For years, when people thought of Gina Neely, they thought of a love of cooking and her husband at the time, Pat. The pair were known for their popular Food Network series, Down Home with the Neelys. And for some people, all these years later, that’s still the lens in which they see her. But time has passed and a lot has changed. Of course, her marriage has ended, she’s no longer cooking on national television, and she doesn’t even look the same. But most importantly, Gina Neely has changed as a person (in only positive ways), as have her desires when it comes to what she wants in a romantic partner. She’s sharing both “Gina 2.0” as she calls herself, and her wants in love with fans on her Bravo show, To Rome for Love. Airing on Sunday nights (at 9 p.m. EST on Bravo), the series follows a group of Black women who travel to Rome with relationship expert Diann Valentine to find a match. But Neely isn’t necessarily looking for anything serious or for another trip down the aisle. As she told us, she’s just looking to have fun with someone and enjoy life, because it’s too short to waste.
Check out our conversation with Neely about stepping back in front of the cameras for this experience, her initial reservations about dating outside of her race, and why she couldn’t pass up the chance to get back out on the dating scene in one of the most romantic cities on earth.
MadameNoire: Being on television and putting your life out there with Down Home With the Neelys didn’t have the best results in terms of the way things worked out with your relationship. So what made you decide to go the reality TV route and expose an even more personal side of your life, the quest to find love again, with To Rome for Love?
Gina Neely: Well, I think for me I had kind of reached a point in my life where I wanted to step out of my box a little bit because I had kind of just pulled in. So when the opportunity came and Bravo approached me about it, I was ecstatic. How often would you actually get a chance to go see the most beautiful country in the world and go with some other girls that you have no idea you’re going to meet? I’m all for meeting new women all of the time. And then just having the experience of dating and no one knowing you. It’s almost like you can go as an alias and get away with it. So that was the best appeal for me.
When people say reality TV, when I did Down Home with the Neelys, it was real TV because it was very unscripted and we let things flow, kind of like this show. So I guess I’ve always kind of been in this vein, but for people to see how reality TV has sort of turned a little bit, I must say I feel really good. And I feel great about the way Bravo is sort of portraying this show now, especially with so many African-American women together collectively. It’s not shown with any negative bite to it, but really showing us trying to come together, share with each other, go on this journey, open up, and just kind of reveal ourselves, which we don’t normally accustom do, with a cast like that. So I was especially proud of that. I almost feel like we’re trailblazers so to speak for Bravo in presenting a new image, a new side of Bravo.
Times have changed and interracial dating has become more common. However, a lot of people are hesitant to date outside of their race. In a recent episode, I saw and heard your reservations. Why was it important for you to get past your reservations, and how did you go about doing that?
For me to just say it, that made it very real for me. That allowed me the opportunity to try and open up to be able to receive it. But you know what? Times have changed and you have to change with them. I wanted to see what it’s like to date outside of my race and Italian men are very loving and they seem to be very easygoing, very playful, very fun, not uptight. That’s what I’ve discovered. I met a really great guy named Claudio. And I’m sure when I made that comment people might have felt some kind of way about it, but it was really more so for me, speaking it out loud. I wanted to try it out, and that was a safe format for me to try it out. The datemakers filter out people for you so you’re not just meeting someone randomly. It was a more protective environment for me to step outside of that and be ok with it.
What have you learned about yourself from watching your behaviors on the show and working with Diann Valentine?
I think the main thing I realized is that I was a little guarded. I didn’t think I was because I’m usually very open and very easy to talk with people, but I guess I had kind of shut off a little bit. So I had to kind of crank that up a little bit and get in the game. But when she said it to me I was totally surprised because I have such an outgoing personality normally, but I think when it comes to dating, I’m still a little green about it.
Speaking on that, how has it been getting back out there in your 50s and in such a changing dating scene that’s now very tech-centered?
This new ministry of all this swiping and Tinder and matchmaking and Date.com and eHarmony, I’m still old-school. I like to meet people face to face. I haven’t gotten to the technology side of meeting someone. I want to meet them face to face. I want to talk to them. I want to get their vibe. I’m a hands-on in your face person. I can’t talk to a person over the computer and ask them their interests and all of that, and then you go meet them and they have a picture where they look like Larenz Tate (who for me would be the most gorgeous man), and then when I get there, they’re looking like Urkel or something like that. I would be pissed off about that. I’m just not going to set myself up for that kind of foolishness. No, honey. Those apps? They can have them.
On the show, a cast mate named Shay was excited to pick your brain about your cooking abilities and it seemed like you weren’t fond of talking about that kind of stuff at this point. Do you still enjoy cooking or is it that, based on everything with your last marriage, your joy for being in the kitchen has been dampened?
Cooking has always sort of been my way to soothe the soul, if you will. I grew up around my great-great-grandmother cooking and that’s eventually where I learned a lot of things. So food has always been used to ease and comfort. The only thing with Shay was, she was just being so aggressive and she was very, very excited. But you have to remember, I’ve been in the game for a while so of course, now, I’ve been cooking and I still cook. People will say, “Do you still cook?” How do you think I eat? I do cook, and in a much healthier way. I’m still eating so I still cook! I still love entertaining. It was just that I was there to date. Also, I kind of wanted to get away from that world because I know that’s how people see me. I wanted everyone to see another side of Gina so they can know this new Gina, the 2.0 version, and not the old Gina so much. So that was something I really didn’t want to be seen as, in the kitchen, because that’s what people so connect me with. I want people to start knowing another side of me.
How has your way of cooking changed as you’ve been taking your health a lot more seriously and losing weight?
You can not be in your 50s and not change your diet. That ministry won’t work. You can’t keep eating burgers and fries and thinking you’re going to look cute and fabulous and trying to squeeze into that little black dress. So I definitely changed the way I cook. I eat more vegetables, more salads, colorful things on my plate. I eat fish, chicken and turkey only. No red meat. I had to change that because menopause, every now and then when that other girl wants to come out, menopause foolishness as I call it — not even “pause” because nothing is on pause with menopause. But when menofoolishness comes out, I give that little girl what she wants. If it’s fries she wants, I just surrender. I realize now that I can’t fight the battle with her because she’s going to win. When I give her what she wants we all calm down, we have a great day and the sun is out again. But yes, I’m still cooking, I’m just cooking differently and more so to accommodate me now in this phase of my life. But it’s a good phase! I’m loving 50. I don’t know why women are so crazy about 50. I love it. My spirit is still young.
Did the Italian men meet your expectations based on the stereotypes about them and Black women?
I think so. The ones I met. Ollie was great because he was a world traveler and so there wasn’t much of a language barrier. I’m getting to know Claudio and so far, I’m just letting each thing unfold and not trying to prejudge it. And not trying to base it on the men in the States but instead, putting myself in their environment, in their space and in their culture and just taking that in.
People change as time goes on, as do their desires in everything, including in love. What are you looking for when it comes to love at this stage in your life?
I think now for me, I’m looking for a gentleman much more comfortable in their own skin. They know what they want and are not afraid to speak on it. Be able to compromise. Because I don’t mind compromising and working with people, but I don’t like controlling people. But just kind of fun. I say now, if I’m not laughing a whole lot on the first date, you’re pretty much not going to get a second one, I can tell you that. It’s all about the laughter and a good time for me. I don’t want to get into too many deep conversations and get all combative and disagree. I don’t want to get into politics. I just want to have fun. I do want to have a good time because life is too short at the end of the day. You got to get it in and it’s time we start taking that into consideration and putting it in the forefront and not just looking to be worried about having families and being married. Enjoy where you are now, enjoy that moment, in that space, in that time.