I approached NeNe Leakes in the lobby of “Zumanity.” She sat tall in her latex costume and Christian Louboutin heels. We were surrounded by a phalanx of “Real Housewives” cameras, microphones and crew workers.
“Hi,” she said to me, flashing a winning smile. Her NeNe charm glowed brightly.
NeNe spoke to a woman in tow.
“This is a long day, Susan. You keep that energy going, because after this, we’re headed to the strip club,” NeNe said, stressing the word “strip.” “You gonna work the pole, honey. You gettin’ tips tonight.”
The reason for this press day: NeNe (with her 1.5 million Twitter followers) is the first guest star to get billed in a Cirque show. Starting Friday, she portrays the “Mistress of Sensuality,” a drag-queen emcee, in “Zumanity,” the fun show deemed naughty by Midwestern standards (but cute-and-pretty by crazier Vegas standards).
I sprung a surprise on NeNe: I told her we went to the same high school, Clarke Central, in Athens, Ga. I was in the class of ’84; she was in the state football championship year of ’85.
“Stop lying!” she said, happily. “We should’ve known each other.”
We should have. We lived close to each other. We remembered the same teachers.
“So you know Mr. Kidd? I loved Mr. Kidd,” she said. “Rev. Billups, he taught me science, and he was my pastor; he baptized me and everything.”
“And here we are ruling Las Vegas with an iron fist,” I said, a joke obviously.
“Yeah, can you believe that? That’s amazing!” she said.
“What did Clarke Central teach us that made us what we are?” I said, an oversimplified but valid proposition.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this,” NeNe said, referring to her happy husband, Gregg (who stood behind me and referred to his Georgia roots: “I’m a peach”).
“There are a lot of people out of Athens, Ga., that are successful,” NeNe said.
That would include NeNe, Phaedra Parks and former NFLer Chuck Smith from “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” REM, the B-52s, Widespread Panic, Kim Basinger, Fran Tarkenton, and a nation-state’s amount of athletes.
“Because it’s a small town, there isn’t a whole lot to get into, so it forces you to play basketball, to cheer, to be a part of theater, to join a pageant, to be a Girl Scout.
“The only place to hang out is the Dairy Queen, you know what I’m saying?”
I do. (And for you longtime readers: New Orleans was my home, but my family, we were in Athens for a while, too.)
I told NeNe honestly she came across as a stage natural during a press preview of her “Zumanity” gig.
“When they sent me my script, I was about to lose my mind, because I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to accomplish all of this.’ But I think I have something inside of me that maybe everybody doesn’t have. I conquer. Some way, somehow, I conquer.”
She said the show’s cast and crew helped her greatly.
“This show is not for people who don’t have a work ethic. You have to be a worker bee. You have to be strong. You have to be easy to work with. That’s what a lot of people don’t know about me,” she said.
“I just do what they say. If they say go left, I go to the left. If they say go right, I go to the right.”
When crew members ask her what she needs, she thinks, “I don’t need a whole lot. I do need my check. That’s about it,” she said.
“I have an inner drag queen. I know how to let her out every now and then. I do have a big personality. I am sassy.”
We wrapped up. She gave me a high-five. I reminded her how a P.E./sex-ed teacher used to motivate us by saying, “You can be anything; you’re a gladiator!”
“It sounds so cliche, but actually, after you start accomplishing things, you really can,” NeNe said.
“My aunt used to tell me, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ I used to think to myself, ‘You can’t be Janet Jackson.’ ”
“Now you’re probably more popular than her,” I said.
NeNe gave me another Athens high-five, with a twist at the end, and she spoke an old Athens sass I haven’t heard in a long time:
“I didn’t say that, but you did.”
Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.