Gina Neely has returned to the spotlight happier, freer and more herself than ever before.
The former star of the Food Network's "Down Home With the Neelys" disappeared from the spotlight for several years after divorcing her co-star and husband of 20 years, Pat Neely, back in 2014, but has since returned to television on Bravo's "To Rome For Love."
AOL Entertainment recently sat down with the vivacious mother of two to talk about her experience of finding herself again on "To Rome For Love," what led to her divorce and what her daughters think of everything that she's been through.
Check out our full conversation with Gina Neely below:
How are you feeling midway through the first season of "To Rome For Love"?
Right now I’m at a point where I’ve had a little self discovery, and I’m becoming more comfortable. I’m easier to speak with, and I’m able to receive things. Before, I had a little blockage up where you kind of live in your own world and don’t see how people see you. I’m opening my heart up and really becoming a whole new person! This journey for me wasn’t just about finding a man or finding love, it was really more about finding self-love and my new place in life.
That's interesting, because the concept of the show is to find love -- in the romantic sense. Did your expectations for the show change once you got to Rome?
Before it was explained as just a dating show. I didn’t know there was going to be so many women, and in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, because each woman goes through different journeys at different ages. It was almost like a camp safe haven for older women to be free and understand each other. It wasn’t like a mean girls kind of feeling -- it was more like a sisterhood, which was a big deal. Often times when we put a bunch of women together, you expect women to be catty, but everyone was so supportive. I have no idea of how my story flowed out of my body. But it was a different, more open culture that makes you want to release that.
Do you feel lighter now that your story is fully out there?
Absolutely. I'm more fun, more playful. You could say anything to me, and it’ll roll right off my back. Like, girl bye! [Laughs] After what I’ve been through, nothing is really that serious. It really isn’t.
Watch a clip from the next episode of "To Rome For Love":
And I think viewers saw that you had a sort of guard up until you were able to share your story.
My guard was also up because I didn’t know the girls. I didn’t know I was going to be with a bunch of girls that felt like my daughters. You just have to go with the flow, though. Shay, who was a chef too, she kept pushing me about my past. I thought I could be incognito, she wouldn't let that happen. [Laughs] I respected and admired that she loved me. She kept picking and picking and once she asked me, “Can I just pick your brain?” And I was like, “No you can’t!” I knew I was already kind of on the edge of loosening up, and I didn’t want people to see that part of me yet. When she got me, she just got me! That’s just the way it happens, and I was just glad that the girls were supportive and enveloped me. I think that gave viewers a chance to understand why they hadn’t seen me, and why I pulled back, really, to just gather myself and get things together.
After stepping away from the spotlight for several years, you ultimately decided to return to TV with this show. What did it take for you to be ready to come back?
For one, Italy was on my bucket list! [Laughs] Two, I just wanted to do something out of my box, out of my comfort zone. This was something that the “Old Gina” never would’ve done, or my partner would’ve talked me out of it. This Gina just wants to do things that I wanted to do in the past, but didn't. I don’t have to answer to anyone anymore, and it’s very liberating.
What did you learn about yourself from this experience?
I learned that I had spent so much time living for everybody else, that I really did lose myself and turn my back on myself. I wanted to get some of that back. I forgot my own dreams, because I never really aspired to be a restaurant owner. I was in a financial background, and it just kind of happened. I missed the laughter and the crazy Gina! I realized I wasn’t putting out that energy anymore. And, to me, if you’re not laughing in a relationship anymore, there’s a problem there.
And wat did you learn about love or dating from this experience?
I know that I’m old school. I just can’t get into all of that technology of matchmaking. And they were all doing that there! All of the girls were over there on Tinder, and I didn’t even know what Tinder was. I didn’t like that, it just seems kind of weird. I just don’t see me doing it.
See photos of Gina Neely:
Let's talk about your time on the Food Network and "Down Home With the Neelys," with your husband at the time, Pat, which you've discussed before as something that you didn't initially want or plan to do.
The first show we did was the highest rated show in Food Network history, and I was like, “Well now I’m never going to get out of this!” The train just took off. We were traveling a lot for “Road Tasting,” but I cried the first six months of that show. I had anxiety attacks, but once I got into the rhythm of it, I really liked it because it was unscripted. So I basically could just tell my grandmother’s stories and how I grew up and things like that.
You guys were one of -- if not the first -- black couples to be prominently featured on the Food Network. Did you feel the importance of that?
People internalized that and really started to see themselves through us. That’s a different thing, too, because social media wasn’t nearly as big back then, so there were a lot of blog posts attacking me personally. It was a lot, and then when we finally announced the divorce, I felt as though it was a personal attack on me, because women just came for me, saying, “He loved you so much.” And I was like, “Wow, you discovered that in 22 minutes? You’re amazing!” It just started to become too much and it was overtaking me. I was tired. It didn’t reflect my spirit.
That’s also when Food Network started going with a different concept of show -- the more competitive shows -- so that’s when “Down Home With the Neelys” and Paula Dean and such came off the air. There was no real follow-up plan, but it wasn’t as though I killed the show, which is what people think. They think that the divorced killed the show and they can’t believe I “walked away from all of that.”
You've also said that women reached out to you commending you for your bravery, though, right?
Oh, my God! When the story first broke, women were reaching out. I left with just a purse and a duffle bag! It was so crazy, because I had purchased a condo downtown not knowing why -- just as an investment. It was empty for two years. My girlfriend had offered to fix it up, and I just said, “Make it look like I’m not in Memphis, like a place away,” not knowing that that would eventually become my home. It’s like God had a plan that I didn’t know about.
And have more women reached out to you since being on "To Rome For Love"?
Yes, it’s been so amazing. I think to some degree we all sell our soul for something, and you have to decide just what that price is going to be. Some women stay for the big house, the Mercedes, the status, whoever their husbands are. But a lot of women said, “That must’ve taken a lot of courage,” and it did. I tried to leave five times. It just stuck the fifth time. I was turning 50, and I just decided it was time. And it doesn’t end at 50! There’s still so much more left.
What do your two daughters think of all of this?
They think "To Rome For Love" is hilarious! They just laugh at the other girls and I’m just like, “Just wait and see when you're older!” What I found interesting was that they told me that they wish I had left their father sooner, because I seem so much happier in life now.
That must feel pretty special to hear that from them, though.
It is, because we think we’re staying for the right reasons and for our kids to be a certain age, but often times it’s better for them to not have to see that bad energy. They didn’t necessarily see that, though, because our marriage became more like business partners. I didn’t really feel like he was my husband anymore.
Would you go onto "To Rome For Love" again?
I would! And I think I would be better at it, because I know the culture and the language better. Rome is really a place where you can get your life! They really have mastered the love-filled, stress-free life. There’s nothing better. It’s beautiful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
"To Rome For Love" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on Bravo
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