Living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere was never part of the plan for Ree Drummond.
“I’m pretty sure I could’ve ended up on Real Housewives of Orange County,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s cover story, on newsstands Friday. “They need a fair-skinned redhead.”
Instead, Drummond, 48, has made a name for herself on the small screen in a much more benevolent fashion: as Food Network’s resident Pioneer Woman. Now on her seventh year of filming her hit show of the same title, Drummond has become one of the network’s most popular personalities, dishing up crowd-friendly comfort food as viewers catch a glimpse of the daily ranch tasks of her husband, Ladd, 48, and children, Alex, 20, Paige, 18, Bryce, 15, and Todd, 13.
But before she married a cowboy and raised a family of ranchers on their expansive plot of land just west of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Drummond had other plans for herself. Growing up only an hour away in the small industrial city of Bartlesville, it might as well have been a different planet for a girl who had traveled the country in ballet competitions. “I always thought, ‘There’s a big, huge world out there beyond this,’” she remembers. “When I was young, I wanted to be an actress. I had no idea what that meant, but I just thought it sounded fun.”
For all the details on Ree Drummond’s life on the ranch and adjustment to fame, plus more of our Food Faves, pick up PEOPLE’s Food Issue, on newsstands Friday.
This curiosity led her to flee Oklahoma for college at USC in Los Angeles—a city that she says she “inhaled,” with nights out on Sunset Strip, tasting exotic cuisine and running through a string of boyfriends. “I would describe myself during that time as extremely fun-loving and not focused at all,” she says with a laugh. “I just wanted non-stop action when I was young. I just wanted to go, go, go.”
So when Drummond fell in love with a cowboy named Ladd, who she met in a smoky bar during a post-California pit stop back in her hometown, she surprised more than just herself. “I didn’t even know any cowboys growing up. When my friends heard that I was marrying a cattle rancher and moving to the country, they literally could not believe it,” she says. “They started calling me the Pioneer Woman as a joke.”
Though she initially felt like a “fish out of water” and fretted over “long-held stereotypes” she’d had about country life (“I thought I’d have to wear overalls,” she laughs), she soon came to realize her stereotypes were just that.
“I think a common misconception about a small town in rural America is that everyone believes the same way, and nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “I remember living in Los Angeles and coming home and eating lunch with my grandmother and her friends and just thinking, ‘Oh! Their worlds are so small.’ After I moved back and actually started having regular lunches with them, I realized they were this amazing, dynamic group of women who got together and would debate issues.”
After 10 years of embracing rural life and devoting herself full-time to being a housewife (while homeschooling all four of her children), Drummond started her blog in 2006 to muse about life on the ranch—and eventually shared some recipes she’d come up with along the way. “I think she just had all that creativity bottled up of 10 years of living out here with not a lot of extra adult conversation,” says her husband, Ladd. “Being a mom and wife is very fulfilling but she obviously has a lot of creative talent and it needed an outlet.”
Now Drummond is a certified business mogul, with the blog serving as just one component of a massive brand that includes her TV show, over a dozen books, a new lifestyle magazine, a homeware line at Walmart and the Mercantile, a lively restaurant and retail store in Pawhuska that attracts flocks of fans to the otherwise sleepy town of around 3,500.
With her fifth cookbook, Come and Get It!, due out on October 24th, Drummond has been busier than ever—but she hasn’t stopped to admire her work. “I don’t ever just stand and breathe and look at it all,” she says. “I’m just so focused on my list today. And then every now and then, I think, ‘Gosh, no wonder I’m busy. No wonder I’m tired. I need a nap!'”