Every week, millions of television viewers are fascinated by the foibles, follies and foolishness of reality TV, and Bravo’s hit series The Real Housewives of Atlanta maintains its place at the top of the heap. Just a few weeks ago, the character known as Mama Joyce made heads turn and tongues wag when she went nuclear during her daughter Kandi Burruss’s ill-fated wedding gown fitting.
The unofficial cast member locked horns with her daughter’s longtime best friend (and sometime assistant) Carmon Cambrice—having to literally be torn away from pouncing on her, and then nearly wrestled away from beating her with a shoe. The episode became one of the show’s highest rated in its five year history and Mama Joyce became a trending topic on social media, causing New York magazine’s Vulture TV columnist Danielle Henderson to brand her “awful.”
“I’ve moved on from my theory that Mama Joyce is an alcoholic, and I’m sliding right into the theory that she’s just a bitter old bitch who wants to ensure her meal ticket doesn’t float away,” Henderson wrote. Yikes. How did this genteel southern belle go from Claire Huxtable to Madea Simmons overnight?
“I will never ever let no one take me there again,” Mama Joyce says. “Even if I have to bite my own fingers off.”
Insisting she’s not “wild,” she says the behavior exhibited on that episode “was out of character for me. But sometimes when something just gets you so… It takes you from one to 10. That girl took me from one to 10.”
Mama Joyce admits to getting carried away during the big blowup. But from a viewer’s standpoint, her emotions (and blood pressure) seem to be running high when it comes to anything related to her daughter—Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and sex toy doyenne Kandi Burruss—marrying her newest love interest Todd Tucker, a TV production exec.
Some believe the ire is about Burruss’s burgeoning empire, reportedly worth millions. But as Mama Joyce tells it, she’s just looking out for her only child’s best interests. “My only thing is that I love my daughter. I love my granddaughter, and only thing I’ve ever done was try to protect my daughter,” she says. “I’ve never been about her money because I have my own. I never tried to spend her money. I’ve always tried to save her money, help her save her money. And I just don’t want her to let someone else waste what I’ve worked so hard to help her build.”
Her real name is Joyce Jones, and she’s a 64-year old native of Atlanta, Georgia. The youngest of 14 (!) children, she says she’s the product of a “hardworking and loving” family. A former telecommunications professional, Jones is a divorced mother of two. Her son Patrick was killed in a car accident at the age of 22; Kandi, seven years his junior, was 15 when he died.
“His cousin was a bilingual student and talked him into going to Mexico to meet his adopted family. They had a head-on collision,” Mama Joyce reflects. “I didn’t sue anybody,” she adds. “I said ‘No amount of money can replace my child.’ ”
Two years before Patrick’s passing, she retired from her decade-long career after undergoing spinal surgery. “I think if it hadn’t been for Kandi, I probably would’ve given up. But I knew I had to be here for her.”
She’s not taking her reality TV infamy too well either. Since the melee ensued, Mama Joyce has been called every name under the sun. And the backlash has caused a rift between her and her only child, causing them not to speak for weeks. During an appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, Burruss broke down in tears in defense of her mother.
“She don’t have to talk to me,” the “No Scrubs” songwriter said, directing her frustration to the viewing audience. “She don’t have to say nothing to me. That’s my mama, and y’all can tweet ’til you get blue in the face, I don’t care! She can have whatever she wants ’cause that’s my mama!”
The week before, Mama Joyce took issue with comedienne Sandra Bernhard and Real Housewives co-star Cynthia Bailey’s appearance on the Andy Cohen-hosted late night gabfest, where they fueling the flames making light of her financial dependability on Burruss.
“Cynthia knows that Kandi don’t take care of me,” Mama Joyce clarifies. “I’ve been on disability, Social Security, and plus I have rental property. And anybody that knows me knows that I’ve always had my own money.”
Ask her if she feels she’s being exploited on television, and she will definitively respond, “I do.” Ask if she’s being paid for her appearances on the hit show and she’ll pointedly respond, “No, I’m not.”
“Look,” she explains, “I haven’t gotten a penny from Bravo. They got me [as] the main person and I done trended on [Twitter] two weeks in a row and every damn thing. People keep saying ‘You’re a celebrity,’ and I ask, ‘How the hell am I a celebrity?’ I’m the most unpaid celebrity there is. I’m looking in the Us Weekly and I have a picture and I say, ‘How am I getting all of this attention? I’m not a celebrity!’ ”
Joyce Jones elaborates about how she promised herself she wouldn’t show up on Real Housewives anymore after her initial appearances because she wasn’t being compensated, or even reimbursed for transportation to get to and fro. The show’s producer Carlos King (a former Love & Hip-Hop producer) convinced her to appear more on Real Housewives, telling her viewer demand was high and Kandi needed a storyline. “And I said, ‘Well, for Kandi, I’ll come back for her because I’ll do anything for my daughter.”
But that—like so many reality TV real-life realities—has not turned out so well. She recently hired a publicist to help quell some of the negative attention she’s acquired.
“I’m only doing [it] because I didn’t like what was being said about me,” she confided.
Mama Joyce and Burruss, who just returned from spending her holiday in the Bahamas, are working to patch things up and spent New Year’s Day together. As far as Tucker, she says they “kind of make up” in an upcoming episode.
“If he makes her happy, I’m happy,” she adds. “I just want the best for her. And if he’s the best for her, well then I’m happy. All I want her to do is be happy. God knows that’s all I want.”
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in Jet, Playbill, Billboard, The Daily Beast, CNN.com and Essence. On Twitter, he’s @TontoKaru.