As the only Real Housewife in a same sex marriage — to tennis legend Martina Navratilova — Miami’s Julia Lemigova knows about breaking boundaries.
However, it took the former Miss USSR a long time to be open about her sexuality, even shamefully hiding her romance with Navratilova at first.
“We never talked about gay relationships in Russia,” Lemigova, 49, told The Post. “It’s only when I left Moscow and moved to Paris that I discovered that there were all types of relationships and loves.”
Still, she added, “Even though I had relationships with other women, it was in a private closed circle. I couldn’t imagine holding another woman’s hand on the street. I was very much in the closet all those years.”
Lemigova first met Navratilova, now 65, in Paris in 2000 at a nightclub. It was a brief interaction, but the tennis star remembered the beauty queen when they saw each other again, eight years later, during the French Open.
“We bumped into each other in the players’ restaurant,” Lemigova recalled. “I literally bumped into her with a tray of food. She remembered me. And I asked her to have breakfast with me the next day. Then we had another breakfast the next day and then one more breakfast. And then she moved in.”
Although they were living together, she still didn’t publicly come out.
“I must have hurt Martina so much because she’s a pioneer of LGBTQ liberation and being herself. When she tried to hold my hand, I would say, ‘Darling, we cannot do this. We’re in Paris. What if somebody sees us, the neighbors?’” Lemigova said with regret. “I don’t even know how she stayed with me for so long. It’s only when I came to Miami that I was open. This town helped me come out of the closet. And then I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what a fool I was. How could I wait for so long?’”
After Navratilova publicly proposed to Lemigova at the US Open in 2014, the couple tied the knot later that year, with a star-studded wedding reception attended by Brooke Shields, Chris Evert, Lynda Carter, and models Karolina Kurkova and Rachel Hunter.
One thing that Lemigova said helped her go public with her relationship was her daughters, Emma and Victoria, who came to view Navratilova as their parent.
Although Lemigova doesn’t discuss who Victoria’s father is, Emma, who is now 16, is the daughter of Christian Courtin-Clarins, who owns the cosmetic company Clarins. She is now is now staying with her father in Paris to learn about the family business, while Victoria, 20, is attending the University of Richmond.
“I’m very Russian in my parenting. Very strict,” Lemigova said. “’Maman poule’ [‘mother hen’] we say in Paris, where you always have this feeling you need to protect. Martina is more like a daredevil. The girls go to her for more fun things and sports. And she’s like, ‘Of course you can do it.’”
Tragically, in 2000, Lemigova’s first child, a son named Maximilien, died from shaken baby syndrome while in the care of a nanny his father, banker Edouard Stern, had hired. Stern, one of the richest men in France, and Lemigova were no longer together, and it is believed that the nanny had something to do with the death of the five-month-old baby, although she fled before charges could be filed.
“I don’t know if I ever completely survived the loss of my son,” Lemigova said. “Part of me is dead forever. At the time, I simply didn’t want to live. Selfishly, I wanted to end my life so many times. I wanted to join my son. I wanted to go away. In this horrible pain and through years of grief, I found joy in helping other people. Many women have told me they don’t know how you can survive something like this and not go completely insane,
not kill yourself. How can you keep living, have more children, redo your life? It’s very, very difficult, but I’m proof that, yes, you can … Martina helped me a lot.”
In 2005, Stern was found shot to death in his Geneva apartment, clad in a S&M-themed flesh-colored head-to-toe latex bodysuit. He was murdered by his longtime lover Cécile Brossard, who spent five years in prison for the crime.
“My life has been very dramatic,” Lemigova acknowledged. “It was sad. It was happy. But I’m not a sad person, no matter how much I was beat up in life, and by people. We just have one life, and it goes by so fast. So I rise up to the surface and I’m unstoppable.”
This adversity makes her the perfect new cast member of the rebooted “Real Housewives of Miami series,” airing on Peacock. (There’s a two-part RHOM reunion show on March 3 and 10.) On it, Lemigova has created controversy with an intimate foot rub she gave her real-life bestie and longtime Miami
Housewife Adriana de Moura.
“It was just a foot rub,” she explained. “She came to my farm in these beautiful white Valentino shoes and ruined them because she went to see my chickens. Of course, I’m going to wash her feet. It’s like being a good host. And then it got muddled into something completely crazy. Oh my God, a foot massage! Why not? If Martina doesn’t have a problem with this, why should anybody else have a problem with it?”
On the show, Navratilova is seen laughing off the incident and asking Adriana, “Are you the pope or something?” In fact, the normally private tennis legend encouraged Julia to do RHOM.
“Martina saw the thrill in my eyes, and she said, ‘Go for it, girl,’” Lemigova recalled.
In preparation for her audition, the couple held a RHOM marathon and watched the first three seasons in three days.
“The thing about reality TV is that you cannot fake it,” Lemigova said. “I worked with the camera for years when I was model, and you cannot lie to the camera because it’s going to catch you in your act and bite you in the ass.”
While there was some on-air tension with party planner Guerdy Abraira, who planned Lemigova Tulum-themed birthday bash, the latter confirmed they are all good.
“Guerdy’s fun. She has this big, fiery personality, which makes her Guerdy,” Lemigova said. “Just like in normal life, you go through ups and downs with different people. You might have some confrontation, but then you resolve it, and the friendship goes on.”
RHOM also portrays Lemigova’s “Green Acres” lifestyle, which she refers to as “farm to glam.” On her and Navratilova’s new spread in Southwest Ranches, west of Fort Lauderdale, Lemigova drives a pickup truck, tends to quail, geese, donkeys and turtles, and walks her goat Elvis on a rainbow-colored leash. The couple’s menagerie also includes nine cats, four dogs, baby goats and countless chickens. Lemigova is even known to bring freshly laid eggs to dinner parties in her signature pink egg cartons.
“Everyone else brings a bottle of Champagne,” she said. “I come with eggs.”
But when she’s in Miami Beach, where she and Navratilova own a waterfront home, the former beauty queen comfortably wears sexy and glamorous evening gowns.
“I’m totally embracing my two parallel lives,” Lemigova explained. “In the city, it’s fabulous clothes and fabulous people and fabulous places. And then driving my pickup truck, midwifing goats and talking to the animals.”
Although Bravo has not confirmed if RHOM will be renewed, Lemigova is up for for another season.
“I’m happy to share my life with Martina — how we live, our family, our kids and our interaction with the animals on the farm,” she said. “I have the amazing opportunity to show that love has no gender and love is love.”
Photos: Mary Beth Koeth; Stylist: Mila Kastari; Set Stylist Assistant: Jessica Rosales; Hair/Makeup: Bea Diaz