The Food Network’s Gina Neely:
On Faith, Food, Life, Divorce, and Becoming Gina
By Karen Stewart-Ross
Chatting with Gina Neely is like sipping freshly-brewed lemon-infused tea on your front porch on a lazy Sunday afternoon warmed by a Southern sun, longtime caring neighbors and the presence of a really good girlfriend you haven’t seen in ages. It’s just that good.
Neely, the co-star of The Food Network’s popular Down Home with the Neelys series with her husband Patrick, is really loving life right now and it shows. Down to a size 0, Neely began a weight loss journey nearly six years ago after being approached by former boxer George Foreman who challenged her to lose 25 pounds in 12 weeks as part of a weight loss campaign.
After a routine doctor’s appointment revealed that her blood pressure was higher than normal, Neely felt that it was best to take the challenge and found that while she was working out on the outside with exercise, she was also, as she says, “being worked out inside.”
“….Even though you’re doing exercise and you’re training and you’re eating properly, it’s like when you start seeing things change on you physically, it affects you mentally. That’s why when you lose weight, it becomes a lifestyle change for you. And then you start thinking about the things you put in your mouth and also things that you’re hearing in your head, and also things that are going into your heart,” said Neely contemplatively. “So, it’s almost like a toxic cleaning all the way – not just on the outside but the inside too. And I started noticing why I was eating. You know why I would eat certain things? Because I really wasn’t happy deep down inside.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the unhappiness began but perhaps some fingers point to Neely’s now syndicated show which began after Gina and Pat were featured on the Food Network’s Road Tasted with brothers Jamie and and Bobbie Dean. According to Neely, producers were mesmerized by her charismatic personality and approached her and Pat about possibly doing a cooking show.
“I said ‘No, I don’t think so.’ [The producer] said, ‘What?!’ Cooking for me is like my quiet time….,” said Neely.
According to Neely, the Food Network’s producers told her their only nonnegotiable was that she had to be apart of the series or there was no deal.
“So that instantly for me - mind you - that instantly put a burden on me. That’s how I took it. I didn’t take it as a blessing. I took it as a burden,” said Neely.
Although Neely concedes that she and Pat had great chemistry on air and represented African-American love well, for her, Down Home with the Neelys was supposed to be a one-shot deal, a kind of in and out scenario. The network was to get what they wanted and she, although reluctant but for the sake of her husband and family, would have the opportunity to do what she loves to do, which is cook southern food with soul, charm, and love – it was never supposed to be permanent – at least not for her.
When Down Home with the Neelys became the highest-ranking series debut in the network’s history and the husband and wife team were immediately presented with contracts for future seasons, Neely felt obligated to her family to seal the deal – although she was never quite “feeling it” although a large part of her enjoyed it. After consulting with a church elder, she agreed to commit, but only if the show could be done in Memphis and in the couple’s home.
“It was like my answer was contingent upon their happiness. You know what I’m saying?,” said Neely.
Although the show was successful, Neely felt she needed a change. After losing weight and gaining a new perspective, she says God began to reveal things to her about herself and her decisions – one of which was her tendency to want to please people to the detriment of her needs.
“I just threw myself into [weight loss], because I started learning new things about me. I started learning how to say no when I didn’t want to do something. Or if I did want to do something, I did it and if I didn’t, I did not. You know, because [Down Home with the Neelys] was a very aggressive campaign. You just had to be on point all the time. And then secondly, I started noticing that as I was changing, people around me were changing. And this is what I’ve learned: People don’t always take change very well. Even when it’s a good change. ‘I thought you would be happy for me to see me at my best self and moving toward my best self’ and, in fact, it had a reverse effect on me, and that’s when I started noticing things that I probably would not have noticed before,” said Neely, who claims fans “killed” her on blogs due to her dramatic weight loss.
In fact, many scrambled for answers surmising that the change was due to her pending divorce. She adamantly claims that it is not.
Although Neely feels like a new person, the past couple of years have been rather challenging. After fighting for her marriage and going to couple’s therapy, in 2014, she and Patrick, her high school sweetheart, announced they were divorcing which sent shockwaves through the food grapevine.
“It just got to the point that he wanted to stay in this life. I thought this would be a temporary life for me. We would - you know - [it] would be good exposure, [we would] make money, get my kids through school, you know, use it as a blessing…take care of my mom and all that, and then we go back to our lives, we go back to the restaurant and we go back to our regular lives but what you learn is that when some people get a taste of a certain bug, they can’t get that taste out of their mouth,” said Neely.
That “taste” led to increasing discomfort.
“So, actually I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a kitchen with my husband. You know, I liked it. I think our show served a great purpose. I think we sort of trail blazed. You know, anytime you are a trailblazer, there’s always one and you’re that one and everybody holds you up to a certain standard to show them what love looks like and tell them that’s the kind of love they want and it’s a big responsibility. It’s a huge responsibility and it just wasn’t a responsibility that I was willing - that I was willing to take on quite frankly,” said Neely.
Neely admits it’s been a long, tough road – but she has relied on her faith in God.
“It touches me when people ask me that question because it is the one thing that has sustained me,” said Neely. “I mean it has made me realize how strong I am.”
Through consistent prayer during her separation, Neely said that she realized that she has a purpose and if it weren’t for the Lord, she really doesn’t know how she could make it.
“It was mornings that I couldn’t even get out of bed and because of Him - I know God did not put me here just to be here and I always tell people, I don’t share it a lot, but I could have died two times in my life so I always know within my heart of heart[s], within my quiet space that God has me here for a purpose. What that purpose is I don’t know yet. It hasn’t been revealed to me….,” said Neely.
Her faith has also led her to change how she approaches life.
“….So, I just try to be the best person that I can be. I try to be honest. I try to be transparent now and help people and just tell my story because my story is an interesting story because we often times don’t take the time to be still and listen to our bodies and our minds and our spirits and just go within and that’s what this lesson has taught me and that’s what Christ means to me because he has taught me a discipline – a new discipline of just being still and allowing Him to use and guide me and to trust that without fear and to be more vulnerable without fear. To love without fear. To own my truth without fear,” said Neely.
Neely’s love affair with soul food, which she describes as her “backbone” and a source of peace and happiness, began in the kitchen with her great-grandmother who would teach her life lessons while she cooked – lessons about how life could change at any moment and it was okay to accept that change.
“When people talk about soul food, I don’t think of soul food as collard greens or chicken and things like that. When I think of soul food, I more so think of soul food like soul from my heart, for my spirit. I grew up around my great-great grandmother. And I guess being around more older people, they’re more wise and I use to listen to the wisdom that they spoke. When she cooked, it always felt like she was cooking and putting love in the pot. Not just ingredients, but love was going in,” said Neely. “And when she was stirring, it was like she was stirring my soul and telling me a story and just talking about life lessons and how things may go one way and turn totally another way – things that you weren’t even planning to happen….”
Things like divorces. But she’s come to terms with that and is using her experience and the process of reclaiming her life to help young girls and other women who are going through divorce and other challenges. Some of the stories she hears have broken her heart - including one where a woman called herself stupid for repeatedly going back to a man who blatantly pursued other women while in a relationship with her.
“And I just said, ‘Why do you not love yourself? First off, you’re not stupid. Don’t ever call yourself stupid. But my main question to you is, ‘Why do you not love yourself?’ because you should love yourself enough to protect yourself and not allow anyone to mishandle you.’ You know, that’s a big thing for me. You can do any[thing] but don’t mishandle me,” said Neely. “That’s all I ask. If I’m giving you my best and I’m trying to be good to you, don’t mishandle me and when you mishandle me, I lose a great interest and great respect for you.”
To women who are in the midst of divorce, she encourages them to embrace the change and learn from it.
“Yes your life is going to change and you have to be open to the change. It may not be the change that you think it’s going to be. You will fall out in the floor. I mean there’s not a day that I didn’t want to fall out in the floor and want to pull my weave out. I cried. I had so many emotions. I grieved for the love that we had more than anything. I grieved for that love because I loved that love. I love Patrick. It’s just that the love is so different now. We’re just on two different planes and I had to accept that. I had to surrender to that and let that go and just say, ‘He doesn’t get – He’s not that guy.’ That’s okay though. I mean…I can’t change him. People are who they are,” said Neely. “So, if I can’t change him, I only have the power to change me and what I want and what I can do and what I will accept and won’t accept. So we have to find the strength within ourselves and only our true selves….”
Her advice to women:
“Look in the mirror. Look at how you played the role in it – how you were accountable for it, how you enabled it. It was not just him because I played a role in this demise too. So, you have to be open and honest enough to look at yourself and ask God, ‘Ok God. Why? Why this? What am I going to do now?’ And if you could just be still. Be still for just a minute and listen to that itty bitty quiet voice that we always drown out with all kinds of crazy thoughts and everybody’s opinion and what everybody got to say and what everybody thinks. Tone all that out and listen to that voice inside of you that’s just above a whisper that’s telling you, ‘I got you. I got you,’” said Neely.
So, who is the new Gina Neely?
“The new Gina Neely is one that is open, one that is honest, one that is transparent in her authentic self. I no longer try to please everybody. I try to please me. I try to be pleasing to God but I do keep a little hood in me and I try to be a classy lady but I also try to help people. You know, I try to help people, you know, try to build up more of their self-esteem, inspire, empower and in particularly, young girls that I talk to….,” said Neely. “Do whatever you want to do. Do what’s in your heart and that will make you happy because at the end of the day, we only get one life. Some people get a do over. Some people do. But we’re not promised a do over. I got two do-overs honestly and I’m not wasting my do-overs.”
Does she have any regrets?
“….See, I sort of take things, like when things happen, you know, I think things happen for a reason. And now I can understand what Maya Angelou used to say, ‘I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey,’” said Neely. I wouldn’t. I really wouldn’t. Because my journey has taken me to a better place. I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been at peace….”
Visit Gina Neely’s website at GinaNeely.com.