08.16.11

'Housewives' Suicide Shock

Russell Armstrong, the abusive husband of ‘Beverly Hills’ cast member Taylor Armstrong, was found hanging in his bedroom in Los Angeles Monday night. Kate Aurthur on the shocking news. Plus, read Armstrong’s interview with The Daily Beast earlier this year, in which he talks about the stress of appearing on television.

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Coroner's office confirmed the police department's early findings that Armstrong hung himself. Toxicology results are pending, the spokesman said.

Taylor Armstrong had filed for divorce in July, citing irreconcilable differences. But in an interview with People magazine around the same time, she said that her husband had physically abused her. Russell Armstrong told People: “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. This show has literally pushed us to the limit."

On the show’s first season, Russell had been seen as a grumpy-at-best partner, with Taylor often lamenting the sadness in their marriage to other cast members. In January, Russell Armstrong told The Daily Beast in the story below about husbands of Real Housewives, "I didn't really understand what we were getting into.” He also said that his decision to stay in the background of the show “backfired.”

During the same interview with The Daily Beast, he cited financial pressures and working all the time as something that had added to his stress. Armstrong had filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and recent reports indicated that he was again in financial trouble.

Season 2 of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was scheduled to premiere on Sept. 5. An email to Bravo asking whether that would go on as planned, how much the dissolution of the Armstrong marriage would be featured during the season, and whether the show would be changed or reedited at all because of the news was not answered in detail at press time.

Andy Cohen, the network's executive vice president of original programming and development, who also hosts Bravo's talk show Watch What Happens: Live, tweeted, "I am so very sad about today's news. My prayers and thoughts are with Taylor Armstrong and her family." Bravo issued a similar statement.

—Kate Aurthur

Video screenshot

Taylor Armstrong opens up about being physically abused by late husband Russell.

January 26, 2011

"I'm going to be more engaging next season," Russell Armstrong said, when cornered at a party recently and asked about his stint on Bravo's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Over the course of the recently ended reality show, Armstrong—a straitlaced venture capitalist married to Housewife Taylor Armstrong—emerged as an unrivaled schmuck.

Robotic and awkward, Russell appeared always to be dragging a pouting Taylor away from parties just as they were getting started; he bought their allergic daughter a puppy and then seemed to want them to keep it. Even just sitting at the breakfast table, he looked like he'd prefer to be having a colonoscopy. Taylor, meanwhile, spoke openly to her fellow Housewives about her marital problems.

"I didn't really understand what we were getting into," Russell told The Daily Beast defensively, but with more charm than was ever displayed on TV. "I don't really watch reality television. And so we decided early on that this was Taylor's project; that I was going to be supportive, but just stay in the background. And that backfired."

It's not easy being a Real Househusband. Although the show—which has also explored the McMansions of Orange County, New Jersey, New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.—ostensibly revolves around the demi-fabulous femmes of its title, spouses inevitably get dragged into the drama. Very often, there is a price, and coming across as a schmuck is the least of it. These people were all cast, at least in part, for their potential volatility; being prodded by producers and fellow castmembers, and seeing their relationships through the public's eyes, can be a combustible combination.

On The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Mauricio Umansky, husband of Kyle Richards, came close to losing one of his biggest real-estate clients ( Frasier star Kelsey Grammer) after his wife had a spat with Grammer's soon-to-be-ex-wife Camille. More seriously, the series has attracted attention for the number of couples who have divorced after, or while, being on the show—a staple of reality television, from its An American Family inception in the early '70s through Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson's Newlyweds and Jon & Kate Plus 8. Most recently, we've seen the Grammer union dramatically implode, and on last year's The Real Housewives of D.C., British expat Cat Ommanney's husband, Charles, a White House photographer who appeared visibly irritated while cameras were rolling, filed for divorce not long after the show wrapped. In its six different editions, there have been seven Housewives divorces and one broken engagement.

And one serious estrangement, which has been playing out, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? style, on the current season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Greg Leakes, the formerly supportive and seemingly calm husband of Atlanta Housewife NeNe Leakes, complained on the radio that after spending $300,000 for his wife to "blow up" on the show, she got a "big head," which led to marital problems and their on-again-off-again divorce plans.

Shari Levine, Bravo's senior vice president of production, dismisses the idea that Housewives is a recipe for a broken marriage. "I think it's kind of on a case-by-case basis," she said. "I think we're looking at people who are going through—their life is under a spotlight. We do not have a 50 percent divorce rate on our show; there have been a couple families where people divorced, so you could say we're doing better than the national average."

"I think a lot of things affect relationships," Levine continued. "It's easy to point to the cameras as being a cause for anything. It's easy to point to editing as a cause of anything. I don't think they cause it. I think they catch it."

About the Housewives divorce rate and its relationship to the cameras, Bravo executive Shari Levine says: "I don't think they cause it. I think they catch it."

Husbands are also at a disadvantage on Housewives because their wives' points of view are front and center. On The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, when Camille learned that Kelsey was having an affair and wanted a divorce, she proceeded to spill her side of the story in two back-to-back episodes to 4.2 million viewers, a process that helped her shed her Most Hated Housewife title (instead, she became the Slightly Less Hated Housewife). Kelsey, other than a few stilted appearances, had barely been on the show because he was starring in La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway. Camille's new celebrity also provided her with a platform that extended beyond Bravo. She recently shared embarrassing details about her marriage to shock jock Howard Stern, including that Kelsey may or may not be (but probably is, Camille implied) a cross-dresser.

But in some cases, the show has actually helped couples work issues out. Russell said that however irked he was at how he came across on TV, seeing the footage played back made him realize there were problems. "The one thing the show has done, it's made us refocus our marriage," he said. "And it's been wonderful."

Levine said she hears this all the time. "A lot of people have said that at different times. 'I couldn't believe how I came across.' Vicki [Gunvalson, of the Orange County edition] said, 'I really sort of behaved in a way that, when I see it, I cringe. I can't believe I treated my husband that way.'"

(Unfortunately, that remorse did not last—Gunvalson filed for divorce from her husband, Donn, in the fall.)

Not every husband is regretful. Real Housewives of New York City star Simon van Kempen is so into being on the show that he attends hellish "girls' nights"—spurring Ramona Singer to call him "strange"—and he's often referred to as the "seventh housewife."

And Bobby Zarin, husband of Jill Zarin, sees his role as "an ambassador of good will."

"When I walk the streets, in New York or in Australia, they go, 'Bobby! How ya doin'?,'" Bobby said over the telephone. "We go to premieres, parties, openings of hotels, all over the world, travelling, and everyone's so nice. So for me, it's been great."

The publicity from the show has also bolstered business.

"We just had a meeting with Bed, Bath & Beyond," said Bobby, who with Jill runs Zarin Fabric Warehouse and Home Furnishings.

Then there are the husbands, such as Umansky, whom Levine described as a "fantasy husband." A good husband, loving father, and—it was unanimously decided by fans—really hot, Umansky took Kyle out for romantic dinners, played with their kids in the pool, and walked around shirtless, looking like a Mexican soccer star.

Even the way he talked about the incident with Kyle and Camille, and how he almost lost Kelsey as a client, was noble.

"From my personal point of view, thank God I have a very strong practice," Umansky said over the phone. "If you had all your eggs in one basket, that would be a pretty scary situation.

"Do I like to lose a client? Absolutely not. But I have I actually lost them? I haven't … But I back my wife 100 percent. And if that is grounds for losing a client, so be it."

Overall, he said he and Kyle were "very happy" with how they were portrayed on the show. "I mean, that's our life. One of the reasons Kyle and I decided to do the show was, we felt we didn't have any skeletons in the closet. We thought it would be interesting for people to see our good marriage, to be quite honest."

Told of the "fantasy husband" moniker, he laughed. "Oh, I thought you were going to say the hot Latin lover."

—Nicole LaPorte