LeeAnne Locken does not define herself by her past, but she says embracing it can unlock a happy future.
The former Real Housewives of Dallas star — who announced on Tuesday that she is leaving the Bravo franchise after four seasons — is known to viewers for being open about the darker experiences in her life, embracing her own rocky history in an effort to show others how to exhibit strength through trauma.
“Where there’s tragedy, I’m immediately looking for the purpose,” Locken, 52, told PEOPLE in November 2018. “It’s a different way to live, but it’s what works for me at this stage in life.”
“It don’t need courage to talk about it,” Locken added. “That’s me being the raw, honest, open, no-filter LeeAnne that I was born. Where it took courage was surviving it. Trying not to let it destroy me. Making sure that I learned to thrive instead of just survive.”
A Texas native, Locken was abandoned at the age of 2½, left to be raised instead by her grandmother during the year while her single mother worked the carnival circuit. Locken would join her mom on the road for each summer.
“I started working with my mom at the age of 3, in the duck pond,” she told SiriusXM’s Jenny McCarthy ahead of RHOD‘s first season premiere. “By the time I was 11, I bought my first [game] — we call them joints, stick joints — and I had adults working for me. So from 11 to 16, I had my first business.”
The carnival environment exposed Locken to things well beyond her years.
“I got beat up, I got mugged,” Locken said on McCarthy’s show. “It was pretty different. It was really different. … I had people who escaped from insane asylums, stalking me on the carnival. … It got creepy.”
Ever the optimist, Locken found the positive.
“I learned a lot of good things,” she said. “Number one, I’m really good with making money. I really learned how to make a living and I really learned how to assess people really quickly. Because if there’s not going to stay and play my game, dude, move on. I can’t sit and chat with you. My mom used to say, ‘If you can’t play, you can’t stay.’ “
“I’ve also never done an illegal drug because I saw people jump from the top of the ferris wheel like, ‘I can fly,’ ” Locken said. “And I got my smart-ass sense of personality from there, too. People would be like ‘Hey’ and I’d be like, ‘Hay ain’t here, it’s in the barn next store. What do you want?’ “
Sadly, Locken’s life outside of the carnival brought its own challenges.
She revealed in season 1 of RHOD that while living with her grandmother as a child, a family friend living nearby sexually abused her. The assault continued every other weekend, for eight years.
Dealing with that trauma led Locken to contend with her own issues of depression and suicide. She battled those demons while launching a career in show business — which, before RHOD, included modeling gigs, commercial appearances and a spot in the top 10 in the 1989 Miss USA Pageant, as well as a variety of hosting and acting gigs on television.
Locken even famously starred on the big screen alongside Sandra Bullock as one of the beauty pageant contestants (Kelly Beth Kelley, a.k.a. Miss Nebraska) in the 2000 comedy Miss Congeniality.
Eventually, Locken made her way to reality TV, as a hopeful in season 2 of She’s Got the Look, TV Land’s reality competition series about the search for the next great supermodel 35 years or older. She placed third in the series. A recurring role in season 2 of the Style Network’s Big Rich Texas followed, before Bravo came calling.
Season 1 of RHOD premiered in April 2016. Locken, by then, was heavily involved in the charity world in Dallas. She was often shown using her platform to highlight her other philanthropic efforts, spreading awareness about AIDS activism, LGBTQ issues, animal rights and the dangers of sexual trafficking.
In doing that, Locken often retold tales of her hard-knocks childhood. But she was critisized by many of her RHOD costars — like Brandi Redmond, Cary Deuber, Stephanie Hollman, D’Andra Simmons and Kary Brittingham, who slammed her for bringing up her past in an effort to explain away her behavior.
Locken has long said she was misunderstood.
“I think there’s a double standard on our cast,” she said during an October 2019 appearance on PEOPLE TV’s Reality Check. “There has always been a double standard on our cast. I am held to a very, very high standard and everybody else can do whatever they want and it’s okay.”
“I’ve been honest about my struggles,” she added. “They’ve said, ‘I use it for attention, I use it to manipulate people, I want people to pity me.’ None of that is true. Look, that is how I connect with humans. If I share an intimate story with you, it’s because I want you to understand at some core, deep level, that is who I am. I am not a surface. If we’re having a surface conversation, I’m going to bed, because you bore me.”
From the get-go on the show, Locken’s childhood pain appeared to manifest itself in her hot temper. One heated argument at a charity event ended with Locken knocking a cameraman out of the way (and a slapping a passing trolley car) before taking off barefoot down the street. Another verbal argument with Friend of the Housewives Marie Reyes had Locken’s threatening to “kill” the woman, something that led to worries from Locken’s RHOD cast that she might be violent.
Locken wrote those concerns off by saying she was not being literal with her words (“Haven’t you ever heard someone in the street say, ‘I’m going to kill your ass?’ It’s slang … it doesn’t mean I’m going to take a knife and slit her throat.”) But her costars still worried she could be dangerous.
In season 2, Locken broke a glass during a fight with Deuber and was caught in a hot mic moment saying that she would hurt her (“They’re just hands, but they work quite well”). In fact, the season 2 reunion found most of the entire cast turning on Locken, with Hollman saying, “We cannot threaten each other’s lives.”
All that changed, though, in season 3. Using therapy and meditation, Locken came back more centered and tame. She was on cloud nine in her personal life, having just gotten engaged to longtime love Rich Emberlin. And she appeared much happier, channeling her energy into the L’Infinity Dress, a gown she designed that could be worn 175 different ways.
RELATED: See LeeAnne Locken’s Amazing L’Infinity Dress in Action
That didn’t mean there wasn’t drama to be had, of course. Locken and her former best friend D’Andra Simmons had a falling-out when Simmons spread rumors that Emberlin had been unfaithful (he denied the claims). The two Housewives almost got into a physical fight during a trip to Copenhagen. And despite being at peace up until that point, Locken and Redmond ended up getting into blows at the finale party.
By season 4, it was clear Locken was on an island amongst the group, with only Housewife Kameron Westcott by her side. The addition of Brittingham to the cast didn’t help Locken, either. The two clashed multiple times, with Locken particularly finding herself in the hot seat after making racially insensitive comments toward the Mexican Housewife during a group trip to Thailand.
Locken later apologized. “I know every bone in my body, and I know I don’t have a single bone that believes in discrimination,” Locken said at the RHOD season 4 reunion. “I believe in inclusion.”
“I am deeply sorry to those that I have hurt or offended with some of my comments,” she also said in a statement. “It was never my intention to hurt anyone and I will use this as a learning experience to be more aware of my comments in the future. My commitment moving forward is to continue my work fighting for equality and acceptance of all humans.”
Since then, Locken and Brittingham have reconciled, and Locken looks back on her RHOD ride with affection.
“The last four years have been a trolley-slapping good time,” she said on Tuesday, while announcing her departure. “Thank you to everyone who has laughed and cried with me along the way. It’s been an amazing journey.”
It helps, no doubt, that Locken has Emberlin by her side.
The two married in an extravagant and romantic wedding last April, in a ceremony that aired during RHOD‘s fourth season.
In her emotional vows, Locken thanked Emberlin for helping her through her past.
“When I was a child, I never really felt loved, wanted, or accepted,” Locken said. “When I met you, you made me feel all of those things. Together we have struggled, we have loved, we fought for each other. You’ve shown me how to love deeper than I ever knew was possible.”
“I promise to spend the rest of my life reminding you of how incredibly special you are,” Locken said. “I love you so much, and my heart belongs to you.”
Said Emberlin: “LeeAnne, you taught me what true love is: a total acceptance of someone, no matter how perfect or imperfect they may be. As you and I have always said, we come from the land of misfit toys, but we’ve managed to help fix each other up and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.”
That sentiment carried over into Locken’s statement about her RHOD departure.
��Getting to share my wedding with the viewers last year brought me tremendous joy, however, the season was very personally challenging for me,” Locken said. “I am looking forward to stepping away from the cameras and spending quality time with my husband and friends, traveling, but most importantly, getting back to philanthropy, which was my main reason for joining the show.”