After an eight-year hiatus, “The Real Housewives of Miami” made a historic return Thursday, featuring the first openly gay housewife to appear on any of the 15-year-old franchise’s 11 incarnations.
Former Russian model Julia Lemigova, who is married to former tennis superstar Martina Navratilova, joined the cast for the show’s fourth season, which debuted Thursday on streaming service Peacock. (NBC News and Peacock are owned by NBCUniversal.)
“Being a visible part of our LGBTQ community is quite new to me and I would not even try to pretend I am a spokesperson for it,” Lemigova told NBC News in an email. “What I am happy to be is a spokesperson for myself and my family and hope that as a family we represent our LGBTQ community well.”
She acknowledged that being a “pioneer” on such a popular television franchise comes with “a lot of responsibility” and added, “I hope I can live up to that responsibility.”
While Lemigova is not the first LGBTQ woman to appear in a “Housewives” series, she’s the franchise’s first cast member to be married to a woman.
She now joins three other queer “Housewives,” though they are all affiliated with the “Real Housewives of Orange County” series: Braunwyn Windham-Burke, who is married to a man, came out as lesbian after wrapping the show’s 15th season last year; fellow alumna Elizabeth Lyn Vargas, who is single, came out as bisexual in January; and newbie Noella Bergener, who is married to a man, revealed she is bisexual this month, during the show’s 16th season.
“Housewives” executive producer Andy Cohen, who is gay, has previously acknowledged the franchise’s lack of lesbian representation among the hundreds of women cast since its launch in 2006.
In an interview on the podcast Going to Bed With Garcelle, hosted by “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Garcelle Beauvais, Cohen said that Bravo, the cable network that airs most of the “Housewives” shows, had “almost cast several lesbians” over the years and had once considered casting a gay man, but “wound up just not doing it.” (Bravo is also owned by NBCUniversal.)
Thursday’s premiere was cemented in “Housewives” history for showcasing Lemigova’s marriage to Navratilova — who has won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time — making the pair the first same-sex couple to be featured across the franchise.
But during a confessional interview in the premiere, Lemigova reminisced on the earlier days of their relationship, revealing that the pair has come a long way from opening up their marriage to the world on reality television.
“The stigma of being gay was still there,” she said. “As soon as I stepped out on the streets, Martina would reach out and I would be like, ‘We can’t. People are watching. You can’t do that.’”
The pair met while partying during the French Open in 2000, Lemigova revealed.
“I was with friends in the club, and I did this Russian James Bond number, you know? I looked at her, I gave her a look across the bar saying, ‘You have to come and talk to me,’” Lemigova said.
Navratilova caught the message and introduced herself that night, but they went their separate ways, Lemigova said. Eight years later, to the day, the pair bumped into each other again at the French Open. But this time, Lemigova wasn’t leaving without asking Navratilova out.
“We had a breakfast the next day, and then the next day and then a third day. And then she moved in,” Lemigova said.
Although the couple is expected to raise LGBTQ visibility, Navratilova was criticized by many in the queer community after she labeled transgender athletes “cheats” in a 2019 op-ed in The Sunday Times.
Days after the publication, Navratilova apologized for using the word “cheat” but reiterated her view that transgender women should not compete in women’s sports.
Follow NBC Out on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram