"Real Housewives of Miami" star Julia Lemigova and her wife, tennis superstar Martina Navratilova, made "Housewives" history last week by becoming the first same-sex couple to be featured on the reality television franchise turned cultural phenomenon.
On the debut of season four Thursday on the streaming service Peacock, the former Russian model opened up about her yearslong struggle with being public about her sexuality and her relationship with Navratilova, long before opening the world to her life on national television. (NBC News and Peacock are owned by NBCUniversal.)
But in an interview with NBC News, Lemigova revealed that standing hand-in-hand with Navratilova — who is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and is one of the world’s most visible LGBTQ athletes — was not what made Lemigova feel comfortable in her own skin. Instead, it was the support from her daughters.
"When I saw my two girls standing up to their friends and saying, 'Yeah, we have two moms,' and I saw them, and it's like, 'Oh my god. My girls came out faster than me!' And then it was like, 'Boom, boom.' I never, ever looked back," Lemigova said.
Lemigova’s two daughters — Victoria, 21, and Emma, 14 — are from two former relationships prior to Navratilova, whom she started dating in 2008.
"It just happened, and I needed some push. I needed some support," she added. "It's so important for anybody when you have your family, whether it's your kids or your parents or loved ones — just supporting you and helping you."
And in less than a week since the show's season premiere, the former Miss USSR said that the "overwhelming" response from viewers seeing her marriage on-air "melts my heart completely."
"I am thrilled of creating this relationship with my fans, and with people in general, and shine the light on our life, how we live —again, love has no gender — and normalize what should have been normal, that is normal," she said.
On top of her new fans, Lemigova said that family members living in Russia, where LGBTQ rights are severely limited, have also been supportive of the pair's on-screen romance.
"In Russia, you don't really talk about these subjects," she said. "And they're calling me and supporting me, and they're saying how much they think it's great that we're doing it and congratulating me."
Lemigova is one of a number of recent "Housewives" firsts. While she and Navratilova are the first same-sex couple to be featured, the franchise has had other LGBTQ cast members.
Three other queer “Housewives” have appeared on the franchise, 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.
And in 2019, actress Garcelle Beauvais became the first Black woman to star on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” when she joined the show’s 10th season on Bravo (Bravo is also owned by NBCUniversal). In an emotional scene in the latest season, Beauvais revealed that she has felt out of place as the show's only Black cast member and tearfully said to her co-stars, "I walk into a room all the time and I always have to prove myself. Have you guys ever walked into a room and felt like you're the only one that's different?"
When asked if she resonated with Beauvais' experience while filming on "The Real Housewives of Miami," Lemigova said "not at all."
"I never, ever felt less off or different when we were all together," she said. "I always feel if you feel strongly and positively about yourself and who you are and the love you're spreading, the others, in my mind, will kind of pick up on your positive energy and will react to you the same way."
Although Lemigova and her marriage are expected to raise LGBTQ visibility, Navratilova has been 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.
On her wife's controversial remarks, Lemigova told NBC News that she stands by her wife, adding that it is not her "role" to weigh in on "such a complex issue."
"Being a visible part of our LGBT community is quite new to me, so I'm not even going to begin that I'm a spokesperson for the community," Lemigova said. "But what I can say is that I'm happy to be a spokesperson for my family and for myself, and I hope that as a family, we represent the community well."
"With that comes so much responsibility," she added. "My heart is there. I just hope I will be good enough to do that, but I am one million percent in."