"They asked me in December , and I made the decision in January, February and I didn't tell a soul," Heather confesses to ET of rejoining RHOC. She left the show in 2016 at the end of season 11, her fifth as a cast member. News of her return casting, though, didn't break until June 2021.
"I'm a vault," she proclaims. "I didn't even tell my mother, nobody."
Heather chose not to come back for season 12 (for which she was reportedly offered a "friend of" role) after seeing the turn of sorts the show was taking, a deviation from the "aspirational" lifestyle that was a hallmark of Heather's original run. Season 11 saw the addition of Kelly Dodd, an outspoken, unfiltered personality who became a controversial figure in the Housewives universe almost from the jump. One of her first group interactions went down at an ill-fated sushi dinner, where she invoked the c-word and elicited a now-iconic phrase from Heather: "This is low, base bulls**t!"
When Bravo announced Heather would rejoin the show, it came in the same breath as the announcement Kelly would no longer be a part of RHOC. Some fans quickly theorized Heather gave the network an ultimatum during her negotiations: Me or her.
"I love how people think I'm so powerful," Heather quips. "Like, if I were that powerful, what could I really do with it? No, I mean, what I would say is, when I left the show, the show was going in a different direction. And when they called me to come back on the show, it was very clearly defined what the trajectory of the show was going to be, and what they were hoping for, and where I would fit into that. So I was very confident that it was a good time for me to come back."
Cut to Heather's first all-cast event back, a party at her Newport Beach mansion (affectionally named Chateau Dubrow), which took an immediate turn for the worse after a years-old malpractice case between Heather's husband, plastic surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow, and new cast member Nicole James came to light thanks to Gina Kirschenheiter... who received the information second-hand from Shannon Beador off-camera. After the decades-old lawsuit (which was dropped) came out on camera, Heather stormed off and declared on a mic, "I'm leaving the show right now."
"Oh, I was out," Heather says when pressed on if that was a real "I quit" moment or just a hyperbolic reaction. "I couldn't believe it. I felt betrayed. I felt blindsided. And I thought it was so surreal. I mean, really, so surreal. It's not that I didn't think things would happen during the season, but that-- especially at the top of the season, especially at the first party at my house, when it's like, get to know ya? I thought maybe something petty -- maybe. Never could I have imagined that in a million years, which is why truth is stranger than fiction. I just was literally so blindsided. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I made a mistake. This was a mistake.'"
"The only time I've ever taken off a microphone before was at that fateful sushi," she notes, referencing the "low, base bulls**t" event from season 11. "Maybe I shouldn't have sushi dinners with the cast. Maybe we should cross off cakes and sushi with the cast in my repertoire." (Superfans will remember a decorative bow-breaking/cake-eating incident involving a woman named Sarah Winchester from Heather's first season).
Upstairs and away form the cast and crew, Heather broke down the blindside with Terry... and then with producers.
"There were several conversations," she recalls. "But the reason why we came back out was because Terry looked at me and he said, 'Where's Nicole? Is she OK?' And I said, 'I don't know.' And then I thought, oh my god. I left her to fend for herself. This poor woman whose personal information has now been spread-- I brought her on the show and now I've left her with all these women? I have no idea what's going on. And we were like, 'Oh my gosh, we need to find Nicole and make sure she's OK.' That's what brought us out."
The Dubrows reemerged downstairs and found Nicole balled up, bawling by herself in Heather's office. At the time, Heather says she was not thinking about making a TV show; for all she knew, she was sticking to quitting and this footage would never see the light of day. She simply wanted to check in on her friend, cameras or not.
"You see that Terry and I went over to Nicole, and both of us just felt so terrible and she was so sweet and she felt so bad, and we all hugged and we were fine," Heather explains, saying in that moment she realized she was OK to continue filming the show.
"What happened was, when I started putting all the pieces together about why this happened, all of a sudden I realized, 'Oh, this is someone that is trying to hurt me and my family,'" Heather shares of her thought process. "I'm walking away without this person being exposed and this situation being exposed. And so, I think once I realized all that I could calm down and see a path forward."
Heather ended the night with a heated confrontation with Shannon, the only woman on the season 16 cast who was around during Heather's initial time as a Bravo 'Wife. It was a bit of history repeating itself, Heather asking Shannon to leave her home; the first time this occurred was in season 9, Shannon's first on the show. In her press run for season 16, Heather has repeatedly teased there's behind-the-scenes information about the original incident that's never come out.
"I feel like I've looked bad for that moment for many years and there's more of a story behind it," she says. "And it made what happened this season for me so much worse."
Heather tells ET she actually spoke about whatever that fourth-wall breaking intel is during her conversation with Shannon, but it didn't make the final episode cut. She's now holding onto it to expose at the reunion; just two episodes into the season, Heather is already keeping a list of things she plans to bring up at the cast sit-down with Andy Cohen (which won't film for months). Next on her list is how Shannon even recalled Nicole's lawsuit in the first place. According to Shannon, she knew Nicole some 16 years ago, and was only friendly with her for about two weeks. At that time, Shannon did not know of Heather nor Terry, and Terry was not yet a "TV doctor." The Botched star had likely appeared as a surgeon on the makeover show The Swan by that point, but that's it.
"It is like, well, why do you remember that?" Heather ponders. "And why would you bring that up? I mean, Terry wasn't famous ... and we certainly didn't have social media or anything like that. So it does seem odd that she would remember this information. And it does make you wonder, because look: There's been plenty of people on this show that like to dig up information about new people, about returning people. Like, that's never been-- I just don't like that kind of thing. But remember, karma gets you in the end, right?"
Shannon maintains she never meant for this Nicole-Terry lawsuit to make it on TV. She brought it up off-camera to Gina and Emily Simpson, the only two women on the cast who survived the season 15 shake-up alongside her. Shannon claims to have entered a pact with the duo not to bring it up on the show, but Gina says that pact was made under false pretenses. She and Emily didn't know the secret involved Heather before they agreed not to discuss it, and they said "yes" before they even met Heather. The fact that Heather spoke so highly of Nicole set off red flags for Gina, who ultimately opened Pandora's box.
"Here's what I think: I think that when you've been on the show for eight years, that you know how things work, and there is no 'off camera,'" Heather says of Shannon sharing the information. "Yeah, there's things you can put in the vault, but kids and careers are always off the table -- always -- and this, in a way, was sort of both. And there were so many ways that this could have been fixed and handled, and there were so many opportunities to do so. Even more than you see -- which will come up at the reunion -- that at some point, it feels intentional."
Gina gave Shannon the opportunity to address the would-be issue head-on with Heather before it blew up, but Shannon passed, sticking to having no intention of bringing this up on RHOC. Heather says she felt like a "dummy" when she watched back that moment, which played out when she stepped away from a lunch date with the women to use the restroom -- and adds she wishes Shannon would've listened to Gina in the moment, or taken the opportunity at another time.
"[She could've] said it when we went to coffee together, said it when we were on the phone together, said it in a text message," Heather rattles off. "I mean, the list just goes on and on and on. And then, you see, she told me that [Gina and Emily] were not to be trusted. So if you have two people that aren't to be trusted, why would you then trust them with this very, very sensitive information?"
Heather calls the fallout and recovery from this drama bomb with Shannon "fascinating."
"I want you to see how it plays out, honestly," she says. "I don't want to give it away. But I think it's sort of interesting how it plays out, and how and if we're able to move forward, and in what capacity and where that leads."
Heather is seemingly taking Nicole's side in all of this, and doesn't appear to believe Nicole had any ill intent in keeping her past legal action against Terry under wraps. As Nicole said in the moment with the Dubrows, she was young and pressured by attorneys to sue Terry over a complication from her breast augmentation. She ultimately withdrew the suit, and it would be nearly a decade before she and Heather became acquainted socially through girlfriends.
"I really felt like she either thought we knew and didn't want to discuss it, or we didn't know, and she didn't want to bring it up," Heather surmises. "I mean, this is probably a bad analogy, but you know when you meet someone and you can't remember their name, but now you've met them so many times, it's like it's too late to ask and you have to ask someone else? I feel like we just became friends and maybe that ship sailed, and then we were good and she didn't want to bring it up. And [she] probably naively didn't think that anything like that-- I mean, it was so long ago, and it was dropped. And so to her, it was like in the past."
"I felt so bad for her," Heather admits. "Because No. 1, it's her personal medical information. Which, it's defamatory to spread other people's medical information. And No. 2, I felt like, everyone's allowed to have a restart. And ... she loves Terry so much. And she said such lovely things, even more than they showed that night, and how horrible for her to then come on the show and be blindsided and... I just feel terrible about it."
Nicole was reportedly set to be a full-time cast member for season 16, but evidently opted out of the experience after her bumpy start with the women. It didn't lay great groundwork for anyone to get to know each other that well.
"Because that first party went so south, I really didn't get to know Noella [Bergener] or Jen [Armstrong] or Emily, really, at the party at all," Heather says, before diving into her rumored rocky relationship with newbie Noella. The season trailer hints at friction between the two after Noella seemingly gifts Heather's daughter, Max, pornography.
"I probably only saw Noella three times in the first three or four weeks of filming," she adds. "Now with Jen, I got to know her a lot quicker because some of my other girlfriends that were at the sushi party were hanging out with her and they were like, 'She's so cool. You're going to love her.' So I made a date to go hang out with her, and she and I became friendly. With Noella, I didn't know her. And then her life started imploding -- which I feel terrible about -- but then we ended up meeting up and things didn't go well. And so, that's kind of how we started not great."
Viewers will soon see Noella navigate a separation from her husband, attorney "Sweet James" Bergener, in the wake of secret financial trouble that becomes public fodder. There also may be more to the story of the lost love (or even lack of love) between her and Heather judging by what Heather teased as the hardest part of returning to life as a Housewife.
"I guess the thing for me is, if someone tells an untruth about someone -- if someone tells a lie about you -- if someone is lying about you, there's nothing you... it's so difficult to navigate that kind of thing, because there's always going to be a faction of people that believe the lie," she says. "So I have a hard time dealing with that kind of thing. And the show just is physically and emotionally exhausting. It just is."
Overall, though, it seems the good outweighed the bad this time around (despite the start of the season). Heather says knowing what she was getting herself into (to an extent) helped ease the pressure, and she was excited to share her family with an audience who really watched her kids grow up. In fact, Heather goes so far as to say it was her children -- twins Max and Nicky, 18, Katarina, 15, and Coco, 11 -- who inspired her to change her answer about returning to RHOC from "never say never" to "probably not" to, "Let's do it."
"We had a family meeting about it, and this is really what it came down to for me: Yes, it's an incredible platform. I'm cognizant of that. But I mean, it wasn't really about fame or money or anything like that," Heather says. "Because I really felt like I had checked the box ... and I didn't feel like there was unfinished business there. I really felt like I had done the show well, I left well, and I was in a good place."
"But when Max came out a couple years ago as bisexual, I mean, honestly we were flooded with comments," she continues. "Really loving, supportive comments, and also really tragic messages from families who were estranged from their children, who were estranged from their parents, whose children had taking their own lives because they didn't have a safe place to come out. And it made me so sad and I thought, OK, well here I am. I've got these four kids. They're different genders, different sexualities and all trying to figure out where they are in the world. And wouldn't it be cool if we could show our family, and the conversations we have and how we parent? Not that we're perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but how I mother, how we parent, how Terry and I talk about these things, and how our children talk about it. And maybe start those conversations in other people's homes."
"I really think that the personal stories are so good," she says of what's still to come this season. "And I can't wait for everyone to see my kids more, and hear them talk, and see where they are in their lives. It's cool."