'RHONJ's Traci Johnson on 'Tornado' Teresa Giudice and Setting the Record Straight on Her Marriage (Exclusive)

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Traci Johnson likens her debut season on The Real Housewives of New Jersey a bit to surviving a natural disaster.

"It's like a Teresa tornado blows in; you never know, just as in a tornado, what kind of weather you're going to really get," the season 12 newbie confesses to ET, reflecting on her still-unfolding issues with OG RHONJ star Teresa Giudice

"She can definitely shock you with things she says," Traci admits. "There's some moments that leave me scratching my head going, did she really just say that to me? But you just have to be ready for all of it and realize her bark is a lot worse than her bite most of the time. She can come off as very loud, but it's usually not that harmful."

Traci's at the receiving end of one of those barks in this week's episode, as a ropes course outing she planned goes off the rails after Teresa starts confronting her co-stars for speaking about her and her boyfriend (now-fiancé), Louie Ruelas. While Teresa's main target appears to be Margaret Josephs, she also confronts Traci over Traci's husband, Tiki Barber's, choice to ask Louie questions regarding various rumors about his past floating around social media. Teresa seemingly blames Traci for Tiki's line of questioning.

"I'm still in complete disagreement with Teresa," Traci notes. "You cannot be mad at me for something my husband said. I am not Tiki's keeper. I never tell him what to do -- nor would he tell me what to do. I'm sure, 100 percent, he's heard me talking with all the other girls about these Louie videos and allegations that have arisen in the past. I think he just was like, well, I really wonder what's going on? If I'm going to sit here and break bread with someone, and eat with someone and hang out with someone, I want to know what they're all about and I'm not going to let these allegations linger over everyone's head. I want to hear what you have to say. So the fact that she's annoyed at me for something my husband did is ridiculous, but pretty typical of Teresa."

When Tiki brought up Louie's history at a boys' night dinner, he made mention of "my wife" being in his ear about what exactly was going on, which is why Teresa opted to confront Traci.

"I was asking him," Traci admits. "I was asking Joe Gorga. I was asking everyone like, what is with these videos? They're bizarre. What's with these allegations that keep being popped up on Instagram all the time from these various outlets? I think Tiki finally was like, well, stop asking me, stop asking Joe. Ask the source. I think she should honestly be happy that Louie had a chance to tell his side of the story."

Traci Johnson films The Real Housewives of New Jersey with Teresa Giudice, Jackie Goldschneider and Melissa Gorga
Eugene Gologursky / Bravo

Traci says she actually inserted herself in the conversation because she thought Teresa and Louie might be able to learn from her and Tiki's mistakes in the past. When Traci and Tiki first got together more than a decade ago, a scandal erupted: Traci was an intern at the Today show, where Tiki was working as a correspondent. According to Traci, Tiki had quietly separated from his then-wife, Ginny Cha, before their working relationship turned into a friendship, then ultimately a romantic partnership, but headlines about the "affair" and labels like "homewrecker" have followed Traci ever since. 

"What I think we were trying to explain to Louie at one point was, speaking from experience, perception became reality," Traci notes. "People believed what these tabloids were writing about us from anonymous sources and things that just simply were not true. There were no basis in fact at all. So that perception became their reality and that's what they assume about us."

When Traci and Tiki's scandal of sorts erupted in 2010, Traci says Tiki opted to not address reports or correct the record on their love story, because the couple assumed the truth would prevail. That plan backfired. 

"By Tiki being silent, instead of speaking up and setting the record straight at the time, really changed people's public opinion about him," Traci shares. "And it's taken a long time to build that back to what we feel we're on a good path now."

"Don't have history repeat itself, Teresa," Traci remarks. "Address it now, before it gets out of hand. There's stuff popping up every day about Louie, so I feel like getting to the front of it is always the best decision."

Opting into Housewives is a little like agreeing to pry open a closed wound for Traci, though she says she "takes joy" in setting the record straight about her and Tiki's love story.

"I already figured that everyone knew the scandal, but they didn't hear the truth," she says. "So this was a great opportunity for Tiki and I to come in and really show that we have a true love story. This wasn't some fly-by-the-night type of scandal that happened and we broke up. I think this was a good testament to our love story, and it also gave me an opportunity to set the record straight."

Traci JOhnson and husband Tiki Barber head into film a party on The Real Housewives of New Jersey
Eugene Gologursky / Bravo

"Also, I don't think there's any other rumors to dredge up about me, so I kind of already had it all happen," she adds.

Teresa's opted to repeat one of those old rumors -- that Traci was Tiki and Ginny's nanny -- a couple times this season on RHONJ, but she's only referenced it as an example of something she could pull out on Traci that she's choosing not to (even though, at the end of the day, she is). 

"I was not the cause of my husband's divorce from his first wife," Traci reiterates. "I most certainly was never the nanny. That's just shameful for people to even think or say, because that's hurtful to not only me, but to my husband and his ex-wife and their kids. So it's just a vicious rumor. But I welcome the questions, as opposed to Teresa who just wants to run away from them all."

Traci says watching the episodes back has been enlightening, because certain cast members feel even bolder when they're talking behind her back.

"Honestly, I think the biggest surprise is hearing what the other women have to say about you when you're not there," Traci says. "I was like, wait, you don't want anyone to talk about your boyfriend, fiancé's, whatever he is, past. but yet you're so open to chatting about mine with Dolores [Catania], without even asking me?"

"Teresa 'not realizing' what she said, I'm not sure if that's deliberate, or calculating or a little bit of both," Traci continues, before pointing out another frustration she's found when it comes to communicating with her co-star.

"She has a little bit of a delay some days, where you could say something to her and then she doesn't quite process it in the moment -- whether it's because there's so many things going on or whatever," Traci says. "She'll come back to you a couple weeks later, like, 'Did you say that to me?' I'm like, 'Yeah... to your face, but we could talk about it now. That's fine.'"

Traci seemingly realized this quirk when Teresa opted to confront her at the ropes course, after Dolores warned Traci that Teresa was "coming for" her.

"It was definitely like an, 'Oh, F!' I was racing through my mind trying to figure out exactly what I did," she recalls. "When she threw out that 'your husband asked my boyfriend a question,' I was floored. I didn't even know where to begin. It was like, you're mad at me for that?"

Teresa Giudice gets heated at Traci Johnson's ropes course outing on The Real Housewives of New Jersey
Bravo

Traci hopes she and Teresa can "wrap things up with a bow" at the soon-to-tape reunion, where she also plans to confront Jennifer Aydin over referring to Tiki as "a little b***h boy" on a recent episode of RHONJ's BravoTV.com after-show. Viewers might see a feistier Traci than they've gotten to know over the course of the season. She's well aware of her reputation as "quiet" among fans of the show.

"It is hard ... coming into the season, only being friends with Melissa [Gorga], not knowing any of the other women -- I met Dolores a couple times at some social events in the past, but nothing other than an acquaintance level -- so to me, it's not in my nature to jump out of the gate and get involved in any type of drama," she explains, "especially when the drama, a lot of it stems from past seasons where Jackie [Goldschneider] is still upset at Teresa for spreading a rumor, and things that I'm just not a part of or don't know the intimate details about. So I think, if I am welcomed back for next season, I think I definitely have a lot more stronger opinions. I'm a lot closer with these women to jump right on in."

Traci says she's grown closer with Melissa through this experience, as well as found genuine friendships with Dolores, Jackie and Margaret. She's very much "Team Margaret" when it comes to the yet-to-air Nashville fight between the Macbeth Collection founder and Teresa, in which Teresa unloads the contents of a bar top on Marge.

"I definitely, in my opinion, feel like Marge was right," she says. "She wasn't attacking [Teresa]. She was simply asking a question -- or stating a statement -- and unfortunately Teresa's reaction was very off base. It was really escalated for no reason. I think that I don't know the backstory. She had anything else going on that day, whatever, but she went off the handles and I've honestly never seen a grown woman act like that in real life. I thought this was something from a movie."

"I can't remember exactly what she said, but it pushed a button for Teresa," she adds. "And all of a sudden, proverbial all hell broke loose and it was a nightmare."

Teresa Giudice shoves the contents of a table at Margaret Josephs on The Real Housewives of New Jersey
Bravo

Still, it didn't scare Traci off; and despite what some might surmise on social media, she's totally happy in her role as a "friend of."

"I don't have FOMO at all," she says. "I really enjoy being a friend. I was very grateful just for the opportunity and to be welcomed in this group. It's kind of nice not to have that anxiety every Tuesday to worry of what's going to come out."

Traci says she's been on the RHONJ casting team's radar for a while, but this year finally felt right because her daughters -- Brooklyn and Teagan -- are now both in school.

"I didn't feel the need to be so present every second with them," she says. "It seemed like a good opportunity to jump into it. My husband's career has been taking off really well with CBS, and I felt like I needed something for myself. I was no longer that mom that had to put their kids down for a nap at a certain schedule. I could fluctuate a little bit and it was a great time. And Melissa has been asking me forever, and how can you say no to that beautiful face?"

But when it came time for reality TV advice, Traci turned to a somewhat unexpected source: Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi LaValle of Jersey Shore fame. The two are neighbors.

"She told me, 'No matter what, remember you're here for the wine and not the drama," Traci quips. "'You're here for the wine, not the drama,' and to always be true to yourself. There's oftentimes where I think I get a little criticized for being a little too quiet, but that's me. I'm not one to be confrontational. So I usually sit there and just say, 'OK, you don't like me? Fine, walk away. We're good.' So she said, 'Just always be true to yourself because, if you don't, it comes off as like you're acting.'"

And if Traci's invited back as a full-time 'Wife in season 13, she's already got a tagline in Snooki's advice: "I'm here for the wine, not the drama."

The Real Housewives of New Jersey airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.

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