It’s been four years since Gina Neely‘s divorce from Pat Neely, and the To Rome for Love star tells PEOPLE exclusively that she hasn’t talked to her now-ex husband since the day she walked out the door.
“I remember leaving with my purse and my duffle bag, and I was out of there,” Gina, 52, says in the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. “I haven’t spoken to Pat in four years.” The couple—high school sweethearts who rose to fame on the Food Network’s Down Home with the Neelys—split in 2014 after over 20 years together.
“I don’t wish him any harm, but he’s never reached out to me… I guess he’s well? Our girls are older so we’re not really co-parenting or anything,” Gina says of Pat, with whom she shares two daughters: Spenser, 29, (whom Gina had from a previous marriage) and Shelbi, 23.
America first met barbecue restaurant owners Gina and Pat on their 2008 cooking show, where they appeared to have the perfect marriage. They were affectionate and playful, and looked happy to be living their dream of making their family’s recipes together on television.
But off camera, Gina reveals it was different story. “I would cocoon myself,” she says, recalling the tears she would cry before filming each episode. “I never wanted to be a TV chef. I was a branch manager at a bank. I was going to divorce Pat prior to the show. And then all of a sudden the train jumped on the track and I had to hold on for my life.”
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She stayed with Pat and the show—bound by not only the word she had given the network, but also the feeling of joy she got when she would share her family stories on camera (“It was almost like living in the past and bringing my history to the forefront”). Still, Gina says she was plagued with guilt, especially when it came to her daughters. On one hand, Gina says, her children “hated” the show and the attention it brought, and hoped she would leave. On the other, Gina was raised without a father and “wanted to break the cycle of that” for her girls.
Quickly, Down Home with the Neelys became a hit on Food Network’s weekend schedule. But Gina said she and Pat, 53, grew even further apart over their seven seasons—the show’s popularity becoming bigger than their relationship. “It didn’t feel like a marriage anymore,” Gina says. “I wasn’t sexually attracted to him. He became my business partner, whereas I needed a husband.”
“There was no balance, no boundaries,” she continues. “We should have been allowed space so we could have a stronger feeling of love for that [other] person. But when you’re with a person all the time and then that person tells you, ‘I feel like we don’t spend enough time together,’ what do you do then? I remember specifically saying to him, ‘What more do you want from me? I don’t know what else I can do? I give you all my time, everything.’ I was done.”
To read more of Gina Neely’s story, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday
In 2014, after several bouts of couples therapy and five failed attempts at leaving the marriage, Gina says she finally found the strength step away. “I didn’t want to relinquish my marriage, but I couldn’t let [anyone else] dictate my path or limit my future,” she says. “We weren’t in alignment. I needed self-care.”
At first, she said she was surprised by the negative reaction she received from fans. “People thought I was wrong,” Gina recalls. “We had become this symbol of love, and it was like I had destroyed that. They were mad!”
Eventually, Gina felt like viewers changed their perspectives, and began seeing her as a symbol of strength. “Women sort of embraced it,” she says. “Like, ‘Wow that took a lot of courage.’ I was no longer the villain or even a victim, I was a survivor.”
Throughout it all, Gina says she has rejected the labels people want to put on her. “The only label I want is #JustGina,” she says. “I had somebody tell me, ‘You encouraged me to leave my husband.’ I did a P.S.A. on my Facebook page that said, ‘Now listen — don’t y’all be leaving your man to come see me. I don’t have room. That’s my journey. You gotta find your own path and your own peace with that, girl.’ I’m just finding my own journey along the way.”
Although she hasn’t given up on love, it’s clear she’s looking to live her life on her terms. “You only get one life and like it or not, I chose to grab hold of mine and live it,” says Gina, who stars on To Rome for Love, which follows Gina and a group of single women in Italy. “This other half? It’s going to be on my terms.”
To Rome for Love airs Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on Bravo.