NeNe Leakes performs in Zumanity: The Sensual Side of Cirque du Soleil at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino June 27, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil

NeNe Leakes, the seldom-disputed Queen Bee of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, recently announced that, after seven seasons, she is departing the hit Bravo TV reality series that made her a household name.

Leakes, who tearfully bid farewell to the show to take advantage of the “opportunity to spread my wings and do different things,” isn’t the first reality star to leave a hit series, but her departure from the show is significant because she is often seen as a pioneer in the genre, an example of someone who parlayed what is usually 15 minutes of fame into a yearslong career.

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When Leakes was first introduced to the Bravo audience, she (and the network) weren’t very well known. She was introduced as a no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-it-is girlfriend who knew how to laugh it up and have fun.

She used volume to get her point across, and with her height, she towered over other co-stars, such as petite cast members Lisa Wu and Phaedra Parks. Her presence and strong point of view endeared her to some viewers and served as fuel to the fire for those who found reasons to dislike her.

In retrospect, Leakes was a tad rough around the edges then, compared with her season 7 persona. That’s to her credit because she was introduced as a former stripper whose dreams of acting had been deferred. Fast-forward to Leakes seven years later, and she’s in a renewed relationship with her husband, Gregg Leakes. She’s performed in Las Vegas and on Broadway after starring in two popular broadcast-TV scripted shows. She’s also started a fashion line and, while announcing her RHOA exit, has shared plans for a new prime-time TV project with a “big legend.”

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Leakes, as many of her fellow reality stars will attest, set the blueprint for how to use the platform to create and extend a brand.

Former VH1 reality star and Leakes’ bridesmaid on I Dream of NeNe Laura Govan gave the onetime Celebrity Apprentice contestant props, telling Sister 2 Sister magazine, “She’s very mothering. She’s very wise. She gives me a lot, a lot of knowledge about TV, life, being a woman, coming up in this business, what I should do, what I shouldn’t do.”

Govan said of Leakes in 2013: “I admire her as a person, as a woman.”

While she seemed to do it with ease, Leakes’ achievements aren’t the norm for reality personalities. Where are once-popular stars Tiffany Pollard, Nikki “Hoopz” Alexander and DeShawn Snow now? Leakes did what many, including a roster of former RHOA cast members, were never able to do. In fact, just her ability to remain on the series for seven straight seasons, and apparently leave on her own terms, is more than can be said for most stars who lack an executive-producer credit.

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Though she’s admired by some fellow reality divas and has paved the path to success for them, that’s not to suggest that Leakes’ legacy is all about self-empowerment. That’s definitely part of it, but she’ll also always be known for the diva moments, drama, arguments and shade she delivered for viewers.

Though she never crossed the line and engaged in any physical altercations, she came close with a wig tug here and a finger-wagging exchange there. Her antics, and those of her cast members, caused many to tune out, in fear that their behavior perpetuated negative stereotypes of minority women.

In 2014, Leakes critic Wendy Williams used her daytime platform to swear off the show. “Before the Housewives, I used to be a lot smarter, and now I find myself dumbing down. I’m not doing it anymore,” she said. “I will not watch that.”

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Despite the controversy, Leakes remained a fan favorite and continued to build her brand. She credited her success with being authentic with viewers, and she wasn’t afraid to call out cast mates she felt were too reserved and not transparent with fans.

With the possible exception of her strained relationship with her mom, which fans just recently learned of during the season 7 reunion show, Leakes has been open with RHOA viewers, and that’s one reason she’ll likely be missed when season 8 returns. Those who watched knew they were getting realness from Leakes, whether good or bad.

She’s not kissing reality TV goodbye for good, though. Leakes is reuniting with former RHOA cast member and sometime-nemesis Kim Zolciak-Biermann for a new Bravo series. The two TV besties have had their conflicts but have mended their relationship. That ability to grow and learn from past mistakes is something that may continue to draw fans to Leakes. Like all humans, she’s far from perfect, but it has been interesting watching her journey as she’s tried to become a better version of herself.

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In 2014 she tweeted, “Growth is a beautiful thing! Know when to get off a sinking ship.”

RHOA is seemingly still afloat, but for Leakes, the ship has sailed. Bon voyage.