The Real's Loni Love Gets Candid About Her Path to Success: 'This Is My American Story'

Loni Love's memoir, I Tried to Change So You Don't Have To, hits shelves June 23

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Loni Love. Photo: social - @arilou Loni Love photographed solo and with her boyfriend James Welsh by Ari Michelson in Playa Del Rey on June 1, 2020. Photographer: Ari Michelson Prop Stylist: Wanted PD Hair: Amber Jay Makeup: Jacqueline Mgido

You may recognize Loni Love as an Emmy-winning co-host of The Real, a daytime talk program led by women of color. Perhaps you're a fan of her comedy work, or recall her acting roles in kids show Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide or the star-studded film Mother's Day. Maybe you listen to her on the nationally syndicated radio show Café Mocha, or were charmed by her turn on RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race. But do you know how she found fame, going from a little girl in the projects to a successful engineer and, finally, a star?

"A lot of people only know me from certain areas in my life, and a lot of people don't know how hard it was to get where I am," Love, 48, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's issue, on stands Friday. "I didn't know anybody in this industry. I wasn't born with money or well-off parents. I want to show that this is a country where you can have humble beginnings and you can make it. This is my American story."

She does just that in her candid, funny, sometimes painful new memoir, I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To (available June 23).

Love was raised in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects by a single mother, Frances, who worked long shifts as a nurse’s aide. Her father left the family when she was a baby. Love writes of often fending for herself at home. “We got government cheese, my mom didn't have money, at times we only ate potatoes, at times we did go hungry,” Love says. When she was about 7 or 8, the family could afford a turkey dinner for Christmas — but no tree, no gifts. The father of her older half-brother, Bruce, showed up like Santa to shower his son with presents. There was nothing for Love. “It was just a sad moment, and it's something that you never forget as a child,” she says.

A self-proclaimed nerd who played the French horn and excelled at math, she earned a spot at a magnet high school, where she felt drawn to the arts. “Everybody around me, even though they didn’t have money, they did find some point of happiness and levity,” she says. “I got my foundation for comedy from the people of Detroit, because everybody was funny, from the mailman to the wino. I even remember making the drug dealers laugh.”

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After graduating from high school, Love landed a job on the assembly line at a General Motors plant. Around that time, her mother kicked her out of their apartment in favor of a new boyfriend, and she wound up homeless, sleeping in her car in the GM parking lot for months. “Detroit was a tough city, but I’m also a tough person,” she says. Love has since forgiven her mom, and they are close. At work, a black engineer Love refers to as Mr. Arnold saw her reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and became a father figure to her, encouraging her to apply to college. She paid her own way through Texas’ Prairie View A&M University with help from a scholarship from GM. “Nobody in my family went to college. We never talked about higher education,” she says. “Mr. Arnold changed my life.”

Love graduated with an electrical engineering degree and took a job at Xerox, moving in to her college boyfriend’s mom’s home in California. The arrangement was a “mess,” she says: His mom expected her to cook, clean, lose weight and wear a full face of makeup to sleep. ("I was getting pimples!" she says with a laugh.) The attempt to turn Love into what she calls a “black Stepford wife” showed her how much she values her freedom.

"I was really depressed, because I was at this so-called good job," she says. "I had my own office. I had this guy in my life, and he was my boyfriend. And so the next step is you get married and have kids. And I was just not happy. And I just didn't know why."

Things clicked when Love caught a show at L.A's Comedy Store during a meandering drive from work to avoid going home. She dumped the guy and began pursuing her dream. But even then, she faced obstacles. When Love began taking stand-up comedy classes in Burbank, California, she practiced quips about office culture at Xerox. The instructor criticized Love’s material as not feeling “authentic” — and asked if she had any stories about crack.

“She had her vision of what she thought I should be as a woman of color — but it wasn’t me,” Love says. “I have to be who I am."

  • For more on Loni Love, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Anderson Cooper
Anderson Cooper and son Wyatt on the cover of PEOPLE's Pride issue. Melanie Acevedo

She stayed true to herself, telling the jokes she wanted to tell — and her career soared. Her big break came in 2003 when she won best stand-up at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. She became a panelist on Chelsea Lately from 2007 to 2014, and when The Real came knocking in 2013, promising a diverse panel of women speaking about important issues, she signed. It wasn't an easy decision; Love wanted to front her own show, not join an ensemble. But after a great chemistry read with co-hosts Tamera Mowry-Housley, Jeannie Mai and Adrienne Houghton, she realized the impact she could have. “I want to show that people of color are just like the majority: We laugh, we cry, we have the same issues,” she says. “That’s what sold me.” The show is a hit, and the women won a Daytime Emmy in 2018.

Drama ensued when original co-host Tamar Braxton was fired in 2016 — and blamed Love. In her book, Love describes facing an onslaught of online bullying. “Anytime someone attacks your character, especially when you know you didn't have anything to do with it, it's very hurtful,” she says. Braxton's eventual replacement, Amanda Seales, joined the panel in January 2020 but recently announced her exit, denying having any issues with the other hosts. Love says she is “still fighting” for her own late-night show one day — and full creative control.

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From left:. From let: Tamera Mowry-Housley, Jeannie Mai, Loni Love and Adrienne Houghton

The Real has also proved to be an important platform for Love to speak out about problems facing her community. She lost her childhood best friend to gun violence as a teenager, was arrested for "trespassing" after defending a friend who'd filled a free water cup with soda at a restaurant in college, and is a passionate advocate of voting for change — especially now. Her Instagram Live show, #quarantinewithloni, usually nets between 50,000-100,000 viewers, and amid national protests over George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody, she has invited fans to join the broadcast and share their feelings about racial inequality.

"I think that we should be using our voices collectively to stop the injustices happening," she says. "I think it's more important for us to listen and to understand, and then commit to action. So that's why I'm using the platform that I have to educate people, to inform people, as well as bringing levity and entertain."

Looking back on her journey, Love says, “The one thing I could tell that little girl with no Christmas presents is, ‘It's okay. Because one day you're going to be able to buy all your presents yourself.' ”

Hear an exclusive excerpt from Love's audio book below:

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