A Suicide Begs Questions About How Far Reality Shows Go

Taylor Armstrong (center) amongst fellow Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
Taylor Armstrong (center) amongst fellow Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
Courtesy of Bravo

Maybe the real question should be: Why haven't more reality show participants killed themselves?

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).

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.


Remember, it was the first winner of Survivor, arch-villain Richard Hatch, who emerged from the show a decade ago to face charges of child abuse and tax evasion (he claimed CBS fixed the game and lied to him about paying the taxes on his winnings). He's done two stretches in jail. But in between, he appeared on four other reality shows. If he hadn't been under house arrest at the time, Hatch would've been part of the same Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains tribe as Sugar Kiper, said producer Mark Burnett.

Contestants on the Swedish and Australian versions of Survivor-like shows have committed suicide. A boxer who lost a bout on NBC's The Contender shot himself to death in his car outside a gym in 2005. A chef and owner of a floundering New Jersey restaurant featured on Gordon Ramsay's Fox reality show Kitchen Nightmares jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010. Rachel Brown, a Dallas personal chef who finished fifth on the second season of Ramsay's competitive cooking Hell's Kitchen show, died by self-inflicted gunshot in 2007.

Will Russell Armstrong's suicide have any effect on reality TV? Will anything? The mores of reality TV have been studied by Dr. Bruce Weinstein, also known as The Ethics Guy and writer of a column for Bloomberg Business Week. Reality TV in recent years, he says, has been "ratcheting up of the level of brutality ... it's nastier, it's coarser, it's harsher."

And that's why we watch it. Nice people sharing a house with cameras running? Those ratings wouldn't beat The Farm Report. The conflicts stirred up among the non-actors who take part in reality shows have little to do with reality, says Weinstein. "These programs are as produced as drama. What we are watching is not reality unfolding, but reality as it is shaped by a group of people. Aristotle told us that the essence of all drama is conflict. What the producers of these shows are trying to do is to maximize the conflict."

Exactly. But we didn't know how much it might be maximized until the Village Voice's media blog published the details of the standard contract a TV reality show participant must sign. Among the conditions cast members must agree not to hold the producers responsible for are stipulations regarding loss of limbs, possible nervous breakdowns, disfigurement and even death. Also, "You may be humiliated and explicitly portrayed `in a false light'" on the show.

Got that? They can film you and make you look like a slut, an asshole or an airhead. You have to agree to that. Everyone on a show like this right now has agreed to that. And if any contestant, bachelor, tribe member, housemate or chef gets kicked off a show, "it will be filmed."

One of the biggest problems with the proliferation of reality shows and the seemingly endless parade of people willing to live before their camera crews is that they play into a current wave of narcissism that was caused, in part, by reality shows themselves.

"These shows offer hope that to all narcissistic viewers who ever dreamed that fame, or even just ostentatious wealth, could be theirs simply by demanding it," write Dr. Drew Pinsky and co-author Dr. S. Mark Young in their terrific 2009 book, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America. "The people who succeed on these shows appear to have little use for education, hard work or the discipline of climbing a career ladder. Instead, they pout, throw tantrums, stomp their feet, manipulate friends, family and coworkers, and otherwise act out, all while wallowing in the lap of luxury."

In other words, reality shows make fame look easy. And the sheer number of shows being produced now on broadcast and cable networks means there's a constant demand for more people willing to sign away their dignity in the hope of winning a spot on one of them. In her 2004 book The Importance of Being Famous, writer Maureen Orth calls it "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex."

It's a media monster that creates its own reality. And it's a hungry monster that doesn't care whether the neo-celebrities that it creates thrive or perish as the machinery grinds on.

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