ATLANTA — Bravo turned NeNe Leakes into a star. NeNe Leakes turned “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” into a hit. For much of the past 14 years, the network and the long-time Duluth resident have had a mutually beneficial relationship.
But that relationship is now estranged. Leakes last month sued the network, the production company, “Real Housewives” creator Andy Cohen and Bravo’s corporate boss NBCUniversal alleging a long-running pattern of racial discrimination followed by retaliation against Leakes for complaining in public about said discrimination.
Over 74 pages, she cited multiple examples of the network tolerating alleged racist behavior on various “Housewives” shows over the years and providing the one white castmate on “Real Housewives of Atlanta” Kim Zolciak-Biermann preferential treatment over the Black cast members. She also accused Zolciak-Biermann of inflammatory and racist comments against her and was forced to take down social media by Bravo calling those actions out. (She did not name Zolciak-Biermann in the lawsuit as a defendant.)
“NBC, Bravo and True [Entertainment, which produces RHOA] foster a corporate and workplace culture in which racially-insensitive and inappropriate behavior is tolerated — if not, encouraged,” the lawsuit states.
Bravo declined to comment.
Leakes told TMZ recently part of the reason she filed the lawsuit was to “stop discrimination against Black women.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to a veteran Atlanta attorney and a Georgia State University law professor to get their thoughts on the merits of the case.
A. Lee Parks, who has been practicing employment law for 45 years, called the lawsuit a “mish mosh.”
Parks compared the lawsuit to the one filed earlier this year by Black NFL coach Brian Flores alleging a pattern of racist hiring practices. It’s clearly written to generate headlines and garner negative publicity against the defendants, he said.
“It looks like a chess move in a larger negotiation,” said Parks, who has never represented reality stars but has worked with clients in the entertainment world. “She may be using this to gain leverage.” He said she may be still angling for her own TV show on Bravo, something Leakes denied was her goal in her brief encounter with TMZ.
And independent of the merits of the case, Parks said the major hindrance to Leakes’ case is a clause she signed with Bravo that requires complaints of this sort to be resolved via arbitration first. The federal judge in Atlanta could throw out the case on those grounds alone, he said. In the lawsuit, Leakes’ attorneys believe the arbitration stipulations are “unconscionable, unlawful, and/or contrary to public policy.”
Tanya Washington, a law professor at Georgia State University, said Leakes’ attorneys who put the lawsuit together were thorough and provided concrete examples of Bravo’s behavior toward Leakes over the years, much of it chronicled in real time by the media and Leakes herself.
“But these kinds of cases are super challenging to win in court,” Washington said. “The laws are constructed in such a way that you need to clear some major evidentiary hurdles. There are things the average person might find to be racially insensitive that do not constitute legally actionable racial discrimination.”
If Bravo, True and NBCUniversal don’t succeed in getting the case thrown out due to the arbitration clauses in her contract, Washington said they will still try to seek summary judgment, saying the case doesn’t hold water. If a judge agrees with Leakes and moves the case forward, Washington said in all likelihood, the two sides will settle out of court and the contents of such an agreement would be kept confidential.
Leakes in the early years of the show was the straw that stirred the drama drink. She became the show’s highest paid castmate and was able to parlay her fame to acting gigs with Fox’s “Glee” and NBC’s “The New Normal” as well as appearances on “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
But over time, she lost patience with the dynamics of the reality show, the petty arguments and the need to engage with people she didn’t like. She left the show after Season 7 as a full-time cast member. Bravo, paycheck in tow, enticed her back for a second run, which was rocky. In Season 11 in 2019, she got upset when two cast members went into her personal walk-in closet without her permission. When a camera operator followed them in , Leakes came in from behind and grabbed his shirt, ripping it.
In the suit, she said she had just found out her husband had cancer, but the producers forced her to continue with a preplanned party and that contributed to her state of mind.
In her final season 12, she said she was not offered a contract until several episodes had been taped, which is why she did not appear in several episodes. She claimed this move was retaliatory. She also said Bravo prevented her from doing non-Bravo work and deliberately kept her from shooting scenes with other cast members.
Later, during a Zoom reunion show shot during the pandemic in the spring of 2020, she got peeved that a non-cast member was allowed to criticize her. As a result, Leakes got up and left. The editors left her empty desk there for the rest of the episode. She said in the lawsuit that Bravo docked her pay.
According to the lawsuit, Bravo then told her they did not want her around season 13 at the time the Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing. She began new negotiations and Bravo showed some openness to her joining the cast part time. But they couldn’t come to an agreement. She began making public complaints about Bravo and Cohen discriminating against her. Soon after, she said Bravo reneged on any development deal with the network. The network even taped a special about race in America in August 2020 that included featured “Real Housewives” cast members Porsha Williams and Kandi Burruss but no Leakes.
“Since her calling out the race-based mistreatment she received while working on RHOA, doors across the industry have closed on her,” the lawsuit said, claiming Bravo has successfully blacklisted her from getting any other work.
In the past year, she has made appearances on syndicated talk shows “The Talk” and “The Real” but has not landed any major acting jobs or reality shows. She has been running Linnethia Lounge, which is located in Duluth.
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