The suicide of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Russell Armstrong this week has left many questions. But as "Real Housewives of D.C." alum Michaele Salahi sees it, the investor — who hanged himself at the age of 47 — was a "troubled" man whose woes were compounded by the overwhelming spotlight that reality TV cast on him.
"It's no one person's fault — certainly you can't blame the show — I think maybe he didn't understand what he was getting into," Salahi told TheWrap during an interview with her and her husband, Tareq Salahi.
During TheWrap's interview with the Salahis, the couple — who gained infamy as the so-called "White House Crashers" and starred on the first and only season of "The Real Housewives of D.C." last year — reflected on the pressures that appearing on Bravo's hit reality-TV juggernaut can create. Their conclusion? While Bravo and the "Real Housewives" aren't specifically to blame for Armstrong's death, the glare of public scrutiny combined with personal crises — such as the Armstrongs' impending divorce and financial woes — can be devastating, and the network does little to prepare cast members for the experience.
"There's been zero prep [for cast members] with the show and how to handle paparazzi," Tareq said. "Obviously, Bravo's made some mistakes and is learning along the way how do you deal with [the fact that], when you hire someone, you give them some guidelines."
Tareq suggests that the network should develop a "guide book" for cast members, and even says he went so far as to write one and sent it to Bravo, but he didn't get much of a response.
But Bravo's indifference to the Housewives" cast members' well-being goes beyond a lack of preparation, Tareq said, He accused the network of leaving him and his wife out to dry for the sake of sensationalism. Noting that Bravo had obtained permits to film the couple at the White House, Tareq says that the network withheld that information from the public as the couple's reputation was tarnished in the press, and held back footage that would have painted them in a less damning light for more than a year.
"When the stuff went down with the White House, Bravo abandoned us, they disappeared," Salahi recalled. "I don't think that's cool, I don't like the way they do that … Bravo sat on that evidence for about a year. Why? So it would be the most talked-about franchise in the world."
Bravo had no comment on the couple's charges.
Tareq further charged the show with deliberately pitting castmates against each other. He said producers go out of their way to create volatile situations — probably not the best situation for someone, like Armstrong, who's already in personal and financial crisis. Calling "Real Housewives" franchise "guided and pre-arranged," Salahi recalled how the intimate, one-on-one interviews would be used to stir ill will among cast members.
Case in point? The "Real Housewives of D.C." controversy over Michaele's weight loss, when castmate Lynda Erkiletian criticized her for being too skinny.
"That was created and started by one of the producers saying [to Erkiletian],'Do you think she's anorexic?'" Tareq says. "They'll read you a line."
Another tried-and-true method to stir things up for the cameras? Booze. According to Tareq, the "Real Housewives" producers encouraged drinking, figuring that tongues would start wagging soon after. Saying that there were "a number of times" when cast members were egged on in their drinking, Tareq recalled one particularly long shoot at a winery.
"We started filming at 11 in the morning, and we finished filming at two a.m. the next day," Tareq said. "We'd keep drinking wine and partying because we're at the winery; they're saying, 'Yeah, keep the wine going, we'll pay for you.'"
In the end, Tareq said, amping up the controversy is what Bravo is supposed to do with the series. "Yeah, of course; that's they're job," he conceded. "That's their job and we recognize as cast members that that's their job."
Compounding the problem, the couple says, is that the media in general responds to the cooked-up controversy, churning out malicious and often-untrue stories that put added pressure on the unwitting cast members.
The Salahis say that they were uniquely prepared for the situation due to the White House incident; other couples, who have less prior experience with the effects of media exposure, might not be so lucky.
In the end, however, Michaele says that there may be a silver lining to Russell Armstrong's tragedy — if reality-TV producers do more to prepare their cast members for the experience, and if the media at large backs off on malicious reports about the "Real Housewives" crews and their ilk. Two big ifs.
"I think everybody will learn from this, and step back and [apply] a little more patience and kindness," she said.