When Bravo's "Real Housewives of New York" premiered its 12th season last year, new cast member Leah McSweeney effortlessly commanded viewers' attention with her entertaining antics often brought on by drinking — skinny-dipping and throwing tiki torches to name a couple. That's why, when the 38-year-old revealed in June last year that she'd been sober for 90 days, fans wondered if her choice had anything to do with seeing herself on the show.
The reality, McSweeney told TODAY, was she had her last drink two days before the show even started airing on April 2, 2020. At the time, she was in quarantine with her family, including her daughter, Kiki, and sister, who recently had a baby. This past March, she celebrated a year of sobriety.
"I just knew that this is not going to go well, me drinking," she recalled of the early days of the pandemic. "First of all, I'm with my kid."
She also received tough love, she said, from her daughter's father, Rob Cristofaro, who was staying with them and stopped her when she considered having just one glass of wine. "I'm like ... I really can't even deal with anything, and he's like you're not doing this s---," she said. "It was rough, but I'm so grateful for it."
McSweeney had been sober for nine years prior to filming, and when she decided to start drinking again, her mindset was, "I'm gonna see how this goes," she explained. The show included her confrontations with her mom, who stopped speaking to her over this choice, but not much of her internal conflict.
"What I didn't show was crying and being so upset after Rhode Island," she said, referencing an episode titled "Hurricane Leah," which centered around her alcohol-fueled drama.
"I struggled the whole season, but I didn't share that," McSweeney continued. "I was so in the throes of ... my alcoholism that I knew that I should stop, but I couldn't at the time. I wasn't ready."
"I also wasn't ready to be honest about that with anyone. Maybe there was one or two friends that I would say something to, like, 'Holy s---, like I'm gonna have to stop.' No way I was gonna be honest with (my castmates) or say that to them because it was hard for me to even be honest with myself about it."
"There's obviously so much shame about being an alcoholic. I didn't want to look weak," she added.
"I really tried controlling it last year. It was so hard. I'd be like, OK, let me make sure I eat in between, let me have a glass of water. You go through all these things of how to not get too drunk, but it's like after one drink, I'm already off to the races."
Starring in a reality show actually helped her feel more accountable to her family and the people watching. She mused that without it, she might've continued drinking longer, but now, "the stakes are higher, in a way."
The first time McSweeney got sober back in 2009, "I was a mess," she recalled. "For a year straight ... I cried every single day. I was having panic attacks around the clock. ... I can't even explain what was happening. The best thing I've heard was that someone told me you're giving birth to yourself. That's why it's so painful."
Becoming sober again was also painful, but it was different. "I had spent nine years of working on myself and ... luckily the one year I went off the rails didn't send me back too far," she added.
For McSweeney, "the best part" of being on the show, she said, has been the conversation she's started about mental health and addiction. In one episode, it emerged that she'd been diagnosed as bipolar. She said she had no idea that it was going to become a plot line, not because she was hiding it, but because she hadn't discussed it with anyone.
"I didn't go on the show being like, 'I'm using this as a platform for this or that.' I did not have any kind of agenda whatsoever," she said. "But I'm so happy it got brought up, and now I see the power of the show and being able to talk about a topic like that."
"It makes me feel so good that someone watched it and can relate to it, if it makes them maybe feel a little better, or maybe it helps them stay sober another day or maybe it helps them get sober."
Asked what advice she has for people considering sobriety, she shared a mantra she's thought about over the past year: "I've never woken up and been like, 'I really regret not drinking last night.'"
"I've used the year ... in a positive way for myself, and I was lucky and fortunate that I was able to do that," she said. "I've been able to really get grounded and stay centered, and that's my goal because it's really kind of a crazy thing to be on the show."
"Real Housewives of New York" premieres on May 4 on Bravo at 9 p.m. Bravo is a part of TODAY's parent company, NBCUniversal.