Death in the glare of a reality show
On Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise, a main character is affluence. It takes many forms: private planes, posh mansions, thousand-dollar shopping sprees. And it seemed Russell Armstrong and his wife, Taylor, who appeared on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” had been living up to the lifestyle. Last season, Taylor threw a $60,000 party for their then-4-year-old daughter, frequently conferred with a private stylist and devoted much of her free time to philanthropy.
On Monday night, Russell Armstrong, 47, was found dead in an apparent suicide, and facts began to emerge Tuesday that raise questions about how the program presented the couple and whether the resulting glare of publicity played any role in his death.
For one, it appears the Armstrongs were far less wealthy than viewers might have surmised. Russell Armstrong, who described himself as a venture capitalist, was a struggling entrepreneur who racked up $12 million in debts in the tech bust and was recently sued with his wife for allegedly diverting investors’ money to redecorate a Bel-Air mansion and hobnob with the truly wealthy.
“ ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,’ I think, was [Russell’s] downfall. The TV show put a lot of pressure on him to produce financially. You’re on a show with a couple like the Maloofs, who are verifiable billionaires, and you’re not,” said friend William Ratner, referring to “Housewives” personality Adrienne Maloof, whose family owns the Sacramento Kings and their home arena as well as Las Vegas’ Palms casino resort.
In July, Taylor Armstrong, 40, filed for divorce from her husband (the difficulties in the couple’s marriage were evident in the show’s first season). As a result, he had been staying with a friend on the 1400 block of Mulholland Drive. On Monday night the friend discovered Russell Armstrong’s body: He had hanged himself and left no suicide note behind, according to authorities.
A statement released by Taylor Armstrong’s publicist said she was “devastated by the tragic events that have unfolded. She requests privacy at this time so that she may comfort her young daughter.”
The second season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is scheduled to premiere Sept. 5, according to Bravo, the cable network that airs the program. At press time, a Bravo representative said a decision had not yet been made on whether the season will be postponed or episodes re-edited.
The “Real Housewives” franchise, which launched in 2006 and followed five women living in Orange County, has become one of Bravo’s most lucrative brands, expanding into multiple locations including New Jersey, New York City and Atlanta. Much of its appeal centers on its protagonists’ opulent lifestyles and the over-the-top drama surrounding them. Though many of the women on the shows boast about their rich and seemingly picture-perfect lives, in the tabloids, another reality has often been revealed: At least half a dozen “Housewives” have begun divorce proceedings and roughly the same number have filed for bankruptcy since signing on to the show.
The first season of the “Beverly Hills” edition came to a close in January, when its finale episode drew an impressive 2.76 million viewers. In the series, Russell was portrayed as the strait-laced husband -- he left parties early and his wife complained he was unaffectionate, which seemed to be at the core of the couple’s struggles. Taylor, at one point, referred to their marriage as a “business partnership.”
Much of the second season was supposed to document her struggle to keep the marriage intact. In the upcoming season premiere, which already has been made available to the television media, Taylor is shown buying lingerie in an attempt to spice up their love life and discussing their attempt at couples therapy; Russell is the only husband not shown in the episode.
Ratner, a Los Angeles restaurant investor, said he last saw Armstrong in June and that his friend already knew a divorce was coming.
“I went in and talked with him, and he said, ‘I don’t know why she’s doing this. Why can’t she do this off the show?’ He said there were still two weeks left of shooting and he didn’t want to be in it,” Ratner explained. “He said the producers at Bravo told Russell and Taylor that they picked them as the ‘disaster couple,’ and if they weren’t going to have drama in the second season, they would cut them and replace them with someone else.”
Asked to respond to Ratner’s assertions, a Bravo representative said “Production has assured us that there is no truth to these claims.” A network statement expressed sympathy for the Armstrong family “at this difficult time.”
But Ronald Richards, the attorney who is representing Russell Armstrong in the divorce and in previous litigation, agreed that his client’s behavior changed once he became a part of a show -- something he did in an effort to help build his wife’s “brand.”
“He helped build the brand and the show, and it’s unfortunate how things worked out because right when her brand became valuable and he thought he could get endorsements for different products, this happened,” he said. “When you join these shows, you end up trying to support an imaginary lifestyle that’s on the show. He was forced to do that because a character loses their brand value if they don’t and diverts the segment on to other characters.”
In a July interview with People magazine, Taylor Armstrong said that Russell was verbally and physically abusive, sometimes “grabbing her, throwing objects, shoving her and pulling her hair.” (None of these allegations was included in her divorce filing.)
“Did I push her? Yes, maybe things happened in the heat of the moment, but it was during a time in our lives that was not characteristic of who we were,” Russell Armstrong responded in the article. “This show has literally pushed us to the limit.”
However, in March 1998, Russell Armstrong pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery involving his first wife. He was sentenced to three days in county jail, 50 hours community service and 36 months summary probation.
Armstrong had struggled financially in the years before he and his wife signed on to the reality show. Filing for bankruptcy in 2005, he claimed he had less than $15,000 in assets to satisfy creditors demanding more than $12 million. He owed more than $1 million in delinquent taxes dating to the mid-1990s.
“I am an individual who earns income as an independent financial consultant for early stage and start-up ventures ... I enjoyed particularly notable levels of success during the ‘dot.com’ boom,” he wrote in a court affidavit.
He blamed his money woes on the bursting of the tech bubble and on a “very costly” palimony suit filed by the mother of his younger son. He was also trying to repay a former business associate who had sued him, claiming fraud for allegedly pushing her to invest $175,000 in a company he knew was worthless.
While mired in debt, he found ways to give Taylor Ford, then his fiancee, $10,000 for a car and later $23,000 for wedding and living expenses. He emerged from bankruptcy in 2008.
The show portrayed the Armstrongs as living the high life, but court documents suggest Russell Armstrong was still paying off his debts to the IRS, American Express and other creditors in installments when filming on the reality show began airing in 2010. (Ratner said he saw Armstrong use a black American Express card -- also known as the Centurion Card -- which is reserved for the company’s most affluent clients.)
How the couple afforded their Beverly Hills lifestyle is the subject of pending litigation. A health information company, Mymedicalrecords.com, filed a $1.5-million breach of contract suit this year accusing the Armstrongs of funneling money investors believed was going to Mymedicalrecords.com toward a corporation the couple controlled.
Times staff writers Harriet Ryan and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.