In January, when Nicole Curtis announced the imminent return of her hit show, Rehab Addict, millions of people clicked, liked and d the news, clearly eager for a fix. They had devoured Curtis's New York Times bestselling memoir, Better Than New, last October but hadn't seen the outspoken HGTV personality in action since the end of season seven the previous May. Those who weren't following local Minneapolis and Detroit news media might have wondered where she'd gone.
The day I spoke with Curtis by phone, she was en route to the airport with her 22-month-old son and her 91-year-old grandfather, two people who've only recently become daily fixtures in her life. A surprise pregnancy in late 2014 resulted in Harper's birth, in May 2015. Then, almost a year to the date later, her grandmother passed away, leaving "Gramps" as Curtis's steadfast companion.
After Harper was born, maternity leave was not an option. "We had contracts to get through," Curtis explains. "I went from giving birth to filming and building, then we did the Ransom Gillis special in Detroit," which aired between seasons six and seven.
Curtis needed a break. Flexibility in her work meant she could put some projects on hold, but life wasn't about to let her off so easily. Her grandmother was hospitalized shortly after season seven wrapped, and Curtis, who grew up living next door to her grandparents, dropped everything to be by the side of the woman she considered her best friend. Fiercely proud of the family she had built as a wife, mother and homemaker, Curtis's grandmother was not ready to go. "My Gram was Catholic and very proper, but she cursed. She'd look at me and say, this is f*cking bullsh*t," says Curtis. The matriarch's dying wish was to make it to her 70th wedding anniversary. She died two days after the milestone.
The loss is the most devastating blow Curtis has been dealt as of late, but it's not her solitary stroke of bad luck. She's been in and out of court since 2015, the result of several legal issues including a custody battle with her ex-boyfriend, a lawsuit brought by the city of Minneapolis and a protective order against her filed by her own mother.
Last summer, the home improvement star's mother, Joan Curtis, requested a personal protection order against her daughter, claiming she was being harassed with threatening calls and texts from the younger Curtis. After a hearing in August, a judge denied the request on the grounds that she couldn't "heal family dynamics with the stroke of a pen," adding that the two parties had agreed they didn't want to have with each other — that should be enough.
"Our situation is absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking. I can't say anymore to that," says Curtis of her estrangement from her parents. (Her father, Curtis told the judge, has in the past threatened to go to the press with what one can only assume is unflattering information about his daughter.)
But in the year that Rehab Addict has been off the air, she's tried to regroup and prioritize her own wellbeing. She's a stronger woman today than she was a few years ago, she says, and credits therapy for making her a more compassionate, understanding and solution-seeking person. "You realize your mind needs to grow and to heal," she says. "You spend money on personal trainers — spend it on therapists."
Curtis grew up outside of Detroit and left home at 17, forgoing college to move south with her boyfriend. The couple spent a brief stint in Atlanta before settling in Tampa, where they bought the house that would become the future HGTV star's first renovation. Though the relationship didn't work out, it resulted in Curtis's first child. Back in Michigan, she raised her son Ethan and worked odd jobs while flipping a historic bungalow on the side. By her early 30s, Curtis was selling houses as a real-estate agent in Minneapolis — that's where she caught the attention of a production company that pitched her show to HGTV. Rehab Addict debuted in October 2010.
"There are people who think that all of this came easily," Curtis says of her decision to pen a memoir. "I want them to know I was working for $9.75 an hour at Banana Republic, I was waiting tables, I was cleaning toilets." Even after the show began, she continued selling things on Craigslist and holding real-estate open houses on the weekends. Early seasons of Addict show Curtis scrimping and salvaging materials from Dumpsters because money was tight and she didn't believe in financing. Gramps had taught her that if you don't have the cash, you don't buy it.
Seven years and seven seasons later, Curtis isn't taking anything for granted. "I've never enjoyed the moment because I know it can go away at any time," she says.
Shortly after her 38th birthday in 2014, Curtis and her partner Shane Maguire learned they were expecting. Although they were in a committed relationship, Curtis writes in her book that Maguire's reaction to news of the pregnancy was not what she had expected. "I had wanted my fabulous Mister to look at me with tears in his eyes and say what I was thinking: that this was the greatest thing we'd never asked for," she writes. Sadly, the relationship ended early on in the pregnancy. (For Maguire's part, his lawyer says his client "couldn't have been happier to find out he was the father to his son.")
It's been 17 years since Curtis had an infant to care for, and she's doing things a little bit differently this time around. For one, she hired a doula to support her during labor, something she'd never even heard of during her first foray into motherhood. "Even now when I say [doula] you think it's for some fancy rich person," Curtis says of the childbirth assistance professionals. Her advice to new moms? "Instead of registering for a baby shower and all these ridiculous things you're never going to use, pool your money and have a doula."
She's also breastfeeding — something she only did for the first couple of months of Ethan's life, because she says she wasn't educated on the topic — and raising eyebrows in the process. She drew the ire of critics several months ago after breastfeeding Harper during an interview that was live-streaming over . Detractors called the move a publicity stunt. Others have misconstrued her support for breastfeeding as judgment against moms who bottle-feed. It saddens her when fans comment that they've come to her page for house tips, not to read about breastfeeding.
"I'm talking about it because it needs to be talked about," says Curtis. "I'm using my voice to say, hey, I didn't know this either. People will contemplate their child's first birthday party or first haircut more than they'll research circumcising their son."
As for the accusations that the HGTV star continues to breastfeed her 22-month-old as some sort of ploy for attention, Curtis maintains that her child simply hasn't chosen to wean yet. "Anyone who's ever breastfed [knows] the mother does not make the decision there," she says. "I'm going to walk through the airport and my child is going to whip my breast out of my shirt at any point because that's what he wants to do."
Family court has been another teachable moment for Curtis. In November 2015, Maguire sued her for joint custody of their son, and the former couple have been back in court over different disputes no less than five times since. Curtis, who says she's never wanted to have her private life in the public eye, fought to have records from the paternity case sealed but was denied. The judge also refused Curtis's request to block Maguire from having overnight custody until Harper's second birthday. "I never knew a nursing baby could be separated from their mother," Curtis says. "If someone took puppies from their mom at two weeks, people would be in an uproar."
The experience fueled Curtis's desire to be an advocate for other single moms, the majority of whom don't have access to the financial resources she has. "I had no idea this stuff went on in family courts," she told People in October.
Her status as a single mom sets Curtis apart on HGTV, where it's mostly couples at the helm the house flipping shows that have cropped up in the wake of Rehab Addict's success. Even the one exception, Property Brothers, has a family-based partnership at its core. "I would give anything to have a husband that loved me and supported me and, you know, took the kids out for pizza while I designed, but I just have never had that," she says.
Having her grandparents, who spent nearly every day of their seven-decade marriage together, as role models set the bar high for Curtis's relationship expectations. Her grandfather calls his late wife the most beautiful woman he's ever known, the love of his life. "For a man to say that about me, yeah, I would be hook, line and sinker," says Curtis, "but it hasn't happened. You've got to be as great a man as my Gramps."
For now, she's a solo act with a small crew and her own money invested in her own houses, a stark contrast to the husband-and-wife teams currently dominating HGTV's lineup who renovate client homes. Her team runs into problems — like being sued by the City of Minneapolis for alleged breach of contract — but they always pick up and get on with it. If they didn't, says Curtis, she'd still be back where she started 20 years ago.
"My life is absolutely not perfect," she continues. "The most important thing for me is to be strong for my children and my grandfather. Every day he asks, why am I still here?! I said, 'You know what, I think because God was not going to take you [and Grandma] from me at the same time. C'mon, Gramps!'"
Recently, the home improvement guru and her grandfather talked about how they'll communicate after that time does come, what sign he will send from the afterlife to let her know he's still around. "I said, listen, you're not allowed to die on me until we have signal down, okay?" says Curtis. "And he's like, alright, that's a deal."
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