Gina Neely‘s divorce from ex-husband Pat after over 20 years together gave her the strength to finally start living life on her own terms. But just because their romance ended doesn’t mean the former Food Network star has given up on love — or marriage.
“I want to find love again, love being in love,” Neely tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “I want to get married again. I love being married. I’m not against marriage and I’m not against love.”
Though she had been dating periodically in the 4 years since her divorce was finalized, Neely says it was never really a big focus in her life until she made the decision to go on the new reality series To Rome for Love.
The show, airing Sundays on Bravo, follows Neely and a group of single black women looking to give their quest for love a new approach. With the help of love expert Diann Valentine, the women are brought outside their comfort zones and introduced to eligible Italian men.
“Having someone facilitate that for me was a blessing in and of itself because it took the work off of me and put it on someone else,” Neely says. “It was kind of Godsend, in the way that it took me out of my box. Sometimes when we feel uncomfortable, that’s when we get the best results.”
Dating on reality television also allowed Neely to see things about herself that she hadn’t noticed before.
“It’s hard to look at yourself. But when you look at yourself in a place where no one knows you and it’s in an unfamiliar environment, of course it opens up all those doors and all those thoughts,” she says. “I got really angry when Diann said I was so guarded because I literally think of myself as an open spirit. But I didn’t realize that I’ve been protecting that part of me for so long that it almost became second nature to me.”
Most importantly, it gave Neely the opportunity to meet men away from the shadow of her Food Network fame.
“For me, being a public persona, I was always wondering, ‘Was a man was dating me for who I was? Was there an agenda? Did he want to be seen with me? Am I arm candy?’ ” Neely recalls. “Whereas when I was in Rome, nobody gave a damn. Nobody cared. I could be free and open and just be Gina.”
As for the language barrier, she got over that quickly. “Sometimes we have that language barrier in the states. Just trying to communicate with men as a whole, there’s a language barrier! I kind of realized that’s a common thread!” she jokes. “I kind of laughed about it. Because at the end of the day, you just want a person who can admire you.”Viewers will have to keep watching To Rome for Love to find out if Neely finds that person who can admire her. There’s one thing for sure: if she does, he’ll have to fit her criteria.
“I need a man that’s comfortable in his skin and not threatened by a woman with a big personality,” she says. “He’s okay and very open to talk about anything he is feeling, no matter how uncomfortable it makes either one of us. He knows how to laugh and enjoy life — something I learned a lot from my time in Rome. They really understand the whole thing about stress levels. The whole city shuts down for happy hour and you mingle and have a good time. I want someone who is going to be open to that quality of life.”