Los Angeles Reality came crashing in on Russell Armstrong. With the second season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” set to premiere in a few weeks, and a pending lawsuit and divorce, the venture capitalist-turned reality personality hanged himself.
Armstrong left behind no note explaining why, leaving others to indict and defend a genre that has seen its share of off-screen turmoil that often dwarfs the drama caught on camera.
The headlines include a murder, drug trafficking, overdoses, financial ruin, and custody disputes and divorces that play out in the tabloids as much as they do courtrooms. Experts caution reality TV is not solely to blame, but the full impact on its participants and audience is not yet known.
At least temporarily, Armstrong’s suicide has shaken one of the genre’s brashest franchises.
Bravo, which airs “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” is re-editing the show’s second season, which had planned to focus on the marital strife between Armstrong and his wife, Taylor. The network did not say how it would alter the unaired episodes, or whether it would incorporate any mentions of suicide prevention resources.
Beyond “Housewives,” few people, including Russell Armstrong’s own attorney, expect the suicide to have broad implications for the reality show industry.
“I don’t think it’ll make any difference at all,” attorney Ronald Richards said in an interview. He said he hoped the show would remove Armstrong from its storyline altogether, but said his client had been warned of the pitfalls of appearing in a reality series before signing on.
“Housewives” has since its debut in 2006 thrived on the divorces, foreclosures and tempers of its well-heeled cast members’ lives. The Washington, D.C., version starred a couple accused of crashing a state dinner at the White House, and the first season of the New Jersey version ended with one housewife angrily calling a fellow cast member a “whore” and overturning a table while the woman’s children looked on.
Stars of current hit shows such as “Jersey Shore” have reveled in bad behavior, while even those that aim to help have been rocked by off-screen tragedy. Two alumni of “Celebrity Rehab” — actor Jeff Conaway and former Alice In Chains bassist Mike Starr have died after their seasons aired.
Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of the U.S. version of “Survivor” has waged a years-long battle over unpaid taxes and is currently in prison. Also incarcerated is Adam Jasinski, the winner of “Big Brother 9” who is serving a four-year sentence after pleading guilty to possession with attempt to distribute oxycodone and failure to file a tax return for the year he won the reality show’s $500,000 prize.
The precise impact of the shows on their stars’ later lives is difficult to determine, yet the Armstrongs are just one of many couples whose relationship failures have been chronicled by reality TV. The TLC-series “Jon and Kate Plus 8” was upended after it was revealed the couple’s marriage was in shambles; the reconfigured show “Kate Plus 8” was recently canceled.
Younger parents are also fair game, with shows such as “Teen Mom” showing not only the custody struggles of young mothers, but a street fight that ended with charges being filed.
“It’s really hard to know what would have happened to these people otherwise,” said Karen Sternheimer, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California. “We don’t have a control group of other drama queens.”