From the outside, Erika Girardi looks to have a picture perfect life. Outspoken and confident, Girardi, whose alter ego Erika Jayne epitomizes glamour, became a fan favorite on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills when she joined the cast in 2015.
But Girardi’s past is far from flawless and she’s opening up about her hardships in her new book, Pretty Mess.
“I’ve worked very hard for everything I’ve ever had,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “But it’s my journey. And I don’t regret anything.”
Girardi, 46, was just 9 months old when her father left; she was raised by a young single mother, Renee, whose parenting style at times left something to be desired.
“She was under a lot of pressure,” says Girardi of her “critical” mother. “So it was definitely hard at times. There wasn’t a lot of time to be coddled. So I had to grow up quickly.”
At 18, “my mother told me to pay rent or get out,” says Girardi, who moved to New York City to pursue her love of performing. She began working as a Go-Go dancer where she realized her sometimes gritty upbringing came in handy in the real world.
“It taught me to be self-reliant,” she says. “It also taught me to be incredibly resilient, to bounce back and assess situations quickly. I trust my gut a lot.”
Girardi was 20 years old when she gave birth to a son, Thomas, now 25, but split from Thomas’ father after a brief marriage. Determined to make it in Hollywood, Girardi decided to move to Los Angeles, leaving Thomas in N.Y.C. with his father.
For more from Girardi, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
“It was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken,” says Girardi, who admits that temporarily leaving her son, “weighed heavy on my heart.” Says Girardi: “I was panicked, but I was committed to succeeding. And I knew he’d end up here with me eventually.”
The reality star was working as a cocktail waitress at the restaurant Chasen’s (and auditioning for acting roles) when she met her future husband, famed attorney Tom Girardi.
After they wed, Girardi says she settled into Tom’s professional world, and though she was happy, she began to lose sight of herself.
“I was living Tom’s life,” says Girardi. “There are only so many material things you can have before it becomes boring. There are only so many dinners, so many things you can buy. I was complacent. I was in a wealthy coma and I wasn’t looking inward.”
And so Girardi, who had loved performing since she was five years old, decided to give the stage another shot.
“I wanted to create again,” says Girardi, whose alter ego Erika Jayne would eventually top the dance music charts with hits like “Painkllr” and “Get It Tonight.” Says Girardi, “I had to be brave enough to say, ‘I’m not fulfilled.’ ”
The singer and reality star admits that starting a music career at 35 did raise some eyebrows.
“People told me I was insane,” says Girardi. “Erika Jayne was born out of rebellion. I like to break the rules.”
Now, Girardi says she’s grateful she took chances, both with the show and with her career — and says she’s not slowing down anytime soon.
“I’m a big dreamer,” she says. “And I have a lot more things to do!”