A Suicide Begs Questions About How Far Reality Shows Go
With this week's apparent suicide by hanging of Russell Armstrong, the 47-year-old estranged spouse of one of Bravo's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the death toll from reality TV increases by one. There have been other suicides, plus several admitted attempts by reality show "stars." And then there are all the stories of people whose lives have been dented, damaged and distorted by appearing on reality TV.
Every time someone chooses suicide to escape the media scrutiny they either didn't expect or couldn't handle, a brief period of self-reflection follows about what this type of programming does to its viewers and its participants. That's going on now, with the nighttime cable talk and infotainment shows gathering the usual suspects - shrinks, lawyers, reality show alums - to make shallow pronouncements about how the medium has gone too far. But stay tuned for Dance Moms, Hoarders and Teen Moms.
Armstrong, found dead August 15, was to be at the center of this season's RHOBH, which was scheduled to return to Bravo with new episodes September 5 (the network hasn't announced yet if the show will be re-edited, postponed or even canceled). In a preview sent to TV critics earlier this summer, Armstrong's wife, Taylor, is shown shopping for lingerie and talking about going to couples therapy.
In the first season of the show, Russell was barely seen, but a plotline developed about the Armstrongs' faltering marriage and financial problems, including bankruptcy and foreclosure. On the show, however, they occupied a mansion, rode in limos, took lavish trips and threw a $60,000 birthday party for their 5-year-old daughter.
The Housewives franchise, Bravo's most successful spate of programming, is especially cruel to its housewives and their families, particularly the "villains." Someone in each cast is pegged as the nasty one, either through editing or subtle scripting (what reality TV insiders call "cooking" the interaction among cast members). In the short-lived Real Housewives of D.C., it was the tart-tongued Cat Ommanney, whose marriage crumbled just after that series ended. In the Orange County cast, it was former Playboy Playmate Jeanna Keogh, who told an interviewer this week, in reaction to the news about Armstrong, that she left the show because she felt she was being portrayed badly. She went right onto another reality show, Thintervention.
Danielle Staub, a former Real Housewives of New Jersey cast member, said she considered ending her life after appearing on the first season of her show. "I was very close to taking my own life -- not just on one occasion -- it's been several times," Staub told Entertainment Tonight.
Staub, a mother of two daughters, was depicted as the scheming slut among the New Jersey "housewives." A former stripper with a background of consorting with drug dealers and other underworld figures, Staub, currently appearing on another reality show, Famous Food on VH1, said she felt alone and attacked after RHONJ aired.
"I don't have words to describe how alone you feel," she said on ET. "And everybody's coming at you, and judging you, and they don't even know you." She stayed alive for her kids' sakes, she said. She also contacted another reality TV star, Dr. Drew Pinsky, for counseling and appeared on his Dr. Drew show on HLN this week. "It's really hard to talk to people who are not in our genre about what really goes on when the lights go down. ... I'm just saying it's hard to explain to people who aren't doing this for a living," said Staub.
It's the "doing it for a living" that seems to bring disaster to so many reality show cast members. Sugar Kiper, now a graduate of Celebrity Rehab 5 with Dr. Drew, where she underwent treatment for alcohol and pot addiction, said she made an attempt at suicide after being voted off first on 2010's Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. She'd previously gone all the way to the final three on Survivor: Gabon in 2008 (she lost the million bucks to a high school physics teacher named Bob Crowley).
Sugar Kiper of Celebrity Rehab
We see this play out again and again, reality show players trying to stay famous by doing more reality shows. The instant fame of appearing on reality TV - starting in 1992 with MTV's vanguard of the genre, The Real World - seems to distort participants' actual reality. They suddenly are public figures for no other reason than having cameras pointed at them. They're paid to misbehave, to drink and screw and fight over whose fingers were in the peanut butter, or in the case of competitive reality shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, to endure physical "challenges" in a contest that might award them a fat lot of money.