Noella Bergener on Her Journey to Join 'RHOC,' Beefing With Heather Dubrow and Her Divorce (Exclusive)

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Noella Bergener isn't just a Real Housewife. She's also a Real Housewives superfan.

"I think it's the kiss of death to admit this, but I'm all honest all the time, so why stop now? Of course!" the Real Housewives of Orange County season 16 newbie confesses to ET over video chat. "I watched every single episode of every single season of almost every single franchise. I love Bravo. I love the show. I'm not ashamed to admit that. I don't understand why that's a bad thing to admit."

"But I also am a human being who's able to meet people and get to know them," she adds in her defense. "So that's why I can easily say that I'm shocked that Shannon [Beador] and I bonded so quickly, because obviously when you see people in a certain format, sometimes it can change your opinion of them. But every single woman that I met -- every single conversation that I had -- all the relationships that were forged, they were sincere. I think that you can see that, and if people are struggling to see that, I don't think they're seeing what I'm seeing because it really was coming from my heart and really is genuine."

Much has been made of how Noella made her way onto RHOC. Her estranged husband, James Bergener, claimed on Instagram last year that Noella became obsessed with being on the show and essentially chose it over their family. Noella's marriage imploded in the early weeks of filming season 16, James serving her with divorce papers from Puerto Rico after news broke that he was in some sort of financial distress, reports of tax issues popping up on "the blogs" (as their known in the Housewives realm).

"This is definitely not what I thought I was signing up for. If I had any inclination this would be it, I never would've done this," she says. "If [James] sat me down and said, 'Listen, I love you. We're going to figure this out, but I cannot, for optics, be on the show. Are you in or out?' That's no brainer. This is my family. This is my priority. That's my life's work. Forget the show."

Still, former stars (like Tamra Judge) say she'd been trying to get casted for years, citing her buddying up to OG of the OC Vicki Gunvalson when she was a Housewife, then becoming besties with Braunwyn Windham-Burke

"So the truth is, Vicki actually did [James'] insurance," Noella explains. "Somebody from casting reached out to me for the show, and I squealed and said to my mom, 'This is amazing.' I told my husband, and he would talk to Vicki about it, and [Vicki's then-fiancé, Steve Lodge], and we traveled with them often. So this was something that he was very aware of. We did our due diligence, we knew other couples, we were good friends with Braunwyn and [and her husband] Sean."

After years of going through the process, Noella finally secured her orange -- but it seemingly came at the cost of her friendship with Braunwyn. Their relationship played out fast and furious, but fizzled when Braunwyn was let go from the show

"I'm hoping that the friendship isn't completely gone, so I don't even want to put out there to the universe on what the demise for that time was, but it timed out when I found out that I was going to [be on RHOC]," Noella shares. "It was that same time that I had some trust issues with Braunwyn, and it's really just between us. I know we're signing up for this show, but she's not on it. I feel it's only fair that she and I have a sit down and have a conversation about it before I tell everybody else, because that's what you do. So I have a lot of love for her. I love her family. Sean and James were best friends. So I've not given up on it. I'm hoping that there will be a day that we could reconnect. It's just right now, timing is everything."

With Braunwyn no longer a viable entry point for Noella in the group, Noella joined RHOC by way of her close friend, Nicole James -- another newcomer who came to the show through Heather Dubrow, the veteran orange-holder who returned for season 16 after stepping away from the show in 2016. Nicole was set to be a full-time cast member, but parted ways with RHOC midway through filming; many rumors are floating about the reasons why, but Nicole has never confirmed any specific reason herself.

"When the built-in support system turns on you, you're OK with their departure," Noella offers of Nicole's exit, which came in the aftershocks of a surprising reveal at the first all-cast event: That Nicole once sued Heather's husband, plastic surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow, over a botched boob job some 20 years ago.

Nicole James and Noella Bergener on The Real Housewives of Orange County
Nicole Weingart / Bravo

Heather threatened to quit the show over the reveal, creating a domino effect of drama that's reverberated through the first six episodes of the season. Noella alleges Heather and Terry attempted to muzzle Nicole, begging her not to speak about the lawsuit and add any fuel to the fire of this would-be storyline. For what it's worth, the lawsuit was dropped -- and Nicole explained the whole thing away as a decision she was forced into as a young model.

"At some point she crossed over to the dark side," Noella says of Nicole, alleging Heather and Terry got in her ear the night of the party, which led her to shut down any attempt Noella made of discussing the matter. However, Noella says the two found their way back to each other after filming wrapped. 

"I think her treatment by the person who was in her ear, and seeing that that was the actual fake friendship and seeing that that was the manipulation, that that was the thing that was actually toxic, and her being able to see that for herself, I think that was it," Noella explains, never referencing Heather by name, but it's more than safe to assume that's who she's referencing.

"I've never been anything but a great friend to [Nicole] for years," she adds. "I kept telling her how this doesn't sound right, this doesn't feel right, you need your own voice, you need to be yourself. And she just wasn't... she couldn't hear it."

Noella suggests that in the chess game of making a reality show, Nicole essentially chose Heather over her. That translated to TV as a very uncomfortable drinks date for the pair; Noella broke down in tears and made a bit of a scene at a waterfront restaurant, as Nicole struggled to comfort her and repeatedly asked her to pull herself together so they could leave.

"I mean, really what we see is a girlfriend being embarrassed that her girlfriend's drunk in public and wanting to get me into a car and get me home safe, that's really it," Noella says in Nicole's defense. "I don't consider that a bad friend. I really don't."

Nicole James attempts to get Noella Bergener out of a restaurant before she makes a scene on The Real Housewives of Orange County
Bravo

"I see what the viewers do see, but there was no malice," she says. "And as you see [in that moment], I finally just break down my wall and say, 'Listen, you have a story to tell and you need to tell it.' I don't even remember ever saying it -- thank God for tequila -- but that's really what all I've been wanting to say to her for those, like, two weeks that we've really not been in a good space is like, 'Why are you letting somebody else control your narrative, your voice, your story? Let's all look what I'm going through in my life. If I can do it, so can you.'"

All of these feelings about Nicole being silenced by Heather led Noella to label her co-star a "fake b***h," a comment that boomeranged back to bite the model when Nicole passed it along to Heather. Soon after, the Heather Dubrow's World host also heard from co-star Gina Kirschenheiter that Noella warned her not to trust Heather.

Heather then called a meeting to hash things out with Noella, where she attempted to walk back the "fake b***h" label -- despite still feeling that way about her castmate. (Note: this interview was conducted before Heather and Noella launched into a social media war of receipts over filming this conversation.)

"I was tap dancing on ice for that, you see that," Noella says of trying to play down the comment. "I try so hard to just make peace. I didn't want to talk about it. I felt ick. This is a woman's husband, her children, her family, this is somebody I really looked up to. So I didn't want to touch it. I really didn't. And it wasn't really, I felt even, my place to bring stuff up."

"I was observing it," she says of finding Heather to be untrustworthy. "I was telling Gina, 'Just heads up. I think this person's more interested in recruiting soldiers than genuine friendships, just be wary, just be...' because Gina's a really openhearted sweetheart of a girl. And so, I was trying to give heads up to people that I knew could potentially get hurt, but at the same time, not divulge Heather's secrets, because it wasn't my place."

Noella says she feels like Heather never made space for her to be seen as an equal. 

Noella Bergener and Heather Dubrow share a tense moment on The Real Housewives of Orange County
Nicole Weingart / Bravo

"We never could walk together because she insists on walking ahead of everybody," Noella says. "She doesn't want to walk together. She doesn't want to hold hands. This doesn't feel as if we're friends in a friend group that are 'kumbaya.' It feels more like there's queen Heather, we're in the court, and quite honestly -- initially -- I was down for that. I was cool with that, because it was like, 'Oh my gosh, like I'm geeking out!' Like, I love Heather. So I was all about that, and then things happen..."

Those "things" were set in motion during that fateful chat in Heather's home podcast studio, as Noella alleged Heather shoved someone into a wall during the immediate aftermath of the lawsuit reveal at that first party. Heather has denied this accusation, laughing when Noella brought up the alleged incident, which has never been shown onscreen. In the reality TV world, that implies it did not happen; the show has, however, aired Heather tersely telling production members to stop filming, placing her hand across the lens of a camera. 

"Maybe they're waiting for her to just be honest," Noella quips when asked why the shoved-against-a-wall moment wouldn't be shown on TV. "I mean, something that would be very smart would just be like, 'You know what? I was protecting my husband, my brand, my business, and frankly, it's nobody's business, and maybe I blacked out and crossed a line, but keep my name out of your mouth.' That I can respect. And that's all I was really wanting to hear."

"I would've been very happy with, 'Let's never talk about this topic again, it's none of your business,'" she continues. "But the fact that she's calling me psychotic and a liar, and apparently I need to go home and take care of my children and my mental, emotional wellbeing? Because I'm... unless I view her as perfect I can't be friends with these women? It has to come out now."

Noella is doubling down, teasing more to be revealed in the coming weeks: "Something shady happened in [Heather's] subterranean and it is discussed amongst the ladies. And it is something that some of us had heard, and it is something that was a pretty crazy story that was confirmed by various people."

The cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County season 16
Bravo

Not surprisingly, Noella spreading what Heather says are lies about her only hurt their chances of a friendship. Heather froze Noella out of the first cast trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, which she was hosting.

"It was very weird, but I understood why," Noella laments. "I completely understand why I would be disinvited by our hostess. But yeah, Cabo gets very complex."

As teased in scenes for this week's episode, Noella does wind up on the trip (it seems Heather reached out to her once the rest of the women were south of the border), where more drama unfolds. As first seen in the season trailer, Heather confronts Noella over providing pornography to one of her children, presumably her eldest daughter, Max, with whom Noella bonded over both being bisexual.

"I was invited and I thought that it would, at that point, be rude, and I was hopeful that this would was a good step in the right direction. Oh was I wrong..." Noella offers, going on to deny the porn gifting allegation.

"Shockingly, Heather used her words incorrectly and she put out a very salacious and somewhat criminal allegation because she kind of needed to get up something more salacious than shoving people against walls," she fires off. 

Heather's not the only RHOC castmate with whom Noella got off on the wrong foot. She also started on rocky ground with fellow new 'Wife Dr. Jennifer Armstrong. When Jen asked Noella for a chance to touch base and check in on her at a party thrown by castmate Emily Simpson, the conversation devolved into a bizarre battle over Jen tagging Noella in a promotional post for her medical practice on Instagram.

"No, I did not get furiously upset with her because she tagged me in a post," Noella admits. "It's weird -- it's definitely weird -- but it's not end of the world scorched earth kind of stuff."

"There was something more to the story," she reveals. "I'm hoping at some point we see it, because it's very valid, and it was very damaging, and it was very real. It's something that happened when I met her at Braunwyn's house, and there are many witnesses to it. So yes, unfortunately because it's that fourth wall [breaking] stuff -- man, it's that fourth wall stuff that just gets you!"

Dr. Jennifer Armstrong holds court with her The Real Housewives of Orange County co-stars
Nicole Weingart / Bravo

"There was something that she did to hurt me and potentially my family a year ago, before we were at Emily's house that lovely evening," she alleges. "She put words in my mouth that I never said."

Noella promises to bring up Jen's alleged comments at reunion if they don't play out on the show before that day. Noella also claims Jen feigned concern for her only to secure screen time, never reaching out to her when cameras weren't around. She points to a group gathering at Jen's house where the women discussed the state of Noella's marital problems as further evidence of Jen attempting to create "artificial" drama.

"She doesn't like me," Noella says of Jen, who's labeled Noella a bully. "She doesn't want the other girls to like me so she's playing dumb, or not playing-- she's just dumb."

"The fact that she just sits around, collects information to use against me, and then tries to get a cabal of women together who I'm just meeting -- these are new relationships -- and she's actually, technically, known me the longest in the friend group," Noella rattles off, "and here she is spreading just lies -- that she knows are lies -- for the sake of hearing her own voice?! I think that's more bullying than anything that I ever gave to her. I mean, all I've told her was that she was a rude little girl, and in that moment she was a rude little girl."

Judging by the mid-season trailer, there is still much to play out between Noella and the other women -- as well as more to the story of Noella's divorce. Months after filming wrapped, Noella says she and James are close to a settlement, and once it's signed she'll likely be unable to discuss anything about their marriage and its end. Until then, she's a wildly open book. 

"Either you believe me or you don't, you know what I mean?" Noella says. "I've got all the receipts. I kind of don't want to go there. I've done little things on social, little text message-y kind of things. But I mean, there's some really big ticket things. This is the father of my child. I do think that this day will be over. I can't cross that line because it's just, you can't go back."

Noella and James' relationship has turned into a he said/she said battle, largely playing out over social media in the past month after James debuted a series of videos on Instagram on Christmas Eve ("He didn't even send our son a gift," Noella alleges. "He spent more time opening up his very first Instagram at 50."). 

For every point one of them makes, the other issues a counter-point. Noella says she has only spoken to James over text since he filed for divorce, and it's largely been logistical communication. She claims he shut off her access to credit cards and stopped paying bills; James says he's provided more than base financial needs for Noella and their son, James, Jr., who lives with autism and requires special care. James, Jr. doesn't appear on RHOC at James, Sr.'s request -- Noella's daughter from a previous relationship is also not on the show at her father's request.

In James' retelling of Noella becoming a Housewife, he alleges she chose the show over their family. Noella in turn claims James (who runs the Sweet James accident/injury attorney operation) is the one who pushed her to do it.

"The irony of the fact that I really went gung-ho into the show and really put down those walls and showed everything purely because it was the only thing getting me out of bed and giving me that self-esteem, and giving me that reassurance and giving me all these things," she reflects. "I had no husband all of a sudden, and my purpose and my life had just bailed on me, you know? So all of a sudden this show really became a lot of things that were probably unhealthy, but made for great TV."

Noella refutes James' entire story about her journey to the show, claiming he was the one who really wanted to be a part of it. 

"He knew what this whole experience was," she says. "So it wasn't like I was like, 'Oh babe, there's this thing and I'm going to do it at all costs...' It was a very communal conversation. ... We would discuss ways that this would benefit his brand, his business, his office. I had no desire to create some business to plug on the show."

"The first time I spoke with Heather and Terry privately, I said, 'We were going to steal your blueprint,'" she recalls, seemingly referencing how the Dubrows capitalized on Heather joining RHOC to create an entire brand built around themselves: Terry was able to launch the plastic surgery makeover show Botched, the couple developed a line of beauty products and wrote a series of books. 

"We were going to come on and then boost him up, and his business up," Noella claims. "So, that was always the plan. That was the plan up until the day he took his toothbrush and left the house -- and still to this day, hasn't told me why he left or what happened to the plan."

James claims he and Noella relocated to Puerto Rico amid the coronavirus pandemic, and that she only returned to their (rented) Newport Beach mansion to film RHOC

"So that's a good, big, long nose moment," Noella fires back, drawing her finger out from her own nose, a la Pinocchio. "So the house that you see us film in is the house that we live in."

"This is our main residence," she adds, showing the home off over Zoom. "If I were to walk you through James' closet right now, there's about a quarter million dollars worth of suits and shoes. When I said that he left with his toothbrush, I mean exactly that. This is our main residence. His Porsche is downstairs in the garage. His life is here. His family's here. This is where we go to our doctor's appointments, and his legal practices, his offices, where he's practicing law."

Noella says the Puerto Rico house was only meant to be a vacation home and alleges that James is using the address as a "tactic" to "get a better divorce" settlement; a Puerto Rican judge already declared James and Noella legally single.

In his social media posts, James claims Noella made the first move in their split by filing for separation in California before he filed for divorce in Puerto Rico; she maintains she only did that because her attorney alerted her to James' plans to file and she wanted to create a legal standing in the state of California. She also says she opted for "separation" because divorce was not what she wanted.

"Once we started filming and the heat got a little too hot in the kitchen, then all of a sudden he's a Puerto Rican citizen, and I was the one who 'single-handedly chose the show,' unbeknownst to him," Noella claims. "We were living as husband and wife and having a beautiful life together. You know, we were fighting ... but it's kind of par for the course in accordance to our marriage, so I had no idea that he would go get on a plane and go to Puerto Rico and not see our child again. I could not have predicted that."

Noella's hopes at this point are to finalize the divorce quickly and move on; she's currently "squatting" (her word) in their rental mansion until the papers are signed --  "First rule of divorce: Never leave the house, ever," she cracks -- and is looking toward her future.

"I need to focus on my family," she says. "I need to focus on just keeping the smile on my face and living my best life, and this [divorce] is a part of my life, but it isn't my life."

The Real Housewives of Orange County airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.

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