The Real's Jeannie Mai Reveals She Was Sexually Abused by a Family Member at Age 9
Jeannie Mai says the abuse caused a years-long estrangement between herself and her mom
Jeannie Mai is opening up about a traumatic childhood experience.
In PEOPLE’s exclusive sneak peek of her YouTube series Hello Hunnay, Jeannie Mai sits down with her mother Olivia TuTram Mai to open up about a past rift in their relationship, revealing she was sexually abused by a male family member starting at the age of 9.
“We’ve talked before that we had a major falling out when I was about 16 until I was 24,” she says. “I’ve never actually talked about that incident with my mom since then. We’re talking for the first time about how that affected us.”
The Real co-host, 40, explains that the abuse started shortly after her second brother was born and her mom was forced to take on a second job in order to help pay the bills.
“We needed to find a babysitter, so we called upon a family member,” she says. “He came over every single day and stayed with me after school.”
Though she does not name her abuser, Jeannie says he was “16 or 17” and became an “iconic person” in her life who she looked up to at the time.
But one day, her relationship with the babysitter took a turn.
“I just remember one day this person sitting very close to me, we were playing video games, and he started to touch my thigh,” she says.
Jeannie says she rationalized the touching by convincing herself that since he was a family member, it was okay. “I was also just stunned because I had never been intimately touched like that so I couldn’t tell if it was wrong, I just knew I was noticing it.”
As the days went on, Jeannie says the touching progressed into him taking off her clothes, exposing himself to her and instructing her on how to touch him.
“I remember him pulling me into that shower and it was the first time I have a seen a grown man and what he looked like,” she recalls. “I remember him telling me to touch him in certain ways.”
“This happened every day for a few weeks, and then it turned into months and I remember one year going by,” she adds. “I didn’t say anything because I was afraid.”
Jeannie says her abuser convinced her that her parents would be angry if she told them.
But she says she did eventually try to confide in her mom about the abuse around the age of 13 by pleading to get another babysitter — without disclosing the abuse.
“I remember you were confused,” the E! live red carpet correspondent says to her mom. “She didn’t get it.”
“I didn’t realize what you were trying to say,” says Olivia.
As the abuse became more “aggressive,” Jeannie says she once again tried to open to her mom a few years later — but Olivia didn’t believe her.
“I began to get angry because now I’m telling my mom that he’s taking off my clothes and you said, ‘I don’t believe you,’ ” she says.
“When I don’t believe it, I just let it go,” says Olivia, explaining that what she was hearing from her daughter didn’t match up with the person she thought she knew. “I don’t see anything bad about him.”
After not getting the response she expected from her mom, Jeannie says she left the home at the age of 16. “I felt by myself,” she says.
The mother and daughter did not speak or see each other for nearly nine years. Jeannie says it wasn’t until they finally reconnected that she was able to convince her mom of what really happened.
“I really listened to her every single detail,” says Olivia. “I was really shocked. It was a real thing.”
“All I can say is I’m really sorry,” she adds.
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Olivia says she was so overcome with guilt about the situation that she decided to confront the abuser, who begged her not to turn him in to authorities — something Jeannie didn’t know until just now.
“I wish you told me that you went to his house. You never told me,” says Jeannie, through tears. “That before and that part is all I needed to know that you supported me and you defended me.”
“That right there is all I needed to know,” she continues. “That you believed me and you listened and that you would go and try and do something about it. I just needed your support. I feel like you just set something free inside of me because you believed me.”
Jeannie and Olivia spent the next years rebuilding their relationship into the close bond they share today. They decided to open up about the incident to help encourage others to do the same.
“We hope that this can help you connect more with your mom, grow better and closer to your family and help your heal however you need to inside,” says Jeannie.