How a 'Real Housewives' Suicide Sheds Light on Exploitation in Reality TV
Russell Armstrong's death raises questions about series focusing on the sick, weak and mentally ill as insiders reveal to THR a one-sided dynamic where the "star" almost always loses.
"Relax! Open up and Breathe! Feel comfortable in the uncomfortable!" A bearded man stomps through a circle of nine hapless students in a run-down Manhattan studio, yelling at the top of his voice. This is Robert Galinsky, 46, a former special education teacher and public-speaking coach who has reinvented himself as principal of the New York Reality TV School and aims to transform his students into stars.
"We're going to turn up the heat," he adds. "I want your name and your secret -- now!"
Galinsky has agreed to let The Hollywood Reporter visit his training studio as part of a months-long look at reality TV's expanding genre of programming based on personal problems and sicknesses. A burly demolition man swathed in furs declares he has never read a whole book. A diminutive trainer reveals she was once a professional basketball player. And then we hit pay dirt.
"My name is Kristen Taylor," a tall, flame-haired woman murmurs. "I was a call girl" -- and she's also a transsexual and a pastor's daughter. Perfect for any show about the impact of the sex industry on young women. As she starts to tell us her eye-popping story in the third-person plural, Galinsky cuts in.
"Speak in the 'I'!" he shouts. "Eliminate 'you, me, they, us.' It's all about me!"
"All about me" has become the mantra of reality TV, even if it means opening up painful private lives to cameras and sacrificing family and friends -- and even, perhaps, if it means someone might die.
The already pushed-to-the-limits reality TV industry was rocked Aug. 15 by news that Russell Armstrong, 47, the oft-featured estranged husband of Bravo's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong and father of three, had committed suicide in advance of the show's second-season premiere. Armstrong's personal battles with his wife were documented in detail on the show. When he hanged himself at a friend's house, he was said to have been struggling with financial problems as well as overall concerns about his negative portrayal on the show (though he, and all other reality participants, sign waivers for filming). He told People magazine in July, "This show has literally pushed us to the limit."
The series will now be re-edited, according to Bravo president Frances Berwick, and might have its Sept. 5 debut delayed. But the suicide has set off a media firestorm, especially following reports that Armstrong wasn't even paid to appear on the show. As Bravo executives debate whether to air programming that documents a man's descent to suicide, Armstrong's family and victims' rights advocates have slammed the network for moving forward with the show in light of the tragedy.
"I don't want to see one frame of my son on the show next season," Armstrong's mother, John Ann Hotchkiss, told The New York Daily News. "I've never sued anyone in my life, but they aren't going to walk all over me and the family."
Armstrong was hardly alone in finding the reality of reality TV even more brutal than it appears onscreen. In fact, his plight was the extreme end of a business dependent on people with deep flaws, clinical phobias and other psychological issues.
Since launching in the U.S. with Survivor in 2000, unscripted television has moved beyond the competitions and dating foibles that defined its youth. Increasingly, the popular shows (especially on cable) document weaknesses of the human condition. A woman featured recently on TLC's My Strange Addiction carried around her husband's ashes until she began eating them (and then was institutionalized). The child mothers of MTV's 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom regularly grace the covers of celebrity magazines. All of this is taking a psychological toll.
As one longtime reality star admits to THR, "It's kind of warped my mind."
But the more outrageous the behavior onscreen, the more people watch. The Aug. 17 episode of MTV's Jersey Shore, which featured castmember Deena Cortese dabbling in booze-fueled lesbianism, pulled in 7.8 million viewers, powered by the youthful audience advertisers desire. Cable executives, thirsty for cheap programming, know that an entire season of an A&E hit like Hoarders can cost less than a few episodes of AMC's Mad Men and generate ratings on par with that acclaimed drama.
When The Real Housewives of Orange County first aired in March 2006, before the financial crash, it was "aspirational," focusing on the opulent lives these women were leading. But as the franchise grew, that conceit became untenable with 9 percent unemployment, so along came The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which still featured women with $3,000 handbags but introduced nearly nonstop catfights.
For a time, Atlanta was Bravo's highest-rated Housewives. That the stars often suffer personal problems outside the show -- several have been sued or forced into bankruptcy protection -- has not derailed viewer interest. But now that someone has hanged himself, all bets might be off.
"This is the worst-case scenario for the reality TV business," says one executive who declined to be named. "It's a very public suicide of a guy who was made to look absolutely terrible on that show. This death is causing people to think hard about the kinds of people we make shows about and whether they are equipped psychologically to be television stars."
Money is part of the problem.
Many hopefuls, including those in Galinsky's class, believe landing a show will make them rich. Like Taylor, the former call girl. Will this boost her $30,000-a-year income? "Absolutely," she says, no doubt influenced by stories about plucked-from-obscurity stars like Bethenny Frankel, who parlayed her fame gained on The Real Housewives of New York City into a spirits business she sold with a partner for $120 million. Reality stars such as Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi earn about $100,000 an episode. Sarah Palin was paid some $250,000 an episode for TLC's short-lived Sarah Palin's Alaska. Taylor Armstrong and her co-stars will make $135,000 apiece for season two of Housewives. (Armstrong was paid about $5,000 an episode for the first season.)
But most reality shows have casting budgets as low as $10,000 to $20,000 a season unless celebrities are involved.
Even celebrities get paid less than one might think. The big names on ABC's Dancing With the Stars are guaranteed a flat sum in the low six figures, but they only make significant money if they hang in till the final episodes.
"The goal isn't winning that mirror-ball trophy," says Gersh agent Todd Christopher. "It's about sticking around to keep increasing your fees."
Which makes Russell Armstrong's financial problems all the more glaring. While it would be simplistic to claim that Bravo or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills producers Evolution Media were responsible for his death, they are operating in an environment that remains unregulated and inadequately scrutinized. On many shows, for instance, participants sign "360-degree deals," notes Hayden Meyer, a partner and head of alternative TV at agency APA. That means the production company can take a percentage of any income a performer earns from books, appearances and the like.
Unfettered by contracts with AFTRA, SAG and other guilds, most networks have the right to replay each episode as often as they wish or to "repackage" series to create new episodes, without paying participants extra cash.
"It's a buyer's market," Meyer laments.
A 29-page contract obtained by THR for VH1's Saddle Ranch (the first season of which aired from March to June) shows how little onscreen talent can earn. For the gaggle of young men and women who appeared on the show -- about waiters and waitresses at Los Angeles' Saddle Ranch Chop House -- the contract stipulated each would receive "an all-inclusive fee for the Pilot equal to Five Hundred Dollars." The fee would go up to $1,000 for further episodes then increase by 5 percent per subsequent season or "cycle."
It also required that, for "no additional compensation," participants would be available when and where the producer wished to help with promotion.
Think that's bad? A contract for MTV's The Real World, recently leaked to The Village Voice, ties up participants for reunion shows and warns them that they could contract AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. The payoff for assuming such risks? Fifteen minutes of fame and a hefty dose of regret.
After attending an open casting call for Survivor with 5,000 others in 2005, Billy Garcia, a heavy-metal lover, went through a marathon session of interviews, all unpaid.
"There was a long, long process," he says. "You go to a regional interview, then to the L.A. final 50, and from that they took the 20 who actually got to film." Garcia was sequestered for 12 days in Los Angeles during the finals for season two, earning a paltry $100-a-day honorarium.
In all, he made $15,000 for the show, which is broadcast in more than 60 countries, and in order to get this he had to give up his day job at Blockbuster. That's a fraction of what Mark Burnett makes as executive producer; even for a flop like the Palin show, insiders say he made about $200,000 an episode.
"The worst thing to be is a contestant -- they usually don't get paid," admits Mark Cronin, executive producer of The Surreal Life. On the whole, "They may get a stipend, but they don't make a per-episode fee."
That's true no matter how much contestants abase themselves, as they did on the Surreal spinoff Flavor of Love: In one case, a contestant defecated on the floor. The reward for this public humiliation? "Dating Flavor Flav," says Cronin.
Cable shows like these have budgets that would barely cover catering for a primetime scripted series. While major reality programs such as American Idol and The Amazing Race cost considerably more -- the latter at one point topped $2.2 million an episode -- "on the low end, an episode can be as inexpensive as $35,000 for one of the lifestyle shows on HGTV," says Meyer.
The broadcast networks average $600,000 to $700,000 for a one-hour reality show, but cable networks generally pay less than half of that. The budgets for two reality programs obtained by THR -- on condition that the programs not be named -- reveal how little of a show's money goes to the people onscreen.
The budget for an hourlong show with a three-day shoot came in at $741,651. Principal cast? $1. One 30-minute pilot cost $386,431. Onscreen talent? Zero.
Sitting in his airy Hollywood office, surrounded by a collection of pop-culture dolls, Doron Ofir is one of the experts in hooking the talent that makes these shows work. He's a leading casting director of reality shows, but he's not getting rich either and bemoans the fact that he and his peers receive no profit participation in the shows they cast.
Growing up in New York, the son of Israeli immigrants and bullied at school for being gay and effeminate, he wanted to escape, so "I would cut school, take the train, walk the streets, and by the time I was 15 I was already in the club scene."
Soon, Ofir was running those clubs, building an invaluable Rolodex along the way. "I've been collecting lists of movers and shakers," he says. Ofir moved to Los Angeles, where his lists paid off big-time in the reality world. He'd already found contenders for Survivor and Temptation Island, then a friend who worked for SallyAnn Salsano's 495 Productions asked him to cast Jersey Shore.
Because of where he grew up, "I knew what a 'guido' was," says Ofir, referring to the show's Italian-American cast. And he knew where to find guidos, too. With his database of 350,000 names and recruiters he sent to the tri-state area, he selected about 250 serious contenders and boiled them down to 50. For their first season, none got paid -- though they've made millions since.
Ofir never expresses doubt about whether it was right to put inexperienced characters like these in front of a camera or about the long-term consequences to their lives; they are among the lucky few who have hit it big financially.
But he notes that each member of the final group was extensively screened for "psychology and background, to make sure they have no felonies, make sure that by the time you deliver them to the network they are a sealed package. There is a written exam, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, 500 questions that track inconsistencies in a person."
That's a test another reality kingpin, therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky of VH1's Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, scoffs at, arguing testing must be better and that reality shows should provide counseling before, during and well after shooting.
During a recent roundtable, he told THR that these tests are hopelessly inadequate. "Unfortunately, the personality-disorder people are the ones that end up in reality shows, without exception," said Pinsky. "The psychiatric, psychological screening really doesn't ask very sophisticated questions. … The thresholds are ridiculous. They are on the order of, 'Have you ever thought about suicide before?' "
That question might not even have been posed to Housewives' Russell Armstrong as such tests are rarely given to secondary characters whose lives intersect those of the principals.
Psychological screenings help absolve reality producers from legal liability. But they also impart peace of mind. Consider Brian Gibson, co-executive producer of TLC's Freaky Eaters. Likable and well-meaning, he sits in a Burbank editing room watching an episode being cut together about Nikki, 34 (her last name is withheld by the show), a large woman who has an obsession with corn starch, which she downs by the box load.
"People want to be helped," argues Gibson. "Our show is inherently about helping people."
That's a view often repeated by those who work in the reality-sickness genre. Still, it's hard not to recoil as Nikki gets out of a car, a white cloud hovering over her from the foodstuff she has been consuming, or to see how people like this will be helped by having their obsessive-compulsive behavior aired for all to see.
Like many reality shows, Gibson says his company, Shed Media, pays for on-site therapy -- though he acknowledges that there is a limit to how long this continues after shooting ends.
"The only way this can be good and healthy for these people is if there's a lot of very expensive aftercare," says Pinsky -- something hardly any of the low-budget sickness shows have the money to provide.
Even Gibson admits other production companies are less scrupulous than his. "Sometimes," he says, "if you put great material first, the people can fall by the wayside."
That was the certainly the case with the British reality show There's Something About Miriam, whose six male contestants sued, delaying the airing of the first season in 2003, because they hadn't been informed that the woman they were pursuing was transsexual. They settled for an undisclosed payment.
But Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of History and Lifetime Networks and one of the original executives behind A&E's addiction-themed Intervention, says she and her fellow executives go to considerable trouble to ensure people are given treatment.
"We walk the talk," she says. "From the launch of Intervention, which I was part of, we have always looked on it not just as a show but as an initiative. Addiction is a very serious problem, and we go out into communities and try to do something about it."
Her parent company, AETN, has been active in setting up town hall meetings to discuss addiction, creating a partnership with the nonprofit organization Drug Free America and instituting its own recovery project. "We do a great deal to follow these people beyond the program," Dubuc says.
That's equally true of A&E's Hoarders.
"We are on the set up to 10 hours a day, working with them for two days," says clinical psychologist Robin Zasio, who also travels with a professional organizer. Once the five-day shoot is over, "We provide aftercare services, dependent on each individual person."
Treatment combines cognitive behavioral therapy with exposure and response-prevention techniques. "We search out therapists in their area," she adds -- all paid for by A&E and lasting as long as eight months.
"The producers have incredible compassion for the hoarders," Zasio says. "If I even thought there was exploitation, I would not be doing it."
One of the most talked-about hoarders, known as Glen the rat man, whose house became filled with some 2,000 rodents, is still being cared for many months after the episode featuring him was shot, she notes (though the show's reps said he would not be interviewed for this article).
But is this true of others? There's a veritable slew of low-budget Hoarders imitations and other addiction shows that have no medical, psychological or guild regulations. They can pretty much film what they want, with the participants' agreement, regardless of the sort of consequences Bravo might have to face, just as VH1 did before it.
When Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on the VH1 competition Megan Wants a Millionaire, was sought by police for the gruesome murder of his wife, the network scrambled to deal with the fallout of its poor vetting. Stung by criticism for its tawdry "celeb-reality" TV programming, VH1 withdrew all material related to the show from its website and immediately canceled the show. Bravo has not yet done that.
Other shows, like the syndicated veteran Cheaters, have remained on the air for years -- even following an onscreen stabbing.
It's a late Saturday night in early spring, and Detective Danny Gomez sits in his black Mercedes, parked on a shady lane in a suburb of Dallas, waiting for one of his targets to step out of a house where he has been visiting his mistress.
Gomez, a stocky, happy-go-lucky man in his early 40s, has been with Cheaters -- following unfaithful partners at the request of their significant others -- since the show's inception 12 years ago. Fresh out of the police force, with his own detective agency, Gomez had no idea the program would turn him into a local celebrity when its producer asked him to be one of the main detectives on the series.
He also had no idea its host, Joey Greco, would be stabbed (though not fatally) by an infuriated subject in 2003, a reminder that the Armstrong incident isn't isolated.
None of which bothers Gomez, who's convinced snooping on cheating spouses and partners is positive in the long run.
"It does them good," he says.
He admits his work may have had a negative effect on him. He caught his brother-in-law cheating once and has been cheated on himself. "That hurt," he says, turning quiet. "Now it's very hard for me to be in a relationship. I see wedding pictures, a time in your life when things were good, and look what happens." Still, he says he wouldn't mind being filmed himself. "I'd want people to see it."
Snooping hasn't made Gomez rich (unlike executive producer Bobby Goldstein, who has made millions from the show). He lives in a modest $1,000-a-month apartment and spends most of his time working.
It won't make the people who appear on Cheaters rich, either: Most aren't paid a penny when they're shown on TV, even though they have to sign contracts agreeing to have the material aired. Oddly, almost all say yes; those who don't usually consent if they're given a few hundred dollars -- at most, up to $2,000, according to Goldstein.
In a few minutes, Gomez's suspect will step out of his mistress' house, kiss her -- all filmed by Gomez's flip camera -- and find himself the next subject to feed TV's insatiable appetite for reality. Who knows what effect it will have on him.
Psychologists can debate whether Real Housewives contributed to Armstrong's suicide or merely held a camera up to a man who was deteriorating anyway. But as Hollywood continues to profit from the personal problems of reality TV stars, the industry is taking note of the downside.
"The difficult thing is, you are dealing with real people's lives, which haven't been fully explored or discussed," says Kevin Burns, executive producer of the Playboy-themed The Girls Next Door. "I really worry for the people who have been train wrecks on TV."
A SNAPSHOT OF SICKNESS: The bizarre and controversial moments of reality's most vulnerable subjects
A 2009 episode featured a pair of anorexic twin girls who would consume no more than 300 calories a day and follow each other's precise physical movements (including opening and closing kitchen cabinets) in order to ensure the exact same calorie burn.
MTV's Teen Mom
During the 2010 season, star Amber Portwood physically assaulted her boyfriend, Gary Shirley (father of their 3-year-old daughter, Leah), on camera, sparking a Child Protective Services investigation. The 21-year-old mom is hospitalized after a reported suicide attempt.
TLC's My Strange Addiction
The show has featured people who can't stop eating toilet paper, corn starch and rocks. This year, the series followed a man addicted to eating glass. The subject ingested more than 250 light bulbs and 100 champagne glasses and consumed as many as 30 live bullets … in one sitting.
VH1's Celebrity Rehab
Now in its fifth season, the celeb-reality show follows actress Bai Ling, "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher and rocker Steven Adler (former patients include the late musician Mike Starr and the late actor Jeff Conaway). During a recent episode, Ling -- who suffers from alcohol addiction and mental illness -- ripped her nameplate from the door and climbed onto the roof of the treatment center in her bathrobe.
THE LEGAL ISSUES: Reality TV subjects have little recourse once they sign contracts
it's an oft-repeated question when discussing TV's most outrageous reality shows: "Can't they sue?" The answer, almost always, is no. Waivers typically allow producers to depict show participants any way they choose, and a judge won't void a contract unless it is shown that the person was mentally unsound or agreed to the terms under extreme duress. Legal experts say such an argument might be effective on behalf of someone with clear psychological issues -- like, say, the woman who ate her husband's ashes before being committed to an institution on TLC's My Strange Addiction -- but the case law on the subject is sparse at best. "There is always room to prove that someone was incompetent," says Louis Petrich, a Los Angeles litigator who successfully defended 20th Century Fox in a case brought by two fraternity brothers who signed releases to appear in Borat, then claimed they were too drunk to understand what they did. "But courts are really resistant to that kind of argument because it's so easy to change your mind after you sign a contract." -- Matthew Belloni