The Real Housewives franchise is an institution of pop culture. Equal parts Dynasty, Desperate Houswives, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, it's all camp, glamour, and drama, which has earned it a loyal queer fan base. And yet surprisingly, it has never featured an out full-time housewife until now, when the latest season of the revamped Real Housewives of Miami introduced audiences to Julia Lemigova, former model, beauty entrepreneur, farmer, and wife of tennis icon Martina Navratilova.
For Lemigova, making queer history on the franchise is both exciting and overdue. "It's about time!" she tells The Advocate. While the weight of being a "first'' can be daunting, she's excited to be showcasing the great love story that is her marriage to Navratilova along, with her beautiful and loving family. "I want to normalize how we live, and that love has no gender, by being a visible part of our LGBT community. It's quite new to me. And I would not even try to pretend I'm a spokesperson for it. What I'm happy to be is that spokesperson for myself and my family. And hope that as a family, we represent our LGBT community well."
The Real Housewives of Miami originally premiered on Bravo in 2011 and ran for three seasons before being put on indefinite hiatus -- that was, until the streaming service Peacock arrived on the scene and revived the series with a mixture of returning cast members and fresh faces like Lemigova. One of the vets returning is Adriana de Moura, around whom the original series arguably orbited, and who Lemigova credits for bringing her on the show. The two are best friends and Lemigova tells us that de Moura, out of the blue, revealed to her that the show was returning and she'd love for her friend to join her on it. "I get really excited. It sounded like an amazing, crazy fun idea," recalls Lemigova, who jumped at the chance to go on this new adventure with de Moura. "I love Adriana, we have such chemistry and she is one of my closest, best friends. So whatever adventure, we always call each other 'Thelma and Louise.' So [we said] let's try it and then from that kind of fantasy, it [became] reality a few months later."
Lemigova knew that by joining the cast, she'd be opening up her personal life and marriage to the world, something the usually private couple would typically shy away from. But when the opportunity came up and she presented it to her wife, Lemigova says she was entirely supportive. "We're normally private people. We don't show too much of our life. But she saw me being so excited. She saw my eyes and he was like well, 'OK, girl, go for it!'"
It was a bold step, and one that Lemigova shares she would not always have been comfortable taking. On an early episode of the season, she recounts how when she and her now-wife began dating in Paris, while she was still modeling, she was afraid to show any affection in public. Memories of that time, looking back on how fearful she was of being visibly queer, are hard for Lemigova. "I feel so awful just thinking how I made Martina feel back then in Paris, especially her, the pioneer. I was like, 'No, darling, we cannot, people will see us,' and she was just devastated," she recalls. Today, Lemigova is just grateful Navratilova didn't run away and gave her time to "come to my senses," she confesses.
Lemigova also credits the support of her two daughters with helping her become more comfortable in her identity. She recalls watching her children navigate their classmates' questions about who Navritilova was in their lives while standing up for their family. "I was so proud to see them kind of fighting back and telling other kids that Martina is [their] second mom," she says. It showed her how simply living her truth out loud is sometimes the best way to open others' hearts. "When you are true to yourself and when you don't fake things and present your truth other people take it like they feel your energy and they take it they embrace it," she explains. "It makes me so emotional now, like, oh my god, I feel like I have tears in my eyes," she says with a slight quiver in her voice. "Just from the memories, like remembering that time."
It was a long and fascinating road to travel for Lemigova that led to her becoming the out, proud woman she is today. Her journey began in Russia when it was still the seat of power for the former Soviet Union. From a young age, she had dreams of leaving Russia for the wider world and winning the Miss USSR pageant in 1990 gave her that opportunity. She left her home country at 17 with no money and managed to establish herself as a model, landing at one of the best agencies in London. "I didn't have my own place. I didn't have a job I had to start from the beginning -- and without speaking English, as well, you know on top of it," she recalls. "It expands your 'horizontal perspective' ... you meet different people, you become maybe a better judge of characters you see, you learn so fast. So I became this chameleon and like a sponge at the same time, where I had to be focused, I had to fight for myself." These same skills will no doubt serve her well as a RHOM cast member, too.
Along with highlighting her family and friendships, Lemigova is excited to share another of her great passions with the audience: her farm. Complete with chickens, geese, dogs, cats, tortoises, parrots -- and tons of fresh produce -- it kept her family well fed through the quarantine. The fruit and veg did, that is, as Lemigova is quick to point out that the animals on her farm are not for eating. "My farm is literally like a joy of life. And I discovered how wonderful it is and how rewarding for your mind it is to combine, for me, the glam and the farm. It's so much fun, you can be in Louboutin shoes and an hour later chicken galoshes -- and I walk equally well in both," she laughs.
Ultimately, Lemigova is excited for audiences to witness all the fullness of her life. She hopes that it's not just entertaining, but that, by watching her come out of her comfort zone, she can help others as well. "I'm forever grateful [for] The Real Housewives of Miami and Peacock for allowing me to come out of my shell and be even more fearless," she says. "And then if I can move one heart and make just at least one person out there feel great, that's already huge for me. That's already a massive victory and I hope I'll touch more than one heart."
The Real Housewives of Miami is currently airing Thursdays on Peacock. Watch the trailer for season 4 below.