“I call myself Black Sue,” Nene Leakes says with a laugh about her character on Glee (the season finale airs tonight on Fox). Leakes was cast in the recurring role of swimming instructor Roz Washington on the musical comedy series because creator Ryan Murphy needed someone strong enough to stand up to Jane Lynch's ruthless Sue Sylvester. As fans of Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta and NBC's Celebrity Apprentice (on which she famously battled Star Jones) know, Leakes is not afraid to speak her mind. Besides her brazen television image, the 44-year-old is also an outspoken advocate for raising awareness about domestic violence against women. Leakes tells The Advocate about sparring with Lynch on Glee, her new gay-themed sitcom The New Normal, her thoughts on marriage equality, and how she'd react if her child revealed he's gay.
The Advocate: How did you land the role of Roz Washington?
Nene Leakes: Ryan was looking for someone to play the character and he saw me on Housewives. He called and told me that I’m his guilty pleasure. He said, “I watch you on Sundays while I have my coffee and make my bed. I watch you guys and I just crack up.” He told me he was looking for someone who could take on Sue and was auditioning a few celebrities. He said, “I don’t think anyone can take her on like you can.” He never told me to audition. He said that after watching me on Housewivesand Celebrity Apprentice, he knew I could do it.
Were you a fan of the show before you got the part?
I was scared and nervous. I’d never seen Glee before. I’d heard about it. I’d met the Glee kids a couple of months before that in New York. They were on tour. We were at the same hotel and they came over and asked for my autograph. He said they all told him he had to get Nene. I was so shocked. He gave me the script and told me to go home and study it. Now I love Glee. I’m now such a Gleek.
How did you find working with Ryan Murphy?
I didn’t know who he was at first. I was blowing him off when he reached out to me. I talked to my manager who said, “Nene, he is the hottest thing in television.” That made me nervous. He’s very creative. He gets it. He lets me just kind of go off script and do my own thing. When I watch the show I see that sometimes they kept my own thing and sometimes they don’t. Ryan gives you room to do stuff. Some shows want you to stick to the script, which I do, but Ryan gives you the chance to go off script. He’s really easy on set. I thought he was going to be something else but he’s really easy. He’s been really good to me.
What was it like going head-to-head with Jane Lynch?
At first I was scared. I was like, “Lord have mercy, I’m going to work with Jane Lynch.” I was asking people about her before I worked with her and they told she’s actually shy. When I got on set we clicked. I was really happy we clicked. I’d been worried that it would be another Housewives set where there’s tension and she’s going to scratch my eyeballs out. But she was so welcoming to me. The first day we took pictures and tweeted them. She was really good to me. I also liked to work with Dot Marie Jones. I liked that we’re all three grown women and we all want to just work and go. We all came in prepared and knew our lines and what we were going to do and knock it out and go home. I love that about Jane. She comes prepared to work.
Roz is a swimming coach. Are you a swimmer in real life?
That is so hilarious. Do you think a black girl doesn’t swim? [Laughs] It’s true. I don’t know how to swim. I can do the dog paddle and hold my breath and go under water. But when it comes to stroking it in the pool, no.
What happens with Roz in the season finale?
I can’t talk about it. The finale is going to be huge. I’ll say this: You’re probably going to see more of Roz.
You’re playing a character named Rocky in The New Normal. What can you tell me about her?
Rocky is fantastic. She wears high heels everyday and fabulous clothing. The name of the show is very fitting, by the way. It’s about two gay guys and they’re looking for a surrogate to have their baby. I play the assistant to one of the guys. I use his credit card and buy all kinds of things he doesn’t know about, but you can’t talk shit about my gay guy, only I can. [Laughs] Don’t mess with my gay guy. Just don’t do it. It’s a really great comedy and I think people are going to love it. I’m very proud of it.
What are the chances you’ll be doing triple duty this fall and return to Housewives?
I might be doing triple duty. I might stay on Housewives and do Glee and The New Normal.
When will you sleep?
I don’t know. I wondered if I’m up for the challenge and decided I am. I don’t know. Besides reading scripts, I’ll be on Housewives playing with those mean old girls.
Since you’ll be filming Glee and The New Normal in Los Angeles. Is there any chance you’ll move over to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast?
From what I’ve heard Bravo doesn’t want to do a crossover. I actually will be living in Los Angeles and I’ll still have a place in Georgia. They should do that twist. It would be fun. It would be hilarious to be a Beverly Hills housewife.
You’re an advocate against domestic abuse. With the bullying epidemic in the headlines, what advice have you given your children about how to react if they see other people being bullied?
Bullying is insane to me. I tell people that I’m so strong now because I was bullied in high school. I remember in our school there were two girls that everyone was scared of and I was scared of them, too. They’d make the other girls fight each other. I’d say if you’re being bullied in school you need to talk to your counselor and your parents. Well, the school counselor, I’m really not sure that’s working. So many parents say to go to the counselor but the school says that something has to happen before they can really do something. I’d say talk to your parents about it. My son is 13 and is about to go into the 8th grade. If he was bullied I’d probably pull him out of school. I don’t know what you can do about another kid who is beating on your kid. I realize that every parent can’t afford to just snatch their child out of school.
Have you witnessed bullying yourself?
I have a good girlfriend who’s an adult and she feels she’s being bullied right now. She’s not a fighter. I feel so bad for her. She actually cries about being bullied. It’s a tough thing. I was in an abusive relationship for a long time and I didn’t know how to get out of it. I turned to a lot of people for help. They couldn’t help me because they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship before. One of the things I want to do to help women is form a home or a counseling center so they can just get away and go there. My abuser started abusing me when I was so young and I kept going back and I thought it was love. It’s a very tough thing to get out of. As for bullying, there’s no way I can let me child be abused after what I went through.
As one of the most famous housewives in America, what’s your opinion of Obama coming out in support of same-sex marriage?
I loved it. I think he got a lot of heat from it. I’ve been asked to photographed for the NOH8 campaign but I haven’t been able to work my schedule around it yet. To me, same-sex marriage is like the new normal. I don’t give a shit. If two gay people want to get married it doesn’t bother me. If two people say they love each other and they want to be together, they should be together. Don’t you think?
You have two sons. What will you say to them if one told you he's gay?
I’ve had this conversation with my boys before. I’ve asked, “Are you gay?” I thought about how I’d react. First I’d faint then I’d have to just get up and go with it. [Laughs] Any parent hearing that for the first time, it will be a little bit of a shocker for them. No matter who the parents are, that’s something you have to take in. If one of my sons told me he’s gay I’d have to sleep on it and let it sink in. I have so many gay friends that I’d have to go to one of them to ask them for advice. I’d ask what I can do to be more supportive. As many gay friends as I have I’d definitely have to seek advice because I’ve never experienced it. I’d get on my phone and call every gay guy I know, child, and say let’s figure this out. I think mothers can handle it better than the dads. I think my problem would be, How are we going to tell your dad about this? That’s why I’d need help. I think after the moms get over it, they’d be like, Let’s go shopping. [Laughs]
You've made the transition from reality-based to scripted television. Are movies your next goal?
I did a film back in the day called The Fighting Temptations with Cuba Gooding Jr. I’m not opposed to film work, but I just happen to like TV. Actually, there is another project I have my eye on. It’s another Ryan Murphy film. It’s called One Hit Wonders. He’s already cast Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow in it so maybe he can find me a little part in there as a backup singer or something. I would love to be a part of the film. Ryan Murphy, don’t forget to put me in One Hit Wonders. Ryan is very loyal.
Ryan is hosting a big fundraising dinner for President Obama next month. Will you attend?
I’d love to. I was invited to a few Obama fundraisers here in Atlanta, but some of them you just can’t afford to go to. I’m not kidding! They’re like $40,000 a plate. I’m like, What are you eating? [Laughs] There are some that are more affordable. Tyler Perry had one that was $5,000 so if you want to support Barack Obama you can buy a ticket.
So you’re friends with Tyler Perry. What’s he like?
I am very good friends with Tyler Perry. I really like him. I feel he’s very regular and humble and not over the top. You’d think that he would be because he has so much money and charters airplanes and all. But he’s just really regular. He’ll just pick up his cell phone and call me and we just chat. I chat with him like I chat with any other girlfriend or guy friend. He’s not Hollywood. He’s very humble.