Unscripted

08.17.11

Death of a ‘Real Housewives’ Husband

Two weeks before the season-two premiere of 'Beverly Hills,’ Taylor Armstrong’s estranged husband, Russell, is dead in a suicide. Kate Aurthur and Maria Elena Fernandez on the couple’s money woes and on-camera unraveling—and Bravo’s plans for the show.

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

The women of Bravo’s phenomenally successful Real Housewives reality TV franchise have experienced—on camera—divorce, problems with their children, foreclosure, and bankruptcy. Off camera there have been three deaths as well: the fiancé of Gretchen Rossi and the ex-husband of Tammy Knickerbocker, both of Orange County, died of natural causes; and the ex-fiancé of Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss was beaten to death in a fight at a club.

And now there has been an apparent suicide. Russell Armstrong, the 47-year-old husband of Taylor Armstrong, 40, of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, was found dead Monday night, two weeks before the premiere of the show’s second season. He had been staying in West Los Angeles on Mulholland Drive with a friend, who discovered Armstrong hanged in his bedroom, according to a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department who spoke with The Daily Beast. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene, a police spokesman said. A representative from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said Armstrong’s death does appear to be a suicide but that an autopsy will be conducted within two days. The news was first reported by TMZ.

During the first season of Beverly Hills, Russell was portrayed as a grumpy-at-best partner, leaving parties in a sulk, buying his daughter a dog she was allergic to without seeming to care, and coming across as cold and uncomfortable. Taylor often talked about the sadness in her marriage to other cast members. “My marriage is the worst it’s ever been,” she told the cameras. “I just feel that something has to change.” The season ended with the couple trying to work out their problems. “We definitely agreed that we wanted to keep our family together,” Taylor said during a reunion of the cast, filmed in early January. The couple had been married for six years and had a 5-year-old daughter, Kennedy.

But the reconciliation did not last. Taylor filed for divorce on July 15, citing irreconcilable differences. In an interview with People magazine around the same time, she said that her husband had physically abused her. Russell 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.” (The divorce petition filed in downtown Los Angeles Superior Court, viewed by The Daily Beast on Tuesday, makes no mention of abuse or domestic violence.)

Season two of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—part of a franchise that has expanded since the 2006 launch of Orange County to New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Miami—is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 5. Asked whether the show will air as planned, how much the dissolution of the Armstrong marriage will be featured during the season, and whether the show will be changed or reedited in the wake of Russell’s death, a network spokesperson said no decisions have been made. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the channel’s executives plan to wait “at least 24 hours to make a decision about whether they’ll postpone the show.”

Russell does not appear in the premiere, which has already been sent out to the press. “He was not happy about how he thought the show would portray him,” Russell Armstrong’s attorney, Ronald Richards, reached on Tuesday, told The Daily Beast. But the couple’s marital problems are front and center, plot-wise. In her first scene, Taylor goes shopping for lingerie with friends in order to “spice up my love life” with Russell. She says they are in couple's therapy.

The therapy comes up again later in the episode under more fraught circumstances. At a dinner party with the whole cast and their spouses—except for Russell—Taylor feels that Ken Todd, the husband of Lisa Vanderpump, is judging her for needing professional help to save her marriage. She breaks down in tears and leaves the table.

When she returns, the confrontation continues. “We were at the end of our rope,” she tells Todd. “I’m really fragile right now. I’m going through so much—it’s a lot.”

In confessional interviews to the camera, fan favorites Ken and Lisa do not appear to be sympathetic to Taylor. Ken says, “It seems to me that Taylor can turn on the waterworks whenever she wants to.”

“Taylor’s very manipulative,” Lisa says. She later adds, “Her mood goes up and down like the whore’s drawers.”

In a trailer for the upcoming season, Taylor appears to be crying several times, at one point tearfully saying to cast mate Adrienne Maloof, “I feel like I’m breaking.” Adrienne responds: “You are. You’re having a nervous breakdown.”

Reality television has faced dilemmas over whether to air tragedies before. In 1994, MTV’s third season of The Real World cast the HIV-positive Pedro Zamora, and his death that same year was memorialized in a special tribute program. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when in 2009 Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on VH1’s dating show Megan Wants a Millionaire, murdered his wife and then committed suicide rather than be arrested, the network pulled the show off the air and scrapped it.

Thom Beers, executive producer of several testosterone-fueled documentary-style programs that follow men whose livelihoods force them to confront death on a regular basis, has dealt with the passing of three cast members. The sudden death, on camera, of Capt. Phil Harris of Discovery’s Deadliest Catch in 2010 garnered the most attention. Harris, who appeared to be recovering from a stroke he suffered while filming, asked for production to continue, allowing the cameras to capture his unexpected death. The series earned an Emmy nomination.

“What happened on Housewives is a tragedy,” Beers said Tuesday. “It casts a pall over the whole production because the shows start airing, and there’s nothing you can do … It really affects the spirit of the entire production.”

According to Richards, the venture capitalist was suffering from financial difficulties made worse by lavish spending he and his wife felt was required by the show. Richards was representing him in the divorce and in a $1.5 million lawsuit filed against the couple last month, alleging they had bilked people in an Internet medical scam. “People start making financial decisions based upon what’s best for the TV show instead of what’s best for them,” Richards told The Daily Beast. “So it creates a horrible cycle of bad decisions that start to pile upon one another.”

A Bravo spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this assertion.

Richards talked to his client regularly and said that when he spoke to Russell two days ago he seemed depressed about his divorce and the pending lawsuit, but not at a level that worried Richards.

“He had the normal depression that you would expect based on being in a lawsuit and a divorce, but nothing beyond the ordinary,” he said. “I was not concerned. This is very tough on all levels.”

Armstrong is survived by his daughter with Taylor and two sons from previous relationships. Through her manager, Robert Thorne, Taylor Armstrong said in a statement that she is “devastated by the tragic events that have unfolded. She requests privacy at this time so that she may comfort her young daughter. Her thoughts and prayers are also with Russell’s 11- and 13-year-old sons.”

In January, Russell Armstrong talked to The Daily Beast for a story about the husbands of Real Housewives. “I didn’t really understand what we were getting into,” he said at the time. “I don’t really watch reality television.”

Nicole LaPorte and Isabel Wilkinson contributed to this report.