How a 'Real Housewives' Suicide Sheds Light on Exploitation in Reality TV

5:20 PM PST 08/25/2011 by Stephen Galloway
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Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

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!"

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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.

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"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!"

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"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.

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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.

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"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.

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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."

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