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Gina Kirschenheiter thought her hot towel-touching privileges at Chateau Dubrow were going to be short-lived. The Real Housewives of Orange County star confesses to ET she believed returning 'Wife Heather Dubrow was ready to quit the show at the end of the first all-cast event -- a party at her Newport Beach mansion -- after Gina played messenger for some drama Shannon Beador unearthed from the past: That Nicole James, a friend of Heather's (and seemingly a new cast member -- more on that later) once sued Heather's husband, Dr. Terry Dubrow, over an allegedly botched boob job.
"Yeah, a hundred percent [I thought she quit]," the native New Yorker confesses to ET over video chat. "That sucked. Yeah, I did. And I honestly understood, though, where Heather was coming from. I mean, this was a big decision for them, honestly, as a family, right? To come back to this show, to welcome this back into their lives and to hear that you don't know what's happening, right? So all of a sudden she knows nothing about any of this."
Shannon told Gina and co-star Emily Simpson about the legal history off-camera, swearing them to secrecy in the moment. However, Gina and Emily felt like a hot potato had been tossed into their laps, as if they had been set up by Shannon to drop a bomb. Gina ultimately decided to let Heather know what was being spoken about behind her back, believing her new friend deserved to know.
"Heather knows none of it, and now, boom, we're at her house, and now I'm telling her, 'Oh, by the way...' And she doesn't even know that this girl really sued her!" Gina recalls. "And I think in the moment she felt very vulnerable and very set up by everybody. ... I think she was conflicted in her mind. She's trying to source it out, figure it out. 'What is going on? Did everybody really know all of this? And I'm being put on the spot like this?' Like, it felt to her, I'm sure it felt very wrong. And I understand that nobody knew -- production did not know -- nobody's trying to piss off Heather Dubrow like that, no!"
Flashes in the premiere's finale moments tease a dramatic turn of events after Gina brings the news to Heather, with the podcast host storming upstairs, declaring she's kicking everyone out of the house. She even slams her hand in a camera lens to make it known to the crew: no more filming.
Shannon maintains she never intended for this information to make it on the show (viewers will be happy to see the reality of the legal battle comes to light quickly in episode 2), and that she had no malicious intent in revealing what she knew about Nicole from their own, short-lived friendship with her some 16 years ago.
"Then she shouldn't have talked about it," Gina says in response. "She brought it up once and then it was all like, 'Oh no, no, no, I can't tell you. I can't tell you...' And then we don't care. We let it go. We don't even know any of these people. ... She didn't even say it had to do with Heather. She said it had to do with this woman, Nicole. We didn't even know who Nicole was! And we were lit up, we didn't even care."
"And then we go to [get drinks at a restaurant called] Javier's after and she brings it up, actively brings it up again," Gina continues. "You want to deliver this message. ... OK. I'm here, I'll receive it. And we do."
Shannon claims to feel betrayed by Gina, having made a pact with her and Emily to not repeat anything about the suit on camera. Gina says that agreement was made before Gina and Emily knew Nicole was filming for the show, and before they learned they were soon to film with Heather for the first time.
"Even if she didn't have a calculated intention going into it, just laying it out like that, she should acknowledge that that puts me in a very bad position and it's wrong," Gina says.
Shannon, Gina and Emily also have different recollections of what happened after their drinks at Javier's, with Emily claiming Shannon called her up to use her legal resources (Emily is a lawyer) to find out the truth about the lawsuit. Shannon says she would never ask someone to investigate anyone in that way, but Gina claims it's actually a pattern for the longtime orange-holder. The premiere even flashed back to a moment from season 15, when then-star Braunwyn Windham-Burke alleged Shannon asked her to dig into new co-star Elizabeth Lyn Vargas' finances.
Gina betraying Shannon's trust, in a sense, obviously has a ripple effect on their still-fresh friendship. The trailer features hints of explosive arguments to come, which Gina says are a combination of this Heather/Nicole saga and underlying issues she and Shannon have had since Gina joined the show nearly five years ago.
"It's complicated for sure," she admits of their dynamic. "We've always had a complicated relationship and it is about a lot of things. Some of them personal, some of them not and the tension builds and we don't always address what the real issues are. And I think that that adds to the tension between the two of us. And I think this season, we get to the root of a lot of it and you see it."
The lawsuit situation plays out as a boiling undercurrent for the two all season long, as they're unable to come to an agreement on what is the truth of the matter.
"I felt like I got her to move the needle a little bit in my direction," Gina confesses. "And I was like ... that's good enough for now. But I think that not fully getting there is what then ... builds, and builds, and builds, and it's not good. And it gets to the point where it's like, I don't even want to address it because it's that bad, and I'm that upset about it. I'm really that upset about a lot of stuff towards the end [of the season], until we get to the point where it's like, you've got to release the pressure or the balloons going to pop. And we just let the air out."
"I honestly really always have considered her a friend," she adds of Shannon. "I'm really happy about where we are right now because where we are right now is very realistic. And I care about Shannon a lot, and I think Shannon brings a great value to us as a group, and I recognize that. And she's so fun and she's hilarious -- her antics used to annoy the crap out of me, and now I really do find them hysterical and endearing. I drank the Kool-Aid and I like that! So I'm not anti-Shannon, I'm really not. But we're just those two people that are going to butt heads. And it is what it is."
This whole ordeal of course affected Gina's standing with Heather, too, though it's clear they're able to move past it and create a true bond. The trailer features a montage of the two chumming it up, leading to a conversation around Shannon potentially being jealous of the unexpected friendship. Shannon told ET that assumption was ludicrous.
"No, that's not ludicrous," Gina fires back. "It's probably very accurate, because everybody was feeling it and noticing it, and Shannon -- I don't know if you notice -- but she doesn't have the best poker face when it comes to, if she's not liking something, or upset about something, or perturbed by something. So I think her facial expressions pretty much say it all."
Viewers seemed shocked by Gina and Heather's bond, as well. When Bravo announced Heather (who earned the nickname "Fancy Pants" during her original run on RHOC) would be rejoining the franchise for season 16, memes popped up almost immediately, poking fun at the expected dynamic between her and Gina, who's gotten flack from co-stars and viewers alike for living in a "casita."
"I was actually really surprised by it, because I understand that we're obviously naturally very different people, and different 'characters,' ish, if you have to... whatever, categorize us," Gina says. "But she's from New York. And when I watched the show before, I always found her to be very reasonable. So I didn't think I would have a problem with her, getting along with her at all."
"I was excited to meet Heather," she continues. "I thought that was great."
Gina found out Heather was reclaiming her orange at the same time as the rest of the world, when the casting shake-up story broke late in the day back in June: Braunwyn, Elizabeth and Kelly Dodd were all out.
"I was actually, I was really nervous initially when, boom, half the cast got fired," Gina shares. "I was like, this is too much pressure. I don't want to be-- I'm not trying to be center orange at all. I don't want that job. And then they were like, 'Oh, Heather Dubrow's coming back.' And I was like, 'Oh, I feel way better about this.'"
"Actually, me and Emily joke because it was, like, a 10-minute span that we found out that everybody was fired, and we were like, 'Oh my God, how did we get to the top? How did we survive?' We're like, 'Woo, woo!'" she says. "And then it was 10 minutes later, Heather Dubrow was coming, and we were like, we just went right back to the bottom."
Gina was actually flying to New York City at the time, to film a guest appearance on the current season of Project Runway, alongside the only other season 15 survivor, Shannon.
"I got text from our producer and he was like, 'Can you talk?' And I was like, 'You've got to put me out of my misery. Do I have a job? What's going on? Am I back? Can I hang out with everybody again?'" she explains. "And, and he was like, 'OK, yes.' He's like, 'You do.' He's like, 'And your buddy Emily's back, too.' And then Kelly texted me and she's like, 'I'm f**king fired!' And I thought she was messing with me, and then no, she wasn't. And then we heard everything else, how it played out. And literally by the time I landed, we knew who was back, who wasn't. And by the time I got my car transport and was in my hotel, we knew that Heather was back. It was crazy."
"Housewives is a little like Squid Games," Gina jokes of the dynamics of who's in and who's out each year, admitting that their relationship with Gina's former castmate "for sure" had her skeptical about befriending either woman. No one left season 15 in a good place with Braunwyn.
"I do know that before I met Noella we had already been through the whole, Braunwyn heard that she was no longer a part of the cast and then she basically threw out Noella," Gina reveals. "And then Noella communicated to me that she was really upset by that, and she wasn't expecting that. And so I was hopeful, because I was like, OK, well now she has a different perspective on that. So whatever Braunwyn filled her ears with, whatever Noella was talking crap on us because of whatever Braunwyn was filling her ears with, she has a different perspective. So I was very open to that. And Jen's not... I feel like she could be friends with everybody and nobody. She works a lot."
"I don't mean it to be insulting to her, but that's a perfect way to put it: She's like a social chameleon," she adds. "I feel like she's not going to fully commit to anybody."
While Gina may not have friend for life in Jen, she did form a close bond with Noella -- albeit, a short-lived one, it sounds like. For context, the RHOC newbie's life basically imploded as the season kicked off, as she separated from her husband, attorney "Sweet James" Bergener, amid a slew of financial issues.
"I actually think I got a little bit -- I have a habit of this -- I got a little too close with Noella, and too on board with Noella before fully understanding her," Gina notes. 'And I had to, at a certain point, take a step back from that. And you'll see that play out on the show. But I still find her fascinating, interesting. And I think taking a step back, I've been able to reevaluate some of the things, and I think about her and who she is. And I think I actually have a better understanding of her. So I am on board to continue to try to know her."
Viewers assumed they'd be getting to know a lot more about Nicole, too, as she was rumored to be a full-time cast member. When the trailer and official casting titles dropped, though, Nicole wasn't even listed as part of the ensemble.
"I mean, it certainly doesn't help when you're in a group of friends and you sue one of them and then don't tell them for six years," Gina quips. "I don't think that was helpful for her. But at the same time, there's been people before who have done even worse things, and they're still on the show. So I think it was more than that."
"I think Nicole's actually a very sweet person," Gina says. "I think she a nice, sweet person, but I just think not everybody fits in with the group, and not everybody can see past that. And I also think it's a really hard thing. You come on, and you tell all these producers, and you're like, 'Oh, this is all my stuff...' And then you come on and you don't really want to talk about any of it. And that's hard. You can filter your Instagram, but you can't filter the show. But I think that was part of the problem."
However, Nicole still gets in the mix. A must-see moment first shown in the trailer plays out in episode 2, with Nicole ordering Emily to "sit down" when she's already seated. The confrontation leads Emily to call Nicole "trash" and storm out of Heather's party.
"I think that's Emily. She has that-- we're working on it. We're working on it. We're actively working on it," Gina says of Emily going from zero to trash-talking. "You'll see us actively working on it the whole season, but she has that, I say she Hulks out. It's like, 'Oh, don't make me angry! You won't like me when I'm angry.' She has that in her."
With the season off to the races (literally, a horse track excursion is coming up later this season), Gina is ready for the fans to experience a refreshed and renewed version of RHOC.
"I'm really excited for everybody to see me and Heather stirring it up, mixing it up in New York, because that was such a special, fun, amazing trip," she says. "Imagine this: A Housewives trip where there's nobody fighting and it's fun. I actually think there was a coast to coast fight. ... . It was like Biggie and Tupac and then it was all over."
"I'm also excited that you guys get to see the back of my hair looking decent all season long," she cracks, poking fun at her much-maligned hair journey over the seasons. Viewers routinely mock the mom of three for her mop, as she's lost battles with bleach and extensions of the years.
"It was, like, very representative of where I was in my life," she says of her hair being an outward representation of what she was battling internally. Gina's early years on the show were marked by tension with her now-ex-husband, Matt, who would not film during her first season. In her second, they separated and in her third, a domestic violence issue came to light, which Gina recalled in the season 16 premiere by reading back her victim impact statement from Matt's court hearing.
"It was really hard. I was really scared actually leading up to the first episode because I didn't know how... I remember that day in interview was, it was horrible," she admits. "It was just horrible and it's so, it's really difficult because you go through all these really traumatic, horrible things, and then if you get yourself to a place where it's better, it's scary to think that you would affect that in a negative way."
"I'm just thankful that Matt and I are both like eye on the prize, like what is our end goal?"she continues. "What is our end game here? And it's always our children, and we are accepting of our situation and we co-parent well, and we get along great. So, it's just like, it's really nice to be able to say that."
Helping Gina is her partner of more than two years, boyfriend Travis Mullen. Together, they have a modern-day Brady Bunch of a family.
"We're really happy," she gushes. "We both got walloped by our situations, and we got to both get on our feet, really, you know? We're still just, we're very committed to each other. We love each other. We'll be together forever. And we work, we are a family. We live together. We're functioning as a family. [Marriage] will come when it will come. But I'm not like thirsty for a ring because I just like being loved and I like being with him."