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Posted at 08:39 AM ET, 08/18/2011

Russell Armstrong and the perils of reality TV


Taylor and Russell Armstrong at a charity event in June. (Michael Kovac)

Russell Armstrong — the estranged husband of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong whose name was thrust into headlines this week after he committed suicide — was an investment banker and venture capitalist. He was not, by definition, a reality star, although he appeared frequently with his wife on the Bravo reality TV show.

But his untimely death has raised a question that bubbles up every time the life of a reality TV personality veers down a sad path: Is agreeing to appear on such a show the equivalent of making a deal with the devil?

In an interview with People magazine that took place a few weeks before his death, Armstrong admitted that “Real Housewives” caused some angst in his actual reality. “It got really overwhelming,” he told the magazine. “When you get a TV show involved, and all the pressure — it just takes it to a whole new level. ... We were pushed to extremes.” Armstrong’s family is reportedly considering filing a lawsuit against Bravo for contributing to the emotional state that led to his suicide.

As others have noted publicly, including Armstrong’s attorney, Ronald Richards, Armstrong had multiple personal problems, among them financial troubles and an evolving, messy divorce from Taylor Armstrong. Any of those matters might have contributed to his decision to take his own life. The sad truth is that with most suicides, no one — not even the people who knew the deceased best and held him dearest — can ever be 100 percent sure of what was happening in a person’s mind before he chose death.

But common sense and the echo of Russell Armstrong’s words — “we were pushed to extremes” — suggest that the glare of the spotlight, especially on those who, unlike actors, politicians or pop stars, haven’t prepared for years to cope with it, can be too much.

With the exception of competition shows such as “American Idol” or “Top Chef,” which elevate unknowns with specific talents, the reality-show conveyor belt is often designed to introduce us to regular folks, your average Joe Millionaires and Snookis. Their shows turn them into characters — characters that, this being reality TV, are indistinguishable from their actual identities. They land on magazine covers, amass Twitter followers, get book deals, snag endorsement deals, earn invitations to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and quickly become famous (not to mention very wealthy) for simply being themselves.

How insane can things get? About as insane as they did yesterday when Abercrombie & Fitch issued a seemingly tongue-in-cheek press release offering a “substantial payment” to the Situation of “Jersey Shore” if he will stop wearing its clothes and destroying the brand. Apparently in a crummy economy, what it really takes to cash in is a popular reality show, killer abs and a willingness to accept fashion-blackmail money.

But at some point, even for the Situations of the world, the hot white lights dim. That’s what happened to perhaps the biggest fame gluttons in an industry overflowing with publicity seekers, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, formerly of another MTV reality institution, “The Hills.” In the lengthy and fascinating recent interview with the Daily Beast, previously referenced in Celebritology, the couple said they’re now broke, largely unemployable and living with Pratt’s parents to save money.

“That was the big thing I didn’t get: Reality TV is not a career,” Pratt told the Web site. “Anyone who says, ‘Oh, you can have a career in reality — that’s a lie.’ ”

Which brings me around to yet another reality-show star who made headlines this week: Kate Gosselin, whose “Kate Plus 8” was canceled by TLC. The news elicited the expected expressions of schadenfraude from those who are always elated to see the shrewish working mom stumble. But maybe schadenfreude wasn’t the right response. Perhaps the end of that series is a blessing, rather than bad news, for Kate Gosselin. Assuming no one else offers the single mother and her eight kids a chance at continued stardom, both she and her family finally might have a shot at a reality that’s completely, overwhelmingly normal.

What do you think — is reality stardom too much for most people? Would you ever consider appearing on a reality show? Weigh in with a comment.

By  |  08:39 AM ET, 08/18/2011

Categories:  Obits

 
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