04/19/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT
What do you get the woman who has everything? For Shaunie O'Neal, the soon-to-be ex-wife of NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal, the answer, she says, was "a purpose." After nearly seven years of enduring lonely stretches of time as her husband traveled the U.S. playing basketball, while infidelity rumors swirled around him, "you go, 'Am I happy in a multimillion dollar home, driving all the cars, and at the end of the day not having some peace within?'"
The answer was no-but now she finally has what she'd been longing for. The 35-year-old mother of five is executive-producing and starring in VH1's Basketball Wives
, a reality series focusing on the spouses and girlfriends of NBA players. And her love life is also taking off, thanks to 23-year-old model Marlon Yates, whom she met last November. "I'm the black Demi Moore
," Shaunie jokes of their age difference. "I'm in a happy place."
It's a far cry from where she was five years ago, when the family moved across the country after Shaq was traded from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Miami Heat. Far from friends and family, Shaunie was left to raise the kids (Myles, 12, her son from a previous relationship, and the four children she had with Shaq: Shareef, 10, Amirah, 8, Shaqir, 7, and Me'Arah, 3) on her own while he traveled with the Heat. "You see things in your lonely time that you maybe didn't see before," she says.
Like her need to face the truth about Shaq's alleged infidelity. "A lot of those rumors were real," says Shaunie's sister Mecoriah Spellman, adding that Shaunie also felt stifled in the marriage (the couple wed in 2002). "He wanted her to stay at home, don't do anything." (Shaq could not be reached for comment.) Still, deciding to leave Shaq and their life of luxury-a 20,000-sq.-ft. mansion, closets full of clothing and a dozen cars-was not easy, she says. "I had a fear of being by myself and being responsible for so much on my own."
When she finally filed for divorce last November, "it was like a weight lifted off of me," says Shaunie, who moved back to L.A. with the kids. "It's a good feeling to know that I'm able to give my kids more and be a better person to be around." Now that their divorce is almost final, Shaunie says things with Shaq have never been better. "Once you let things go, they don't make you mad anymore," says Shaunie, who speaks with him daily. Of course, boyfriend Yates is also helping to put that smile on her face. "I'm not looking for a husband anytime soon," she says. "Right now, this is just fun."