How a ‘Real Housewife’ Went from Working at Carnivals to the Elite Charity Scene

Former Miss Arizona LeeAnne Locken has earned criticism from fellow “Real Housewives of Dallas” cast mates for faking her way into the exclusive charity scene. But Locken, who grew up working the duck pond at carnivals, insists her motives are pure.

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Jun 3 2016, 5:30pm

Screengrabs via Bravo

People say, "Everything is bigger in Texas," and Bravo's newest reality show, The Real Housewives of Dallas, certainly doesn't challenge the idea. From the McMansions to the diamond rings, the charity function guest lists to the Botox bills, it seems like everything in Dallas is pretty goddamn big.

Cast member LeeAnne Locken's personality is no exception. From slapping moving trolleys—this is not a euphemism, but literal—to telling rival Housewives that their "charity world is going to go down the toilet," Locken has already sealed her place as an iconic Housewife across all franchises.

Part of Locken's appeal is how she is able to deliver on the unbelievable things she says. The tagline that introduces her before each episode is "I grew up a carny kid. Play games with me, and you're gonna pay," and it's true: Though Locken's grandparents raised her, she spent the summers with her mother, who remarried a man who was in the carnival business. Every year when school got out, Locken said she would fly to wherever her mother was and work at the carnival. At age three, she started working at the duck pond game. After a few summers, she graduated to the balloon game, where it was her job to sit behind the board and blow up balloons to replace those participants popped.

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"Blow 'em, wrap 'em, tie 'em, hang' em," she told me. "You had to be able to blow up 20 balloons in ten minutes. I got really good at it."

When she was 11, Locken purchased her first game so she could have her own business. For the next five years, she said she bought and sold games, and even had adults working for her.

But everything changed when she turned 16 and started noticing boys.

"Early on, I was like, [working at the carnival] is normal, it's no big deal," she said. "Then I got to high school and was like, why is everyone calling me a circus freak? It was very painful."

Locken quit the carnival to be more "normal," but she was quickly swept in another direction, probably as equally eccentric: the world of beauty pageants.

Her neighbors secretly submitted her application to Miss Houston USA, and soon after Locken received a call inviting her to participate. She spent the next few years repeatedly placing as a finalist in both the Miss Texas and Miss Houston USA pageants, and even going on to eventually win the latter.

I got to high school and was like, why is everyone calling me a circus freak?

In the late 1980s, she moved to Arizona to take care of her mother, who had lupus and was getting very sick. Her mother begged her to enter the Miss Arizona pageant. Locken did, and won.

"The bad part was that the girl who crowned me was the older sister of the first runner-up, so I kind of destroyed their pageant legacy," Locken said. "It wasn't very well received—everyone kept calling me Miss Arizona from Texas." She would go on to place sixth in the Miss USA pageant (and to appear as Miss Nebraska in 2000's Miss Congeniality, which she told Bravo she "loved").

Both of these experiences have helped her become an influential member of the Dallas charity scene and, indirectly, a member of the Real Housewives cast. From the carnival, she says she learned to be good with money and an amazing sales person, making "a tremendous amount of cash every summer."

"That was my job," Locken told me. "I came home [from first grade] and was like, OK, I learned how to make change, so now I don't have to go back to school. I thought that was what they sent me to school for."

Locken confronts a fellow cast member on "Real Housewives of Dallas"

On the show, Locken constantly focuses on charity work, often hosting expensive events with Dallas socialites. Her emphasis has earned both admiration and agitation from viewers on social media.

"I think it's sad that we have all these people saying, 'If I never hear the word charity again...' because they don't understand that is our social scene, in the same way New York people go to clubs," she said. "I always like to say, 'In Dallas, men do business on the golf course, while women do business in charity.'"

Although a fellow cast mate once suggested Locken's love of hosting must be related to the fact that she doesn't have enough money to donate, Locken is emphatic that she does not have a job in the charity world.

"I spend more on charity than the majority of our other cast members," she said. "I know that 100 percent, without a doubt in my mind. They may attend one event where they donate $20,000, but I'm constantly out there, at three or four charity events a week, where the minimum charity ticket is $350. You add that up."

She added that charities she supports—such as the SPCA of Texas, AIDS Services of Dallas, and the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS—have gained larger social media followings and financial benefits from her publicity.

"If I help anyone make a difference and they make a difference, it's a ripple effect," she said. "Charity is a ripple effect, and that's what matters to me."

Nevertheless, despite her charitable intentions, Locken has been at the center of drama on the show. Many of the women have called her narcissistic and questioned her mental health as well as her motives for being so active in the charity scene.

"I will say this, and I mean it very strongly: Joking around about therapy on our show has got to stop," she said, adding that if someone who is struggling watches the show and sees people making jokes about therapy, it might dissuade them from seeking out mental health services. "Therapy is an honest thing that needs to be highlighted. It saves lives."

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As for any backlash from viewers on social media, Locken said she developed thick skin during her pageant days—she felt she was prepared for how aggressive people can become late at night when they're on their computers, possibly drunk. Instead, she is mostly just frustrated that everyone hasn't yet been able to get a sense of her life because of what producers decide to show or withhold—a concern Housewives often express.

"I've personally been to years of therapy," she said. "Once my storyline is revealed, you're going to see why, and it will help you realize why I am the way I am."

"I'm going to go with what [author] Brené Brown said when she repeated Teddy Roosevelt's speech about there being very few people who are willing to get in the arena with lions," she continued, referring to Roosevelt's 1910 speech "Citizenship in a Republic," which does not mention lions but nevertheless critiques "the man who points out how the strong man stumbles." "The only people I am willing to take criticism from are those that are willing to be vulnerable and courageous and get in that arena with me."