NeNe Leakes stars in Bravo's 'The Real Housewives of Atlanta' -- but has she gone from underdog to villain between seasons?

NeNe Leakes stars in Bravo's 'The Real Housewives of Atlanta' -- but has she gone from underdog to villain between seasons? (Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

The problem with "The Real Housewives of Atlanta's" breakout wife NeNe Leakes is that she wants it both ways.

She wants the fame of Bravo's top reality show about the back-stabbing, high school-style shenanigans of five well-to-do Atlantans, but she doesn't want the baggage -- namely, that's she's the brash manipulator the show makes her out to be.

Early on, the outspoken Leakes, who is featured prominently in tonight's second season finale, became the series' selling point as the least snooty, and the funniest and loudest of the five. Her popularity soared when her volatile friendship with wig-wearing would-be country singer Kim Zolciak fell apart toward the end of Season 1, after each woman accused the other of backbiting. It's the kind of off-air development that has thrust shows such as "The Hills" -- and their behind-the-scenes reality -- into the ever expanding pop culture limelight.

"First season was great for me. Most people loved me," Leakes said during a recent interview in Westwood with some of the other "Housewives" -- Zolciak was not present. "It was not a problem to come back. When the producers asked me, I said, 'Yes. How much money are you gonna pay me? Let's go.' "

This season, the 42-year-old mother of two milked her newfound celebrity for all it was worth, only too happy to gather up the feuding ladies (including Sheree Whitfield, Lisa Wu Hartwell and new cast member Kandi Burruss) with any flimsy excuse, be it an awkward impromptu dinner or a photo shoot -- and because this is reality TV, they're willing to be gathered -- striking a match, and letting everything go kaboom for the cameras. She also got into several arguments, seemingly for no good reason, with Burruss, the most sympathetic of the wives this season.

Burruss said she was surprised that she and Leakes didn't hit it off. "She was my favorite one last year, and we really clashed," she said.

"We just have different personalities," Leakes interjected without looking at Burruss.

Whatever the price, the strategy has paid off: "Real Housewives of Atlanta" is averaging 3.2 million viewers per episode, and Bravo says it will become the network's highest-rated edition in the "Housewives" franchise after tonight, outpacing the ladies of Orange County, New York and New Jersey. A fifth series set in Washington, D.C., is also in the works.

But can there be too much of a good thing? "The Hills" saw its ratings decline after too much Lauren Conrad- Heidi Montag quarreling. It's probably too soon to tell, but the summer release of Leakes' memoir, "Never Make the Same Mistake Twice: Lessons on Love and Life Learned the Hard Way," isn't on any bestseller lists yet.

In a recent interview with Essence, Leakes rebutted accusations that she had become a mean-spirited, publicity-hungry reality star, saying that the show's editing had made her appear to be "an evil person."

But during the group interview, she said: "Listen, at the end of the day, I won't let an argument stop me from making money. So I'll get everyone together if that's what it takes."

When asked one too many questions about Zolciak during the group interview, Leakes said, "I'm not gonna sit here and eat my lunch and talk about Kim. You want to ask me about something about myself, I'd be glad to talk to you about it. I have a book. I'm doing a lot of things. I'm not interviewing about Kim.

"I see outside the 'Housewives of Atlanta.' The show is not my life -- I see past these women, and this show," added Leakes, who wants her own talk or radio show. "I understand how necessary it is to build your brand and look to other things. I really do."

What the brand will be after tonight's episode is anyone's guess: During the explosive hour, Zolciak will accuse Leakes of choking her -- off-camera, of course -- after claiming to have smacked Leakes' hand away from her face. Leakes doesn't exactly deny it during the episode, explaining, "My instincts were to protect myself. End of discussion."

denise.martin@latimes.com