By Mark Dagostino
July 10, 2006 12:00 PM

It all started with Star Jones Reynolds’s surprise announcement on the June 27 episode of The View. “After much prayer and counsel, I feel like this is the right time to tell you that … I will not be returning as cohost next year,” said Reynolds.

The announcement caught show creator and executive producer Barbara Walters off guard—not because of the the announcement itself, but because she expected Reynolds to deliver the news two days later.

After the show aired, Walters was also stunned to hear that Reynolds had revealed to PEOPLE the real reason behind her departure. “My contract was not renewed,” Reynolds, 44, told PEOPLE the Friday before her declaration. “I feel like I was fired.”

Despite repeated public assurances from Walters that Star could stay at The View “as long as she wants to,” Reynolds maintains that she learned that her View career was over on April 21—just five days before she learned that Rosie O’Donnell (who publicly chided Reynolds for not divulging exactly how she lost more than 150 lbs. since 2003) would be filling Meredith Vieira’s seat next season. “Boom. Boom,” Reynolds says of the one-two blow to her ego. “Boxer Roy Jones Jr. wished he hit that hard.”

When the news of Reynolds’s firing was posted on immediately after Reynolds made her on-air statement, a dismayed Walters quickly voiced her displeasure with the way Reynolds was handling her departure. “I felt, this morning, betrayed,” Walters told PEOPLE three hours after the June 27 show wrapped. “What I really don’t understand is why say, ‘I was fired’? The View’s coexecutive producer Bill Geddie and I said to her, ‘Handle this any way you want. You can say anything about a new job, you can say anything about a new road. Whatever you say, we’ll back you up. We will never say that your contract was not renewed.’ And had she not said what she said to PEOPLE, I would never be telling you this now,” Walters, 76, says.

Why did Reynolds decide to break rank? To get ahead of the tabloids: “Something has come out in the papers every week, sometimes three times a week. And some of it has been mean-spirited attacks. I thought the audience deserved to have their Star tell them what the deal is. To now be accused of betrayal by someone I looked at as a mentor, when I was finally speaking up for myself instead of letting the executives and tabloids speak for me, is disheartening.”

Walters and Co. were so perturbed by the way Reynolds conducted herself, they told her later the same day that her dismissal from the show would be effective immediately. (Reynolds had planned to make July 13 her last day.)

So how did the relationship between Reynolds and her bosses at The View devolve to this point? For one, Reynolds maintains she wasn’t even told of her firing in person. Her agent got the call while Reynolds was out of town speaking at an African-American women’s business conference in Phoenix. The agent then called her husband, Al Reynolds, 36, who flew to Arizona to break the news to her himself. “This man got on a plane and flew across the country to tell me,” Reynolds says of her husband. “And he’s been there with his hand on the small of my back pushing me up every morning since.”

Some, however, are pushing back. “Barbara and I wanted to talk to her directly,” says coexecutive producer Geddie. “But the network felt it was their job to handle this through business affairs. Let’s face it: Star doesn’t have a contract with Barbara and me; she has a contract with ABC.”

A contract that, according to a network source, ABC refused to extend more than a year ago, because Reynolds was already losing her audience.

On Monday, April 24, when Geddie finally spoke to Star in person about the decision, the reason he gave for her dismissal was “my ratings had dropped, and they were responding,” Reynolds insists. According to Reynolds, he broke the news in her dressing room, minutes before she went on air. “It was tough,” says Reynolds. “But the audience deserves 100 percent of my professionalism.”

Walters confirms the reasons behind Jones’s axing. “As far back as last fall, the network came to us and said that the research on Star was very bad and getting worse—not because of what she had done on the program, but because of her outside life,” says Walters, alluding to the controversy surrounding Reynolds over her reported penchant for free products and shameless self-promotion.

Reynolds fails to accept that a drop in her popularity cost her her job. “They just wanted the show to go in another direction, and that’s their right. It’s their show,” she says. But after much soul searching in the last year, Reynolds readily admits that “I definitely have made missteps.”

For a long time, “I believed the hype,” she says. “I was on a hit show, doing ads for Payless; I was getting my health together; I met Al. I started to think, ‘Oooo, I got it going on!’ Now I know: Everything I had was a gift. People in the public eye have to remember that. And I forgot it.”

She also admits that she lost fans by not revealing the secret behind her massive weight loss. “I take responsibility for not taking the audience with me on that journey. That’s my fault,” she says. Yet she still won’t budge. Not yet. “I’ve told as much as I can emotionally handle,” she says. “I never have lied. Never. I’m not ashamed at all. The doctors intervening changed my life. But please give me the time to mentally understand something before I can help you all understand it.”

Right now, Reynolds is still having trouble processing the fact that she’s saying goodbye to The View. Since April, “I cry constantly,” Reynolds says. “It’s a life-changing thing. It’s not ’cause I’m walking around going, ‘Oooo, they did me wrong.’ But it hurts. This is my audience. I love them.”

Her ex-bosses are having just as much trouble processing Reynolds’s exit. “She blindsided us,” says Geddie. “It’s one thing for me to sit in the front row The View to hear that. It’s another thing entirely if you’re Barbara Walters and you’ve tried to run a good show for this many years—it’s just disrespectful.”

So where will Reynolds go from here? She’s not sure, but she’s looking for a new TV project that will allow her to show off all the sides of her personality: the former attorney and the sports nut, the self-proclaimed “geek” who loves every new gadget, and the glamour girl who wears fur and diamonds but still shops at TJ Maxx. In the meantime Star plans to lend her efforts to the fight for foster care reform, and to continue volunteering at the East Harlem School, where she has quietly helped out for the past eight years.

As she looks toward an uncertain future, she’ll keep repeating a mantra her grandmother once told her as a little girl back in North Carolina—a quote she shared on air with viewers after making her shocking announcement. “I’m not sure what the future holds,” Reynolds says, “but I’m sure who holds the future.”