Celebrity

Drama Lives For Porsha Williams

She has a new memoir, a new reality show, and a new man. Now, the former RHOA star reflects on the trauma, the drama, and the joy that got her to where she is today.

Porsha standing in a pink suit with her hands on her hips

Porsha Williams’ new love, Simon, is tucked away in a room upstairs, but I can hear his voice from above like God. When I ask her if I can speak to him — if he can offer a supportive comment for this story — Williams beams, “Oh, OK!” Then she heads up to their chambers to check. Their home in the suburbs of Atlanta is spacious and neutral; the living room overlooks a forest outside, floor-to-ceiling windows framed like a Bob Ross painting. Williams returns minutes later and reports back, “He declined,” but she says it with a gracious smile. You can presume what he’d say about her would be glowing. What does she love about him?

“Everything. Everything,” Williams had told me earlier, sitting cross-legged on a pin-tucked cream leather sectional. She’s in a sky-blue tie-dye sweatsuit, batting a thousand lashes. “I love his loyalty. I love him. He’s so romantic, and he’s a man who, when he looks at you, he’s really looking at you. He really loves me for me. Every part of me. Good, bad, ugly. He’s a true partner.”

Williams met Simon Guobadia while filming her final season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. We learned that in shocking fashion this past May when the couple broke the news of their engagement on Instagram and sent blogs and group chats into a spiral. “We are crazy in love,” Williams wrote. “I know it’s fast, but we are living life each day to its fullest.” Guobadia was then finalizing a divorce, one that Bravo viewers were familiar with: We had just seen him in scenes with his now ex-wife Falynn and Williams, setting off detective alarms on social media. Impressively, Williams continued posting about him through the chaos, awash in the glow of unbothered love.

At 40, Williams is emanating the kind of happiness you find when you finally know yourself. “The reason I’m able to be in a healthy relationship is because I’m healthier. I had to let go of certain past pains, past baggage,” she says. “When I was single, I accepted that this is what God wants right now, and I’m going to concentrate on work. I’m going to concentrate on building my relationships with my family members, spending time with my friends, and put trying to force love on the backburner. And as soon as I did that, that’s when love came my way.”

The allure of reality TV is that it doesn’t just provide camp and absurdity, but, frequently, rehabilitation for its casts — and Williams is the epitome of the genre’s power of reformation. Bravo viewers have seen her evolve from NFL wife to divorcee to activist, mother, entrepreneur, and author. Her new memoir, The Pursuit of Porsha, out today, is neither generic nor desperately salacious, and it’s not the type of celebrity memoir that reads like stilted dictations to a ghostwriter. It’d taken Williams two years to come around to the idea of putting her life in print, and once she did, she chose to frame it as a story of survival. Across 11 chapters, she reflects on traumatic incidents: bouts of childhood depression, her dad’s infidelity, and his death. She also documents a series of abusive relationships with men, including being pursued by R. Kelly.

“A lot of things I talk about in the book, I’ve never talked about before with someone,” says Williams. “It’s something that I didn’t want to do in the beginning because I knew that if I was going to do it, I was going to go all in.”

Under a stairway facing the home’s entrance is a mountain of toys, including a play slide and a pink mini-kitchen set, property of William’s 2-year-old daughter, PJ (nee Pilar Jhena), whom she shares with her ex-fiance Dennis McKinley. Naturally, Bravo captured their romance, breakup, and co-parenting on camera over the past few years, but Williams had been readying herself to leave RHOA before she announced in late September that she was quitting. “I wanted less stress in my life. And I knew that it was coming to an end of an era for me,” she says. “I no longer wanted to have that part of my life be on the show.”

But the afterlife of reality TV is often more reality TV: in this case, a spin-off, Porsha’s Family Matters, which premiered Sunday, and which, as the title implies, finds Williams and her sister, Lauren, a meditation guide, planning a family retreat. Simon is, you might guess, a big topic of discussion among them.

“We still have a lot of drama surrounding it in my family. There’s no escaping people not having all the information and reacting a certain way,” says Williams, adding that the show attempts to clear up misconceptions about their relationship. “I wanted to do it in a space where each individual in my life was able to speak on it and give background to it. Because for me, it’s a love story. It’s a beautiful love story. I’ve always been open when it comes to love. I’m a hopeless romantic, and I wanted to be honest with my supporters, be open with my love, and shout it from the rooftop. As you can see, I love to post about us.”

Memoirs allow authors to configure their narratives like a reality star in a confessional, and The Pursuit of Porsha shows unexpected contours, effectively explaining why Williams is so intent on celebrating love. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to narrate parts of her life without backup. Williams had already exorcised a few demons during the writing process with co-writer Joi-Marie McKenzie when she stepped into a booth this summer to record the audiobook at Atlanta’s LoveWork Studios. But now, a producer, her assistant, and a voice coach were in the room watching. “I realized some of those stories in there, I wasn’t able to do it. So I didn’t,” she says. Instead, she got her sister, Lauren — who’s appeared on RHOA and Porsha’s Family Matters — to recite the more difficult chapters. “I had, at this point, as an adult woman, revisited that young Porsha who had been struggling and gone through so much, and I came out of it, and I felt like I had conquered it,” explains Williams. “And then I looked at who I am today, and it made me feel really good.”

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In one of the book’s most headline-provoking chapters, Williams recounts meeting an associate of R. Kelly’s who invited her to Chicago after hearing her sing in Las Vegas. Williams was 25, an aspiring singer. She thought she’d be visiting a recording studio to meet Kelly, she writes, but was taken to Kelly’s home. Williams goes on to say that his associates led her to Kelly’s home studio, where Kelly played new music, and that someone later took her to his bedroom, where she and Kelly had a sexual encounter. Williams says Kelly denied being with his wife and encouraged Williams to take off her clothes. She writes that she returned to Kelly’s home two or three more times, always secluded in a room; the final time, she describes, she heard what sounded like a woman being beaten.

“It was me still putting a man on a pedestal, making him better than me. Making my value only be seen if he says I’m valuable. I just had to put it in there.”

“I’ll never understand how I let him lure me back to his house time and time again only to be locked away. I’ll never understand why I was afraid to leave,” she writes. “And each time I wanted to be like, ‘You know what? I’m getting out of here,’ Robert or a security guard would pop up, luring me back and convincing me to stay.”

Of course, she debated whether to even tell her story. “I wanted to make sure that I accounted for each abusive situation with a man, and I felt like if I left it out, it wouldn’t be honest,” says Williams. “I had been groomed to be in that space to even accept talking to him, being in those places.” After watching the documentary Surviving R. Kelly, about Kelly’s history as a sexual predator, Williams says she felt a duty to come forward, “especially after seeing how brave those women were and seeing people talk about those young ladies and still question them — how dare I sit over here and just be silent?”

She knows that by making her trauma public, she’s opening herself up to criticism and, even more so, disbelief. “I can’t be afraid of blowback. I’m more worried about lives. I’m more worried about young girls being taken advantage of, so if it helps even one girl, some bad comments don’t mean a damn thing to me,” she says. “For me, it was to release that trauma from me, release that part of myself. ’Cause I was a grown woman when that happened. Some women and young girls, we find ourselves in those situations, and people — predators — will take advantage of it.”

With time, she’s become more kind to her past self. “If someone knew that I was talking to him, they would be like, ‘Well, why?’” she says, referring to R. Kelly. “They wouldn’t understand that I had already been sexually abused before and that I didn’t understand these things. Now that I can see them lined up on a timeline of my life, I can see how I ended up there. At the time, I didn’t understand. Now, I can look back and say, ‘OK, this was a pattern. This was me thinking I wasn’t worthy, that he was better.’ And in that case, it just happened to be a superstar. But these other people, it was me still putting a man on a pedestal, making him better than me. Making my value only be seen if he says I’m valuable. I just had to put it in there.”

Williams’ long search for happiness began in her hometown of Decatur, Georgia, where being an introvert activated her imagination. After her parents divorced when she was 3, she lived with her mother, Diane, and her older brother Hosea, named after their father, Hosea Williams II; their grandfather, Hosea Williams, was a civil rights activist and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief field lieutenant.

Around middle school, Williams formed a singing group with two girlfriends. At 12, she would sit in her bedroom and gaze into her mom’s camcorder, pretending to host a Home Shopping Network-esque show. “I felt like I was a star. I felt like I was just beautiful,” Williams remembers. “It’s only when I left my room that I realized, oh, I’m actually really scrawny with big teeth and big eyes.”

Back then, she experienced bouts of depression but didn’t have a name for it; when she was in middle school, her mother had her try therapy. She enjoyed performing her way out of misery. By the time she attended Southwest DeKalb High School, Williams says, “My little butt had popped out.” The school’s drill team coach asked her if she could dance, and she joined the Dancing Divas squad. As a teenager, she began finding herself in abusive relationships. At that point, her dad wasn’t around, having died from a rare blood disease when she was 16.

“Holding myself accountable is a big part of who I am today.”

Williams met NFL player Kordell Stewart in her late 20s after praying to God for a husband. With Stewart, she wanted to be the perfect wife; she left her job running a day care to focus on the marriage. That’s when a friend introduced her to Bravo producers, and Williams entered the Housewives ecosystem, joining Season 5 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta in 2012. She quickly assumed a role as a whimsical, if occasionally misguided, narrator. Stewart, too, was featured prominently on the show, depicted as a controlling husband.

After their divorce, Williams decided to keep rolling as she was coping. She felt pressure to keep a partner. “I never prepped a storyline,” she stresses. “It’s not so much me feeling like I gotta find someone. It’s feeling that you’re lacking if you don’t have someone. It’s me feeling like whoever I’m dating, I have to bring them into that world, and I don’t always want to, but I feel like I have to.” She adds, “When you sign up for these shows, they want to see everything.” But not everyone shows everything, I suggest. “And they aren’t a Housewife, or they’re probably a villain of the show,” Williams replies. “Most villains don’t have to have a real storyline because they use everybody else’s.” She chuckles.

At the height of the show’s infamy, the RHOA cast could move planets off the strength of their reads. Williams herself has spearheaded some of the most unforgettable moments in Housewives canon, beginning with the driveway spat between her and Kenya Moore in the pair’s debut season. Williams had mistakenly called her Miss America instead of Miss U.S.A., and, of course, to Moore, it was the gravest insult in the world. A nemesis was born.

Viewers saw Williams at her worst in the Season 6 reunion, when she attacked Moore and was later charged with misdemeanor battery. In Season 9, Williams found herself in the crosshairs of a false rumor that Kandi Burruss and her husband, Todd, had tried to drug and assault women. The lies, started by Phaedra Parks, unraveled during the reunion, which famously led to Parks’ exile. Most recently, earlier this year, during Season 13, castmates tried to untangle the mystery of an alleged rendezvous between a then-single Williams and a stripper named Bolo during a girls trip in what unfolded like a kink-shaming Knives Out sequel.

As with most reality stars, Williams’ apologies for her actions have happened in bites and over the course of seasons. Sometimes they’re half-apologies, but unlike some of her colleagues, they are valiant attempts. “Holding myself accountable is a big part of who I am today,” she says. “If I am in a situation and I am wrong, I’m quicker to go ahead and say what I’ve done wrong to try to find a way to resolve it as opposed to point or deflect because, at the end of the day, I just want to move in love. I only deal with people who I know are meant to be in my life. I don’t have any relationships with anybody who I don’t feel their energy should be around me. That’s a good way to be, right there.”

The Real Housewives was always a job for Williams, but she began seeing the gig as more of a path toward self-awareness along the way. “Putting your business out there isn’t comfortable. There’s a part of me that was doing it just for the money,” she says. “It’s like being a salesperson. If you don’t sell, you don’t get commission. There’s no salary. And so, if they don’t hire me next season, that’s it. In the later years, I realized I had this platform and this power and this voice, and people were listening.”

Season 13 notably showed Williams participating in Black Lives Matter protests during the pandemic and self-filming her arrests. “I use my Instagram. I use my name,” she says. “So, of course, I’m going to use this show that’s been paying me all this time to amplify what was important to me.”

Bravo’s universe of socialites remains one of television’s most compelling social experiments. Cast members who make the most of the experience are never the same as when we met. As Bravo executive Sezin Cavusoglu said in Dave Quinn’s Housewives oral history, Not All Diamonds and Rosé, published last month, “Porsha’s journey is one of the most impressive journeys we’ve seen any of these women go through.” Brian Moylan, author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives, notes that part of being a Housewife is serving equal measures drama and growth. “The hard thing about reality television is that we want our characters to stay the same, particularly Housewives, and the best Real Housewives are the ones who are being themselves. The more you try to shape the narrative, the less well you come across, and eventually fans catch on to that,” says Moylan. “We’ve seen her still be Porsha, still, be funny, still be confrontational when she needs, not take anybody’s shit, but also becoming aware of what she could do with her platform and really doing a great job of that. We’re getting the consistency we need but also getting her learning, growing, and being more inspirational, and that’s why she’s one of our better Housewives.”

“I know that I’m a survivor, but I’m a survivor because I started to believe in who I am. I started to love myself more,” says Williams. “I started to see myself not through the eyes of other people, other men. I started not caring about what people spoke about me or the words that they called me. You only want to please other people so that they can call you something other than something that will hurt you. For me, it really is a whole journey about me getting my own voice. Understanding that I’m worthy. Everything I need, I have within me already.”

Williams now bakes alone time into her schedule, carving space in her calendar for when she’s at her lowest. “You know, when you wake up, and it’s like, I’m just feeling down, or you realize you’re just so sad,” she says. “It’s almost like I’m sitting there trying to think of something to be sad about, and it’s like, OK, this is some type of chemical imbalance that’s happening.”

At that point, she’ll turn off her phone and power down, maybe take a long bath or a walk. “I make time for those moments when I need to love on myself a little bit more,” she says. “In the past, I would try to work through it and then just break the fuck down. Now, I’m like, ‘Oh, I feel something. Dennis, can you take the baby?’ I just focus on me. I do something to try to pull myself out of it.”

After our interview, PJ bursts from the front door into the living room in light-up sneakers, fresh from school, a life of the party, as frequently seen on her Instagram account for nearly 400,000 followers (which Williams runs). When it comes to putting it all out there, mom is among the greatest and most complicated. The best reality stars understand the art and compromise of spectacle. They need theater to survive. Does Porsha then live for drama? She gives the question less than a second’s thought.

“Oh, I have a good time with drama,” she says with a laugh. “Drama and I have always had a good time. It’s the ups and downs of it all. That’s what makes it entertaining when it comes to reality television. But the more I have been in pursuit of Porsha, I have been so protective of my peace to where I just want to raise my daughter and be happy and have a simpler life. It doesn’t really include much drama.”

Photographer: Peyton Fulford

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