August 27, 2011 in Features

Harsh realities

For participants, the public unraveling of their private lives on TV can lead to dark consequences

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 TV personality hanged himself.

Armstrong left behind no note explaining why, leaving others to indict or 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.

Bravo, which airs “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” is re-editing the show’s second season, set to begin Sept. 5, which had planned to focus on the marital strife between Armstrong and his wife, Taylor.

But few expect the suicide to have broad implications for reality television.

“I don’t think it’ll make any difference at all,” said Russell Armstrong’s attorney, Ronald Richards.

He said he hoped the show would remove Armstrong from its storyline altogether, but added that 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 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 “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.”

Most reality shows do some background checks on participants, but mistakes happen.

Screening of Ryan Jenkins, a participant on the VH1 series “Megan Wants a Millionaire,” failed to turn up records that he had assaulted an ex-girlfriend in Canada. His checkered past was not revealed until after he was charged with killing his wife, a model whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase in Southern California with her teeth and fingers removed, in 2009.

After evading authorities and reaching Vancouver, B.C., Jenkins killed himself in a hotel room.

Major productions use psychological testing to try to predict how participants will respond to the pressures of the show.

“That’s where the biggest problem lies as a psychologist,” said Dr. Richard Levak, who helped develop psychological testing for early seasons of “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “The Contender.”

“You don’t know how they’re going to unravel,” he said

Producers often want people on their shows who happen to have histories of being abused, depression or other issues.

“The most colorful and interesting people were often the ones who have psychological issues,” Levak said, adding that sometimes the shows can be cathartic.

Levak said he fears the drive to produce new, more compelling shows is causing some producers to cut corners. Doing a psychological evaluation on each participant is expensive, and he doubts many shows are spending the money.

“Your pool of eligible (participants) gets smaller, (there are) more shows and shows that are doing it on a shoestring and don’t test,” he said. “We’re going to see more casualties.”

Sternheimer, the USC sociologist who recently released a book titled “Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility,” said the desire to appear on reality shows is linked to the long-standing American ideal of success.

“It reinforces this notion that there’s an endless amount of economic opportunity in the U.S.,” she said. “Reality is, most of them are not going to really see the big payday.”

Reality TV participants aren’t supervised or covered by unions or entertainment industry watchdogs. They exist in a gray area in Hollywood – and increasingly in other parts of the country – that allows many reality shows to be produced for much less than a scripted show starring professional actors.

During the Writers Guild strike in 2007-2008, reality shows blossomed as networks put the brakes on scripted shows and plugged their scheduling holes with reality fare.

Stuart Fischoff, a professor who founded the journal Media Psychology, said shows such as “Housewives” don’t necessarily reflect society at large.

“These shows are really not average Americans anymore,” he said. “You have a lot of exhibitionists and people who want to get into the biz who are sacrificing themselves.”

Fischoff said he was surprised that producers and networks hadn’t developed a better support system for the former reality star akin to the advocacy group that now lobbies for child actors.

“You’re going to have all these people who are walking wounded,” he said.

Armstrong attorney Richards doubts any support network will ever emerge. “I don’t think there’s a lot of sympathy for these people,” he said.

He said Russell Armstrong was willing to join “Housewives” to support his wife and build his own brand.

“They prey on an addiction more powerful than heroin or Oxycontin,” Richards said, “which is the addiction of being famous.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email