A few days before Ashley Boalch Darby’s first appearance on ‘The Real Housewives of Potomac,’ she and her real estate mogul husband, Michael Darby, were planning a viewing party at Oz, the restaurant and bar they own near their condo in Arlington, Va.
The couple listened as a public relations specialist pitched ways to arrange the restaurant, invite media and create a buzz so that Oz would become a hub for fans of the show, potentially expanding its clientele.
As Ashley began to squirm at the prospect of watching herself on flat-screen televisions with 100-plus people around her, Michael turned and said: “Millions of people are going to watch this on television and you’re worried about who might show up here?”
Having suffered his share of public drubbing when some of his riskier bets during the go-go years of the real estate boom went bust, followed by a divorce from his wife of 20 years and then marriage to the much younger Ashley, Michael Darby, 56, was past the point of caring about other people’s opinions.
Similarly, you would have thought Ashley — a stunning 27-year-old beauty queen who is used to speaking at public events and posing for photos with celebrities, socialites and underprivileged children — would not feel self-conscious in front of 100 or so people.
But when those people are watching your debut on the latest iteration of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise — whose main selling point is rich, brassy women being rich and brassy — you might forgive her for feeling a tad nervous, especially since in her first scene, she gushes: “My husband has a really big penis, I swear to God.”
By the time the show aired, on Jan. 24, she had also told viewers that she finds her husband’s Australian accent sexy and that after exercising they like to “bang like rabbits.”
Ashley was a late addition to the cast, joining in Episode 2. She is by far the youngest but fits nicely into the conceit of the show. Like the other five cast members, she is an African American woman with wealth partying in an exclusive Maryland suburb that is 76 percent white and under 5 percent black. Only three of the women — Karen Huger, wife of “the Black Bill Gates”; Charisse Jackson Jordan, wife of former NBA coach Eddie Jordan; and model Katie Rost — live or grew up in Potomac. Ashley grew up in Sandy Spring, Md., the oldest of three kids raised by a single mom. Until marrying Michael, her only memory of Potomac was as a child sitting in the front seat of her grandfather’s truck. A retired county parks department worker, he had a business mowing lawns and trimming hedges at mostly wealthy people’s homes around Washington.
Huger is also from a modest background, having grown up on a Virginia farm. What sets Ashley apart from the other women is her youth and her marriage to Michael, a former competitive skiier who at 25 directed the landmark restoration of the Willard Hotel and went on to co-found one of the highest-flying real estate firms in the region. After saving his business from near death during the Great Recession, he could have kicked back and worked on his golf game, but instead he donned a flak jacket and headed to Mogadishu to plunge into the real estate market there.
In real life, all that audacity and canniness has earned him a deep well of respect around Washington. But millions of viewers now know him mainly for being 29 years older than his wife, a pink-fleshed, bald baby boomer who sticks out like a wad of bubble gum dropped into a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses.
It isn’t hard to guess some of the insults the couple now gets online; “gold digger” and “daddy complex” are common entries for Ashley. On Ashley’s first episode, Gizelle Bryant, ex-wife of a megachurch pastor, assumes aloud that Michael is on Viagra and refers to Ashley as “THOT-ish” — THOT being shorthand for “that ho over there.” Bravo instantaneously promoted the diss online.
So why expose yourself to gawking and ridicule? Why not keep your extraordinary sex life and vacations to yourselves? And play video-game bowling and beer pong in the privacy of your own penthouse condo or beach house?
People go on reality television for a reason. Ashley and Michael Darby are already rich. So what else are they looking for?
A few weeks ago, after watching the series premiere and Bravo’s early promotional spots, Ashley said she felt she was being portrayed “like I really am.”
“I am young and I am fun and I am outgoing and I love to dance, and Michael and I just don’t take things too seriously,” she said while perusing dresses at Zara in Georgetown. “We’re really trying to be ourselves in this whole thing. We’re not playing. ... And that rubs people the wrong way sometimes.”
So far, Michael is unfazedby his brush with reality television fame/infamy. He’s clear about why they are on the show: to promote Oz.
“It seemed to us like a perfect opportunity to feature different parts of the restaurant’s opening,” he said. “We’ve got to market our product, because we’re business people.”
Sheila Matthews, Ashley’s mother, said her daughter’s motives are not all mercenary.
“Ashley’s doing this show because she wants people to know it’s not easy, living,” she said. “Everyone has their own personal struggles. Even though she’s really blessed, I think she really wants everyone to know that.”
Part of the reason the “daddy complex” digs hurt is that even though her grandfather helped raise her, Ashley never met her father, a white man with red hair, who split with her mom when she was barely a year old. Ashley has but one photo of him and, last she knew, he lives in Georgia. She tried to friend him on Facebook. “He denied me like three times until he deleted it,” she said. “He doesn’t want anything to do with me, and now I think he’s ashamed” for not being around. “How do you apologize to somebody for not being in your life for 27 years?”
Matthews, 49, isn’t surprised that Ashley didn’t get a response. “He’s always been a loner. I think he doesn’t know how to make up for his shortcomings,” she said.
As a senior at the University of Maryland at College Park, Ashley lived with her mother in Westminster, Md., a small town two miles from the Pennsylvania border. She went to class during the day, majoring in communications with an eye on becoming a news anchor.
At night, she bartended at L2 Lounge, a trendy Georgetown nightspot. Her mother sweated every minute of the 75-mile commute, on unlit country roads, until Ashley staggered in, sometimes after 4 in the morning.
“She would get tired coming home,” Matthews remembered. “She would have to pull over at T.J. Maxx and just sleep.”
L2 offered her a foray into a world of wealth and celebrity. After inaugural balls she met actors like Ben Affleck and Jessica Alba. At the bar, she also heard there was scholarship money for the winner of the Miss D.C. beauty pageant. She applied the following year and won despite having no pageant experience. By then, she’d already spotted her future husband, a part-owner of L2, on a security monitor and was taken with him. They began dating while she was competing in the pageant.
Ashley said helping to raise her younger siblings as a teenager made an older man very appealing because: “I don’t want to have to take care of another person,” she said. “I like someone who can take care of themselves, and then we can build a life together.”
While burning through a set of lunges with Michael and a personal trainer in the gym of their Arlington penthouse, Ashley practiced her faux Australian accent as though auditioning for a role in “Crocodile Dundee.” “That’s a good sweat, yeah, mate?”
Michael’s company built the building, and he previously rented the penthouse to Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and to Adam Dunn, then a Nats slugger. From the apartment you can look right into the Lincoln Memorial, and past that, to the Washington Monument and the Capitol.
“Being from another country, I appreciate this view for what it is,” Michael said. “Whether you are in Paris or in London or wherever you are, this is an all-world view.”
Then he points down at the rooftop pool and cracks: “Plus, you get to see all the people in their bathing suits.”
Aside from the cost, there are few similarities between the chic mansions on “Housewives” and the Darbys’ condo, which has a living room a fraternity would appreciate. There’s a bar, a purple felt pool table, Xbox console, “beer pong area” and a glass sculpture of a woman’s torso.
While he doesn’t relish it, he doesn’t treat his role as husband of a “Housewife” as a chore, either. He sees it as supporting Ashley’s ambitions, something he’s already been able to pursue.
“There’s a perception in the world and socially about” relationships like theirs, he said. “There’s a reality of the age difference, which is that we grew up in a different era and we like to do different things. There was the difference between me having built a career and having a business and having had the time to get to do that, and that that could pose problems between us.”
It was harder, initially, for him to explain Ashley to his two grown children, who are six and three years younger than she is but are described incorrectly on blogs as being older than Ashley.
His 21-year-old son, Charlie, a Duke University sophomore, said that after meeting Ashley and accepting her himself, he asked his father if he was worried about what others might say.
“What he said to me was that there’s always going to be strangers out there with opinions,” Charlie said. “Are you going to live your life to please people on the outside, or are you going to do what you really love?”
(Charlie said he’s mostly enjoyed “Housewives” so far, save for a promo that glibly insinuated that Michael is gay. “If I saw that producer I’d want to have a word with him about that,” Charlie said.)
If Michael’s choice of a second wife seemed slightly unconventional — or painfully predictable — for a man his age, it could not be called out of character. He was never really like any of the old pooh-bahs in Washington real estate — many of them sitting atop empires handed down from father to son to grandson.
“Everything about him is self-made and self-done,” said Eric Berkman, a friend and real estate broker. “In our business there are people dropping names of people they know and claim to know all the time. With Michael there’s none of that.”
Michael came to America in the ’80s with a background in construction engineering and an obsession with freestyle skiing. He landed a job working for tycoon Oliver Carr. Through guile and luck, he ended up directing the high-profile renovation of the historic Willard Hotel. He soon realized he could keep more profits for himself if he started his own company.
Among top developers there are creatives who see opportunities others miss and MBA types who can do all the math to determine the best course; Michael can do both, and when a deal doesn’t add up, he is confident — and competitive — enough to go on his gut.
In the first three years after Michael co-founded Monument Realty with Jeff Neal in 1998, the firm lined up 2.7 million square feet of development, diving into markets such as Southeast Washington long before baseball went there. So profitable were Monument’s deals that the investment bank Lehman Brothers offered the company a $7 million line of credit in 2003 and by 2005 had upped that to $80 million.
Michael bought houses in McLean, Va.; Bethany Beach, Del.; and Utah, and went on wild adventures skiing, kite boarding, biking the Spanish Alps and spearing fish in Australia.
When the economy collapsed in 2008, Lehman filed for the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Around the same time, Neal left to buy a brokerage firm, leaving Michael to unwind a mess of deals — including a prominent hole right outside the ballpark — or else lose the company. “I got left holding the bag without knowing what was in the bag,” he said. Neal has said he quit Monument because he wanted to get out of speculative development.
As he was rebuilding his business, Michael’s relationship with his first wife, to whom he was married for 20 years, ended, and the pair divorced in 2010. He said they’d grown apart but admits to also wanting out of his comfort zone.
“No disrespect to my friends but, boy howdy, some of them all of a sudden decided to get old,” he said. “Oh my god, they wake up one day and they don’t really want to exercise anymore. And they wake up one day and they want to be grumpy about it. And they’re set in their ways. They want to go to the restaurants they used to, and I don’t want to do any of that. I want every moment to be a new experience.”
Darby set two new courses. The first was to heavily invest in the ultimate emerging real estate market, Mogadishu, Somalia, where he has built a 44-acre compound near the airport and site of the film “Black Hawk Down,” making him one of the civil-war-stricken country’s largest real estate owners.
The second was to approach a then-22-year-old bartender at L2 Lounge.
One day in January, Ashley was flailing around a heated indoor tennis court at the Bethesda Country Club. While some teenagers expertly pounded serve after serve on the adjacent court, she poked at the balls Michael softly lobbed to her, as if her racket were a sword.
“Am I allowed to just hit it again?” she asked after popping one in the air 10 feet away.
Before meeting Michael she had never played tennis, just as she had never participated in other “Housewives”-type activities such as golf or skiing, save for an eighth-grade class trip.
When Ashley was in college she drove a 1991 Honda Prelude with a worn-out clutch and shopped at Forever 21. Now she drives a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet convertible and shops wherever she wants.
She had also never been out of the country, flying on only two occasions, to Florida. They were engaged on a helicopter ride circling the Statue of Liberty. They wed in Jamaica, where Michael rented an entire 39-room hotel for their guests, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on their honeymoon. They’ve also scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef and traveled to Dubai, Europe, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
When Ashley asked to see his work in Somalia, he took her there. To reach his compound, they donned combat helmets and flak jackets and rode in an armored car accompanied by guards bearing machine guns on trucks. Since he’s not on social media, she takes all their selfies.
Not everything in her life changed overnight. Her mother, a home health aide, had used her life savings to buy the Westminster house near the peak of the housing bubble. After moving in, the entire family repeatedly fell ill from what turned out to be E. coli in the well water. Matthews won some money in a trial but not enough to cover her costs; she filed for bankruptcy last year and had to hand ownership of the house to the bank when she couldn’t pay her mortgage. With Ashley and Michael’s help, she is hoping to move into a new home soon.
Ashley is eager to start her own family, and Michael says he has agreed to “at least two” children.
Though she has never met Michael’s ex-wife, she said she envies the 20 years they had together to raise their kids despite how it ended. “I just wish it had been me sometimes,” she said.
For now, she wants to build a career. Their engagement led to an appearance on the reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.” Although not much of a cook, most of her work experience is in restaurants, so Michael got her one. In sharklike fashion, he bought out a failing operation near the Clarendon Metro station, which they turned into Oz. The only non-chain Australian-themed restaurant in the Washington area, it’s decorated with stuffed koalas and boomerangs, and the menu features kangaroo meat (raised on a farm in New Jersey) and emu carpaccio.
The fortunes of the fledgling restaurant are a subplot on “Real Housewives.” Things at Oz got off to a rough start. The original chef flamed out quickly, and an early Washington Post review deemed it a “bland” one-star affair.
Since then, the couple has hired a new chef, reworked the menu, upgraded the decor and is throwing a series of weekly “Housewives” viewing parties.
In mid-January, to get the place ready, Ashley breezed into the kitchen to check on things, and then she and Michael sat down to talk with the public relations specialist.
With the show having hit the airwaves only a month ago, it will be a while before the Darbys can tell whether it helped the restaurant. Even if it doesn’t, Ashley said, being on the show was still an important opportunity to tell her story.
“I think our lives really are relatable in some capacity,” she said. “Coming from a single-parent home and dealing with what that was like, and how to help my mom, there are people in the world like that. It’s not just me. And I hope it’s inspirational for other young girls who are in my situation and say, ‘Dang, if Ashley can do it, by golly, so can I.’ That would be really good for me.”
Jonathan O’Connell is a Post staff writer. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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