommittal boyfriends had left her emotionally and financially strapped. “I was miserable and panic-stricken,” she recalls. “It was no longer cute to go out and find another guy to take care of me.”

Frankel now says she tapped into ambition she believes she always had: “I had the drive, but I didn’t know how to get what I wanted,” she says. Having graduated from culinary school in 2001, Frankel drew on her gourmet background, launching a line of vegan cookies and a catering business. Celebrity clients-including Mariska Hargitay-followed, and in 2005 Frankel landed on the Martha Stewart-helmed version of The Apprentice, where she was first runner-up. “I broke free from my life,” she says of the turnaround. “I’m lucky I survived.”

In 2008 Frankel returned to reality TV on The Real Housewives. Suddenly, while interacting with costars like the often-loopy Kelly Killoren Bensimon, Frankel found her painful upbringing was a secret weapon: “I was able to have some perspective on all the drama.” Her fellow Real Housewives costar Alex McCord agrees. “One of the refreshing things about Bethenny is that she always owns what she says,” notes McCord. “Bethenny has always copped to anything we’ve been at odds over.”

Just as Frankel’s single-girl-in-the-city persona was taking off on TV, fueling two bestselling cookbooks, a DVD workout and a line of Skinnygirl margaritas, her real life swung in a decidedly less flamboyant direction. She met Hoppy at a nightclub in November 2008; within 11 months they were engaged and she was pregnant. Still commitment-wary at first, Frankel finally realized she had a chance at the stability she’d always wanted as a child. “He’s my anchor,” she says of Hoppy. “I fell in love with a regular guy with a regular salary. He taught me that being taken care of was emotional and not financial.”

With her popularity on Real Housewives soaring, Bravo soon contacted Frankel about having a show of her own. These days there’s very little of Frankel’s life that’s off-limits (except the moment Hoppy proposed, which he nixed). In a recent episode filmed during her wedding, she urinates into an empty champagne bucket right before walking down the aisle when she can’t get out of her dress in time. “I had to pee so much when I was pregnant that I had to pee while I was peeing,” she says. “This is my life. As crazy as I look, it has to be real.”

That real life no longer includes her mother or her former stepfather. Over the past 10 years, Frankel says she has barely even spoken to her mom. “I don’t want her to contact us and make it toxic,” she says. “I’m never going to want her in my daughter’s life.” Still, Frankel tries to be magnanimous: “She did the best she could. I’m sure she lived for me as much as I do Bryn, and there is something very frustrating and tragic about that.”

Meanwhile Frankel’s attempt to reunite with her biological father shortly before his death this past November was similarly frustrating. “He was done,” she says of a denied deathbed visit. “I didn’t exist to him.” The closure she’d hoped for came only after his death. “I found my own self-worth,” she says. “The pain was over.”

Now happier days lie ahead. As Frankel, Hoppy and baby Bryn lounge in pajamas, the couple’s occasional spats usually end in a Frankel-phrased wisecrack. “You have to be willing to make fun of yourself,” Hoppy says of life with his wife. “She never takes herself too seriously. It’s one of the things I love so much about her.” Of course Frankel herself can’t help but roll her eyes a little. “I don’t want America to think we’re this perfect couple,” she says. But this time things are pretty much as they seem. “I live for this baby,” she says, cradling Bryn. “Everything that’s happened is exciting, but it’s nothing like having her in your arms. I just want to give her the life I didn’t have.”