The suicide of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Russell Armstrong this week has once again drawn a spotlight on the controversial methods used by producers of reality shows, and this time Bravo has been put in the cross-hairs.
As information seeps out about the mental state of the 47-year-old venture capitalist, who hung himself at a residence on Mulholland Drive, fingers are being pointed at the show and the network.
Also read: A Dozen Reality TV Stars Who Have Attempted Suicide (Slideshow)
“The TV shows aren’t causing this problem, (but) they might be amplifying the situation,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “They can make anybody look like a schmuck if they want to, and you see that a lot — people get set up.”
Armstrong’s mother, John Ann Hotchkiss, recalled him telling her during an interview on HLN, “Mom, they’re just going to crucify me this season. I don’t know what to do. I’ll never survive it.”
She added: “[Armstrong told me] ‘All the network cares about are ratings. They don’t care if people are hurt, or if it destroys their marriage.’ And I watched it slowly destroy their marriage.”
Armstrong was apparently concerned about how he came across. His estrangement from his wife, Taylor, constituted a major storyline on the show, and he had sent castmates a legal letter warning them not to talk about his marital troubles on the air. (He later withdrew it.)
Also read: Russell Armstrong’s Mother Accuses Bravo in Son’s Suicide
Armstrong’s attorney, Ronald Richards, told TheWrap that the contestant spent his savings trying to make himself and his wife seem wealthy enough to be on the show. He settled a lawsuit accusing him of siphoning off money from a business to pay for a redecorated home, which was just one of his apparent extravagances.
A spokeswoman for Bravo declined to comment on the production methods on “Real Housewives,” and the show has yet to announce whether it will push ahead with the planned season premiere of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” Sept. 5. The show’s production company, Evolution Media, did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
But the accusation of ratings avarice in the face of human tragedy cuts to the quick, if only because the tactics used on reality shows are well-established, more than a decade into the popular genre.
Former participants confirm that “Real Housewives” uses well-worn methods to wring drama from their real-life players: plying them with alcohol to dampen inhibitions, manipulating situations to create conflict and editing scenes to heighten the drama.
Also read: Michaele Salahi on Russell Armstrong: “He Didn’t Understand What He Was Getting Into”
The impact can often be devastating.
In 2009, TheWrap chronicled a dozen suicides by reality show contestants whose deaths appeared to be closely connected to their experiences on the shows. (See slideshow)
Armstrong appears to be not dissimilar from those victims, unhappy and under pressure. Former “Real Housewives” participant Tareq Salahi said that alcohol consumption was commonly a major part of the shoot.
To hear his attorney tell it, Armstrong only agreed to appear on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” the show he later blamed for destroying his life, to make his wife happy.
Also read: Lawyer: Russell Armstrong Spent Savings to Make Wife Famous on “Housewives”
He went to parties where he and Taylor Armstrong drank too much, spent lavishly to maintain the impression they lived in opulence, and became an object of derision for viewers and others in the cast.
Armstrong didn’t come off well on the show; he seemed dull at best compared to the gaudy, cosmetically enhanced women with whom he shared the camera, and obnoxious at worst.
“So what’s the latest with your little company?” he said in his first line on the show, speaking to his wife at dinner.
“I’d love it if you wouldn’t call my company little,” she responded.
Countless people have joined reality shows in the hopes that fame will fulfill their dreams. Many later claim the shows instead ruined their lives.
But if Armstrong really is a victim of reality TV, he is also one of the most tragic, a minor player who felt trashed in the service of his wife’s narrative.
“I think maybe he didn’t understand what he was getting into,” Michaele Salahi said in an interview with TheWrap.
No one outside of Russell and Taylor Armstrong know if the show really eroded their relationship, or just provided a convenient explanation for his problems. Armstrong himself told People last month that the show “pushed us to the limit.”
His wife filed for divorce last month, and publicly accused him of abuse. He was still trying to dig out from a 2005 bankruptcy, according to his attorney Richards. He had a past misdemeanor conviction for battery and a felony conviction for not paying taxes.
He was also being sued for $1.5 million over the settlement of the case in which he was accused of selling shares in a company and then spending the money on home redecorating, among other expenses.
Psychologists have often remarked that reality shows tend to attract people who thirst for fame or are otherwise damaged in some way. “It’s basically wanna-be syndrome, and if you have that, then you’re really vulnerable to other external pressures,” said Rutledge.
That being the case, the question may be what responsibility networks and show producers have in exacerbating the vulnerabilities of people who volunteer to appear on these shows.
Rutledge suggested that some formal guidelines for producers might be in order.
“Does there need to be a code of ethics on what the producers can put people through?” she asked. “I’m not saying that the government should get involved, but you could make an argument that [an ethics code] would be the responsible thing to do, because the producers don’t understand psychology.”
Tim Kenneally contributed to this report.