Monday, November 4, 2013

Dina Manzo Talks Family, Charity and Returning to 'Real Housewives of New Jersey'
On a briskly clear afternoon in late October, Dina Manzo, looking casually chic in a gray fedora and gray vest, has just finished doing an interview at an outdoor cafĂ© table when a woman emerges from the Wyckoff Starbucks calling her name. "Dina, I hate to bother you," the woman begins, "but I know about Project Ladybug, and … "

The stranger goes on to explain that she's approaching Manzo on behalf of a friend, inside Starbucks, who's a top salesperson for Lia Sophia jewelry and would like to donate merchandise for a Ladybug fundraiser.

"I'll be right in," Manzo tells the woman with a smile.

Manzo, who became famous as one of the original cast members of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" — and all but confirmed last week that she'll be returning to the Bravo series next season — is also well known for her Project Ladybug, the non-profit she founded in 2007 to financially and emotionally help children with life-threatening diseases, and their families. Ladybug launched its first initiative at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Paterson and has since expanded to Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City, and Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital.

 The Franklin Lakes resident has, in fact, agreed to this interview — which she realizes will inevitably touch on topics like her return to "RHONJ," her friendship with the beleaguered Teresa Giudice and her estrangement from sister Caroline Manzo — in order to publicize Project Ladybug's big Nov. 11 fundraiser, "Goddess Night Out."

"It's our sixth annual Ladies Night Out," says Manzo, explaining this year's name. "I've grown a lot spiritually in the past four or five years, and what I have learned has helped me. I want to share that with as many people. … So, instead of making it just Ladies Night Out, and a great fun party, I'm making it Goddess Night Out. And it's all about inspiring women to embrace the goddess within and being beautiful inside and out."

That means everything from offering hands-on healers and color therapy to eyelash extensions and "great looking things" to shop for, so, "if you're not really into or ready to dive into spirituality too much, there's a lot of mainstream things also that you can get into," Manzo says. "And of course, the Housewives will be there."

A change of venue

Well, at least two housewives: Giudice, who has also donated signed cookbooks, and Kathy Wakile, who will be mingling with fans for the cause.

Of course, there will also be "fabulous raffle prizes" and an elaborate tricky tray (with goodies that include $1,000 worth of Lia Sophia jewelry, in a basket, donated by the woman from Starbucks).

This year's event will be at The Venetian in Garfield, which was also where the "RHONJ" fifth-season reunion was shot. But don't read anything into the fact that the Ladybug event is not being held at Paterson's The Brownstone, which is co-owned by Tommy Manzo, from whom Dina announced in February that she had separated.

"It's for no other reason other than The Brownstone did not have a date for me. I'm not leaving The Brownstone for any other reason," says Dina.

Asked if she and Tommy have gotten divorced, Manzo says, "We still live together. I announced my separation a year ago, but Tommy and I have a very special love for each other that will never go away. So, we live in the same house. We love each other. We respect each other. And that's the way it's gonna stay whether we get divorced or whether we stay together. I think it's a really nice place to be with each other.

"We're just seeing how things go right now. But there's always love and respect between us."

The youngest of 11 siblings, Dina Manzo, 41, met Tommy Manzo when she was 9 years old and sister Caroline was dating her future husband, Al Manzo, Tommy's brother. The two sisters have been estranged for several years, and neither woman has revealed why.

"All I could say is that everybody's on their journey in life, and it doesn't mean anyone is any better than anybody else, but we're in different places. So, sometimes it's better to keep your distance while you're working through some stuff."

Last month, Caroline Manzo announced that she has left "RHONJ." And she recently filmed the pilot for a potential Bravo spinoff called "Manzo'd With Children."

"I'm not gonna lie. I think this world of, I don't want to call it entertainment, but the fame of it all has affected both of us in different ways," Dina Manzo says. "So, I'm thinking, 15 minutes come and go. And I understand we may be stretching it here and there. She just did her own pilot and I may be going back [to 'RHONJ']. But at the end of the day, after all that is done, we're gonna see through it all. … I love my family. I always will. There's distance right now, and we'll fix that off camera."

On Tuesday morning, Manzo was more definitive about returning to "RHONJ" in a tweet, writing, "Well I guess the (hairless) cats out of the bag. Yes I'm back, Unlike the past this time it felt 'right'~ See you on Bravo my friends xo."

But in person, later that same day, she is more tentative in her wording. "On Twitter this morning, I kind of let everybody know that I probably will be back, because there's all kinds of rumors going around that aren't true, and if I don't say anything, it kind of gets out of control," she says. "So yeah, it's most likely that I am coming back and the shooting will probably begin right away."

Prodded for more details, Manzo says carefully, "I can say that I was asked back. I was told who was coming back and who was not, and I'm considering it." She adds that she had also been asked back for the recently concluded fifth season, but declined. "I never wanted to come back to 'Housewives' and air my family's drama. I love my parents way too much to get involved with that, and I see the pain that Teresa has endured." 

'Timing just feels right' 

Manzo, who says that her contract for her HGTV show "Dina's Party" has expired, left "RHONJ" in 2010, during the show's second season, saying she no longer wanted to deal with fellow Housewife Danielle Staub. Since then, Manzo says she has not regularly watched "RHONJ," but in the "bits and pieces" she has seen, she did not like the "painful experience of family drama." "I know it won't be all smooth sailing. But the timing just feels right," she says of returning to the Bravo show, noting that her daughter Lexi is now a high school senior and will be soon be starting college. "She's not that 12-year-old that was heavily influenced. … I didn't want her to feel that that was a normal life at that point. Now, she's going off on her own. And she's excited about being on ['RHONJ'], too, because she feels she has a message for her peers as well." 

Manzo's mix of a lavish "Housewives" lifestyle and deep and eclectic spirituality may seem a bit incongruous. But she does not think so. In fact, on "RHONJ," she believes she could impart a valuable lesson to young girls. 

"What I want to do is show them that you can be glamorous and spiritual, so they don't give up the idea of spirituality because they feel like they have to give up the shoes and the fancy cars," says Manzo, who cops to loving Louboutins and Manolos. "I want to be an example to them that you can have both and that's OK. 

"I think it's a really strong message for young girls to say that you don't have to be all just Kim Kardashian glamour and you don't have to be just all Gandhi. There is an in-between." 
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