Throughout her life, The Real host Jeannie Mai has struggled to trust her gut. Today, she knows it’s due to the childhood trauma of being sexually abused by a family member for five years — and not being believed by those meant to protect her.
Her abuser was a teenage relative charged with babysitting her while her Vietnamese immigrant parents — mother Olivia, a secretary and wedding singer, and father James, a supervisor at IBM — were at work. She was 9 years old when he raped her. And when she told her mom what had happened, Olivia insisted he “didn’t mean it” and was embarrassed by the allegation.
“The first time I was told as a child that what I saw or felt wasn’t true, that was the first time I learned not to trust myself,” Mai, 40, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “When I look at the five years that he abused me, I believed him over myself. Then, when I looked to my mom for help, her dismissing of the situation taught me to dismiss my intuition.”
At 16, Mai ran away from home in San Jose, California, to San Francisco, where she took a job as a makeup artist at a strip club, paying $50 a month (plus home-cooked fried rice every other Sunday) to crash on a pair of drag queens’ couch. She landed a job at Mac Cosmetics, where she rubbed elbows with celebrities. After an internship at a local station and move to Los Angeles, she pivoted to TV, hosting fashion shows before joining The Real in 2013. “I’m not afraid to be homeless, because I’ve been there. I’m not afraid to lose money, because I started out poor,” she says of the life lessons that have benefitted her. “I’m not afraid to not have love, because I have the love inside of me.”
She didn’t speak to her mother for eight years. Even after they reconciled, Mai felt like she needed answers.
“I have anxiety with social situations and trust issues today that follow me everywhere I go,” she explains. “I know it comes from that feeling of not being safe in my own home for those five years and because the two people that I thought I could trust most let me down when I was young. These issues keep following me into my work life, my friendships and my relationships, and I’m sick of it. I don’t want to be 41, 44, 58 and still dealing with this heavy a– cloud over me because of what happened to me when I was 9.”
Last May on her YouTube show, Hello Hunnay, Mai and Olivia sat down for a raw conversation about their estrangement. Mai says the video racked up about 1 million views in one day, and that her inbox was flooded with powerful messages from other survivors. Olivia apologized for not believing her daughter, revealing for the first time that she’d confronted the abuser in person years after the assault. That knowledge, Mai says, gave her peace.
“That episode was monumental for me and my mom. She owned that was young and didn’t have the answers, and that healed me,” she says. “When she listened and made me feel heard, it made up for all those years that she didn’t.”
She also learned that Olivia, 60, herself had a “volatile” and abusive father. Now, mother and daughter are closer than ever, attending therapy sessions together and encouraging their entire family to be more open about their emotions.
“That for us has been a huge breakthrough,” she says. “There isn’t even a word that describes psychology in Vietnamese. That’s not something we do.”
- For more on Jeannie Mai, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Wednesday
Speaking out about her experience has also helped. “I think God led me to where I am right now, being a television personality and having all these outlets to talk about what I’ve gone through,” she says. She recently launched a podcast, Listen Hunnay (produced by Studio71), on which she interviews experts on everything from mental health to divorce, hoping to give fans the safe space for which she always yearned.
“I used to keep diaries. I was a super empath as a kid, spilling my feelings in pages. Then I grew up. Got busy. And let life happen. This podcast is a dedication to that little girl to say, ‘I miss you, and I promise to not forget you,'” she says. “Listen Hunnay is about the ‘why’ in your life. Why you do what you do, the convos in your head, how to polish your highest, dopest self. Hopefully it’s a nudge to my sisters out there to quiet down the noise and listen to all the answers that have been waiting inside of them, too.”
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And she is a fierce warrior in the fight against human trafficking, having just traveled to Budapest to film a sequel to the 2018 documentary she executive-produced, Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex-Trafficking. An estimated 40 million people are affected by modern-day slavery worldwide, and Mai points out that it’s not just an issue in foreign countries — people are being sold in Americans’ own backyards, too. The new film focuses more on the few survivors of human trafficking.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
“We want to make sure they’re actually okay to go back into society and find their way to live again,” she says. “Not only is there a scarcity of shelters already, but these shelters don’t have the financial support. They don’t have the medical aid. They don’t have the therapeutic needs, and they need educational resources and the community love and support in order to get these women to be able to look at people in the eyes again, to be able to trust, to be able to coexist, to be able to build relationships, get back into the working world and become the strong women that they can be. So I’m hoping the Stopping Traffic 2 will not only globally educate but teach us women, and moms especially, how to protect one another.”
“As a victim of sexual abuse, there are things that I’ll never get back, like my childhood, my innocence,” she adds. “My outlet has become having a mission.”
The Real airs weekdays (check local listings).