"I had one foot in and one foot out," NeNe Leakes tells PEOPLE

By Dave Quinn
November 04, 2019 09:15 AM

Season 12 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta kicked off on Sunday without one of its biggest stars: NeNe Leakes.

The outspoken mother of three, 51, was surprisingly missing in action from the Bravo franchise’s latest premiere, with the show instead focusing on the lives of cast members Kandi Burruss, Porsha Williiams, Cynthia Bailey, Eva Marcille and Kenya Moore.

According to episode descriptions released, Leakes won’t be showing up until the show’s third episode.

So where is she? Leakes tells PEOPLE contract negotiations kept her away from the cameras at first.

“I was sitting here trying to work my contract out,” Leakes says.

The decision wasn’t an easy one for Leakes, she went on to explain.

“There were a lot of rumors around the time and I was really skeptical about what I was going to do,” she says. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do, I really didn’t. I had one foot in and one foot out.”

NeNe Leakes
Getty Images

As an original cast member on the series when RHOA kicked off in 2008, the show skyrocketed the ever-outspoken Leakes to fame and made her a household name.

That popularity led to a series of television roles (GleeThe New Normal, E!’s Fashion Police) and ultimately caused Leakes to walk away from the series in seasons 8 and 9.

She returned in season 10, though the past few years on the show haven’t always been easy.

That was especially true last season when Leakes saw her longstanding friendship with her ride-or-die Bailey fall apart and, among other things, found herself in a physical altercation with a cameraman when he tried to film in her closet despite her repeated request he didn’t.

The Real Housewives of Atlanta season 12 cast
Bravo Media/ Tommy Garcia

Looking back at all of the ups and the downs, Leakes tells PEOPLE she stands by her behavior.

“I don’t regret it, not one bit,” she says. “I don’t regret anything that happened.”

Even last season, when she seemed completely shut down at the RHOA reunion? “I was very hurt,” Leakes says. “I keep it real and those were my real true feelings. How I felt is how I felt and nobody would have been able to change that.”

“My pain is often misinterpreted,” Leakes adds. “I’m not one of those people who actually express how I feel a lot. I keep that inside, and a lot of [my costars] know that. But I do believe that because somebody is louder or moves more boldly, a lot of time those are the people who always get the finger pointed at them. And honestly, that’s always the case with me.”

Season 12 of RHOA will be Leakes’ tenth. And despite the concern she showed initially about returning, she says she’s looking forward to viewers watching it all play out.

“I’m excited for it to air,” Leakes says. “I’m excited for the fans to see all that has happened and see all these relationships change as time goes on.”

While relationships have changed on the show, Leakes says she ultimately hasn’t.

“I feel like I’m the same person,” she says. “I feel like I’ve obviously gotten older and grown in many areas of my life. But I’m still NeNe. I’m still the same person I’ve always been. I’ve always kept it real and I will always keep it real.”

All in all, she’s happy about what the show has given her.

“This platform has been an amazing platform for myself,” Leakes says. “It definitely has opened up many doors and opportunities. A lot of that is due to fans loving me for who I am and living out loud — all the things that some of my cast members don’t like are the things that fans really love about me. I kept it real and I say it like it is and I’m really blunt. So those fans, they have meant everything to me. They’ve embraced me for who I am and carried me through some of the harder times.”

The Real Housewives of Atlanta airs Sundays (8 p.m. ET) on Bravo.

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