Braunwyn Windham-Burke wanted nothing more than to help daughter Rowan as she endured a debilitating — and near-fatal — eating disorder throughout her adolescence.
“All I wanted as a mom was to fix it. What can I do to fix it? And there was nothing I could do,” the “Real Housewives of Orange County” alum tells Page Six in an exclusive joint interview with her 19-year-old.
“Once she hit 18, it was becoming harder. I wanted to fix it. She wanted to be left alone. There was definitely a power struggle, I would say. [She] wanted to do it [her] way, I wanted to do it my way.”
Rowan, who initially resisted Braunwyn’s attempts to help, now understands her mother’s pain.
“When you’re a parent and you see a kid who hasn’t eaten for, like, 30 days, is 25 pounds underweight than they should [be], literally on the brink of death, and can’t even eat a single vegetable, that’s scary, it’s terrifying,” she says.
Braunwyn and Rowan admit that arguments over food would sometimes turn into explosive screaming matches. While their worst confrontations were not documented on reality TV, one memorably played out on social media.
As Rowan explained in a since-deleted YouTube video from 2020, Braunwyn once begged her to “eat a f—king vegetable,” a comment that “stuck with [her]” for quite some time and temporarily impacted her psyche as a high schooler.
Reflecting back on that moment, however, the teen acknowledges that her mother’s desperate plea, once perceived as a harsh attack, was said out of love — but mostly “out of fear.”
“It was her first time dealing with this,” says Rowan, the second-eldest of seven children that Braunwyn shares with ex-husband Sean Burke. “So, obviously [she] didn’t know how to deal with it; I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Braunwyn gets misty-eyed thinking about the height of her daughter’s battle with her body image.
“I was so afraid we were going to lose her. She was so close to dying,” she says of the former competitive dancer, who at one point in her plight would exercise for four hours a day — in addition to skipping meals.
“I remember begging her to eat this carrot, holding her baby sister who’d just been born, saying, ‘Please eat this for her.’ In her mind, I kicked her out of the house,” Braunwyn recounts.
“In my mind, I sent her [to spend the night away] with Sean because I was so afraid that she wasn’t going to wake up — and I didn’t want her little brothers and sisters to find her [in that state].”
Rowan believes she “would have died” if her parents hadn’t coerced her into treatment just days later.
“When you’re in the mindset that I was in, being sent away to treatment is the worst thing that can possibly happen to you,” she elaborates. “But it was actually something that was completely needed.”
These days, Rowan lives in West Hollywood, miles away from Braunwyn, who splits her time between Orange County and New York City, where girlfriend Victoria Brito resides. As a new Angeleno, Rowan cherishes her independence — and a strengthened connection with her mother that transcends distance.
“I feel like, with everything that you’ve been through and everything that I’ve been through and the amount of self-growth and development that we’ve both been doing, you’re able to understand me a lot more than you ever have,” Rowan tells her mom directly.
“I’m also able to understand you the most, the most out of everybody in the family because we’re the most similar.”
As Braunwyn enters her third year of sobriety and Rowan continues to make strides in her recovery, the two have also steadily embraced their identities as members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
After watching her mother come out as a lesbian in the public eye, making history as the first gay “Real Housewife,” Rowan was inspired to come out as pansexual.
Their unique bond has motivated Braunwyn to share previously untold stories with Rowan, meant to comfort her daughter during moments of uncertainty.
“Some of [the stories] are about my sexuality. Some of them are about my own battles with food,” she says. “[Rowan] didn’t realize that I had struggled with a lot of the same things that she did. Although I’ve been open about other parts of my personality, like my addiction with alcohol, my relationship with food was actually the one I had the most shame around and I never shared that.”
Braunwyn will detail her “30-year battle with food” in an upcoming memoir. In the meantime, though, Rowan feels lucky to have heard her mother’s tales firsthand.
“It made everything make so much more sense and it also was like, ‘Oh, OK, I know where it comes from. I know the source, so I know now how to deal with it and how to work with it,’” she notes, adding that her current relationship with food is in flux — but so much better than she ever imagined.
“I don’t think that there is a ‘fully recovered’ when it comes to these types of things because it is an everyday battle and struggle,” she says.
“But I definitely am the best that I have been since it started, 100 percent. I am the best and the healthiest, not just physically but mentally, that I have been since I was 15.”